In Jerome K Jerome's novel Three Men in a Boat, written in 1889, a scene is described in which a man gets on a train from Liverpool to London with some particularly smelly cheeses. He puts them up on the luggage rack, out of the way, but it is not long before other passengers become oppressed by the smell and – politely, in the nicest British way – up and leave. This continues until the man has the carriage entirely to himself, despite the rest of the train being very busy.
This classic comic vignette, in possibly the funniest novel to be written in the English language, shows two things:
1) People will bring pongy items of food onto public transport
2) They will be oblivious to the effect this has on others.
Showing a creditable alacrity, Transport for London, a mere 124 years after Jerome K Jerome raised this issue, has this week hired 13 poets to perform poetry on the topic of smelly food, and public transport etiquette generally, across the London transport network.
My areas of work are Hammersmith, Southfields and East Putney tube stations and also, to my great pleasure, the trams of Croydon. Nick Baker, a genial chap from TfL in charge of that smart and efficient service (it really is – you north Londoners don't know what you're missing), said to me he reckoned nothing rhymes with Croydon.
That sounded to me like the poetic gauntlet being thrown down. So, in response, and with the 'poetiquette' brief in mind, I wrote a poem in which I rhyme Croydon with 'Troy, son', 'Motley Cru and Poison', and, raising the food issue, like this:
The father said to his boy
your chicken might be tender
yes, it might be very moist, son
but eat those wings at home, my boy
not on the trams of Croydon
The campaign, called Travel Better London, is a good thing. Not only does it raise these issues in a fun way, it introduces Londoners to the fact that there are a lot of terrific poets out there waiting to be discovered.
Each poet on this project is brilliant in their individual way, but to give you a few examples we have within our ranks Emma Jones, a Brixton-based poet and drama teacher whose poems are keenly-observed comic character studies. We also have Keith Jarrett, who combines a smooth, soulful tone of voice with the wit and intelligence of Mos Def. Finally, we have Amy Acre, a writer whose words are so carefully crafted she always makes me think I should try a bit harder on my own.
Our poetry squadron is all over London this week, putting messages on white boards, making tannoy announcements and busking. However, these poets perform regularly at nights throughout London. Raymond Antrobus and Deanna Rodger host Chill Pill, which I can't recommend highly enough; Dan Simpson has just launched a comedy / poetry battle show called Stand-up and Slam; Amy Acre and Richard Marsh host Sage & Time, a poetry night which encourages new writers onto the mic. I host a music and spoken word event called The Bus Driver's Prayer at Kahaila Cafe on Brick Lane.
So, enjoy the Travel Better London poets. But don't let your nascent poetry love stop there, because while we may not be able to entirely eradicate mature cheeses and other objectionable items appearing on public transport, there are poets aplenty writing and performing work inspired by this great city we share.
By Richard Purnell