Commuting plays a part in all of our lives. It shapes our days like it shapes our towns and cities; all other matter bends to its rigid demands.
In the city, we take it for granted- you don’t question the railways, the car parks or the bike racks- they feel as inevitable and necessary as geological formations, like hills or rivers. Likewise, in life, the times I leave and return rigidly determine the boundaries between work and free time- and i don’t question that.
Having grown up in the commuter-belt of London, I associate commuting with trains and tubes. When I worked in Mid-Powys, Wales, commuting varied (depending on what we were doing that day) between a 5 minute stroll to the community centres in the town of Builth Wells, where I lived and worked, to hours of driving to get to centres in other towns. Radio stations sensibly tailor their programmes around the commuter timetable for drivers, which is great... if you have reception.
Commuting itself, can have a duality. Monotonous, repetitive and grinding, and yet, it can also be a place for escape- the newspaper, a good book, a podcast, a saga (be it candy crush or a daydream). For the busy, it can be a moment of space, to reflect, dream or surf the net. It’s repetition can be reassuring; at least when it all flows well- any disruption to the system can cause chaos and stress- the fact that the length of your commute correlates with your level of unhappiness is a statistic that surprises no-one.
Commuting has a big impact on people’s resources, both time and money- but not always in the immediately visible ways. Dropping the kids off at school can profoundly impact the earnings or parents, particularly women, as they restrict working hours and often make full-time work impossible. Older children may be more than capable of getting themselves to school, but many parents are reluctant to liberate their children onto the dangerous roads to walk, or cycle, to school. This problem is exacerbated by various satellite navigation devices, that funnel relentless streams of traffic down quiet, narrow, residential streets. Zones once ideal for walking and cycling families, are now rendered entirely unsafe by anonymous algorithms. Many parents would like to accompany their children to school on foot or by bike rather than in the car, but this does not feel possible. In her short story Early One Morning, Helen Simpson writes:
“Why couldn’t there be school buses, like in America, the Mothers asked each other. Nobody knew why not, but apparently there couldn’t.They were just about able to walk it in the same time as it took in the car, and they had tried this too, carrying rucksacks of homework and packed lunch and sports equipment through the soup of fumes pumped out by the crawling cars. Add wind and rain, and the whole idea of pavement travel looked positively quixotic.”
In literature the daily commute is overlooked in favour of the adventurous epic journey. A notavble exception is Girl On a Train by Paula Hawkins. It is exactly the type of thriller that is ideal for the train commute- something the theme of the book acknowledges implicitly. We find the life of protagonist Rachel framed by a repetitive, mundane commute- enhanced by the thrilling fantasies she projects onto the people in the houses she passes. As her relationship with these people develops, the thriller genre takes over and her fantasies are replaced by a gripping truth. We are left as the observer of her fantastic story, distracting us from the reality of our own daily grind.
All of this has inspired the piece we are currently developing. It will be a rhythmic, spoken story that will explores and exploits mundanity and fantasy. We want it to be as gripping as a good thriller but to focus on the realities and politics of commuting today.