I0 REASONS WHY THE LONDON UNDERGROUND IS AWESOME, Pt 1 (Secret Stations to Sexual Tension)
There are lots of reasons to hate the London Underground, and I experienced most of them last month when I was back in town renewing my visa. All the old chestnuts were there: the stifling heat, the crush-hour misery, the ‘planned engineering works’ that mess up your weekend, and some new ones, just to mix it up a bit: an hour and a half, for instance, stuck on the District Line (‘signal failure’ – definitely a euphemism), or the heinous, sadistic renovation work just begun at Victoria Station. ‘You are advised to seek alternative routes until spring 2012’. (This is necessary as Victoria’s the most used station – 76 million people a year, you know – on the whole system. It’s also, apparently, a suicide hotspot. Er…)
And yet. And yet. I ADORE the Tube. Except at rush hour – obviously – my love is eternal as the Circle line*, solid as, er, Monument, Wapping great, Barking mad and everGreen Park (ok, I’ll stop…) Here’s a mere ten reasons why (handily split into 2 bites-sized chunks)…
1. SECRET STATIONS
Every time on the tube I find myself shoved by a door, I stare out avidly into the wire-strewn dark of the tunnel beyond. Why, you ask? Well, beyond being incredibly deep and existential, I’m looking for the SECRET STATIONS that Blue Peter taught me, many moons ago, are dotted around the network. Secret, largely, in that they’re now abandoned and overlooked, though the tube also has a shady WW2 history of secret meeting-places and hideouts for the great and the good, just to add to the coolness. Some forgotten stations are, ironically, a bit more high-profile now, used as settings for films (ie Aldwych Station), or in tours like this one – newly launched at £25 a pop, it’s pricey, but – the chance to step back into a lost (under)world? I’m sold.
These pockets of past are only the tip of the iceberg of the tube’s awesome history, though – just think of the role that a whole 50 stations played as air-raid shelters in the Blitz. (I’m sure you’ll thank me for reminding you of Keira Knightley’s horrific death in Balham station in Atonement). But of course it doesn’t stop there – the London Underground is the oldest metro system in the world, after all (the Metropolitan Line opened in January 1863), and London is pretty damn ancient. Going underground, you can’t help but dig into the past.
Aldgate Station, for instance, is ‘built on a massive plague pit, where more than 1000 bodies were buried in 1665’. At the risk of sounding morbid, I find this really exciting – there you are, just going about your daily business, readin’ the metro, waitin’ for the train – and below you lies the whole incomprehensible tragedy of human experience…
2. URBAN DECAY
Though – fun fact! – not all tube stations have buildings above the ground, generally for every secret bunker there’s a derelict ticket station above it, crumbling gloriously or adapting modishly. This enthralling website is a catalogue of mesmerising decay – from eerie desolation to artful dereliction, graffiti scaling the walls like ivy.
Shoreditch Station, the newest one abandoned, is no exception . Its fate currently hangs in the balance – it’s up for sale for £180,000 – pretty good value (for the area, I mean…) and who knows what it will become, probably just another trendy bar. Hey – if anyone’s rich and generous, I will be eternally grateful.
Its trains, though, already have a new life – as ‘tube offices in the sky’, their carriages converted into offices for a theatre company, all arty decorations and rickety stairs. Amazing.
NB the above-linked Going Underground is a really interesting blog which partly inspired me to write this post, and to which a fair chunk of it is directly indebted – as it is to this piece on random tube facts. Thanks Annie!
3. MAPS MAPS MAPS
I could write a whole post – posts – just on this, but I won’t, because it’s already been done, and much better than I could. (I’ll just steal bits of it instead). Where do I begin? There’s the tube map itself, a perfect synthesis of contradictions: completely user-friendly though wildly inaccurate, visually delightful though principally functional. (There are some grave imperfections, though, as anyone deceived into an infuriating 10-minute street-level meander ‘changing’ at Bank knows…)
Unsurprisingly, with its elegant lines, rich colours and obvious referential potential, it’s spawned a genre of tributes – not least on its own front cover (a recent one replaces station-names with emotions), but also from artists far and wide.
The range of awesome adaptations is vast, so here’s the merest few: a typographic map, a film map (stations replaced by films shot nearby), the ‘London-on-sea 2100’ map that re-imagines the city if sea levels rise to predicted levels. You know how TFL briefly took the Thames of the map, to general uproar? Pretty soon we could be wishing it were less conspicuous…
Finally, a shoutout to the ‘Animals of the Underground’, an art project ‘started by Paul Middlewick in 1988 after he spotted an elephant shape while staring at the tube map during his daily journey home’. The website displays a whole menagerie of colourful line-creatures.
I love that while most people would think, ‘oh, a flamingo’ and get on with their lives, he went home and created a website so that the whole world could share in the joy of tube-animals. What a hero.
When Johnny M wrote Paradise Lost, I bet he didn’t picture it next to an advert for menopause pills. But then he didn’t bargain on the Tube, that great leveller where Milton and Menopace mingle, where high art and hygiene collide – thanks to the TFL’s initiative of putting excerpts of poetry in amongst the ads.
Unfortunately, in my ever-humble opinion, a lot of it’s pretty mediocre – and most, at least judging by the TFL’s list, is pre-20th century, let alone pre-21st – so I worry that people will be (further) put off poetry. But sometimes you do stumble on a gem, and, either way, it provides a moment of interest, of beauty even, in the midst of the numbed exhaustion of the daily commute.
Loving the rituals
Loving the rituals that keep men close,
Nature created means for friends apart:
Paper, pen, ink, the alphabet,
Signs for the distant and disconsolate heart.
Palladas (4th century AD), translated by Tony Harrison
First three lines, so far, so meh, but – there’s something about the last. I think it’s ‘signs’ – like the words don’t even matter, just them being there, meaning, above all else, ‘I am thinking of you, I care’ – that’s enough.
A poem for travellers.
Sometimes the poetry spills out beyond the tube, too – like at Waterloo where a poem lured you, line by gold-etched line, out of the Underworld and into the light, just as its subject, Eurydice. Until they painted over it. (There are no words. Literally.)
There’s also an initiative called ‘art on the tube’, though as far as I can tell this so far only consists of some artist’s series of…words.
5. SEXUAL TENSION
The Tube is surely second only to libraries in this respect. It’s so damn British – sitting stoically silent, studiously avoiding eye contact with the person opposite you, covertly snatching glimpses of the fit guy/girl nearby, accidentally brushing fingers as you reach for the pole…
This ritualised repression was even documented, week on week, in the ‘missed connections’ section of thelondonpaper (itself sadly missed), though I think the Metro might do it too. I wonder who didn’t read it with a half-hearted hope that they might feature. And I wonder, too, if those who did ever got in touch, hooked up, fell in love. I can’t think of a more romantic way to meet….
…Pt 2 is here!
*used to be, before it got a tail. But, hey, can’t complain, at least it’s a useful extension – it’s not as if other lines cover the same route, and it’s not as if, yknow, there’s a huge lack of development south of the river, with, say, only 29 of 287 tube stations there. Oh, wait…
Tube with statue by Zyllan
Brand map and train map by annie mole
Eurydice by deadly knitshade
Sexual tension by sharkbait