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Blog : Posts tagged with 'London Underground'

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Symposium

In which DIY is the only way


It had been a while since I’d been to London. We stumbled out of bed early to get to the Zine Symposium, to give us time to get to the station and get the first London train of a Bank Holiday Sunday. The guard didn’t bother to unlock the whole train; he unlocked one door and stood by it, so he could manage the queuing passengers and let us wander along the inside to find our seats.

It didn’t take long to get there; none of the “Bank Holiday Travel Chaos!” that the media loves. We nipped across to the Underground platforms,* before trundling across town to Spitalfields, where the symposium was being held. Beforehand, we explored a bit of the area, from the fashionable and gentrified Old Spitalfields Market to the more traditional junk stalls at the north end of Brick Lane. We squeezed through the Sunday market crowds, as a couple of construction workers looked down on us from atop the bare concrete of the new railway bridge there.

The Zine Symposium was, when we found it, even more crowded than the market had been, a crowd of independent-minded people squeezing between stalls and studying what was on offer. We rather liked the sound of one of the symposium talks, on the problems of running zine libraries; unfortunately, it seemed to be the weekend for promising-but-disappointing discussions. There was little on the distinctive and problematic aspects of zine libraries, like archival, conservation or cataloguing; and it was dominated by a chap called Chris from the 56a Infoshop, who had originally been planning to talk about a different topic, and largely did just that. He started with an extremely narrow-minded and prescriptive view of “zine culture” and worked from there: zines must be radical, political and ephemeral, and therefore “institutions” such as public or university libraries** should be discouraged from collecting them. This is a slightly tricky position for the curator of a zine library to hold; I was left with the impression that he only approved of libraries that he could be in charge of.

On reflection, though, there was a strong link with the class hegemony of the previous day – a stronger link than “disappointment”, I mean. Chris Of 56A disapproves strongly of anybody making money from zines, of zine-writers becoming publishers, or trying to do anything resembling a career with it. Which, essentially, is an extremely aristocratic position.*** Writing is only socially acceptable, in radical/anarchist society, if you have enough time and money to be an amateur writer, because any other approach would be a betrayal of your assumed values. It’s an interesting complement to Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie‘s “who can afford to be an art worker?” approach.

More importantly, though, Chris’s view was completely contradicted by the rest of the symposium itself, a broad range of stalls from all corners of self-publishing. Serious tracts on politics and anarchy rubbed shoulders with silly cartoons; touching memoirs next to artists’ books and prints. Much, indeed, was not too dissimilar to things we’d seen at the Bristol Artists’ Book Event a month before. I avoided the Serious Political Zines but did go for the Serious Political Vegan Cake (Lemon & Ginger Variety), which was very tasty indeed, but did in one aspect leave me slightly worried. I’m not entirely sure what the Serious Political Vegans are going to think of us submitting a dairy-heavy cake recipe to the Symposium Zine.

Full of cake, and with rather less cash on us, we escaped from the throng of zine-fans. It was a very enjoyable event, despite the politicising; and hopefully next time we go back we’ll have things to sell ourselves. We disappeared away down Brick Lane, and went off to explore some more of London.

* of the former Bishop’s Road station, Underground fact lovers

** even somewhere like The Women’s Library, which I would have thought sufficiently radical, but which Chris specifically mentioned as being tainted by institutionality. I wondered if he had a specific gripe.

*** Compare with pre-revolutionary France, where it was perfectly acceptable for aristocrats to have craftsman-like hobbies. Louis XVI’s favourite hobby apart from hunting, for example, was locksmithing. If any aristocrats actually needed to make money from crafts or trade, though, they might suffer the penalty of dérogeance, or, being stripped of their title and status.

