Commuters tolerate anything. Crowded, late, or cancelled trains, being crammed between luggage and loo from Inverness to Exeter, passing out from stifling heat or shivering in freezing cold, and overloud breathing in the quiet carriage: all are usually met with an almost imperceptible shrug of the shoulders or, in the most egregious circumstances, a sharp tut.
But there is a limit, and that limit is smelly food.
On Tuesday, Samantha Mead was fined £1,500 for an aggressive altercation with another woman, Erika Stoter, on the 6am train from Chelmsford to London Liverpool Street. The sulphurous touchpaper was lit when Ms Mead saw, or smelled, Ms Stoter removing two boiled eggs for a Tupperware box.
It is for this reason, no doubt, that some countries ban certain foods from public transport all together. In Thailand, you can’t take durian with you on trains and plains; in France, whiffy Epoisse de Bourgogne cheese is banned from trains.
In October, the outgoing chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, drew the ire of the commuting nation when she called for eating to be banned on public transport, in a quest to combat obesity. People eat on the move for all kinds of reasons – tiredness, lack of time, moving between different jobs, running from home to school, or simply greed or boredom - so her suggestion received short shrift. But had she been more specific and said, let’s ban cheese and onion crisps, or tuna sandwiches, or kebabs, on public transport, I have no doubt we would have risen as a nation and carried her aloft on our shoulders to a railway terminal of her choosing.
It is perhaps not so much the eating we mind, as the involuntary invasion of our senses in confined spaces. Food writer, Sue Quinn, a frequent commuter between London and her home on the south coast, says, “Civilisation does not exist on the Waterloo to Bournemouth service,” and describes people wolfing down curries with the lids of the containers, even their hands.
I asked on Twitter what people’s worst experience of others eating on public transport and a tawdry banquet of replies resulted: eating curry with an Oyster card, licking yoghurt from fingers, slurping ice cream from chopsticks, tearing apart whole, cooked chickens and greasily devouring them, rehydrating pot noodles with water from a Thermos, nibbling smoked mackerel, drinking a carton of custard, and in one rather spectacular case, eating a whole prawn ring. There is a special category of those who eat standing up, such as the man on the Central Line, clinging onto the pole with one hand and eating a tub of spaghetti bolognese with the other.
There is a very thin line between impressive and repulsive, as this reply from @muminpractice, shows: “A woman used to get on the same train as me every morning. She would eat a cheese and onion sandwich, paint her nails, do her make up including perfume and hairspray, while talking loudly on her phone. Easily the most annoying person I ever came across in nearly 10 years of commuting. I of course would say nothing at all but would glare and tut regularly.”
There is also a whole category of food that smells revolting, unless you are about to tuck into it yourself, in which case it is mouth-wateringly ambrosial. I think burgers and pasties fall into this category.
The egg case has also given me pause. While decades of indoctrination mean I would never eat in the street, I am partial to a train picnic. On frequent long treks north, I pack favourite sandwiches, fruit, some cake. On one memorable early-morning trip to Blackpool with friends, I made a breakfast pie – beautiful pastry seasoned with mustard and mushroom powder and inside, fried onions, bacon, sausages and boiled eggs. The Thermos of bloody marys on the side perhaps blinded us to the glances of our carriage companions, so a belated apology to all of the good people who had the grave misfortune to board the same 7.30am Euston to Preston train that day.
It’s not just the smells though. It is often as much about the how as the what that offends, not so much about the food itself, but the way of eating, the slurping and crunching, dribbling and licking, and the general level of open-mouthed piggery. One friend reports returning to the UK after living in France and being horrified at the sight of British people eating on the street and on public transport, “I had just never seen it in Paris,” she says.
When we are obliged to share common spaces, whether that is a train, a bus, a cinema, or an office, it would benefit us all to be a little more thoughtful. Eat if you must but avoid anything that smells strongly, requires utensils you don’t have, and the olfactory evidence of which will linger long after you have departed. In short, eat like everyone’s watching.
Because they are.