Turning on a sixpence

Londoners, what does it mean when we are told that a black cab can turn on an item of currency that has been defunct for forty years?  What could possibly, truly, turn on a sixpence?  A sixpence, for those of you under the age of about 50, was 19mm in diameter.  Of course, they couldn’t say it was 19mm in diameter and had to say it was 0.7 inches in the olden days.  The olden days are a time in the past that contain a series of rules relating to weights, measures and currency that are specifically designed to make younger minds boggle.  There was a pound (240 pence),  a shilling (12 pence), a florin (4 shillings), crowns ( 5 shillings) and half crowns (2 and a half shillings) etc.  Then there are groats, which sound like a kind of dysentery, farthings, which are a quarter of a penny and a quarter-farthing which was a sixteenth of a penny.  These complicated words and meanings meant that you kept the poor from finding out how much they were utterly in life’s toilet bowl, because by the time they’d added together the different coins, calculated their meanings and computed how much they had in their pockets, they would forget where they were and have to start all over again.

Now, clearly a taxi that was able to turn on a sixpence of 0.7inches in diameter would have to be 0.3inches wide, which is a problem as you’d have trouble getting in it.  Instead, “turning on a sixpence”, or it’s American counterpart, “turning on a dime” is a hyperbole and means that the vehicle can turn on a tight, small turning circle of 25 feet or less.   Legally, all London taxis must have this turning circle .   Not only does this make changing direction along London streets more convenient, but it makes parking a doddle.  There are two places in London where you get to see the turning taxis frequently.  The first is outside the Savoy Hotel and the second is in the bowels of Euston Station, where the cabs vault down one end, pirouette in their turning circle and then vault up to the rank to collect passengers. I imagine other stations have their sections for pirouetting taxis too, such as Victoria and Waterloo, but I only really know Euston as that’s where I was shown how taxis turn on a sixpence in the first place.

The sixpence rule of a 25 feet turning circle has been in place since 1906 and has as its inauspicious beginning  a very small roundabout.  The sharp-eyed amongst you will have already noticed that Savoy Court directly outside the Savoy Hotel is the only road in London where taxis drive on the right.  But in order to get into the Savoy in the first place you have to navigate this small roundabout which has a turning point of – you’ve guessed it – 25 feet.  This became the standard turning limit for London taxis.  The fact that the traffic is allowed to drive on the right here is a separate issue; and is partly to do with the ease in dropping theatregoers off to the Savoy Theatre on the right, and partly to do with the fact that Savoy Court is private land, not a public thoroughfare, and is frightfully posh so it can pretty much do what it wants.

Theoretically, you should be able to get into a London taxi with your top hat still on.  It doesn’t matter if you are wearing nothing else, but the important thing in England is that you are able to transport yourself through the metropolis without having to remove your top hat.  This explains the capacious insides of the London cab, a space which Marianne Faithfull noted in her memoirs, was quite easy to shoot up in.  Lots of elbow room.  You can stretch your entire body length out whilst slouched on the seat, which explains why they are so easy to fall asleep in if drunk. You don’t have to fold up buggies or remove children from prams (I have fond memories of being in back of a cab with my one year old niece and gripping the sides of the pram that she was in opposite me between my feet whilst she grinned and occasionally vomited as we swerved through traffic).  There are few more distressing sights than witnessing a Londoner getting into his first ever New York cab.  It is an abhorrent experience.  There is the stifling closeness of the sweaty leather rear of the front car section, the fact that the driver certainly won’t have a clue how to get anywhere as there is no “knowledge”, the lack of purpose built vehicle, and the fact that when you remove yourself and your top hat from its dastardly insides you need a new pair of kneecaps due to the contortions you had to undergo whilst cramped in the passenger seat.

Buying a London taxi for your personal use is not a bad investment.  The original Fairway design can run for up to 500,000 miles without a problem and so buying a car that already has 274,000 miles on the clock isn’t as terrifying as it would be in another vehicle.  You can pick up a Fairway in good condition for about £8,000, which is quite economical.  Bearing in mind the ostentatious “Noddy” TX designed black cabs that came in in 2001 can cost upwards of £30,000 new, a good bronze Fairway is just the ticket.  Guv’nor.  They’re particular useful for school runs – not only do children love them but you can fit seven of the blighters in the back at any time – and they don’t really know you’re not a real taxi driver so you can charge them.   I think they would also be quite useful for Mormons or those with ornate, complicated sets of wives and mistresses.  It is a convenient, economical and civilised way of transporting all your lovers at once.  Well known people who have bought London cabs for their own driving entertainment include Kate Moss, Stephen Fry, The Duke of Edinburgh and – somewhat alarmingly – Bez from The Happy Mondays.    Although not licenced and unable to use bus routes, some of these private taxi owners have confessed to parking their cabs in taxi ranks “all day” and “no one noticing”. 

