What Lies Beneath


“Gah!  Exactly how many vodka martinis did I have?” is the first thought that crosses the mind of the lady about town when confronted with this heinous riot of tube lines.  Isn’t this what getting home on the tube looks like after a raucous gathering in a musical hostelry?  Like the London tube map has been put through the spin dryer?  The lines have moved…..are moving.  I don’t know where I am. Can somebody help me please?  I really think I should drink some water.   Has anyone seen my book?   Are these my bags?  I want to get on the spindly red bit and then hop on the black wavering line but I think – do you have anything I could be sick in?    I don’t like it.  I don’t like it atall.

Phew.  That’s better.  Solace.  I feel all safe and fuzzy and warm now.  It’s Zone 1 as I know it; Zone 1 as I need it to be before I can get home, drink water and go to bed with my ibuprofen.  I can get home drunk now because the map is sober.  It has the infamous Blue “Johnston” Font, and a comforting plethora of right angles and little straight lines.  Our city is comprehensible once more.  How thoughtful for someone to put those lovely small white circles to indicate where I can join with another line.  This is civilization.  I heartily approve.  

The map below is of an identical thing to the map above, but the map above is geographically accurate.  Go figure.

When the first underground tube trains rattled through London in the 1860s and 1870s they stank of sulphur and had no insulation for sound.  As late as 1890, the Speaker – a London magazine –  maintained that “it is only safe to discuss impersonal subjects on the Underground” as conversations could clearly be heard from one carriage to the next.   This meant that a private conversation you could be holding with your wife / husband / live-in lover / underhousemaid etc on the brand, spanking new District & Metropolitan Railway could easily be overheard by someone in the next compartment.  This was most distressing, particularly for people who conducted affairs by Victorian gaslight and then, leaving the train at Bond Street, got bashed on the head on the umbrella by the wife who had been sitting in the next carriage.  Also, in the early days of underground trains you had the choice of a first, second or third class ticket.  On the tube.  Honestly – it’s consumer choice gone mad!  But what they forgot to tell you was that the Metropolitan Line’s third class carriage had no roof.  Subsequently, you would have to spend the journey coughing back coal, spluttering out sulphur, avoiding brick dust whilst the remainder of the underground was still being built around you and shouting “I say!  Isn’t progress marvellous!” to your fellow, poor third class passenger, and hope that you would still be alive when the train vomited you out at Aldersgate for your 12 hour day cleaning chimneys and eating rats.  Victorian London, eh?  How LOVELY.  And if the unpleasant travelling experience wasn’t enough to pledge you to stick to the omnibus above ground instead, there was the lunacy of the maps.

  Take for example the rudimentary map from 1908:

This is plain daft.  First of all Edwardian ladies had massive skirts and stuff and had to spend all that time being various mistresses of Edward VII and looking grandly fragrant in hysterical hats, and now they are forced to go to the music hall by negotiating a tube map that looks as if someone has taken a photo of some worms.  Why is the West End all weird and illegible? What’s the bizarre orange bit meeting the yellow bit at Finsbury Park?  Why does the red line veer off in five directions?   Pathetic.  Must try harder, chaps.

This is the incredibly grand map from 1921.  It’s in an incredibly fussy, pseudo-aristocratic font, largely illegible and utterly confusing.  Again, the West End just looks like a right old mess.   This is extremely unhelpful and clearly cobbled together by a London Underground secretary.  On opium.  Or at least, someone who can’t spell “Gloster Road”.

In fact, the genii at London Underground only stopped producing geographic maps in 1932, when a design by MacDonald Gill finally introducted the concept of a diagrammatic map which we still have today.   Until 1932, I can only imagine people wandered around the network weeping trying to find Tottenham Court Road.  MacDonald Gill thought it silly to include geographical sites above ground (cricket grounds, random royal palaces and – incredibly – Army & Navy Stores) because no one identifies with that when they need to find the District platform Westbound whilst under the ground.  What was needed was a different, underground topography.   It was astonishing that it took London Underground half a century to work this out.

Thank goodness, then, for Harry Beck.  Harry Beck was the marvellously clever LU employee who determined that the topology of the ground above doesn’t matter; it’s the topology of the inter-connecting lines below that need to make sense in the mind of the traveller.  He designed the iconic map which is still used as a blueprint for today.  See – isn’t it lovely?

By 1958 the tentacles on the tube stretch out so far as to appear familiar to modern tubetravellers:

Hey kids, let’s pull on our peasant-style waisted tops and Levis and pop down to Trafalgar Square and have a bloody good dance and celebrate the end of rationing.  Or something.  Then off to the Stockpot with Cliff and the Shadows and have baked beans!  Cor!  Look there’s Adam Faith busking on the District Line!  Wow.   It’s the 1950s and teens are rioting around the tube like no one’s business – why?  Because they’ve got a bloody good map, that’s why.  Where’s the Jubilee Line?  Well, the Queen aint HAD her silver Jubilee yet, you 50s numpties!  So, you have to deal with two branches of the Bakerloo, one of which will eventually break off and form the Jubilee Line to open in 1977.  Or rather two years later in 1979 when they actually finished building it.   But hang on 50s kids.  Cool your bobby sox.  What is this ?  Aldwych?  Trafalgar Square?  Bushey & Oxhey?!  These aren’t tube stations.  Or are they?