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Recent search requests

In which we wonder what people are searching for


More things, around the interwebs, that people have been looking for…

the deirdres are a rather good band from Derby – see here, and also here.
photo enlargement 99p – it does sound like a bit of a bargain rate. Unless, of course, you want to enlarge a photo of 99p, which is possible too.
unexplained black moods aren’t very nice, but if they’re that unexplained I’m not sure there’s very much you can do.
emo kids handcuffs – I have a lovely picture in my head, now, of emo kids handcuffed to street furniture in all their hang-outs – outside the art gallery in Exchange Square in Glasgow; outside the Corn Exchange* in Leeds, and so on. I wholeheartedly endorse this idea. Come on, people, together we can make it a reality.
triangle sidings are the London Underground sidings in South Kensington, in the basement of the Cromwell Road Sainsburys, where the air terminal used to be. More information, and photos, here.
chocolate coins left at doorstep – I don’t remember ever mentioning this, or anything of the sort. But if anyone does want to leave some chocolate coins on my doorstep, then, please, feel free to!
cara page journalist. Cara Page was, the last I heard, writing for the Daily Record. She’s infamous – at least in certain circles – for writing “exposés” about the sex lives of fairly boring and ordinary people, such as a charity shop worker from Peebles. None of it is “newsworthy” in any conventional sense of the word, but tabloid editors still strongly believe that a bit of Carry On-style tame muckiness sells papers. Sadly, that’s all I know about her. And that, I think, is probably enough search requests for now.

* Now there’s a name that’s always puzzled me a little. “Hello, my dear sir, I’d like to swap this corn, if you may. For … erm … some different corn?”

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Readers’ letters

In which the readers speak up and demand photos


Here at Symbolic Towers, we pay attention to our readers. If they send in tips, we pass them on. Mr E Shrdlu of Clacton writes…

The Plain People of the Internet: You say what? You had a letter? From a reader? Whose name is E Shrdlu? Honestly?

Me: Shush there. Be quiet and listen.

The Plain People of the Internet: If you say so. But don’t expect us to believe it.

… E Shrdlu of Clacton, who writes:

People who liked Friday’s post may be interested in…

The Plain People of the Internet: You mean, people who like long posts about the history of the London Underground? When posts like yesterday’s get a much better reader reaction? What are you thinking about?

Me: Come on there, stop interrupting. And since when have I been bothered about reader reaction, in any case?

The Plain People of the Internet: We’re only saying. Offering a tidbit ourselves, you could say.

… may be interested in the book London’s Secret Tubes by Emmerson and Beard, which goes into all that stuff. At book length.

The Plain People of the Internet: Now, we wouldn’t mind seeing photos of that beautiful Yorkshire scenery you were wittering on about. That “unutterable beauty” stuff.

Me: It was “unassuming beauty”. And I don’t have any – the car would have rolled down the hill. Carnage.

The Plain People of the Internet: My god, that’s terrible. The joke, we mean.

Me: If you’re so plural, shouldn’t that be “our god?”. The best I can do is photos of trains down in the mist-filled dale. And why shouldn’t there be real people called E Shrdlu, from Clacton?

The Plain People of the Internet: Flann O’Brien would sue, were he still alive.

Grosmont station Grosmont loco yard Inside Deviation shed, Grosmont Train passing Grosmont yard

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Express

In which we look at some underground history


Talking of search hits: recently, quite a few people have been searching for “secret tunnels under london” and finding this place. I’m not completely sure why, to be honest. I don’t know of any truly secret tunnels under London. I do know of a few lesser-known ones, though – the Tower Subway, for example, near City Hall; or the nearby remains of King William Street station.

It got me thinking, though, about Crossrail. It was in the news a lot a few weeks back, because the government finally decided to commit to building it; after fifteen years or so of back-and-forth dithering,* differing plans, and a very small part of it already built.** Just don’t mention the Chelsea-Hackney tube line, which has been on the planning books for even longer.

Crossrail is, essentially, to be an east-west express metro for London. It’s not the first express metro plan London’s had, though, and it’s not even the closest to completion. For that, you have to look at some more of the lesser-known tunnels under the city.