Not that it was always deep seats and indulgent leg room of course.  The first hackney carriage was licenced in London in the 1660s and was most probably entirely comprised of hay and cat shit.  The Victorians gave us growlers (four wheel, enclosed, two horses), hansom cabs and cabriolets (the last two only had two wheels) that could hold four people,  or, in that scene in ‘Madame Bovary’ two people.  Astonishingly enough, the last horse-drawn hackney carriage was put out of service in London as late as 1947, and before the internal combustion engine was invented, there was a brief spate of electric hackney carriages, which must have been extraordinary to take rides in during rainstorms.  But still today, with our four door saloon cars, the Public Carriage Office has only licenced 21,000 taxis, in a city of over 8 million people.  This explains the Perverse Rule of Taxi Frequency: there is never one at 2.35 am when you’re wearing one shoe, been mistaken as a Middle Eastern whore, dealing with the dyspepsia that only seven Singapore Slings can herald and are weeping silently, kohl splashing down your frozen cheeks, on the side of the Charing Cross Road.  But there will always be seven, sitting calmly in the rank like smug, black shiny cats, on that beautiful spring morning you decide for the first time in a year to walk all the way to The Regents Park.  So, is the only solution to follow the example of Bez / Moss / Edinburgh, Duke of etc?  Just buy one of the things.  In a city where street visibility is such a predomininant characteristic, wouldn’t we be rendered invisible whilst darting through the bus lanes and chugging happily around town driving a cab?  It would be the ideal mode of transport if I ever achieved my dream career which is to be a private detective.  Is there anything which can camouflage a Londoner more than driving a black taxi?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday.  Our next update will be on Thursday 9th May.

