It has never been considered the friendliest place on the planet . . .
The London Underground, that is. People hurrying here and there, little time for eye-contact or conversation, each focused on their own affairs, it doesn’t seem like somewhere to celebrate connection.
Scratch the surface, however, and the tunnels, tracks and trains that snake beneath London’s streets can be seen in a different light. Just ask Michael Landy.
Michael is a Londoner, born and bred in the East End, whose life has been spent observing others travelling the Central Line, all oblivious – seemingly, at least – to everything and everyone around them.
It is as though, he once thought, Tube users disappear into their own bubble. Being an artist of no little renown, the more he considered this, the more he realized he had found the theme for his latest project.
He calls it Acts of Kindness – a topic that also appeals to us all here at OM HQ – and it is described as being a ‘[celebration of] everyday generosity and compassion on the Tube’. Acts of Kindness examines what it takes for someone to step outside their bubble for a moment to help a stranger in need. In doing so, Michael’s project has explored the concept of connection and captured the essence of compassion and kinship – the things that drive our efforts and inspire our OMs.
‘I’m interested in what makes us human in a basic sense,’ he explains. ‘I want to find out what connects us, beyond material things. For me, the answer is compassion and kindness. Sometimes, we tend to assume that you have to be superhuman to be kind, rather than just an ordinary person. This project is about feeling a sense of being connected to each other. That’s what kindness means – we’re kin, we’re of one kind’.
The artwork itself is made up of stories that passengers and staff have submitted. These run into their hundreds, the chosen ones being displayed in Underground stations throughout London. The idea is that the examples are simple and small, fleeting exchanges that, although at first glance might seem too mundane to be noticed, can make a major difference to those on the receiving end . . .
Offering someone a seat in a crowded carriage, comforting someone ill or upset, carrying someone’s bags. Buying someone else’s ticket, handing back lost property, giving directions or advice. Small things all, but there are, as Michael observes, risks involved in reaching out.
‘It’s a gesture of trust between two people,’ he says. ‘There’s a risk in that. [The other person] might just ignore you, or take it the wrong way. [But] people want to be connected to each other [and] there are a lot of people having bad days at the moment. These little things help pull us out of ourselves and the world doesn’t seem quite the gloomy, bad place it was just ten seconds [earlier].’
There is something in all this that speaks to us loud and clear here in Saunderstown. It isn’t always about the grand gestures, it’s the little things in life that make the greatest difference. Such things underline our shared humanity. Such things have been captured to perfection, Michael’s project highlighting that, even somewhere as dark as the tunnels of the London Underground, connection’s bright light can still be found shining.
‘There’s the balloon story, where a little kid lets his balloon go and gets upset as it floats down the carriage,’ he adds. ‘[But then] one-by-one, the [other] passengers bat it back to him. There’s the one about someone finding a discarded pot of [children’s] bubble [mixture] and passing it round for everyone to blow, so that the carriage filled with bubbles. There are lots of stories about strangers reaching out to help each other in straightforward ways, like the heavy bag stories.
‘In the [same] way that it can make you feel uplifted when you see someone be kind on the Tube, I’d like to think that the artworks presenting the stories will also do that, that they’ll become life-enhancing for people and become an act of kindness in themselves.’
Here at OM HQ, we feel there is no doubt that, on that final point, Michael has succeeded. Here’s to him and here’s to all those kind-hearted strangers in London . . .