Notes from the London Underground

There's something about the London Underground that has always sparked my imagination
Part of a drawing by Edward Johnston of the iconic London Underground roundel and bar, known as the 'bullseye design'
When I first visited London over ten years ago, there was one aspect of the trip that formed a lasting impression in my mind: the London Underground subway system. For some reason, I've always found train stations to be somehow evocative, in their way, and have always been interested by the magic these transitory spaces seem to hold.

I've become fascinated by empty station platforms in the same way J. G. Ballard obsesses over airport terminals: they are places defined by the temporary - destinations between destinations. And there are a number of references from pop culture that have sought to evoke this strange power, from David Bowie's 1976 album Station to Station to the David Lean masterpiece Brief Encounter.

What made the London Underground so fantastic to me was that it could be found deep down in the bowels of the city. Many commuters complain about the heat and the over-crowding at peak times, but whenever I've visited these have all added to the excitement. Even after an exhausting day.

I love the wide open stations, the hundreds of clicking turnstiles and the escalators moving hundreds of metres down into the dark. I also love the iconic map design that lays out every tube station in an easy-to-read colour-coded arrangement. Not to mention the gorgeous and simple Johnston typeface, or the distinctive 'roundel' logo. The Underground has held a grip on my imagination for years, and I'm still astounded to think that this labyrinth of human engineering criss-crosses such a complex layout deep under the London streets.

The sheer magnitude of the subway system is staggering. According to Wikipedia, there are 268 stations in total, covering approximately 400km of track: that makes it the longest underground rail system in the world by route length.

If we look at the busy, congested London streets for just a moment it's easy to see just how intrinsic the Underground's role is to the efficient running of the city's day-to-day life. The train lines are like arteries running underneath the surface of the city, and they've been a key part of London commuters' lives for as long as anyone can remember. The Metropolitan Line, in fact, is the oldest tube line in the world, having opened on 10th January 1863.

London Underground air raid shelter in the West End
What fascinates me even more is the role the Underground has played to Londoners during key historical events. For instance, during the Blitz attacks of the Second World War stations were used as shelters from German air raid attack. To imagine what it might have been like to seek refuge deep under the city, while it was under such ferocious attack from above, sends shivers down my spine. It's such a terrible, and evocative image. Deep-level shelters were later built further below these stations, and still exist to this day. (The Stockwell Deep Level Shelter now houses the Guardian newspaper archives.)

Other stations during the 1930s and '40s were converted into headquarters for the Royal Executive Committee, and for meetings of the War Cabinet while the Cabinet War Rooms were awaiting completion.

There are some other, perhaps more morbid, historical tidbits. Just as Abraham Lincoln's body, packed in ice, was transported by train from Washington to Illinois in 1865, the London Underground train lines have been used to carry the coffins of two notable historical figures. The first was Prime Minister William Gladstone in 1898, and the second Dr. Thomas J. Barnardo in 1905.

The London Underground has also exercised a grip on imaginations other than my own, and in some ways has become a rich and productive breathing space for the arts. While the Poems on the Underground project, and aspiring musicians - including Julian Lloyd Webber - have attempted to introduce a rich cultural life below the streets of London, the transport network has inspired writers, artists and filmmakers to create their own tributes to this unique subterranean space.

The artist Simon Patterson was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1996 for his painting, The Great Bear. It's an exact reproduction of the London Underground's map design, first created by Harry Beck in 1931. The only exception are the stations themselves, which are replaced on the map by names of prominent artists and thinkers.

The Underground has also been the setting for cult television shows from The Tomorrow People to Quartermass and the Pit. And there are more recent examples in contemporary film, such as horror-zombie sequel Twenty-Eight Weeks Later, where the stations seemingly become the only refuge from viral infection; V for Vendetta, where the train lines are used to resist and oppose dystopic, Orwellian government forces; and American Werewolf in London, where a lone commuter is pursued through an empty station by an unseen feral entity: 'I can assure you that this is not in the least bit amusing!'

I'm planning on visiting London in early September and meeting Jennifer when she arrives at Heathrow airport. We're hoping to have another look around, visit the Freud Museum (which we didn't manage on our last trip) and perhaps see a film at the iMax theatre on the Southbank. But one of the things I'm looking forward to most of all is buying a ticket for the Underground, taking a ride, and minding the gap.