‘Sometimes when I’m down here,’ says Harry, ‘I get them to stop the train in the middle of a tunnel. Just for a minute or two, so I can savour the peace.’
Harry Huskisson is press officer for the British Postal Museum and Archive. He’s showing me the ‘Mail Rail’, the GPO’s underground train system, which until 2003 carried letters across London. The museum plans to reopen it as a tourist attraction. Subject to funding, by 2016 you could be mooching around the train depot underneath Mount Pleasant sorting office, and later on maybe even riding one of the mini-trains which defeated the capital’s traffic jams by whisking letters and parcels from Whitechapel to Paddington via Oxford Street.
When I told a friend I was being granted a sneak preview, he replied by calling me a noun, quite a short one which indicated his envy. And having written a book inspired by London’s Tube system, I know just how much people love the network’s ‘ghost’ stations, the disused ones such as Aldwych. Tourist visits down there sell out quicker than Take That concerts. It seems that we all get excited by going underground. Subterranea is sexy. Why should this be?
An obvious first thought is that it revives our inner six-year-old. What could be more of a thrill than zooming through a tunnel deep beneath the ground? They showed The Great Escape on TV recently. You could write that at any time and be confident of being right, but the latest showing was in tribute to last month’s 70th anniversary of the real events that inspired the film. Even though it’s one of those movies you know backwards, you always end up watching it, and as usual when it came to the bit where one of the escapees measures the tunnel by pushing himself along on a trolley I found myself saying ‘I want to do that.’ Why hasn’t someone opened a Great Escape theme park? They’d make a fortune (as long as they skipped the film’s last ten minutes).
Until then we’ll have to console ourselves with the underground stretch of the Docklands Light Railway near Bank. Unlike on normal Tube trains, you can sit right at the front of these driverless beauties. Anyone, be they six or 60, who tells you they’ve occupied that seat and not imagined themselves driving the train is a liar.
An underground journey implies daring. It’s the same in The Italian Job, when the Minis complete part of their escape by driving through a tunnel so fast they nearly corkscrew onto its roof (not that the stunt drivers weren’t trying — they nearly succeeded, but the cars just failed to defy gravity). Even though I know that the tunnel wasn’t in glamorous Turin but was in fact a stretch of unopened sewer between Birmingham and Coventry, the sequence is still thrilling. It helps you root for the robbers. Underground equals underdog, and who doesn’t love one of those?
The gang who got away with tens of thousands of pounds from a cashpoint in Manchester last month by tunnelling to it from nearby waste ground won the PR war as well as the booty. Point two barrels at a work experience girl and you’re a villain — dig your way under a Tesco Express and you’re a hero. ‘Fantastic,’ said one member of the public. ‘You have to hand it to them because it’s a work of art.’
Curiously, however, I think the real reason we love going underground is the opposite one — not because it’s exciting but because it’s relaxing. As Harry says about the Mail Rail, putting several dozen feet of earth between you and a mobile phone signal can be bliss. Someone who agrees is Stephen Smith, Newsnight’s culture correspondent and author of Underground London: Travels Beneath the City Streets. ‘It’s the escape element of the Tube I appreciate,’ he tells me. ‘I hope Boris doesn’t succeed in his reported bid to put some of the network online. It’s a strangely calm, even anaesthetised environment down there.’ The serenity, he adds, even extends to rush hour. ‘The whole proposition of travelling deep underground is so strange that it casts a charm over us. Or perhaps we simply will ourselves to suspend disbelief until it’s over.’
The beauty of a subterranean transport system is that you can route it wherever you want (give or take — plague pits can be a pain, which is why the Piccadilly Line has a kink near Harrods). Straight lines are the order of the day, no faffing around to accommodate other roads or buildings that get in the way. The underground life is a simple life, a glimpse of how things could be.
That calming sense is also there in another London icon, the Cabinet War Rooms. Surely the fact that so much of the second world war was directed from down there helped not just with physical security but also mental composure. You can take it too far: as our opponent showed in Berlin, ‘bunker mentality’ is not a compliment. But for when you really need to concentrate, where better than underground? Perhaps the best place for blue-sky thinking is the one place from where you can’t see the blue sky.
In the end, though, I think it’s all much more fundamental than this. Deep down, we love deep down because it reminds us of the very beginning of our existence. Life is one long effort to climb back into the womb. We were safe in there, warm and cosy and content. Not only did we have nothing to worry about, we literally didn’t know that there was such a thing as worry. In childhood we recreate that feeling by gazing at the illustration of Peter Rabbit’s warren and thinking ‘If only…’. As adults we respond to stress by hiding under the duvet.
But even when we’ve forced ourselves to get up and confront the world, help is still at hand: a trip underground. Perhaps the finest example of the in utero mentality was Tube stations acting as bomb shelters during the war. One of those used was Highgate. And it was there during an air raid in 1944 that Jerry Springer was born. (Yes, that Jerry Springer.) From one womb into another — what a way to start your life.