Happy Birthday to Ya – London Underground turns 150

 Underground 1908
On January 9th 1863 a series of dignitaries, engineers and politicians took a very short journey from Farringdon to Paddington (no buffet car) in the first of the Metropolitan Railway’s underground experience.  Next week Transport for London, who took the helm for controlling our many lined network in 2003, will kick off their celebrations for the 150th birthday of the Tube.   The nature of these range from talks on the history of the tube and heritage steam trains chuckling up and down the much-rarified rural edge of the Chesham branch of the Metropolitan.  The shop at the Transport Museum has gone mental in the mug department.   The University of London is holding a two day conference on the Victorian and Edwardian Underground, with sizeable breaks in between the lectures for tea and lunch (academics are always so very very hungry and must feed their ginormous brains). The evocative poster art of the London Underground will be exhibiting at Covent Garden from February to October this year, and if it’s slowly steaming stacks you’re after, the Museum Depot out at Acton will have a series of Open Days complete with engine displays and London Underground influenced photography, art and design. 
At 150, it makes our system the oldest in the world but – against popular forecasts in the 1970s and 1980s – it is now in the best nick.  Post-war decades of under-funding nearly made the system flatline utterly thirty years ago.  Remember when the Northern Line was called the Misery Line?  Delays were so frequent you allowed time for them.  Trains startlingly would halt in destinations half way along the line.  Those dubious black plastic balls that hung from spiral straps on the conical ceilings of the District Line burnt West London’s hands in the summer.  The tube was a sad sack of maligned, wooden-slatted austerity.  The ancient escalators weren’t replaced until over thirty people died in a fire at Kings Cross in 1987.  Following on from the abolition of the GLC in 1986, an extraordinary act of personal revenge mainly against one Mr K Livingstone of London N.W.2, the network bounced about between Transport ministries, annoying the stretched public sector purses of the early 1990s.  It wasn’t under the Mayorality was established in 2000, and Transport for London not long after, that the Underground, along with all of our city’s transport networks, came under a civic-led London body of its own again.   This brought about major refurbishment works and two enormous government-led cash injections which bring us to the tube today, an astonishingly clean, plastic haven of special seats for the infirm, of super-quick speedways, of trains so sophisticated they’ve started to talk to us to remind us where we are, what lines we can change for at the next station, and whether or not we should alight here for the British Library or Buckingham Palace.  This to us is the most significant and swift mode of transport our city has ever produced,  although it is hardly accurate to call it the London Underground when 55% of it is above ground.
What emerges from the debates surrounding the London Underground is that the tube network operates as a microcosm of the anxieties of the city as a whole : will there be enough room for us all?  Will it operate sufficiently?  Will the system face its economic difficulties with success?  Will we all die in a hole in the ground?  Will someone jump in front of my train today?  What is the actual chance of anyone giving up their seat for anyone?  How close are we to the rats?  When shall we all have our annual moan about the 4% cost increase?   Will I get flashed at?  Again? Since July 2005 of course, our anxieties about the London Underground have been characterized by a darker hue.  However, we are safer than we have ever been and cleaner than we have ever been under the London ground.  Soon you’ll be able to make telephone calls from there.  Soon I’ll be drafting my blog from the depths of the square mile and click “Publish” and voila.  A note from the wi-fi’d underground.  The tunnels will liberate us and underground will be just as accessible as overground.  
The first air conditioned tubes were rolled out in 2010, but unfortunately focused on sections of lines that were above ground anyway – on the Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City Lines.  Solving the problem of creating air cooling on some of the deeper lines of the network, such as the Piccadilly and the Northern, is a longer, more complex project.  Ken Livingstone offered a £100,000 prize to anyone who could produce a successful air-cooling prototype for the deeper tube lines back in 2003, but none of the proposals were workable.  Suggestions have been made for the trains to carry enormous blocks of ice in refrigeration coolers, which is peculiar.   It was also once seriously recommended that bags of frozen peas be attached to tube train roofs.  It took the New York subway 20 years to successfully devise its air conditioning technology, and air cooling is one of the major issues that concern travellers, which is hardly surprising as temperatures on the Northern Line hit 116 degrees in the 2006 heatwave. 
As regular readers will know, I slightly worship the tube.  As a child, and not a city native, the sound and smell of exciting London was always the diesel scented Northern Line platform at Euston.  There was always something wonderful and secretive, and oddly Alice-in-Wonderland, about the trains emerging from the tunnel, as if from space, as if from nowhere.  Tube trains have never stopped looking like animals to me.  The roar of one and the blast of the air in the face never fails to thrill.  I even watch for the small mice that labour up and down the platform at Charing Cross and Leicester Square, looking for remnants from your Chinese takeaways.   But it’s not all electric thrills, you know.   Last year 4,000 people were injured on the tube, including over 50 fractures, 30 cases of dislocated joints, 15 electric shocks and 6 heart attacks.  However, to put this into context, the London Underground has a safety record fifteen times better than the European average and I don’t know about you, but I’d rather keel over with a cardiac arrest at Tottenham Court Road station than some inscrutable, ugly outpost of the Moscow underground train network.   
When it comes to injuries it’s amazing that more people don’t tumble down escalators. When I was a small child I was told my Aunt had fallen down an escalator. She probably just tripped and slipped, but in my imagination I saw a colourful woman with big hair turning cartwheels over and over for about three minutes, down the escalator until she landed in a glamorous pile of high heels and shopping bags at the bottom. However, whilst it takes a huge amount of talent to not fall down the escalators, it takes something of a deeper talent to fall up them.  Here is a lady who wasn’t at all drunk (No) doing just that.   Even eventually getting to the top of the escalator proved something of a Pyrrhic victory, because her shoe was still at the bottom, so she was still defeated.  And, despite being at a station, it wasn’t even a platform shoe. 

The recorded slips, trips and falls at our railway stations from April 2011 to March 2012 from Rail Safety and Standards Board are substantial:

1.   Total: 3,118

2.   On escalators: 512

3.   On stairs: 1,120

4.   On the concourse: 1,488

5.   On a platform: 899

6.   Involved people running: 425

7.   Person intoxicated: 437

8.   Major/Minor: 19 major injuries (only 5 involving intoxication) and 1 fatality (person who fell on an escalator at London Bridge station)

