Tunnel vision

Illustrator Julian Page bought a season ticket to study the passengers on the London tube. Here, he tells us about the characters he found underground. But first, Geoff Ryman introduces this intimate, neon-lit world
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Indy Lifestyle Online
he tube is a private place. People on the tube examine their hair for split ends. They write letters of condolence. They twist themselves up like they are watching TV at home. Perhaps it's something to do with the blank, dark windows. There's nothing to look at except a book or your inner thoughts. Tubes are like cinemas before the lights go out; you are ready to withdraw into self-forgetfulness.

Buses are not private. Outside are shop fronts, beautiful women, the Channel 4 building. Buses require attention. You keep an eye on where you are and have to signal the bus to stop.

The tube is kinder to tourists and immigrants. Italian schoolchildren or Danish couples in matching shorts consult that famous map and are reasonably certain where they are. You can meet Turks, Somalis, Mongolian table-tennis coaches and South African actors.

The tube makes demographics plain. There are more women than men, until after Lambeth North, and you can see tall people hitting their heads, and short people sitting on tiptoe because the seats are too high. The tube shows how designers forgot human variety. People show their public and private faces at the same time. A woman in a grey suit wants you to see someone in control. But she stares ahead puffy-eyed, turning an earring around in her ear.

Everyone is doing something, going somewhere. What you think you see, and how that makes you feel, is another reverie. You people-watch alone, in privacy, in public.

Geoff Ryman is the author of `253' (Flamingo, pounds 6.99), a novel about the underground

Writing a letter

Date: October 1998

Place: Central Line

"This is such an intimate picture; as well as the woman engrossed in writing, you've got that other person asleep in the background. I like the way you can look through the windows, carriage to carriage - you can visually eavesdrop on other people and you almost feel like they're in their living room asleep, but they're not, they're in a public space. Some people don't just jump on and off the tube, and with this one I ended up at Mile End.

I'm fascinated by people, but I'm also interested in the underground itself and its designs. For example, each line even has its own textile design on the chairs - it's a really aesthetic space.

If I see someone I think is interesting, I might follow them into their compartment. There's nothing judgmental about my work, I'm just people- watching."

Rush-hour crush

Date: February 1999

Place: Victoria Line

"People rarely speak to each other on the tube, it's that British thing of keeping ourselves to ourselves. But during rush hour, we're all suddenly thrown together. In this picture I was trying to exploit space. By making bodies transparent and relying on the lines to hold their shape, you can show what's behind them. But I've also contrasted that with the idea of being in a crowd and being blocked in. There's the feeling that you're really close to all these other people, but you've still got your space."

Four in a row

Date: January 1999 Place: Northern Line "I had to do this one in sections. I drew each person individually and then joined them up. I was attracted to this group by the woman on the left. I liked her clothes, she was very small. I wanted to catch the way her feet were resting - heightening the fact that she's short. I was also interested by the man next to her. He seemed a typically hard south London character and yet he was engrossed in a novel. I spent about two stops drawing each person. People can move really suddenly, so you've got this constant tension and excitement of trying to draw them before they get off. Sometimes, I might spend half a day on the tube. You tend to feel a bit punch drunk by the end. It can be disheartening if you see someone and you're inspired to draw them, then they suddenly get off and you've only drawn their shoe, or their nose."


Date: August 1998 Place: District Line"This is one of the few sketches I've made in the summer. I work mostly in the winter. It's easier to draw then because it's always pleasantly warm on the tube; in the summer it can become unbearably humid and hot. This is on the District Line, which is quite a fashionable line because it goes through west London; the characters in this picture were going to Notting Hill. I have tried to keep the energy of my original rough sketches in these final works. These are not supposed to be perfect things, they are just fleeting moments."


Date: March 1999 Place: Central Line "This was totally spontaneous, which is the best way. I'd just been away andI got back into town at about nine o'clock, during London Fashion Week. It was a Saturday and I ended up drawing all night. I was absolutely knackered as I'd been travelling all day, but I was inspired by all the characters on the tube and the atmosphere, which was buzzing. I felt that this woman [centre back] may have been a fashion editor, she looked the part and had a good dress sense, and then this guy at the front looked amazing, very confident and suave - like a film star - with a long herringbone coat on. As for the Chinese woman, she just looked so frail, and on the Central Line you've got these seats that are set back, which emphasised the fact that she was nestled down. There were amazing clothes on display that night. The bloke next to her had a jacket with zips all over it - almost like bondage." n