Back in the 1930s, the newly-created London Underground was in an expansionist mood, helped by government job-generation grants. It unified two separate routes to create the Northern Line; extended the Central Line westwards with help from the Great Western Railway; got the LMS Railway to give the District Line’s Southend trains separate tracks as far as Upminster; and planned to take over the LNER’s lines from Finsbury Park to High Barnet, Alexandra Palace and Edgware, and from Leytonstone to Hainault and Ongar, and extend the Central line eastwards from Liverpool Street to connect up with the latter. Those plans were well under construction in 1939, when, of course, building stopped.

Before the war started, it was well known that “air war” would be a major tactic. People had seen the effects of the Gernika raid*** a couple of years before, and there were widespread worries that the country was unprepared for air attack.**** So, in 1940, the government started to build mass air-raid shelters underneath existing Underground stations, with the plan being that they would be dual-use: after the war ended, they would become part of a new Express Northern Line beneath the existing one.

Several of the shelters were never used for their original purpose at all; those that did open, were not used until the V-weapon attacks towards the end of the war. Others were used to billet British troops, and for British government and American army offices. As for the express line that London Underground had been promised, it never did appear, and there was never even any serious attempt to build it. It seems more to have been a sweetener for London Underground, who at the start of the war were very reluctant to allow people to shelter in their stations rather than in the official ARP public shelters. Some of their worries were justified – in 1943, 104 adults and 69 children died in a crush accident at Bethnal Green; it remains the worst accident in London Underground’s history.***** It’s interesting to wonder what might have happened, though, if it had been built. London’s own RER, in the 1950s.

The tunnels are all still there, of course, underneath the active stations. The most visible is Stockwell – the brightly-painted structure north of the station, on the other side of the road, was the deep shelter’s entrance. Most are more anonymous, but all are still there, lying quiet underneath you. Secretly.

More on these shelters can be found at Subterranea Brittannica

* over several different governments, of course.

** a ventilation shaft to nowhere, near Moorgate.

*** Spelling pedants: that’s its official modern spelling.

**** See: Nevil Shute’s 1938 novel What Happened To The Corbetts. Shute was still a professional aircraft designer at the time, and his company had been asked to supply aircraft to the Abyssinians following the Italian invasion, so he was probably more aware than most of the threat that aerial bombing presented.

***** It’s a slight irony that the worst accident on London Underground was at an unopened station, on a line under construction – Bethnal Green is on the Central Line extension mentioned above.

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The labyrinthine depths

In which we think about secret tunnels and the literature surrounding them


There are plenty of stories in literature about the nameless horrors that lurk deep within the bowels of the London Underground. It’s popped up in TV, too – on both Quatermass and Doctor Who in the 1960s – and in film. In books, the first example that comes to the top of my head is a short story by Jeremy Dyson, but there are certainly many more. There are stories of secret tunnels and secret trains, lines disappearing into disused stations and abandoned passages.

Indeed, there are plenty of abandoned stations underneath London. There’s Down Street, for example, which was used as a set in Neverwhere.* There’s an entire disused railway, the Post Office Railway, running from Paddington to Whitechapel.** Not much is visible, though. The Post Office Railway was never open to the public, and disused parts of the Underground are generally very hard to see from passing trains. The occasional void, or brick wall, but that’s all.***

Paris, though. Paris is different. The Paris metro is full of secret passages. Every few hundred metres, there will be a mysterious junction. Lines will branch off into side tunnels, or delve between the other tracks, or disappear behind mysterious roller shutters in the tunnel walls. There are walkways and passageways, tracks that your train will never use, sidings deep under the city centre. In London the only place you’ll see trains parked underground is Triangle Sidings, between Earls Court and Gloucester Road; and that started out as an above-ground depot which disappeared under buildings in the 1960s. In Paris, there are trains parked all over the network, in single sidings, between stations. There’s so much to see if you look out of the window.

But does the Paris Metro have similar literature to the London Underground? Are there stories of monsters hiding in the Metro’s depths, or ghost trains rattling off down secret tracks, or secret government laboratories behind the roller-shuttered sidings? London has the literature, but Paris has the labyrinth visible from the train window.

* The “Down Street” in Neverwhere isn’t the real Down Street – but the real Down Street was also used for filming. If you’ve seen it: the dinner with Serpentine was shot on the remains of its station platforms, during normal service, with trains passing in the background.

