At sp!ked, Neil Davenport reviews a new book about London’s iconic underground:
The closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics was notable for its groaning reliance on tourist-shop icons — all black cabs, bowler hats, Houses of Parliament, red pillar-boxes and Mini Coopers. In a dreary way, what could we expect? A tourist-shop portrayal of Britain is still internationally recognisable and, for the organisers, safe enough to avoid party-pooping controversy. Curiously, though, one famous figure of the capital was noticeable by its absence: the London Underground. With its roundel logo, distinctive trains and elegantly functional map, few landmarks of London are as richly iconic as this. Indeed, as a character player in umpteen films, novels and pop songs, no London setting would be complete without the Underground.
Throughout the network’s history, though, Londoners’ relationship with the Tube has often been uneasy and aggravating: overcrowding, delays, cancellations, the fare’s dent on the wallet and, for the middle classes, striking tube workers and their ‘inflated’ salary. Nevertheless, it is only when the Tube is not working properly that we become aware of its magnitude. Unlike Tower Bridge or Beefeaters, the Tube isn’t a remote or mythical symbol of London. It’s the living, working and organic lifeblood of the capital. It is the way in which millions of Londoners are able to work and play and thus, unlike Parliament, has meaning to ordinary people’s lives.
The boons and banes of the tube for Londoners (and visitors) are warmly captured in Andrew Martin’s Underground, Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube. A novelist and former ‘Tube Talk’ columnist for the London Evening Standard, Yorkshireman Martin pithily combines an authoritative history of the network’s development with personal reflections on his daily journeys. People can say they have become Londoners when they can navigate the vast system and reflect on its highs and lows, quirks and anomalies. Whether we admit it or not, Londoners will have their favourite stations and lines (the author’s is the Central line, mine the Victoria). They will notice the art décor splendour of Arnos Grove station or the beautifully rich tiles at Baker Street. They will curse themselves for falling asleep on the last tube (it’s that gentle rocking motion that sends you off to the Land of Nod) and waking up, as I have on numerous occasions, in High Barnet.