9.   Time: 1,158 incidents were recorded between 5pm and 2.30am (37%)

10.   Day: Incident peak on Fridays: 569 (18%)

11.   Luggage: 614 reported injuries involved luggage. This is up from 362 in 2004/05

Obviously, no surprise regarding the Friday peak.  This is the time of week where the delirium of weekend freedom has kicked in and usually so has those small molecules within beer bottles that so frequently clutter a young estate agent’s brain.  Up, up, up go the little molecules, and down, down, down goes a junior sales negotiator from the Holborn branch.   What is the differentiation above between a platform and a concourse?  And has any distinction been made for the possibilty of one accident that does in fact incorporate 4 of the above?  For example, I am certain that at Warwick Avenue tube I carried out the hatrick of 2, 6 and 7 in one swoop.  And if it happened on a Friday, I could probably shove a 10 in there as well. 
I am truly astonished that when it comes to the British temperament that the number on No 11 exceeds that of No 7.  No mention is made of dogs or cats, unwisely taken on tube journeys on leads, and who inevitably must be carried up and down escalators lest their paws be caught.  They sustain injuries on the tube because so few people are aware that dogs cannot walk on the escalators.  Presumably the statistics above are only for humans.   The result of someone under the influence (no 7), on a Friday (no 10) on an escalator (no 2) who then falls over with a dog in their arms doesn’t bear thinking about. 

There are 270 stations and 402 kilometres that make up the London Underground, so there’s quite a sizeable opportunity for ending up arse over elbow in it. If you are out celebrating London Underground’s 150th birthday, perhaps by wearing an 1860s stovepipe hat or doing a cheery Victorian London dance, do be careful and mind the gap. Many happy returns, London Underground. I might not raise a glass to you, but I will be celebrating by getting stuck at Victoria, stapling frozen peas to my head in an attempt to aircool my flat, sitting on three damp editions of this morning’s Metro and falling over a German Shepherd. Happy Birthday.

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

Platform 9

The northbound platform out of Euston towards the Home Counties got used by me for the first time in about 14 years yesterday.  Not since the days of early adulthood had I stumbled (without ticket mostly) through the barriers to get on the 1534 Northampton Line train, but an motoring episode that can only be classed as both distinctly disagreeable and disappointing in equal measure led to me being carless.  Non de voiture. Io non ho macchina.  I am back, into my natural way of life – as a walker, busser and trainer.  A flaneur, passing through, utilizing the forces of metal and power and energy that push and pull our city about whilst we loiter in a shabby nylon seat watching the countryside ripple by the window.

Ok, well not exactly the countryside but the way there – Harrow & Wealdstone, Watford Junction, Kings Langley… and I am so old that when I first started taking this train on my own I used to use the smoking carriage.  First Class Smoking Carriage, of course.  It only had two seats.  Then there was a thick glass partition between us and the non-smoking First Class.  There some blustery, Crombie-coated, middle age company director would be, with thinning pale brown hair and making smacking noises on a cigar, and on the other seat, yours truly, sparking up a Silk Cut Menthol, straightening my Rob Newman as “Jarvis” T shirt and flicking through TV Hits to look for pictures of Val Kilmer.   There used to be red and grey painted scenes at the back of each carriage of Hertfordshire windmills, watery artist’s impressions of the Grand Union Canal and brave, grey blocks of high street buildings.  There used to be lino on the floor and large metal bins between the backs of seats that looked like giant’s ashtrays.

Now the trains are warmer, carpeted and much narrower. It seems perverse that as British people have got wider the train aisles have got narrower.  Is aisle jamming going to be an Olympic sport this year?  An athletic event which you may enter, unimpeded by your ginormous girth?  The colour tone of the interior of the trains is vastly improved from municipal swimming pool blue of the 90s to a rich green.  “Welcome aboard this London Midland train for Milton Keynes Central!”  announces an unsavoury, excited female voice through the tannoy.  Why the thrill?  It’s a commuter train full of hospital frontline workers and balding Hertfordshirians sipping cups of tea.  For whatever reason then, our lady narrator is bloody excited to be narrating this gem of a journey.  And she doesn’t stop. “Please take your belongings with you and thank you for travelling London Midland!”,  like we had a choice, and then there’s the grim “Welcome aboard this London Midland train!  Please take a moment to observe our safety facilities and emergency exits!”  She nearly chortled at the end of that one, as if delighted if only one of us passengers thought we might – just might –  die before Berkhamsted.

