The London Underground, popularly known as the Tube, is an utterly chaotic space, and not only during rush hour. You have to keep moving to reach your platform because everyone is in a hurry. Stopping to check the map or switching directions because you forgot which way you were supposed to go will earn you glares, headshakes, and murmurs. There’s a sense of urgency as people from students to office-goers use the tube as their primary mode of transport. The daily ridership is approximately 1.8 million.
In Clare Pooley’s ‘The People on Platform 5’ we meet a wide range of characters who commute on a train from the Hampton Court area into London. There’s an old lady—Iona—who works for a magazine. She’s a lesbian who is extremely fond of her partner, Bea, and her pooch, Lulu, who travels everywhere with her. But lately, she has been worried that she’s about to lose her job. Then there’s Sanjay, a nurse who works in the oncology department. He is smitten by Emmie, another commuter on the train, but he is too shy to approach her. Piers is the hotshot banker with the ‘perfect’ life. He was once called ‘Midas’ at work because he was great at what he did. Now, he’s not sure this is the life he wants for himself. Martha, a teenager, has had a scandal and is being bullied at school. There are a few other interesting characters as well.
Their lives collide when one of them almost chokes on his meal and needs medical help on the train. That incident somehow gets them talking to one another. As they get to know one another, they discover how their biases clouded their opinions and in the process are able to face their own demons as well (with, of course, a little help from their new friends). Though Iona is the protagonist who brings them all together, every character has been given his/her own sub-plot. And because there are so many of them, there’s a lot happening in the book.
My problem with the book, however, is that it felt forced. The characters and their stories aren’t well developed and I couldn’t relate to any of them. This is despite the fact that the issues they deal with are real and important, from bullying and ageism in the workforce to mid-life crises and grief. What could have been a poignant story is all over the place because Pooley has taken on too much without being able to do justice to any of it.
The People on Platform 5
Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 400, Paperback