May 21, 2014

London underground’s poster campaign offends commuters, and poetry


"Love quickly turns to hate..." One of the offending poems, via the TFL website

“Love quickly turns to hate…” One of the offending poems, via the TFL website

Anyone travelling on London’s underground for the past few months will be familiar with the series of tube etiquette posters that are now ubiquitous. You’ve seen them plastered on station walls and they’ve stared back at you from inside the carriages. They form the Travel Better London campaign, and feature illustrated poems which remind passengers to  be courteous to other commuters and follow the Transport for London rules, and have annoyed everyone since they first appeared.

There are many things at fault with these posters. The illustrations are crappy and not at all in keeping with the excellent, simple and clean designs that we have come to expect from London Tube paraphernalia. They have been printed in travel-sickness inducing colours like deep brown and faded green and orange. The instructive messages are over-familiar and patronising.

But most offensive is their use of poetry. The poems, through which they chide us, are too wordy and their rhymes are simplistic and repetitive. And worst of all: the poems don’t scan.

Here’s just one example:

When feeling sick or suffering pain,

It’s tempting to try and stop the train

But reaching out for the alarm

Can actually cause a lot more harm

And that’s the simple explanation

Why you should wait until the station

I know what you’re thinking: that syllable count is all over the place! I think the problem lies in all those unnecessarily polysyllabic words: ‘suffering’ , ‘actually’, ‘explanation’… The make the rhythm grind to a deadening halt— incidentally, just like a tube when you pull on that alarm.

After doing some research, it seems the above poem, and the others in the series, are the result of a competition run by Transport for London. It appears the poems were submitted by members of the public, and the best ones were given the honour of being bitched about by millions of commuters on a daily basis. Involving the public is a nice idea, but was there no poet editor on hand to brush them up before they ruined our daily commutes? As Poet Laureate, isn’t that a job Carol Anne Duffy could have done?

But I’m pleased with the members of the public who have stepped up to produce parodies of the campaign. First, the Poke created its own, ruder versions of the posters, with new messages such as:

Peter is sexting his mistress.

Other people need to sit

Down. Move out the way

Peter you piece of shit.

What’s most enjoyable about these is the free form of the messages. Notice how the enjambment is so unpredictable. Either this is radical experimentation with speech, or the irregular, clumsy lineation is itself mocking the form of the poems in the original campaign. Either way, it’s genius!

But special kudos must go to Gilead Amit who makes an attempt to restore the poetry to a higher level of sophistication. Amit told the Londonist:

It’s always bugged me that these insipid rhymes now plaster the same tube carriages which also do so much for literary education with the fantastic ‘poetry on the underground’ campaigns.

So on his blog he reacted by imagining how poets such as Coleridge, Lord Bryon, Blake and Shakespeare would have responded had they been commissioned to write the poems themselves. Here’s the first stanza of Lord Byron’s imagined version:

He walks in haste to catch his train

And shouts at us to hold the doors,

Yet deep in my reptilian brain

A primal impulse makes me pause

And wonder what I have to gain

By striving in another’s cause.

And Lord Tennyson’s:

Rise, rise, rise,

From thy cold seat, you prick!

Who are neither old nor pregnant

Nor wheelchair bound nor sick…


Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.