Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Myetro meets the Underground

This passage from a long article by James Meek in the LRB about the London Underground curiously echoes some of the themes of Three Men. Or perhaps it's not so curious, as James and I were at school together in Broughty Ferry - maybe, in some subterranean manner, this gave us overlapping imaginative interests. Occasionally. Perhaps. Whichever, I trust this taster will send you to the LRB for the whole article - it's brilliantly written and researched, and highly recommended.

"One winter in the early 1990s I took an overnight train from Georgia to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. There were no planes: Armenia was at war with its neighbour Azerbaijan, and under blockade. Snow came through the ill-fitting windows of the sleeper as it trundled between steep little peaks. When we arrived in Yerevan the next morning it was still dark: the moon had set, and the city, starved of electricity, was blacked out. Only sparse dabs of kerosene light and the occasional brace of headlights showed a city was there at all.

Robert, an Armenian PE teacher who had befriended me in the coupĂ©, took me through the frosty murk of Yerevan’s central station and into a doorway. In an instant there was light, power, a swift transaction involving tokens, a set of escalators, and at their foot, the familiar declining whine of a clean, brightly lit underground train. We got in; the carriage was full of neatly dressed Armenians who were, in spite of everything, going somewhere – commuting. We travelled two stops, to the centre of town. I experienced the disorientating sense that the entire urban planet was connected by a single network of underground railways, functioning as a dependable back-up world rumbling away below, eternal and unchanging, whatever chaos reigned on the surface. Then we got out and climbed to the street, where there was still no power. Robert took me by the arm in the pitch darkness and led me, like a blind man, to a hotel.

Like all Soviet-era metro systems – most big cities had them – Yerevan’s is patterned on the one in Moscow, which owes much, in turn, to the London Underground. Frank Pick, one of the guiding geniuses of the glory days of the Tube between the wars, was given a medal by Stalin in 1932 (although he did not, as Wolmar romantically suggests, meet the dictator in person). When work began on the Moscow metro in 1931, it was with the possibility of
cities being attacked from the air, and of citizens finding not merely shelter underground but a whole lit-up, powered, alternative, subterranean city, invulnerable to bombs. The use of the London Underground as an air-raid shelter in the Second World War has become part of Britons’ mental slide show of the Blitz. Although few Londoners used it – 4 per cent, Wolmar reckons – some slept on Tube station platforms every night for three years, nourished by tea and buns delivered in refreshment trains, which each evening hauled tons of food around the network.

It was still earlier that London’s Underground turned from being a mere means of transport into a skeleton city-in-reserve beneath the earth’s skin. Londoners began to seek shelter in the Tube in earnest after the Zeppelin raids in 1915, and after 1917, when German bombers struck heavily, citizens poured into the 86 stations which the Underground, then privately owned, made available. At one point in 1918 some 300,000 Londoners took shelter there, when there was supposed to be room for only 250,000. During the First World War, passenger numbers on the Underground went up by two-thirds. From 1914, Tube advertising played to people’s fears. ‘It is bomb proof down below,’ one ad read. ‘Underground for safety; plenty of bright trains, business as usual.’ Another read like a sinister piece of verse:

Never mind the dark and dangerous streets
It is warm and bright
Be comfortable in well-lit trains and read the latest war news.

Two decades earlier, there had been a different attitude towards the world of the Underground. In The Time Machine (1895), H.G. Wells portrayed the beautiful, degenerate, soft-headed heirs of the aristocracy frolicking in the sunlight, prey, on dark nights, to the cannibalistic attentions of an underground-dwelling industrial proletariat. ‘There is a tendency to utilise underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilisation; there is the Metropolitan Railway in London, for instance,’ Wells’s narrator says. ‘In the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour.’"