War and peace on the DLR

I’ve been painting a large group portrait on an in-service London commuter train, and for the first three days things were running as smoothly as the DLR train schedule itself (in december they boast 97% of trains ran on time).


Jo and Ju on the DLR, first panel work in progress

Then one night I was painting Jo and Ju, the front two portraits in my picture.  We worked well, Jo reading the days sordid headlines to Ju to keep entertain her while she posed.  At a certain point, the train operator passed round saying, “that’s not allowed”.  He was the first operator who didn’t express a pleasant curiousity towards what I was doing there.  “What isn’t allowed?”


It certainly didn’t seem either polite nor wise to enter into a discussion on the Greek origins of the prefix “tri”, as my easel has only two legs, better to politely leave, and hop another train.  He turned away and told us to get off at the next stop.  Wishing to comply but seeing no reason to rush, I began packing up.  The train stopped, and I was almost to the doors when they closed and JU gasped “the train’s moving!”

so indeed it was.

I could see the operator’s day-glo coat in the next coach, and was preparing for a scolding on his return.  When he did come in several minutes later, his eyes bugged out and he exclaimed “My God! I’m taking you to the depot!  Passengers can’t go to the depot, its dangerous!”  The poor man immediate claimed his fault, and radioed to hold up incoming trains so that he could take us back to the station.  He would have to take a breathalizer upon his return, and would have a mark on his record, he feared.  By now my mood had gone from slightly antagonistic to one of deep concern for this man, and I felt his willingness to accept blame for the incident spoke volumes for his character.

We got off and headed to Ju’s for a very late supper.

That was Tuesday, January 22.

The next day it became quickly apparent that I was no longer flying under the radar.  The operator asked my what I was doing, why I was doing it on the train, told me that the operator from the night before has been temporarily suspended, checked my ID.

“Do you have permission to be here?”

I thought.

As far as I was concerned, I did.  I was causing no threat to the passengers, I had paid a zone 2 and 3 weekpass, and violated none of the standards of conduct, but she was now worried about me causing her to lose her job, so I took her context instead of mine.


“Are you commuting?  You aren’t supposed to do anything on the train other than commuting.”

Once again, I thought.

I’m sure there are hundreds of thousands of people who take the trains every day who are not, in the literal sense – taking a train from home to work and back – commuting.  And the image of “doing nothing other than commuting” conjured disturbing images of a zombie-like state, or the suspended animation sci-fi astronaughts employ for deep space missions.  Even those who are on a commute will often work on their PHD dissertation, read, listen to music, think.


I asked her if she wanted me to leave.

She didn’t say no, she didn’t say yes.  I knew of course the did want me to leave, but also that she was unsure whether or not she had any “just cause”.

She told me she was uncomfortable with this and went away.  I was half expecting a DLR security forces to come and usher me out of the train.  I don’t want to paint her negatively here, she just didn’t want to get suspended, she told me she disn’t want to get me in trouble, and later didn’t ask to see my Oyster pass as she made her rounds to the other riders

She returned, and again, I turned the other cheek.

“If I wanted to obtain official permission, where would I go”

“Get off at Poplar and go to the office downstairs”

I alighted, and made my way to the security booth before entering the office area.  I was given a number to call for the marketing department.  It didn’t seem like the right office to me, and as I’ve spent much of the last six months worming through layers of burearocratic disinterest in my quest for Italian citizenship and a British visa, I had much reason to suspect I was right.  I went home and went through the motions.  After ringing four times at different times of the day, there was still no answer, but I had not been idle.  I found the DLR Arts office online, which offers a residency program and funds public works.  Here, I thought, I might find someone who has an interest in what I am doing.  An emailed plea for intervention was sent.

The next morning a cordial email greeted me, explaining I would have to fill out safety clearance forms, and attend a briefing meeting.

Today is monday the 28.  I now have cleared security and should be painting onboard once again.

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