Like riding a bicycle, cooking a jacket potato or gargling, you have to learn how to fall asleep on the Underground before you can truly enjoy it. Luckily, of the many life skills it is useful to have at your disposal, this is one that requires minimal physical investment. The less external effort the better, in fact.
It took me a while to learn how to fall asleep on the Underground. At first I thought it was utterly inappropriate. What a waste of a journey! The Underground, I reasoned, is something to be experienced with all your senses all of the time. How could you prefer semi-consciousness to such sights, such sounds, such romance?
Then I thought it was a bit undignified. People flopping all over the place, tongues lolling, mouths agape, snoring and mumbling, sagging on to other people’s shoulders or drooling into their laps… How embarrassing.
Then after a while I began to change and the longer I used the Underground as a commuter instead of merely a passenger, the greater I found the appeal of a doze. So I tried it. And very quickly came to love it.
What’s the appeal? It’s an escape: from feeling alone in a crowded carriage, from the heat or the cold or the noise or the silence, from everything you’ve left behind and everything you’re heading towards. It’s a novelty: you’re having a nap in conditions not meant for napping. It’s a comfort: you’re shutting out all the stuff about the journey you can’t control and instead are travelling on your own terms, in your own way, in own your fantasies.
And it’s also, despite what I said earlier about needing to have all your senses working at full tilt, a very sensory experience. Your eyes may be closed but you still hear the sound of the train going over the tracks, still feel the Underground’s unique beguiling mix of rattling and rocking and gliding and sighing. All of which seems enhanced, not diluted, because you can’t see anything.
This cocktail of sensations encourages a very particular kind of sleep. It’s strictly speaking a sort of half-sleep, where you’re forever on the verge of consciousness, aware of your surroundings and location (you have to be, if you want to get off at the right station), but drifting in and out of slumber. Phrases, faces, tunes and thoughts from real life are smeared across your brain and mixed with pretend ones. It’s a nice place to be, but only for a short period of time. Thankfully, you’re only ever in it for a short time. The Underground is no place for deep sleep, and you’re soon awake again, pleasantly giddy, slightly refreshed, quietly satisfied.
There’s a method, of course. Corner seats are the best, as you can wedge yourself into them and clutch your belongings around you as if in a den or a nest. It’s trickier if you’re in one of the other seats, as the potential for tumbling sideways into a neighbour is great. If you must fall, train yourself to fall forwards. Your natural reflexes will jerk you back upright. Forget the glances of disapproval from others. This is no time for pride in appearances. Besides, almost everyone in the carriage of a train at the end of a working day looks shabby and exhausted. All the more reason to shut your eyes.
It is possible to fall asleep standing up, but only for a few seconds, and if you’re that desperately tired it’s probably wise to just get off, find a seat on a platform and take a minute to compose yourself.
I know falling asleep on the Underground is abhorrent to some and impractical for others. And I know that the reassurance you need to allow yourself to fall asleep comes from repeating the same journey hundreds, maybe thousands of times.
But through repetition comes familiarity and consolation. The Underground can be a testing, lonely and sad place to have to be. Sometimes you just want to know the world is still going about its business without you. And sometimes you just want to hear the kind of voices that filled Caliban’s dream, that will make you sleep again and fill your dreams with clouds to “open and show riches ready to drop upon me; that, when I woke, I cried to dream again.”