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I0 REASONS WHY THE LONDON UNDERGROUND IS AWESOME, Pt 1 (Secret Stations to Sexual Tension)

March 10, 2011

london underground beautiful photo statue

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)…


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.

london underground tube photograph blitz

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…


london underground shoreditch station urban decay

Shoreditch Station, yours for a mere £180,000

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!  


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…)

london underground rail network tube map

Tube-style map of world rail networks

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…

My favourites: the Guardian’s music map (each line is a different genre) and the brand-name map, one of the most puntastic things I’ve ever seen (that’s saying something). ‘Vickstoria’, genius.

london underground branded tube map

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.

Take this:

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.

london underground waterloo tunnel poetry eurydice

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. 


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…

london underground sexual tension

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

100th International Women’s Day – a story of hope

March 8, 2011

If there’s one thing that living in a developing country has hammered home, it’s that patriarchy is alive and very, very well. And, while it limits and defines and conditions and screws over men and women alike – in developed countries too, lest we forget – on the whole, it does it much worse to women.


I spent most of today at an event celebrating the day, which showcased the progress that is continually being made in Ethiopia in empowering women – enabling them to earn and control an income, and have a voice, and shout with it.


‘My husband used to beat me like a donkey’, said Ansha, a farmer from the central Rift Valley, explaining the effect the development projects of SEDA, a local NGO focusing on environment and gender, had had on relationships in her family. Now, not only is she treated like a human being, but she sits with him at the table to discuss family matters – before this would be unthinkable – and even attends community meetings. ‘Before, I would tell her to put her hand down’, says her husband, who has come down for the event too.


I leave full of hope – or at least the faith that, even in the face of the increasingly evident effects of climate change, the strength and passion of women like Ansha will help them make the best of it.


I take the minibus back to the office, like I’ve done a million times before. But today I see something that I’ve never seen before in my seven months here. I see a man beating a women up. Kicking her from behind, hitting her, shouting, chasing her down the street. It’s broad daylight.


Today of all days – how fitting. Progress, hope, solidarity – and with them, a reminder of the work that’s still to be done. That things change slowly, so slowly, and in bits, here and there. But – take a look these stories from around the world – they can, and do, and will.


I’ll spare you statistics or lectures, and leave you instead with a piece I wrote for today for Oxfam about the amazing things women’s collectives in Eastern Ethiopia are doing, changing their lives and changing society.


Happy 100TH International Women’s Day, everyone! 


[Edit: my piece is now also up on the main Oxfam blog at:  :)]




women's coooperatives, harshin, somali region, ethiopia

Women's livestock cooperatives in Harshin, Somali region, Ethiopia: changing their lives and changing society



Photo of the week: Harar through a glass darkly

February 27, 2011
harar ethiopia rimbaud house

The eastern Ethiopian city of Harar - 4th holiest for some Muslims - seen from Arthur Rimbaud's house/museum

While i was back in London collecting my visa and having lots of fun (and the two are definitely mutually exclusive), I cruelly neglected this blog. Poor blog, I’m sorry. Here, have a photo  – not much, but it’s a start. How about a weekly photo? So when I’m in the field/mega-busy, you can still feel loved. Perfect.

In defence of Dire Dawa (a photo manifesto)

February 2, 2011

In my Bradt Guide to Ethiopia, Philip Briggs describes Dire Dawa as dirty, claustrophobic and devoid of interest, and recommends to avoid.

To this I reply:

dire dawa street bajaj 3

dire dawa town shop

dire dawa shop man coca cola

dire dawa street bajaj 2

dire dawa coal bundles market

dire dawa river bed wadi

dire dawa children boys

dire dawa bicycle wall

dire dawa children boydire dawa town market nightdire dawa market nightdire dawa house goatdire dawa children girldire dawa cart coca coladire dawa building door 2dire dawa town bajajdire dawa mobile phone shopdire dawa river man

Camels, causeways, colour: first impressions of Dire Dawa

January 27, 2011

Half because I’m in the field right now so have NO TIME*, and half because perfectionism does not a productive life make, I decided to try something new: first impressions! In note form! First up under the pen: Dire Dawa. (I’m not sure it survives).