I haven’t taken this journey in a while.  It’s the journey I took throughout my childhood and youth whenever we were going “up to town” and I’d forgotten that I can remember every part of it.  You get out of Euston and once past the Legolike blocks of Somerstown the view is exceedingly Victorian : Mornington Crescent still looms up in gentrified, down at heel glamour and the rice pudding colour of St Johns Wood homes are just visible over the tops of the railings.  Then suddenly – eeurgh – that old, horrid, vast Morrison’s at Camden Town thrusts itself forward looking like an unloved prefab.  Belsize Road still has its schizoid personality that is visible from the carriage (Social housing on one side of the road and private housing on the other and a whole load of irrascible tension in between) and it alarms me as much now as it did 20 years ago that South Hampstead station appears to be made entirely of wood.  But the journey is much quicker and quieter than it ever was.  Nothing reminds me more of the space between childhood and adulthood as much as the view from the window between London Euston and Harrow & Wealdstone.  On the M1, you don’t see the houses, the flats, the tops of pubs, the Royal Mail sidings, the cargo trains that sit in Neasden sidings and which always reminded me as a child of Westerns, the supermarket car parks, the waving child from the top of a bus over a Willesden bridge.  In other words, if you’re not in a train you don’t see the journey.   Pubs I hadn’t realised I remembered veer up at the sides of the tracks, untouched and unchanged.    I know the rhythm of the line, I recognise a patch of trees and know we’re approaching Watford Junction a minute before the tannoy tells us so.  How on earth did I remember that?

Do not worry, fair reader, I am not a proponent of G.A.S.  (Golden Age Syndrome).  I don’t hark back in the quaint and deluded belief in better times in the past.  I may have Golden Arse Syndrome but not Golden Age Syndrome.  Even my rampant Victorianism doesn’t stretch far enough to love all things Victorian (syphillis, anyone?) but I do wonder what the same journey would have been like 120 years ago.  Darker, smellier, slower. Colder, and infused with the smell of coal and sulphur.  Louder with constant belches of hot steam and the clanging clatters of mechanical parts and definitely much less eco-friendly.  Perhaps a moustachio-ed ticket inspector popping his head around the mahogany door of the ladies carriage on this line was the inspiration for the big music hall hit “She’d Never Had Her Ticket Stamped Before” (I do not jest)?  After 40 minutes of fairly uncomfortable seating and negotiating a bustle around the rest of you to try to get comfortable you would have alighted here, 20 miles from London and it would be the middle of the countryside.  In the deep evening gloam a bellowing cow, a horse and trap, a few clip clops of horseshoes on the untarmacadamed road and little else.   A cluster of flickering gas lights half a mile in the distance, with a pub in the middle of it and beyond that silence and darkness and rows of fields. 

It’s not difficult to see that the railway changed everything. 

We take the routes and walk the station platforms that have been walked for a century and a half, coated with the echoes of fellow Londoners before us. Every time you drop your ipod on a concrete floor, you pick it up and touch were Edwardian shoes have trod, where evacuees have waited.  People roll off the train with handy suitcases on wheels, dragging the suitcases behind them as Victorians dragged parasols, attache cases and hat boxes.  Travellers pocketing paperbacks in coats tread where travellers in the 1880s clutched their W H Smith Railway Bookstall purchases in tightly gloved hands.  Thousands of eyes have watched the same darkening countryside whistle past the window as we watch – eyes under army hats, eyes behind pince-nez, eyes of governesses, of servants, of Dukes, eyes of natives and the eyes of strangers, not to mention the dreary eyes forced to look at blackout curtains instead of the countryside during the war.   We’ve settled into train seats for nearly 200 years.   We remain steadfastly loyal to a great fear of change, of losing a sense of oneself, of the idea that time marches on, rudely inconsiderate of us, fragmenting the fabric we hold dear and leaving us distressed at the side of the track.  But the truth is that if you take a train anywhere in Britain it becomes astonishing how little has, in any true sense of the world, changed.  The Victorian Age was characterized by an overbearing sense of anxiety surrounding the vast developments in transport, productivity and social upheaval, by a fear that the pace of these developments would outstrip our ability to keep up with them and that we would be annihilated by our own pursuits for commercial and financial success.  You see?  Nothing really ever changes at all.

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

Red and Yellow and Pink and Green….

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/

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

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.

How did you get here?

