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THE LONDON UNDERGROUND

From
Bryson, Notes on a small island,
54-55


The London Underground Map. What a piece of perfection it is, created in 1931 by a forgotten hero named Harry Beck, an out-of-work draughtsman who realized that when you are under ground it doesn't matter where you are. Beck saw - and what an intuitive stroke this was - that as long as the stations were presented in their right sequence with their interchanges clearly delineated, he could freely distort scale, indeed abandon it altogether. He gave his map the orderly precision of an electrical wiring system, and in so doing created an entirely new, imaginary London that has very little to do with the disorderly geography of the city above.

Here's an amusing trick you can play on people from Newfoundland or Lincolnshire. Take them to Bank Station and tell them to make their way to Mansion House. Using Beck's map - which even People from Newfoundland can understand in a moment - they will gamely take a Central Line train to Liverpool Street, change to a Circle Line train heading east and travel five more stops. When they get to Mansion House they will emerge to find they have arrived at a point 200 feet further down the same street, and you have had nice breakfast and done a little shopping since you last saw them. Now take them to Great Portland Street and tell them to meet you at Regent's Park ( that's right, same thing again!), and then to Temple Station with instructions to rendezvous at Aldwych. What fun you can have! And when you get tired of them, tell them to meet you at Brompton Road Station. It closed in 1947, so you'll never see them again.

The best part of Underground travel is that you never actually see the places above you. You have to imagine them. In other cities station names are unimaginative and mundane: Lexington Avenue, Potzdammerplatz, Third Street South. But in London the names sound sylvian and beckoning: Stamford Brook, Turnham Green, Bromley-by-Bow, Maida Vale, Drayton Park. That isn't a city up there, it's a Jane Austen novel. It's easy to imagine that you are shuttling about under a semi-mythic city from some golden, pre-industrial age. Swiss Cottage ceases to be a buisy road junction and becomes instead a gingerbread dwelling in the midst of the great oak forest known as St John's Wood. Chalk Farm is an open space of fields where cheerful peasants in brown smocks cut and gather crops of chalk. Blackfriars is full of coweled and chanting monks, Oxford Circus has its big top, Barking is a dangerous place overrun with packs of wild dogs, Theydon Bois is a community of industrious Huguenot weavers, White City is a walled and turreted elysium built of the most dazzling ivory, and Holland Park is full of windmills.

The problem with losing yourself in these little reveries is that when you surface things are apt to be disappointing. I came up now at Tower Hill and there wasn't a tower and there wasn't a hill. There isn't even any longer a Royal Mint ( which I always preferred to imagine as a very large chocolate wrapped in green foil) as it has been moved somewhere else and replaced with a building with lots of smoked glass. Much of what once stood in this noisy corner of London has been swept away and replaced with big buildings with lots of smoked glass. It was only eight years since I'd last been here , but were it not for the fixed reference points of London Bridge and the Tower I'd scarcly have recognized the neighbourhood.

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Last updated 08.07.2009
Burkhard Leuschner