20,000 Frenchmen under the sea : BOOKS

CHANNEL TUNNEL VISIONS, 1850-1945: Dreams and Nightmares by Keith Wilson, Hambledon Press £14.95
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The Independent Culture
NOT SO long ago, the idea of a Channel Tunnel seemed a joke of Flat Earth Society proportions. It had been cast as a perpetual no-hoper even since 1802, when an engineer first suggested a Continental link - with an artificial island in mid-Channel where the stage-coaches could change their horses.

The archives of the Channel Tunnel Association are full of schemes for submersible tubes which could be towed away in times of war; for vast bridges, either fixed to the bottom or bobbing about on pontoons; and for enormous tea-trolleys that would trundle across the sea-bed holding passenger trains high above the waves. The most arrogant of the technological dreamers was Thom de Gamond, who wanted to block the Dover straits entirely, apart from three movable bridges for shipping; he tried to check out the seabed without a diving-suit but was savaged by conger-eels and ended up, impoverished by his harebrained schemes, kept alive by the earnings from piano lessons given by his daughter.

These wheezes, in the words of a subterranean his-torian, "never got under the ground". Nor, until the 1980s, did the much more sober idea of a tunnel under the seabed. This was initially kept at bay by fear of invasion by French troops. But wouldn't they be noticed as they poured in by the trainload? No, they would pull down the blinds. During WWII it was the Germans who might be burrowing towards us, and men were sent to listen near Dover for sounds of furtive excavations.

So after nearly two centuries, all the Channel Tunnel Association had to show for itself was 50 boxes of yellowing archives, stored underground in Churchill College, Cambridge alongside 600 containers full of the jottings of Lord Hailsham and other source materials guaranteed to cure insomnia.

As the 1993 Heath cartoon in The Independent put it, "We apologise for the late arrival of this Tunnel..." Keith Wilson, who reproduces this as the first illustration in his book, has ploughed through the political and bureaucratic infighting which caused the delay to an engineering project which could technically have been undertaken more than a century ago.

"There was, after all, no difference in principle between the seven-mile Severn Tunnel of the 1880s and one three times that length," he explains. The cash could have been raised by Rothschilds and others. The press was mostly in favour; "Charing Cross to Baghdad" was the title of an enthusiastic Daily Chronicle special supplement in 1917. And on several occasions a Parliamentary majority seemed likely.

Winston Churchill had nailed his colours to this particular mast as early as 1913. An illustration to one of his minutes, admittedly drawn on a day when he had left his artistic skills at home, shows what he had in mind: the sea, the Tunnel and, for some reason, a lighthouse in the middle of the Channel. But another piece of artwork in the book shows that cold water was being poured all over the project even before it had been put forward. An 1801 English print depicts Napoleon's troops invading us in a three-layered attack. Balloons, which seem to be floating against the wind, fill the air; boats pack the sea; and underneath footsoldiers and cavalry storm through a "secret tunnel".

Even civilians should be kept away from our shores, explained the Earl of Crawford to a 1930 parliamentary committee: "This Spring there were four plays in Paris dealing with incest." Germans were homosexuals and Jews were gamblers. "I am a xenophobe," he informed those who hadn't noticed.

A more realistic objection to the scheme was that British railways would look rather silly when compared with the superb French system, a problem which is still with us. Few objected on environmental grounds; could no one have predicted the abysmal sidings that litter the Downs behind Folkestone?

Channel Tunnel Visions is rich in source material of the bureaucracy that kept the concept at bay. Unfortunately it is written rather like an appendix to a more interesting work. There's boring through the earth - and there's the other sort of boring. The great sub- terranean monster is still waiting for its A Alvarez or J G Ballard, to bring out the full flavour of its 20-mile theme. We apologise for the delay.