“You’ve made my day!” Michael is grinning from ear to ear. He’s standing on the kerb at Euston bus station by his double-decker, the number 59 to Streatham Hill. He has no one to go home to and sometimes he’d like to buy flowers, but there’s no one to buy them for.
The handmade heart he’s just been gifted has made him feel wanted for the first time in a long time. I listen to his story while I’m huddled on the road alongside Karen and Radha who have been making hearts to give to strangers on public transport, and Michael’s reaction to his gift has made us all feel a little weepy.
Karen is one third of a group called Craft Moves, who are on a mission to end loneliness in London, by using crafts as a conversation point. Karen, Edith and Lexi started the project in early 2019, and their mission has so far taken them across the network from encouraging commuters to colour in on the Overground, to persuading them to potter around with Play Doh on the tube.
Today I’m following Karen on one her outings and we’re joined by Radha who’s just started volunteering with them.
The team swap between transport, “buses are the most difficult as they’re so overcrowded,” to hanging out at stations: “one time at Liverpool Street we spent two hours playing hide and seek from TfL staff who kept trying to move us on but we persisted,” recalls Karen.
“Every platform is a meeting point for human stories”
Sowhat made Craft Moves pick public transport? Karen explains: “People assume that loneliness is being old and living on the top floor of a high rise, when in truth just living in a city can make you feel isolated. We all need to get from A to B so why not use travelling as a way connect with people, rather than hiding behind a mobile you’re not actually using?”
Radha agrees: “Every platform, whether it’s the DLR or the Croydon tram is a meeting point for human stories; they’re a great place to talk to people.”
I have a sudden flash back to my own encounters. When I was a teenager I regularly chatted to (and snogged) various men I met on my commute to college. Then there was The Crow, a gentleman dressed in black from head to toe. We got the bus together every day for two years. We never said a word then one day he turned around and declared: “I really feel like we have a connection.”
Talking to strangers on public transport is an alien concept to the average commuter. In Londonist’s tube gripes poll, over 33% of respondents said the worst thing about the tube was people barging on — perhaps if there was less shoving and more speaking these annoyances could be overcome?
“I’ve come to say ‘hi’.’” We’re greeted by a chirpy American. Melissa is in London for the weekend and has been watching Karen and Radha conversing with passersby. Her reaction? “In Grand Central Station, everyone could do with a smile. No one in New York talks to each other. I need to take this idea back home with me.”
“Speaking to you has made me feel better. Can I get a hug?”
It turns out that commuters love to chat and it takes surprisingly little time for them to open up. Bradley is leaning against a pole wearing florescent overalls, with a cigarette in hand when Karen approaches him. Like Michael the bus driver, he’s chuffed that someone has stopped him for a chinwag. He says: “I’m from Middleborough, but now I live in Brick Lane. I work on the rails and I’ve just been on a shift in Birmingham. People are definitely friendlier up north but it’s not an easy place, that’s why I moved here. Five of my mates committed suicide because they couldn’t get work. I get sad about that but speaking to you has made me feel better. Can I get a hug?”
Bradley isn’t the only person that feels comfortable talking about death to strangers. Another gentleman approaches us to say that he doesn’t want a gift; he just wanted to let us know that his dad recently passed away and seeing us has made him happy.
“If you approach someone with a smile they’ll want to talk to you”
It’s interactions like these that fuel Karen, Edith and Lexi’s motivation to run Craft Moves on a voluntary basis. “People like being given permission to talk,” says Karen, “The first time I did this I met a woman on a bus who had a terminal illness and she talked about how art has helped her while other people have admitted that seeing us reminds them that their grandparents were makers.”
For Radha it was her first time handing out crafts to strangers, so I ask her what it was like. “I was nervous but I realised that if you approach someone with a smile they’ll want to talk to you. The little things make a difference. You don’t need to give gifts, you could just ask someone how they are – they will appreciate it.”
Karen is beaming as she hands out the last of the crochet hearts she’s made for the occasion. It’s been a rewarding day and something she’s keen to do more regularly but there are hurdles. She says: “We’d love to get Transport for London on board, to give us permission to be here and we’d also like a pool of volunteers to help out.
“You don’t need any experience — just the willingness to talk and listen. It seems to me that sometimes people with money and resources are missing a trick. But we’re not missing one, I mean just look at us!”
Fancy become a Craft Moves volunteer or making a donation to their cause to end loneliness in London through crafts? Follow them to find out more.