Subterranean Homesick Blues

Coming back to the London Underground.

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

— Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky.

I confess: I am in love with the London Underground. There’s something about its echoing tunnels and topographical inaccuracy that draws me in.

Crowds of tourists fill the station, struggling to understand the ticket machines. I, who know the secret, smile and reach into my pocket for the amount of change I need, grab my ticket and go. I don’t mind so much that even this gesture makes me tourist, too — my lack of Oyster card declaring that I’m not a Londoner as efficiently as a sticker on my jacket would.

Inside, each station is different. Baker Street is, of course, a homage to Sherlock Holmes; his opium-piped silhouette is a repeated motif. Liverpool Street and Kings Cross St. Pancras, joined to mainline stations and connecting several lines, are sunken cathedrals to the deities of public transport (in Britain, these gods are hailed with cries of “Where the fuck’s my fucking train?“).

I like the small stations best. This weekend it’s Holloway Road. I have an unaccountable fear of descending lifts, so I take the stairs every time. They’re old and rickety, spiralling into the bowels of the earth. Down on the platforms it’s unendingly hot and dusty, and the wind from the trains blasts us all, strangers and friends alike (to me, it murmurs, “Welcome back, it’s been too long”). I love the wind; it slides beneath the skin of the earth, the strong and steady pulse of a city.

When a train arrives, it is always full. There are, however, varying degrees of fullness. It might just be that there are no seats left, or it might be 11 p.m. on a Saturday and if you’re lucky you can squeeze yourself into the personal space of other partygoers (who are inexplicably carrying half-consumed pints of lager), curving your neck and shoulders awkwardly to avoid being hit by the doors.

The Underground was apparently built by dwarfs, or at least people suffering from a Victorian vitamin deficiency (which was the result, no doubt, of their habit of boiling cabbage twice). I am not that tall — I barely scrape 5’8” in my bare feet — and yet if I put on a pair of two-inch heels, I can entertain my fellow passengers by inadvertently banging my head on the overhead bars.

I can’t fault the design of the trains. It’s the tunnels. The trains whisper past the walls, an inch away from whatever infrastructure holds the system in place. They are a perfect fit, hand to glove, but the tunnels are not made for early 21st century mankind.

On the ride (tonight we are heading to Leicester Square) I consider how the Underground has permeated the consciousness of the British. I have found it in songs, novels, silly games played on BBC Radio 4, even an oblique and passing reference in a fantasy book set in another universe. People might claim they hate it, but I don’t think they do — they are exercising their right to complain about something they love.

And me? Well, as I step into the cold outside air on shaking legs, out of the only place in London where nobody can get a phone signal (oh, the peace), I feel a rush of affection — no, love — not just for the Underground, but for the country I have left behind.

It’s time to go back.

Article © 2007 by Clare Jonas