** Which was also used as a filming location for Neverwhere, and also crops up in the dire Bruce Willis comedy Hudson Hawk.

*** During the war most of the disused stations were converted into government offices – including the platforms, several of which had the platforms removed and brick walls built to partition the usable space off from the running lines. So if you’re deep under London and suddenly see a brick wall by your carriage window for a few seconds, it’s probably a disused station.

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The Diagram

In which we study some design history


I’ve recently been reading a book about design history, about the design of an icon. Mr Beck’s Underground Map, by Ken Garland. It is, as you might imagine, about the London Underground Map, concentrating on the period from the 1930s to the 1950s when it was designed by Harry Beck. In many ways it’s a sad story – Beck, throughout his life, felt that he had paternalistic rights over his map;* London Transport disagreed, treating the map as its own property. Which, of course, it was. In the 1960s, when London Transport turned to alternative designers, he became obsessed with producing his own versions, in the hope that London Transport would take his design up again.

Nowadays, Beck is always remembered as the map’s creator; his map was the first in Britain to abstract the network and present it topologically. The modern map, though, isn’t really based on his. It’s based on one of its 1960s successors, by Paul Garbutt; it was Garbutt’s first design that settled on black-and-white interchange symbols, and the modern proportions of the lines.

Design archaeology is hard, sometimes. There aren’t any old underground maps on display at stations, because they’re all outdated. Sometimes, though, you can spot things still lurking from days past. Some of the Phase One Victoria Line stations still have signs unchanged since they opened, in the days of the first Garbutt map. The northbound platform at Green Park, for example, has what looks like an original line diagram on the wall: it has a dotted-circle for National Rail interchanges, a characteristic of that time;** and Highbury and Islington is shown as a Northern Line interchange. It’s interesting to see. There aren’t any Beck-era signs anywhere on the underground, as far as I know, which is something of a shame; but it’s good that there are still examples of old designs surviving. It’s good to have history around us.

* or “The Diagram” as the book calls it throughout.

** The modern double-arrow “main line railway” symbol was introduced in 1964, off the top of my head, but didn’t become widespread for a few years

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A subtle shift in gravity

In which we visit London


Or, photo-post of the week.

I had to go out shopping for new trainers on Sunday. I took the camera along too, though, which meant I went on a bit of a detour.

Arnos Grove station North Woolwich ferry terminal Clouds over London Fire Exit

I like the third one best – the thumbnail doesn’t do it justice.

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Wander

In which we walk from Islington to Bankside


I walked around London a lot last week. Wednesday, for example.

I started in Islington, along the canal, and wandered downwards. Past the remains of City Road underground station, through Clerkenwell and Farringdon to Smithfield, along Charterhouse Street and Grand Avenue. I walked under the restored Temple Bar to St Pauls. Then across the Millennium Bridge.

Some sort of film shoot was going on on the Millennium Bridge. A Bollywood movie, maybe, or a dance video. I lurked about with my camera, trying to work out what was going on.

Canal near Islington City Road station Grand Avenue, Smithfield Temple Bar St Pauls Millennium Bridge Millennium Bridge Tate Modern

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Suspicious

In which we discuss how to get arrested


In today’s Guardian, an interesting article with a firsthand experience of being arrested as a terrorist suspect, for trying to catch a tube train whilst carrying a rucksack and wearing a big jacket. And, interestingly, it includes a list of things that the police are looking out for that mark you down as a potential terrorist.

They’re all very mild, innocuous things that anybody might do – looking at other passengers on the platform, not looking at policemen guarding the station, appearing to enter the station with a group of people. What amazed me even more, though, was that suspicious behaviour includes keeping your luggage with you at all times. Given that, if you travel anywhere in Britain by train, you’re constantly being told to do this – because if you don’t, stations get evacuated and trains stopped for hours – it was quite surprising to hear that doing it is a good sign that you might be a terrorist. You have to ask just how many people don’t look like terrorists to your average police observer.

Update, September 24th: more about this story on Going Underground and on Slashdot.

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