Saturday, 24 April 2010

London Loves.....the Tube

In 1978 Paul Weller told us he didn't want to go Down In The Tube Station at Midnight. Two years later he claimed he was Going Underground. "Make up your mind Paul!", people screamed at their wireless radios. But those people had become confused.

The tube Weller sang of was the kind of place where innocent men were attacked and robbed by right wing thugs while simply attempting to bring takeaway curries home to their anxious wives. As well as being a microcosm of a dysfunctional, depressed Britain, it also summed up exactly what the tube used to be about.

As much as we like to complain about the twenty first century London Underground (the ticket prices, the delays, the strikes) there is so much less to complain about in the modern, sanitised version than there was when I was growing up in the 80s. Back then the tube was a hazardous stinking hell hole occupied by rampant mice, pompous businessmen and alcoholics passed out in their seats with cans of Super Tennents.

It was a place where the trains looked like this…

And the seats looked like this…

A place where football hooligans would wreck carriages, where people died in horrendous fires and horrific train crashes. Aged seven, the Kings Cross fire in 1987, seemed like the epitome of my worst nightmares. Trapped underground while a raging fire prevents your escape. It’s quite staggering that it took this disaster to happen before smoking on the tube was banned. I remember the smoking carriages on the old tubes. They quite literally stank like ashtrays.

While the tube is still a dangerous place where you can be blown up, shot dead by police, faint from heat exhaustion or fall on the 630 volt electrical tracks, the refurbished underground is a thing of beauty compared to its dark past.

The Jubilee line is a beautiful piece of engineering and architecture. The station at Westminster – the essence of futurism.

A kind of bat cave of chrome metal from which one emerges blinking into daylight, greeted by the looming edifice of Big Ben casting its benevolent eye authoritatively over the civil servants.

Canary Wharf station is another example of classic modernism and a delightful way to end a journey, even if the featureless plazas of capitalism outside are grey, cold and alienating.

But we don’t need to look exclusively at modern developments to find artistic beauty on the tube. The 1930s art deco stations at the end of the Piccadilly line are grade II listed buildings whose original features are largely intact.

Arnos Grove station, designed by Charles Holden in 1932, is a thing of beauty (in marked contrast to the bland suburb itself). Astonishingly, the Guardian’s architecture critic Jonathan Glancey named this place alongside Sydney Opera House, the Guggenheim and the Empire State building as one of the 12 great modern buildings of the 20th century, describing it as “a Roman civic temple” and “a work of art that lifts the mundane into a noble architectural spirit”. I recently left my hat on the tube. It was handed in at this station. I didn’t hang around to admire the modern classicism, I was just grateful to have my hat back.

The neighbouring stations of Bounds Green, Southgate and Oakwood are also Holden works and have been designated places “of special architectural interest”.

The warm red tiling of the Northern line stations at Tuffnell Park, Belsize Park, Chalk Farm and Mornington Crescent (below) are similarly comforting and inspiring.

But when it comes to things of beauty (and I don’t mean the long legged girls at Notting Hill Gate or the dashing gents at Bank), it is commonly acknowledged that Harry Beck’s original design of the tube map is one of the greatest works of simplification ever invented.

Its modern equivalent stays true to Beck's immaculate design; discarding the notion of actual geographic location and distance in favour of logic - plotting the randomly scattered lines and stations in diagonal, vertical and horizontal straight lines. Allowing travellers (not tourists mind you) to easily navigate the rabbit warren.

And yet, while I mock the tourists and their lack of London knowledge, I admit that I too once got lost on the tube. The mitigating circumstances were that I was so drunk I could hardly see but still, the embarrassment of having to ask a fellow passenger which branch of the Northern line I should take from Euston was painful. Especially as the passenger was an American tourist. Asking an American how I get home in my own city...Priceless.

I’m aware that I’ve missed out many elements of the tube in this blog – it’s just such a huge, unwieldy entity it’s impossible to cover even a fraction of it. There are many, many stations I’ve never visited and probably never will. The furthest I’ve ever been is Theydon Bois, on the Essex border; a stifling example of cosseted middle England. But, the extent of the tube is phenomenal – the Metropolitan line goes as far as Watford in Hertfordshire or Amersham in Buckinghamshire. Quite ridiculous if you ask me but nonetheless the inspiration for John Betjeman’s wonderful 1972/73 BBC documentary Metro-land.

