Take the strain: on the surprising pleasures of commuting

The commute to work is often written off as a dull necessity, but with no distractions it can be the perfect mobile studio

I’m going to work … and … I’m at work. That’s it, that’s how long it takes for me to get from there to here. This has been my commute for a few years now; a coffee-sloshing dash up the stairs, from kitchen to studio in matter of seconds. Being within ambling distance of my fridge was a major factor when I made the decision to go freelance in the first place. It’s at the top of the perks list, alongside “illusion of control over erratic hours” and “trousers: optional”.

But it’s not something I take for granted. I’ve lived the alternative, I’ve done my time commuting on – shudder – public transport. Been there, done that, bought the season ticket. From the bucolic heart of Kent to the sullen bluster of London Victoria, there and back again. I was one of the grey-faced train-zombie horde, drained of time and money and energy before the day had even begun.

Now, I enjoy the vicarious thrill of witnessing the commute of others from afar, soaking up the dawn and dusk outbursts of rail-rage that appear on twitter every day. Hashtag schadenfreude.

Ah, the memories. Late trains, stuck trains, non-existent trains. Too few seats, too many armpits. Passive aggressive and garbled station announcements. Turgid monotony. Chewing gum everywhere. Noise. Weather. Other people. It’s a cosy reminder that I don’t have to do it any more. As I recall, commuting is just about bearable as long as you ignore the trains and the journey and the everyone and the everything.

Except … I sort of miss it.

Maybe it’s a grass-is-greener thing, but I have a certain nostalgic fondness for that awful slog. Yes it was utterly, utterly miserable and soul-destroying and I couldn’t wait to leave it all behind, but some aspects of it were really rather splendid.

For example, I used to read. I used to read a lot. Popping into a scruffy little bookshop on Victoria Road that sold remaindered and damaged books became part of my daily routine. I’d pick up whatever had the loveliest cover, and that would be my new travelling companion. Even if there was nowhere to sit, it didn’t matter – I have the advanced commuter ability to perch and balance and lean. Blanking out the drudgery of the journey, I discovered Bill Drummond, Dave Eggers, Michael Bierut. It was an education.

And I used to write. Words went in, words came out. That guaranteed margin of time between office and home provided a mental buffer, a chance to gather and blend all of those thoughts and wonderments that appear throughout the day. I filled notebooks with scribbles and ideas and doodles, handwriting modulated to the sway and jiggle of the carriage.

Yes, it turns out that you can get a lot done on a busy train. That wretched, hurtling corridor of bodies offers a peculiarly effective environment for creativity. There is no escape, no distraction, only confinement. Sweet, productive confinement. Anything to avoid accidentally making eye contact with a fellow traveller (just imagine – how ghastly).

I don’t have that any more. Home comforts deny me the time and space for enforced mental immersion; the segue from not-work to work infuriatingly abrupt. Lovely-covered books are bought but pile up, unread. Ideas go missing, trains of thought lost without a train for thought.

In fact, thinking about it now, memories all rose-tinted and selective, I’m wondering how I might reintroduce commuting into my life. I still want to work at home, but I could do with the focus of the train, the company of blinkered and productive strangers, the momentum.

Maybe I’ll take some unnecessary train journeys to some unnecessary towns. Commuting to nothing. I’ll just travel for the sake of travelling and harness the peculiar magic of the train. If there happens to be something interesting or tasty waiting for me at the other end, that’s a bonus. Maybe I’ll hop off the train and find a nice little bookshop and adopt some unloved paperbacks; something to absorb on the return journey. And then I’ll head home, pootle up to my desk and get to work, mentally refreshed.

Or maybe I could spend the whole day on the train. Why not? Up and down the country, over and over. Station to station. A perpetual commute, always on my way, never arriving. I’d get so much done – reading, writing, designing, thinking, everything. Going to work: it’s the new being at work.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York. See danielgray.com and @gray. Image: Jun Cen. killingtonarts.com

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