This morning I altered my usual routine by updating my Oyster in Italian at Bond Street Station. Grazie per aver utilizare Oyster! it told me. Well, the same to you, I thought. Bond Street is a red-and-silver-station. Not because of the impending Christmas season, but because of the Central / Jubilee connection. I have always coloured London Underground Stations, and filed them in municipal-looking sections of my brain, ready to be retrieved and studied when when travelling through town; Finchley Road is cosy burgundy flushed through with a jagged line of take-no-prisoners Silver (connection : Metropolitan & Jubilee interchange). St James’s Park is a bucolic green with City-chophouse mustard yellow (District & Circle). Charing Cross is boot polish black and lose-stool brown, as dirty and blemished and full of darkening secrets as the river it guards. Westbourne Park’s and Ladbroke’s Grove’s cheery pink and butter yellow (Hammersmith & City and Circle) have a colour combination that is exactly that of Battenburg cake. When all three of the Circle, Hammersmith & City and Bakerloo lines join each other at Paddington, it always reminds me of Neopolitan ice cream.
These colour combinations don’t just provide us with aids to memory recall. Is it imagination or do the stations wear the personalities of the colour characters like winter coats? Independent of their fellow station comrades on an underground line, each station emerges into a blocked, colour version of itself. On the District Line, for example, (on which no matter which train you take, you seem to always end up stranded at Earls Court, cursing) the section that pushes into the hinterlands of South West London seems to march alongside a greener, and more rurally affluent drum; a higgledy-piggledy green, meandering mess, where there are no signs and the rules are different. Oxford Circus is in colour terms what it is in real life – a dreadful, crushing clash, the stimulation of overwrought senses and the eating of a dyspepsia-inducing Pret a Manger lunch : with its Bakerloo shoe leather brown, sky blue Victoria and a worrying horizontal dash of Central Line pillar box red, this is a headache-inducing station. Holland Park stands proud, alone, in a rich silky scarlet that promises supercilious luxury. But the same red that ripples through Chancery Lane is the red tape of difficult, impenetrable legal cases. The burgundy, yellow and pink at Great Portland Street looks like the colours of a school scarf; a nod to the hand-holding snake of children weaving up Baker Street to see the Planetarium’s universe. The grey, mid blue and dark blue of the Jubilee, Victoria and Piccadilly curling through Green Park is the colour of park winters; the silvery dead leaves embalmed in frost, the chilly naked branches and the taste of December in the mouth. Kings Cross is a mess on the map – a spaghetti loopole of Parker inks blue and black and yellow and pink and Jesus – more or less every other colour – heralding the truth that navigation around the station will be a pain in the arse as well. Marylebone, my favourite mainline station, is cute and hip in Dairy Milk chocolate brown, standing cheekily over the northern tip of the West End, above the presence of any of the other, vulgar lines, thank you very much. Bank looks like a standard open-and-shut case for the Central Line at first glance. But, come with me. Walk over the tiled floor of the underground station to the map again. Look again. Bank is where the Bank of England lies (the clue’s in the name). As a station it greedily throws its arms out out at uncomfortable angles to grab onto the Northern, the Waterloo & City, the District and Circle and the DLR. It is stretching its arms, its influence, its ruinous borrowing, its incalculable danger, over most of us on the network. This game will go on and on if you allow it – the Eastern branch of the District is chaperoned by Hammersmith & City once you get east of Aldgate, and the pink and green are mindful of suburban allotment flowers – but of course, it can’t work out of London because outside London the rail colours have no lines. There is little need for clarification or distinction from other lines, so the colouring-in is unnecessary.
How did the colour-blind, or indeed the completely sight-blind, navigate London before the trains starting talking to us? These talking trains do make it easier for the non-literate, the non-English and the non-seeing, since their introduction at some point in the mid-1990s. But until then the tube was a silent experience. It was the first great metropolitan transport system that took it for granted that its consumers could read. Before the tubes, there were omnibuses, appearing in London for the first time in 1829 and which are our buses today. The conductor always shouted out the next stop. This wasn’t because he was trying to be helpful, but because before the 1870 Education Act many Londoners could not read. Now both buses and tubes speak to us, although most of us wish they wouldn’t. When the tubes were silent, the colour blind had to learn station names, and the blind had to count the stops.
Now you get on a tube train and are told by a mechanical voice what the next station is, when you would arrive there, mind the doors when you do get there, and what other lines you can pick up on arrival. These are not merely anodyne voices. There are colourful characters narrating our journeys through these colourful lines. For many years several lines had their in-carriage announcements made by voiceover artiste Emma Clarke, to whom TFL gave the codename “Marilyn”. But at some point in 2007 she posted spoof announcements on her website, including “Would the passenger in the red shirt, pretending to read the paper, but who is actually staring at that woman’s chest, please stop. You’re not fooling anyone. You filthy pervert.”, and “Residents of London are reminded that there are other places in Britain outside your stinking shithole of a city”. When questionned she said “I go to London a lot but I never use the Underground. I take taxis.” Unsurprisingly, after this TFL sacked her.
Over on the Piccadilly Line, the announcements are made by actor Tim Bentinck, who some of you may know as being the voice of David Archer in “The Archers”. As well as being David Archer he is the 12th Earl of Portland and 8th Count Bentinck und Waldeck Limpurg . I don’t know where Bentinck und Waldeck is but I bet it’s not a patch on Rayners Lane. Other female announcers are given code names. The Central Line has SONIA (so called becuase, as TFL say, she get’S On Ya nerves…” Geddit?), Celia and Vera. The man who rather stridently announces that “this train terminates here” and reminds us to take “all your belongings with you” is an announcer called Michael Meech, who also worked as a Radio 2 announcer in the 1970s.
Of course, the world will never run out of voiceover artists. But London Underground may run out of colours if any more lines are built. What’s next? Olive Green? Golden? or Purple? We still need to see the colours, even though we have to hear all the silly voices. For many of us, intent on snuggling into a corner carriage with a full iPod and an unread, much anticipated book, we yearn for that old, vibrant, colourful, tube silence, to stop the incessant chatter and hibernate underground without the yelp of Blackberries, the beep of text messages arriving and the ring of iPhones. We want the world to shut up and not say a bloody word. But as usual, there is an alarming space between the cityscape as we desire it and the cityscape as it truly is and, as they are always telling us, you have to Mind The Gap. Right. I’m off to go round and round and round and round the Circle Line until I’ve finished reading Little Dorrit. Until then, share kids. What are you oddest tube experiences? I was once flashed at by a man who looked to be about 90, but I think he didn’t mean to – I mean he was just wearing shorts and it sort of fell out. Any other tube experiences worth mentioning, please comment below. I’ve sure some of you have stories to tell.
For a lively and fun blog on all things tube, I thoroughly recommend Annie Mole’s blog: http://london-underground.blogspot.com/
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