This morning, enroute to work, TFL were carrying out another of their surveys for travellers.  They do this about twice a year, wanting to know where you got on the piece of public transport you are currently on, whether you walked to it, took a spaceship, hailed a hackney coach etc, where you were headed, and what for.  I am explaining this to those of you who don’t know London transport, and for those who are allergic to all forms of public transportation, like my brother.   TFL says it’s to streamline bus routes and services, though I’d be astonished if they changed the bus routes simply because Doris from Finchley once wrote down that it took her three buses to get to Brent Cross and could they alter this please?  TFL need to get if not inside our heads, then inside our routines.  Who works where and from where do they travel?  What is your demographic?  Tick the boxes, put your postcode in and hand it in to the polite chap on the door of the bus who is handing out free plastic pens to travellers, and a little bit of cityworkers’ identity gets logged and allocated and filed and forgotten.

Everyone is very well-behaved and does what they are told.  But it gets you thinking where we all travel from.  Yes, we are on a bus, but we are on an awful lot of other things too.  Rather than travelling from Route 460 onto Route 13 we were actually travelling on 300 feet of ground fish and plankton bones which ground down to form chalk.  And what we now know as “London Clay” is actually the detritus of gravel, sand and a tropical sea that were the only features of the London rush hour a million years ago.   Roman London was about twelve feet below modern London.  There is a river that flows down South Molton Street (part of the old “Tyburn Brook”, one of the many tributaries that used to run towards the Thames, and a small river that edged the Grosvenor Estate) which was simply covered up and turned into a sewer.  If it hadn’t been, it could have been another Little Venice, except one edged by shoe sales and temp offices.

There are all sorts of strangenesses buried here, and I don’t attempt to list them all in a blog, becuase that would mean I was mad, but I have been enjoying reading about a severely edited, and fictionalised version in Edward Rutherfurd’s “London”.  I first read this book about 11 years ago.  Rutherford hit on a formula of historical fiction that worked (charting the progress and development of cities through descendants of a cluster of families) and seems to be repeating it for every world city.  “Dublin”, “The Forest”, “Russka” and “New York”.  They are not good literature.  But they are a right good read.

“What are you reading Edward Rutherfurd for?!”  I remember my brother exclaiming, dropping his polenta on the floor whilst ruminating on the state school offerings in middle class West London. “Haha!”  I was supposed to be learned and reading other writers and stuff.  But I loved Edward Rutherfurd’s “London”.  He takes pseudo-Dickensian names like Ducker (rude limerick anyone?) and Dogberry and watches them evolve throughout centuries of yer London history.  Dogberry the medieval coin-cleaner, or peasant slave, evolves to become a saturnine Elizabethan schoolmaster (“Clean your ruff, Davis!”) or a Victorian pimp.  Okay, not pimp, but certainly street Arab (“Cor Blimey gov’nor!  Top ‘ole corpses to be faund dahn by Lahndahn Wall.  Yer ‘umble servant sir – oh – it’s a jolly ‘oliday with Marrryy!  Mary makes yer heart so light!  Oh, sorry, wrong musical”.)  That street Arab fulfils Victorian fears about the poor having lots and lots of children and taking over the middle classes by producing a man called Bill in 1920, who grows up to become an Air Raid warden in 1940.  (“They’ll be bluuuueebirds over, the white cliffs….whad’ya say?  Evacuation?  Nah, you’re all right.  I ‘ad one before I come out, I did.”  GAAH!! BOMB!!”) And so on, and so on.  It’s quite impossible, as London’s success has been its rapid intake of immigrants or foreigners in the last 2,000 years  (even the Romans were Italian, you know.  That’s why they were so short and useless and built straight roads to race their Italian sports cars down).  However, Rutherford is keen to create a London where everyone is descended from a Saxon peasant.  Or, for the rakish characters, a bit of Viking blood.    If this was still the case, and the indigenous population of this island was truly indigenous we would still be living culturally as pre-Roman Britons:

1.  Enforced country dancing created by English feudal lords.  As there would have been no jazz, no rock and roll, no jiving, no Viennese waltzing, no Argentinian tangoing.  Why?  Because it’s foreign MUCK, that’s why.  Get your morris bells on.  This leads to….

2. Strictly Come Morris Dancing is BBC1’s top-rated show.

3. At restaurants all you could eat would be sheep, liver, onions, blackberries, strawberries and more sheep.  Breakfast would be sheep on toast.

4.  Our hobbies would be limited to beheading, boar-slapping, war-starting and mass burials – with a bit of animal husbandry thrown in.

