Thursday, November 29, 2007

Mind the gap!

Readers who haven't had the privilege of being jolted around in the London underground train system will need to know that the gap in question lies between the doors of carriages and the edge of the platform. Its width varies from one platform to another, even from one part of a platform to another. And passengers who forget to "mind" this abyss stand the risk of falling into the depths of subterranean London, and maybe breaking an arm or a leg. So, that's why the transport authorities hired a woman named Emma Clarke whose delightful voice floats out constantly, from one end of the underground network to the other, warning passengers of this danger. She also chatters on nonstop about all kinds of trivial things, as if traffic would grind to a halt were it not for all this verbiage. Emma Clarke tells you, for example, that you must stand on the right-hand side [if I remember correctly] of escalators. She informs you that volunteers are collecting money for such-and-such a worthy charity, just as she lets you know that pickpockets have been sighted in such-and-such a zone.

Personally, accustomed to the quiet and smooth métro in Paris, I'm horrified by the noisy London underground. Besides, their stylized maps are far removed from geographical reality, the color-based signs associated with the various lines are meaningless for newcomers, and the basic system for designating itineraries—using directional adjectives such as northbound and southbound—is poorly conceived. In other words, I look upon the London underground as an uncomfortable mess... almost as antiquated and unpleasant as Sydney's trains.

But let me return to Emma Clarke. Having attained celebrity status, she started her own elegant website, with all kinds of unexpected goodies:

Now everything would have been fine, and Emma Clarke would have continued to expand into a bigger and more sophisticated media business if only she had remained a serious young lady, respectful of her employer and her audience. Alas, Emma started to crack jokes on her website. For example, she made a fake public announcement to inform US tourists that they're talking too loudly. And other cheeky things. Well, London Transport doesn't seem to share Emma's sense of humor. In any case, they've just fired her.

Having reached this point in my presentation of the wonders and woes of Emma Clarke, I hasten to add that there might not be a word of truth in all that I've just been saying. Maybe the charming voice of the alleged female is the synthetic audio output of a robot. Her existence could well be a gigantic hoax conceived by smart marketing people and computer experts at London Transport, with the aim of smoothing the edges of their rough network by introducing an imaginary feminine touch. Be that as it may, I'm obliged to point out that my disparaging remarks about the London underground were, of course, totally false. Just ask a typical Londoner and he'll tell you that their trains are the finest service in the universe... even better than Sydney's fabulous system.

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