In the hectic time leading up to the publication of Rustblind and Silverbright, our anthology of railway-themed slipstream and horror, I have invited short blog contributions from the authors included in that book, which I will be publishing at irregular intervals over the next month or two. This time, R D Hodkinson addresses a tender elegy to a London icon . . .
The Underground Diaries
By R D Hodkinson
There is a reworking of the London Underground map in which the names of all the stations have been replaced by those of cultural luminaries drawn from the arts, from sport, science, religion and any other area of human endeavour the artist found fit. My local station is Steve Martin, as in: incidents of knife crime have reached unprecedented levels in and around Steve Martin this year.
The name of Simon Patterson’s whimsical work is The Great Bear, which suggests the tube network re-imagined as a great, grotty constellation, plucked from the heavens and shoved underground, presumably as some Olympian punishment for failing to maintain the escalators at Swiss Cottage, or repeated signal failure at Theydon Bois.
But to those of us who have spent much, or most, or all of our lives in the capital, the tube map is also a memento mori to a galaxy of personal experiences now dead and gone: catastrophic regurgitation of kebab at Putney Bridge, catastrophic romantic tryst at Finsbury Park, catastrophic business meeting-cum-full-blown fist fight at Ravenscourt Park, homes – some more catastrophic than others – at Richmond, Hounslow East, Barons Court, Highbury & Islington, Leicester Square, Highbury & Islington again, Dalston Junction and, now, Steve Martin. (In defence of the author, the business meeting that went to twelve rounds at the York Hall was a one off, and the unscheduled reappearance of meat products, while less rare, was at least restricted to my younger years. As for any catastrophic trysts, like most men I can offer no reasonable excuse.)
After three decades of riding the rails there is barely an inch of tube map I can look at without becoming misty-eyed or wistful or furious or wracked with shame. It is the same for every Londoner, each projecting his or her personal cartography of experience onto that famously clean schematic, the only map that makes sense of the capital’s chaotic layout. It’s all there: Hopes (both thwarted and realised), triumphs (real and imagined) births, marriages and deaths ineradicably stamped on each traveller’s psycho-geographic version of the map, an impression made stronger by one’s actual proximity to death while travelling underground. Press your hand against the tiled tunnel walls of the deep bore Central, Piccadilly, Victoria or Northern lines and how far can you be from the remains of a dead Roman or a former Tudor-bethan? Or a blitz victim awaiting rediscovery by a man with a hard hat and a JCB? The clay above the stations holds a great communion of the London dead, a silent counterpart to the crude, noisome, self-interested crowd above, though every now and again one of that number will peel away and join the ranks of ex-Londoners by buying a ticket for the tube and opting for death by Circle Line, the second most selfish method of suicide yet devised (number one being Sylvia Plath gassing herself with her children still in the house, silly cow.) Do not be tempted to end it all under the wheels of a rush hour train: no one will weep for you and your terminal moment will be tormented by images of irate commuters picketing your funeral because by the time they got home Tesco’s was shut and Masterchef had finished.
I have never kept a diary and I will never need to. The only aide-mémoire I shall ever need can be picked up for free from any tube station and folded to fit a wallet: a map not of a great city’s metro system, but of my entire adult life. Even the bits I would pay good money to forget.