5.  No roads, because we wouldn’t let the Romans come in and be Emperors coz they were foreign.  Just forests randomly spotted with man-eating wolves.

6.  We would have to work on the land (BORING) ploughing fields with the arsebone of giraffes and eating mice for supper.

7.  Television.  Now this was invented by a Scot, so we might just sneak this fellow in.  But what’s on it?  Eastenders, where everyone is living in huts and using animal fat for Saxon candles?  And 72 garden shows showing you the best way to roast a marrow for your thane (Saxon lord).

Of course, Edward Rutherfurd isn’t a nincompoop, and his books aren’t silly.  He does allow vagrant European randoms to seep in.   I was just amusing myself, Mr Rutherfurd.   He is actually very readable and I strongly recommend “London” for an enjoyable, fictionalised, potted history of this ‘ere great city.  But do not purchase on Kindle.  On Kindle you do not get the family tree which goes through 2,000 years, and you won’t know who’s who without it.  You don’t want to get your Roman batty boys mixed up with your Georgian candle lighters, because then where would history be then? It’s a minefield, my friends.

Meanwhile, for those who require an update on M E Braddon, and who commented on my entry about Lady Audley’s Secret ( https://thelondonbluebird.wordpress.com/2010/03/11/chick-lit-1860s-style/)   , I am still working my way through the 61 titles of Mrs Braddons, 58 of which are now out of print.  “Wyllard’s Weird” is a genius bit of railway murder mystery but it’s out of print.   “Dead Love Has Chains” is genius – but – it’s out of print.  I’m compiling summaries of these books because I haven’t got a life and will update you with them forthwith.   For anyone who feels passionately about re-publishing obselete works from the 1860s featuring ladies going hysterical in Bayswater drawing rooms because their dipsomaniac husbands have set alight to their ancestral home in Wiltshire using nothing more than a packet of lucifers and a copy of Punch from April 1868, do hassle the Sensation Press at http://www.sensationpress.com/mainindex.htm.

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

Do you read me?

So there I was, waiting on the northbound Northern Line platform at Euston when I was asked directions by a  lady tourist.  She was delightful, but English wasn’t have been her first, fourth, sixth or eighth language, and some evil friend or relative had flung her at the mercy of London Underground where she was close to tears.  Flailing around the network, desperately trying to find Tottenham Court Road in such broken English that no one could have put it together again, she couldn’t have understood my reply.  Once she had turned to Platform 5 when she had been told Platform 6, and once she went towards northbound rather than the southbound direction, I found myself wondering what kind of sadist sent her in search of Tottenham Court Road in the first place.   I bet you ten pounds that by 8pm this evening she’ll be stuck on the platform at Ongar, damning our city and weeping for her homeland.

Once she moved off, my eyes settled on a poster advertising a film called “The Last Station”.  It had a smug Helen Mirren on it (is there any other kind?), and a warning of “Moderate Sex Scenes”.  I couldn’t work out what that meant; scenes containing moderate amount of sex?  Moderately bad sex?  Or incredibly filthy and censorworthy shenigans but only a moderate amount of it?  What is sexual immoderacy anyway?  And the poster showed an old man with a beard leering at Helen Mirren in an unsavoury way and pretending to be Leo Tolstoy.  Maybe it’s sex scenes featuring the moderately old, or sex scenes featuring a moderately bad actor pretending to be moderately, sexually Russian.  Either way, it was all nonsense.  We are all linguistic co-dependents; if we can’t understand the writing on the walls in the tube, no wonder my tourist lady was struggling.

Then, and I don’t know whether I had language on my Helen Mirren-raddled mind, I got into the carriage of the tube and everyone was having weird conversations.  With themselves.  A man opposite me merrily mouthed the notes in a book of Chopin waltzes as he read musical notes  like words, the woman next to me was praying, apparently into her Blackberry (to the god of Blackberrys?) and a drama student opposite me was making quite a show of letting everyone see she had lines to learn, flipping self-consciously coy eyes up to the carriage ceiling and muttering all the way to Hampstead, whilst trying to look as if she wasn’t attracting attention.

Then, before getting onto the train, when I was looking at the train info board on the platform for the next train,  it suddenly changed its mind.  Instead of a destination of ‘High Barnet’ it said ‘Thursday’ and it was coming in 3 minutes, apparently.   Curiouser and curiouser…