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. Next in the series is David McGroarty, author of the story Stratford International, who points to the strange parallel world of the London railways that you might be forgiven for never even noticing . . .
The Gibson Square Vent
by David McGroarty
If you ever visit Gibson Square in Islington, you will see a cute little neoclassical structure in the centre of the north lawn. For a while last year I would take my two sons through the square on our way to school and nursery. I didn’t pay much attention to the building until my eldest tugged my arm one day and asked if he could go inside it to see the butterflies. I had been thinking it was a particularly ornate toolshed, and I told him so. “What are those?” he asked me. The roof of the building is a mesh dome, like you might see on an aviary. What had taken my son’s interest were the small, dark fluttery shapes clinging to the wire. But they weren’t butterflies.
The stretch of the Victoria line that runs between Highbury & Islington and Kings Cross station is unusually long, and runs directly beneath the residential areas of Pentonville and Barnsbury. The ventilation shaft at Gibson Square was intended to be a more utilitarian affair, but the local gentry formed a pressure group and petitioned the London Transport Board to produce something more in keeping with the area. The folly – not a butterfly house – was designed by Quinlan Terry in the style of a Greek temple.
The Victoria line is a mighty piece of railway. The most intensively-used rail service in the UK, it carries more than 30 trains per hour at peak times – and 200 million passengers per year. It connects three major mainline terminals and the commercial centre of London’s West End. And it is almost entirely invisible. Standing among the town houses of Barnsbury, the swanky offices of Fitzrovia, or the tall trees of Green Park, you tend to forget it’s right under your feet. This is true of London’s public transportation system more generally. It is a marvel: a vast, intricate people-moving machine which keeps itself largely hidden from view until it is needed. It exists almost as a parallel city, one with an entirely transient population, that weaves itself in and out of the one in which people live and work.
Those dark, fluttery shapes caught in the mesh roof of the building that isn’t a butterfly house in Gibson Square… from time to time one shakes itself free and lands nearby on the lawn. They are pieces of newspaper and leaflets and crisp bags, torn, shredded and black with soot. I imagine that these artefacts have escaped through this hidden fissure between the two places and have been somehow unable to survive the transition.
If you find yourself in London, it’s worth staying attuned to these parallel cities and the places where they intersect. I once stood waiting for a District Line train, convinced I was underground until flakes of snow began to drift from somewhere above onto the platform. The two worlds leak into each another in surprising ways.
Find David McGroarty at www.davidmcgroarty.net