Camels stalk down the road beside bajajs. replicas of 7000-year-old cave paintings line the walls, and murals signed ‘handicap’. under one: a crumpled cloth, legs protruding. roundabout with a rail carriage mounted in the middle. dusty yellow façade – chemin de fer. colourful buildings, so many shades, but shade –  street sellers, under stretched sheets in the sun – not so much. pink shawls against pink walls . wide tree-lined avenues. ‘china mettow’ – you came from china? do you have a doll? mid-afternoon desolate streets – everyone busy chewing chat. green turrets in the distance. houses climbing up to the scrubby hills that ring the town. syria. sudden alleyways, stripes of mountain view.  everything scenic, all movement framed in front of fading pastel walls. red earth river bed, parched. people walking it, birds circling it, in front of the mountains. afternoon – a row of camels marching out of the city on what was once a river. like invisible cities: there are seas of water, and seas of sand.


dire dawa market

dire dawa market


* the astute/facebook-frequenters among you may have noted i’m actually back from the field. yeah, this post almost never saw the light of day. maybe it shouldn’t have? thoughts on a postcard…

How NOT to start a year

January 11, 2011

I was asking for it. The last two things I’ve written are a post entitled ‘a happy new year (for most)’, and a competition entry all about the joys of stumbling on things (ooh wordplay, clever). 

Inevitably, my literary conceit(edness) came back to haunt me and, at some very early hour of New Year’s Day, I stumbled – bad, onto my face.

It was, in fairness, entirely my fault. I’d just got a lift back from a colleague’s brilliant New Year’s Eve party: hundreds of people, a huge garden, free bar, even a big screen for the countdown. ‘Only in Ethiopia’ said an American behind me as we clustered round a colourful mat where, metres away, a boy somersaulted through the air from one man’s upturned soles to another. This routine was later repeated with large flaming hoops.

road, addis ababa, gerji, ethipia, building work,

road near the scene of the crime

I could have used that balance a few hours later, facing the alleyway to my house. For some reason (or rather total lack of reasoning), not only did I decline my friends’ offer to walk with me, I also decided to run. Running is never a good idea in the dark and drunk (and pumps), but on a ‘path’ comprised mainly of potholes and rocks, it’s moronic. My face literally didn’t know what hit it.

I didn’t think anything of my little trip til I got home and saw blood, a line of it dissecting my face from forehead to chin. It didn’t look too bad, until it scabbed over, at which point I started to feel like one of those horses with white stripes down the centre of their face – only, y’know, less fur, more scab.  

Anyway, I decided to take it on the chin (!) and face up (!) to my temporary disfigurement. I could look at it as a social experiment: would it change how people reacted to me? Would they be sympathetic? And, most importantly, would it – and here I got excited – finally put an end to the relentless attention of random men?


black horse white stripe

artist's impression of my face

It doesn’t deter the guys who try to chat me up within minutes of me leaving my house. Or the guys who invite me back to their house to chew chat (or ‘chew chat’, probably) while I’m waiting for a friend the next morning. Or the middle-aged man who matches my stride near Meganagna and surprises me with his stories of two years studying in Belgium (Belgium! <3) before the catch: ‘Where are you going? I live there too! I can go home with you? You have a boyfriend?’

Sigh. I guess they just don’t care about my injury. Maybe they’re less superficial, or maybe more – maybe I’m a farenji, and that’s enough.

As for the men and women who aren’t trying to chat me up, a lot react how I’d expect anywhere – lots of glances and a bit of staring – and a lot how I wouldn’t: asking me straight up what’s happened. (My favourite: ‘min de nesh?’ – literally ‘what are you?’  I’m sure the proper translation is more nuanced…!). Maybe it’s forward, but I definitely prefer it to covert nosiness – especially as, judging by their mime, a lot of people think I’ve been punched in the face, which alarms me as much as them.

Assuaging their concerns isn’t always easy. At first I resort to mime too, acting out running and tripping with my fingers (unsurprisingly, to general bemusement) – but then I learn the magic word.

‘Wedersh?’ says one shopkeeper, and translates for me: ‘you fell over?’ And voila! I deduce my most useful Amharic word yet. ‘Ow’ I say (the word for ‘yes’ couldn’t have been more appropriate). ‘Wedeku’. I fell over.

street, piazza, addis ababa, bunting

street, piazza

It’s touching how many people seem genuinely concerned. At the post office in Mexico, the staff gasp and elicit a blow-by-blow account of my downfall. The nicest moment comes at a fruit-stall in Piazza when the concerned attendant nods sympathetically to my (really undeserving idiotic) story and replies consolingly ‘but the rest of your face, it’s beautiful’. Awww.

