This Side of the Pond – Feb. 6

By Sarah Pridgeon

I’ve mentioned before that the wielding of a tool kit is not amongst my skills, but this week I present proof that being impractical is not my fault. It turns out that the people responsible for my home country’s infrastructure are just as inept with a screwdriver.

It all started when the Powers That Be decided that Victoria Station, part of the London Underground, could do with a new platform. And if it needed a new platform, it was also going to need a new escalator so that people could actually reach it. Excellent lateral (or perhaps vertical) thinking, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

Work was chugging along nicely to install these brand new facilities when the moment came to construct the tunnel. The crew was happily pumping cement through an escalator void when they realized there was a crack somewhere along the line. Presumably this came to their attention after several tons of cement had been poured into a funnel and nothing had come out the other end.

Unfortunately, the discovery came too late for the signaling room directly behind the crack, which was now encased in over a foot of cement. Shelf after shelf of signaling equipment was completely submerged in a swiftly hardening shell. This, they no doubt surmised, was likely to be problematic for the people in charge of the twiddly buttons that control the Victoria Line.

Understandably reluctant to reveal what had really happened, Transport for London shut the Victoria Line down and announced that it had been damaged by “flooding.” Thousands of commuters stood helpless on the platforms, entirely ignorant of the fact that their signal boxes had gone the way of a mobster’s mark.

Meanwhile, the construction crew stared at the new flooring configuration and wondered what to do about it. According to a source who would only speak to the press with a sack over his face, some bright spark suggested they pop to the supermarket.

Upon their return, workers poured several bags of sugar over the cement to stop it from hardening further. I imagine that some of the sugar was reserved for a fortifying cup of tea.

While all this was going on, of course, the majority of London’s workforce was stranded in the city center, tutting at one another and thinking wistfully of their dinner. I can tell you from experience that coping with London transport when one portion of it has stopped working is akin to the 12 Labors of Hercules.

The Victoria Line is one of the busiest underground lines in the capital. The areas now lacking in transport included Oxford Circus – one of the most popular shopping destinations in the country – and Victoria Station itself, which is a hub for commuters traveling in from the outskirts. Passengers were directed onto alternative lines, which quickly resembled sardine cans, or replacement buses.

It is the latter group that I feel most sorry for. Not only are replacement buses a poor substitute for a Tube train, they are also not as abundant.

Once you have expended all patience waiting for one to arrive, you must stand unreasonably close to your fellow man for the duration of the journey. And by “unreasonably close,” I do of course mean “with someone’s nose pressed between your shoulder blades.”

Once the rescue team dug out the signal boxes, everything in London eventually returned to normal. Commuters could once again enjoy half an inch of clear space between their nostrils and a stranger’s back and shoppers were free to browse for questionable bargains.

But on this side of the pond, one ex-resident was chuckling to herself. In the aftermath, members of the construction team were merrily telling the press that the incident proves what a travesty it would be to reduce staffing levels on the London Underground.

To me, it proves something very different: that the current staffing levels could do with a lesson in practicality. Until I moved to a county in which half my neighbors built their own houses, everybody knows how to fix a car when it freezes and interior décor is seldom delegated to the professionals, I had no idea just how seriously I was lacking.

Not long ago, we moved the Times offices around such that I am positioned near the front door. My previous office was hidden at the back, where I lurked silently in the shadows, but I had now been upgraded to the sociable end of the building.

I picked up my notepads and spare cans of soup and placed them on my new bookcase. As far as I was concerned, that was pretty much all the decorating I needed to do.

In every other office, there was paint being tested against window frames and nails being hammered into walls, as desks were tried out at every possible angle and wires were re-threaded in conceptual patterns. From bare walls and empty cupboards sprang comfortable rooms with a personalized flair.

Over the next few weeks, my colleagues stuck their heads round the door several times a day to quietly despair of my décor. They suggested that some pictures might cheer the place up a bit and, when it became obvious that nothing of the sort was going to happen, took matters into their own hands.

If you looked at my office today, you might assume that I had eventually mastered the tool kit and bravely hung photographs and installed rugs. You would be mistaken: I still have no idea how to make sure a shelf is level and I can barely turn on an electric drill.

The lesson I learned instead was that stoic patience pays off. If you are resolute enough to convince people that you are incapable of hanging a picture, they will eventually give in and do it for you.

Of course, I have resolved to stop resting on my laurels this year and finally pick up a hammer, so I won’t be able to point to this story as proof of my inherited ineptitude. But for now, before the bubble bursts, I can still urge caution when asking me to work with my hands. After all, if my countrymen can shut down their capital’s transport system with nothing more complicated than a funnel, just imagine what might happen if you handed me a buzz saw.