The London Tube's Cultural Moment

The arts have tended to ignore the Tube as a source of inspiration, but with the 150th anniversary of the system, we get 12 new books on its relevance.

London’s subway system is getting a rare moment in the cultural spotlight. As the 150th anniversary of the sprawling, antique and often criticized London Underground rolls on, Penguin is publishing a set of 12 new books, each one explicitly connected to a different line of the system. From John Lanchester exploring the secrets of the Victorian District Line, to men's fashion magazine Fantastic Man examining the East London Line's (tenuous) connection with buttoned-up shirts, the new series is an eclectic mix that reflects Londoners' love/hate relationship with the network.

For someone like me with a lifelong, nerdish love of what British people call the Tube, the celebration is overdue. Bar a few wonderful exceptions, the arts have rather ignored the Tube (as John Lanchester himself pointed out this weekend), while the few exceptions –the odd Sherlock Holmes story featuring murder on the line or punk hit about subterranean muggings – generally paint it in rather gothic terms

You see, I grew up on the London Tube. Back in the days before parents micromanaged their children’s every step, my siblings and I used our pocket money to explore the network’s farthest reaches every weekend, traveling out to magical-sounding stations called things like Cockfosters and Theydon Bois. Sometimes we’d discover forests or Jacobean mansions, but mostly we’d find a bus depot and the usual blah 1930s housing, though it all still seemed exciting because we were kids, briefly far from home. It was by running around on those rattling trains, pulling faces at people on the platform to deter them from getting in "our" carriage, that I first got to know London, both its vastness and its strange uniformity.

I’m not alone in this. For most Londoners, knowing the Tube comes first, the city second. People usually learn the evocative names of its stations – Angel, Elephant and Castle, Swiss Cottage – long before they attach any knowledge of actual streets and buildings to the name whizzing past the train window. The Tube also helps us make sense of where we live. Intricate it may be, but it possesses an order the city above ground lacks. Despite the London street plan’s illogical sinuousness, the network’s iconic map is lucid and intuitive, imposing a graspable, stylized mental order that users absorb and then project as a grid onto the randomness of ground-level reality.

It’s far more than just a place for orientation and transit, however. The Tube is London’s skeleton, its nervous system and its heart. Parts of it are so old that they dictated the shape of the still un-built metropolis. The network’s earliest lines pushed out into open countryside, and streets and houses only later added flesh to their bare bones. When bombs fell on the city in World War II, it was where Londoners withdrew to safety (though it wasn’t always safe). When terrible, frightening things have happened to the city, intentional or accidental, they have often occurred underground. This rocky history – the history of modern London in microcosm – has made the tube both refuge and living memorial.

Notting Hill Gate, one of the earliest Tube stations. Image courtesy of Flickr user Trowbridge Estate


Charring Cross Station. Image courtesy of Flickr user Brett Jordan



But it’s not all doom and somber remembrance. London’s antique network is also its best side. It’s a reminder that the city was once so confident and forward-looking that it was happy to pump money into crazy new schemes, even when the necessary technology wasn’t fully ready. According to the book How the Tube Shaped London, steam trains made its earliest underground lines so smoky that chemists near stations carried on a brisk trade reviving the nauseous. And when electric trains – among the world’s first – arrived in 1890, they were still so feeble they could pull just three carriages at a time. The network was thus a trial and error laboratory for every future metro system. London’s anything but defeated as a city today, but it still has managed nothing so forward-looking or so brilliantly crackpot since.This could be why its newest line, shiny and spectacular, explicitly references the Tube’s dingy Steam Age past, its boldest stations resembling glitzy, updated versions of a Victorian dark, satanic mill.

Such affection might seem odd, of course, to the thousands who descend daily into the network under duress, taking journeys they don’t like pressed against people they’d rather avoid. Crowded and expensive, the Tube is beset with (improving) delays, and weekend closures for (as announcers love to recite) "planned engineering works." It’s a place of suppressed exuberance, where people give as little of themselves away as possible. In Berlin, U-Bahn users gawp at each other openly, while Madrid’s metro riders often tend to chat. In London, however, people make eye contact only slyly and briefly, otherwise adopting a blank tube mask, or reading.

Canary Wharf Station. Image courtesy of Flickr user IdleFormat

Still, nowhere else in London shows you so effectively that you live in a huge, heterogeneous city, a small, fairly trivial member of a millions-strong mass. In a city where even the rich use public transport (cars take longer), the Tube is one of the few places where you see people from every race and social stratum. And while trains can be cramped, the inactivity of a view-less journey is often perversely pacifying, giving you enforced time for daydreaming – or reading. This makes the arrival of a dedicated set of books on the Tube especially appropriate.  Personally, I’ve read more underground, speeding under the city’s streets, than I have in any library.

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