PsychoGeography #70: Going underground

The tube can be as packed as a sardine can, or as empty as the Gobi Desert

I REMEMBER having a violent row with my late mother about the washing up and running all the way from our semi-detached house in the Hampstead Garden Suburb to East Finchley tube station. I got on the next southbound train, not caring whether it was heading for the Bank or Charing Cross. I had no intention of travelling that far - I sought only the warmth and succour of the tunnels, the comforting musty reek of the old red check upholstery, the impersonal bustle of humanity in transit.

Anyway, I was sitting there, in the tube carriage, fixated as ever by the way the two panels of the window elongated the dark reflection of my head, when I became aware that the woman opposite me was a friend of my mother's. Far from escaping the fount of my adolescent torment - I had instead rushed to a rendezvous with it. Worse, as this middle-aged woman began to speak to me - an unpardonable underground solecism - I became conscious for the first time since slamming the front door that I wasn't wearing any shoes; damp socks sagged from my sore feet.

The only explanation I can give for why I was oblivious of my shoelessness, is that the tube was the most inside place I knew, more interior by far than my family home. Growing up in north London, and travelling eight stops to school from the age of seven, I had come to consciousness in these deep tunnels. In winter especially, it seemed to me that we Londoners inhabited a series of dimly lit burrows connected by subterranean passageways, and that far from being creatures of the open air, we were some species of bipedal mole.

I loved the tube - it made me feel secure. I loved its strange nether winds, which would blow up out of nowhere, reeking of viruses, oatmeal and antediluvian halitosis. I loved its immemorial air, for this modern mass transit system was already over a century old - and showed it. The sepia tiles of the stations and the soot-blackened walls of the tunnels were like archaeologists' trenches revealing the impedimenta of earlier ages: festoons of defunct cabling, intestinal u-bends of duct, enigmatic mechanisms made from grey metal and Bakelite. Rather than rip out the abandoned technologies, each succeeding generation of troglodytes had only added to them, until the 85 subterranean miles were like the hole Alice plunged down to reach Wonderland.

In the 1970s before the horrendous King's Cross fire (which I missed by five minutes, on my way to a kick-boxing lesson), you could smoke on the Underground. You could smoke and you could eat chocolate from vending machines. You could ride the Circle Line all day for 30p, attitudinising and writing extensive notes on your adolescent torment. The tube wasn't so much a means of getting from A to B as the very subconscious of the city itself, a pays-bas into which, like Dante, one could plunge in search of souls in limbo. The tube can be as packed as a sardine can or as empty as the Gobi Desert, it can be both sinister and comforting, maddening and easeful.

I once found myself the worse for wear lurching through the Metropolitan Line ticket hall at Baker Street. I knew I was going to puke - the only question was where. Then I spotted one of those curious doors that you see all over the tube: solid brown wood with a little oblong hole at knee level. I fell to my knees, stuck my head through this hatch and vomited copiously. Then I straightened up, brushed myself down and proceeded on my wendy way. Do I feel guilty about this now? No, only pathetically grateful.

As I grew older I sampled the Parisian Metro and the New York subway. I took elevators down into the basements of Toronto and Naples, Sao Paolo and Sydney. Wherever I alighted in the world, if the opportunity arose, I felt it incumbent upon me to get down, but nowhere did I encounter the grandeur of the tube. True, I haven't experienced the marble halls of the St Petersburg metro; yet I'm sure that were I ever to visit Russia, I'd skip the Hermitage and head straight for the ticket office.

Now, exiled to south London, I seldom ride the tube. We only have a few stops down here anyway, for this is an overground realm of coaches clacking over weeping viaducts and the endless, parched veldt of suburbia. Do I miss it? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it's a part of me; I shall forever be that shoeless Joe on the Northern Line. But no, because as a man grows older he seeks to avoid catacombs of any kind, even if they're connected by train lines. E

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