So, where I’ve neglected the fantastic Docklands Light Railway, the quaintly extendable East London Line and the absolutely pointless Waterloo & City Line, this is where I’m relying on you readers to fill in the blanks. Give me your favourite stations, most detested lines (the Hammersmith and City, surely?) and your tube tales.

And the latter - tube tales - is sadly where our transport system is lacking. You’ll have noted the lack of anecdotes in this article. There’s a reason for that. Nothing ever really happens on the tube. It’s the place that concisely sums up the notion of reserved London. Millions of people on a daily basis heads buried in books, ears plugged with headphones, eyes not daring to make contact with anybody else’s. The closest we get to incidents of note are when a station gets evacuated or Romanian gypsies start playing their accordions – sadly a rarity these days. You get the occasional drunken rows or Italian tourists squealing with laughter but largely the tube is a place for silent reflection, much like a monastery. But without God.

So instead of anecdotes I’ll leave you with a few bits of etiquette...

1. Never speak to anybody on the tube. Ever. If they speak to you, just smile, nod and carrying on reading your book.

2. Read a book that literally everybody is reading. That way you feel part of a community. A few years ago it was Memoirs Of A Geisha, more recently The Da Vinci Code, right now it’s the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Buy a copy. Don’t worry that it’s complete shit. You’ll fit in. You don’t even have to read it, just pretend.

3. No eye contact. N.B this is a rule I frequently try to break, but to no avail. Nobody ever looks back.

4. Offer your seat if an old person or pregnant woman gets on. Don’t pretend you haven’t noticed. Don’t think ‘oh my legs are so tired’. Just stand up and say “here have my seat”.

5. When the driver announces that we’ll be delayed for a few moments to “regulate the gaps in the service” tut loudly and shake your head at the inconvenience of it all.

6. If the platform announcement informs you of delays caused by “someone under a train”, have a little giggle. It’s a funny expression, enjoy it.

7. (And this is fundamental) if you must kill yourself by jumping under a train, do it somewhere remote and overground. Somewhere where they can get to you easily and clear up the mess you’ve made. My personal recommendation is Turnham Green. It’s perfect for a suicide. Here the trains only stop during peak hours. If you go at any other time of the day the tubes pass through at a minimum of 30 mph. You’re guaranteed to die at that speed and, what’s more, you can do so in pleasant green surroundings. Don’t under any circurmstances kill yourself at Marble Arch at 6pm on a weekday. That’s just selfish.

8. If somebody does jump under your train at Marble Arch at 6pm on a weekday tut very loudly and shake your head at the inconvenience of it all.


  1. As a Canadian I have violated the first rule 'never speak to anybody'. I am constantly admonished by my London friend for that. My most recent time in London a month ago, not only did I break that rule, I asked the guy next to me to help me get my jacket on. I was coming from Heathrow - I had my suitcase in front of me, my briefcase and purse on my lap and decided to put my coat on so I'd have one less thing to carry. After struggling in my seat to put it on (and unable to stand up due to the suitcase and how crowded the tube was) I turned to the guy and said something like: 'dude, a little help here?!' Apparently, I broke a whole lot of cultural norms doing that, but he was polite and helped me!

  2. Oh Jan. I'm tutting very loudly at this. And shaking my head.

  3. "...much like a monastery. But without God."

    Sounds like the story of my life...

  4. I was accosted by a paedophile whilst waiting for the 34 bus at Arnos Grove..............

  5. and for good looks, that's if you can bear going South of the river, try Southwark station ..

  6. Southwark really is strikingly beautiful and surprisingly expansive - the way the steps kind of just sink away from street level under the ground. Really nice.

    Ah, paedos on the 34...who hasn't been accosted by one? It's almost like a rite of passage.

  7. Didn't an old man once expose himself to you once in bounds green Josh? I hate the bastards that wait just before the doors close to get on when there is clearly no space! It's funny though when their rucksack or head then gets stuck in the door at least!

  8. Ha! He didn't expose himself to me specifically but to literally everybody leaving Bounds Green station. A tiny, tiny grey haired old man in a huge motorised wheelchair with a catastrophically small, flaccid penis. Quite hilarious really.

  9. Great stuff on the tube Josh. There can't be many public services with the exemplary design in signage and (in many cases) station architecture.

    God bless Frank Pick. May his name be remembered.

    I had forgotten how squalid the underground was when I visited London in the seventies and eighties. The city as a whole is in pretty decent shape compared to some of the old squalor.