So far, so tolerable – and then my friend recommends me a hospital. The next day I brave a minibus to the depths of Gerji and watch the familiar landmarks of Bole recede behind a huge meadow. I feel like I’m behind a mirror. Then the fare-collector shouts ‘Korea’ and I’m turfed off in front of a large modern-looking complex – ‘Myungsung Christian Medical Center’.

It’s quiet and almost empty, and within minutes, I’ve been registered and checked over by a friendly doctor with perfect English. He prods at my face a bit and reassures me that no, I’m not going to get gangrene. I get a blood test, and wait in the half-empty foyer, with its rows of plastic chairs and premier league, until he reassures me that my blood is fine, too. I think he thinks I’m a hypochondriac.

It’s all going great until the nurse cleans my wounds for me – with iodine, which, it turns out, is purple, and stains.

purple, face, bruise, injury


Henceforth, I have a purple face. I can see purple out of the corner of my eye, and, out of the rest, people staring. I detour home and dab at it for a bit, but it’s hopeless. Hey, well at least it’s my favourite colour…

I’m determined to stick with my plans, so my next destination? The most crowded place in Addis Ababa. Naturally.

Beyond the seductive neon bunting of the Genna (Ethiopian Christmas) exhibition in Meskel Square, crushed consumers inch round huge warehouses full of stalls selling everything from soil from the holy land to inflatable santas. It’s uncomfortable, even if your face is a normal colour.

Genna, ethiopian christmas, exhibition, meskel square, addis ababa, ethiopia,

❤ bunting

 As for me, I’m the centre of attention. Once again, though, I’m grateful for people’s general inquisitiveness – it lets me explain myself, in their language, so I’m not simply a foreign freak-show, and they a nosey stranger. Of course it’s not that simple – no amount of mumbling ‘wedeku’ explains why the hell my face is an unnatural shade of purple. But the message more or less gets across, and, as before, I’m moved by people’s concern. ‘I’m sorry’ say some, in English or Amharic; others offer skincare advice (and one offers me some peanuts. Why not).

 There are upsides, then, but free snacks or not, this is easily the most painful, self-conscious and generally disastrous start to the year I’ve ever had. I don’t know what, if anything, I can conclude from this whole messy episode – except, kids, don’t run in the dark.

 (0h, and the doctor texted me – he thinks I have some weird type of anaemia. HAPPY NEW YEAR!)

[Horse pic: jenny downing]

A happy Ethiopian New Year (for most)

December 28, 2010
ethiopian new year meat market, shola, addis ababa, ethiopia

new year's meat market, shola

Mid-morning, Shola, Addis Ababa: I step outside, past fruit-stalls and games of table football, into a sea of livestock, bleating uproariously and churning the earth to mud.

Poor animals. Today, September 10, is both New Year’s Eve and Eid, and meat, a symbol of affluence and prosperity, is the only way to ring in the good times.

I’m celebrating at my friend Hayat’s house, so I squeeze onto one of Addis’ ubiquitous blue-and-white minibuses, full to bursting in the pelting rain. My neighbour, a man in a red jumper, strikes up a conversation.

Suddenly I notice the head protruding from the binliner on his lap. Delicate as a model, all clean, bright feathers and minute, baroque embellishments, a live chicken blinks at me.

 ‘At this time of year, we slaughter many sheep and chicken,’ the man smiles. ‘It’s the eve of his life too’.

At Hayat’s I get a taste of what he’ll become. Her mother beckons me to a feast of sweets, biscuits and orange squash, before bringing out the maincourse: kitfo, raw meat, tibs, chunks of lamb, and doro wat, spicy chicken stew – with spongey injera bread to scoop it all into parcels.

She watches my progress keenly, anxious I’m satisifed. ‘Ayezosh!’ she encourages, ‘bi!’ Hayat translates: ‘Feel free! Eat!’ And with food like this, it’s easy to oblige.

Later, nearing home, I watch sheep hides fly unceremoniously through the air to land – aim permitting – on the back of a white truck. A happy new year, for most.


This post has been entered into the Grantourismo HomeAway Holiday Rentals travel blogging competition


****** EDIT: I won! I can’t believe it, there were so many great entries. Thank you so much Grantourismo and HomeAway. To any new readers – hi! I hope you like my blog, and stay tuned for some new posts throughout the week.

Also, if anyone has any recommendations for where to stay with my £500 holiday rental, much appreciated (current thought: paris 🙂 )