The London Underground is methadone for people with nerd habits. Were it not for its twisty, multi-coloured map, its place in the capital’s history, its tendency to throw up facts such as ‘the QE2 would fit inside North Greenwich station’, we’d be on the hard stuff. The smack of nerd-dom. We’d be on the platform at Crewe with notebooks, taking down numbers, ruining our marriages.
As it is we maintain social respectability by obsessing about the Tube. The Tube is sexy in a way that mainline trains aren’t. Even young people, proper trendy young people who know the names of bands, get excited by the Tube. Behold someone who fails to smile at St John’s Wood being the only station whose name shares no letters with the word ‘mackerel’, and you behold a bore.
Andrew Martin has provided an excellent ‘passenger’s history’ of the network, meaning both that the book is aimed at Tube users (however infrequent) and also written by one. What could be dry-as-dust history is brought to life by social detail, such as the young men who used to watch ventilation grilles on the Euston Road, where passing Metropolitan Line trains raised the skirts of unsuspecting women.
Martin’s own love of the Tube dates from childhood, when he would visit London from Yorkshire for free (his father worked for British Rail) and ride the system. Now a resident of the city, he has form as a chronicler of its Underground — he once wrote the Evening Standard’s ‘Tube Talk’ column. Nuggets from this pepper the book, such as the revelation that Embankment’s northbound Northern Line platform is the only one still playing the original ‘Mind the Gap’ recording (performed by a studio engineer, because the actor booked to do it demanded royalties). A later female voice, meanwhile, was dubbed ‘Sonia’ by Underground staff because she ‘gets Sonia nerves’.
The wheels on early Circle Line trains, we learn, wore out unevenly because they always travelled either clockwise or anti-clockwise (terms which a recent internal memo advised against on the grounds that people wouldn’t understand them in these days of digital watches). Punch disapproved of the Tube: ‘man is born free and is everywhere in trains’. South London’s harder ground is one of the reasons it has so few Tube stations. Suicides are known to drivers as ‘one-unders’, and tourist enquiries have included ‘how do we get to Russell Crowe station?’
Martin gives himself an editorial Oyster card, allowing entertaining jaunts off to London’s hotels (he once witnessed someone at the Landmark talking on his mobile while toying with a card that read ‘To avoid inconveniencing other guests please refrain from using mobile phones in this area’) and its sculptures (Jacob Epstein was forced by public outcry to chisel an inch and a half off a penis).
But it’s the Tube that drives the book, just as it drives the city. Martin reveals that when the map shows a cut and cover line (the earlier ones, constructed by digging up the road, then re-laying it) crossing a deep level one (tunnelled without breaking the surface), the cut and cover goes on top, just as it does in real life. These things matter.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 28, 2012Tags: Book review, Non-fiction, Transport, Tube, Underground