There are over 30 closed stations that are no longer in use – Aldwych, Dover Street, Down Street, King William IV Street etc are still there, although closed up like ancient caves.  Aldwych is a very popular site for location filming for television and films.  Tomb Raider 3 was filmed at Aldwych.  Strangely, Transport for London won’t allow these stations to be used for any programme or film featuring vandalism, firearms, (“Freeze, sucker.  Now.  Got To Platform 5 Westbound (Putney branch) to Parsons Green or I’ll shoot!!”)   nudity (“Oh inspector, I’m so sorry I don’t have my oyster card – I forgot, oh it’s so hot down here.  Shall I take my blouse off?”), terrorism or that most dastardly of criminal acts – fare evasion (“Mr Bond – sir – SIR!  You can’t jump over the ticket barrier, sir. You’ll spill your drink.”) 

Here’s the 1985 map.  You can practically smell the social inequality and see the red filofaxes, can’t ya?   All those Secondary Modern accents floating about the Brand New Spanking New 1980s Docklands Light Railway to Rotherhithe and Wapping.  The Docklands Light Railway introduced some very old, exotic sounding names to the network, with silly titles like Mudslap, Filthdragon, Royal Albert Slapsplash, Thames Midriff and Mudlark Spifflegrinder.  No one is entirely sure whether these places are real or quasi-legendary London hellholes where men in red braces dine off cocaine capsules instead of food.  Either way the network is impoverished and no one knows who controls anything anymore following the disintegration of Ken’s Club, the GLC.   But the font is comforting Times New Roman and this is the tube map of my youth.  Not that I was ever allowed to ride it alone, of course, because I had anxious parents who presumed (wrongly) that I would be the target of trouser fiddlers.

Ah.  Here we are.  The 1999 tube map.  We’ve been looking forward to partying like it’s 1999 ever since Prince told us to in about 1983.  And now it’s Millenium Eve.  But how on earth are we supposed to find our New Year’s Eve Party, now that the powers that be have painted the underground map to look like a municipal swimming pool?  This is the much-maligned zoning system that tells you how much you pay depending on how far you are from the centre, rather than how far you travel.  In other words, you get a penalty for being a suburbanite, whilst the truly rich chaps who live in the middle go from Harrods to Marylebone High Street for £1.90.  This basically sums up the late 90s, when the gap between people with loads of lolly and people with not that much atall began to widen alarmingly.  No one ever understood how this zoning system works (again, much in common with the untransparent nature of politics at the time), or why a Zone 1-2 and Zone 1,2 3 & 4 Travelcard is available, but a card covering only Zones, 1, 2 and 3 isn’t.  It’s all slightly cretinous.   London is, however, is in the fiendish grip of the biggest financial boom ever seen by anyone in the universe.  Ever.  To celebrate, £3.5billion goes into the much-celebrated Jubilee Line extension, which boasts platforms with protective plastic walls that only open when the train has drawn to a halt.  This is to prevent suicides, which most people attempt when they get to the Millenium Dome and see how shit it is.

Complaining about the tube service is, like complaining about the National Health Service, a constant national pastime.  But, also like the National Health Service, it is dearly loved, we would defend it to the death and we think ourselves superior to other nations because we have it, we love it, and we were generally the first people on the planet to think of it.    It’s also a microcosm of the city and the citydwellers that live here.  Who knew that Cadbury’s Whole Nut is the most popular chocolate from tube vending machines?  Or that Gladstone and Dr Barnardo remain the only two people to have had their coffins transported by tube?  Or that last year the network carried 1,065 million passengers?  Perhaps the most reassuring statistic is that 96.6% of the trains last year ran perfectly on schedule.  The London transport network maintains its status as one of the most staggeringly efficient networks in the world; most of the time, you get on a tube, you sit down, and then you get off it again.  Job done.  It’s filthy – but then again, so is my knicker drawer.  There are half a million mice in it and, then again, there also is in my….no, sorry.  The half a million mice are best viewed from the platforms at Oxford Circus – they are not, as many believe, baby rats.  For some reason the mice like Oxford Circus (close to Top Shop, easier to pop to Soho for a cappucino – is there a very good cheese shop in W1?).  Strange, worse things than rats have started out life in the London Underground.  For a start, Jerry Springer was born on the platform at East Finchley.  Disgusting.

Finchley, of course, has a far more respectable tube-connected resident .  Harry Beck, the iconic tube map designer, who was paid only 5 guineas for a design map which is still the basis for our present day tube map, lived at Finchley, and one of his original maps are on a platform at Finchley Central Station for all of you to see.  You can get there easily these days.  Because he designed a brilliant map. 

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

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