John Walsh: Tales of the City

'The concept of the UnderCity won't catch on in Britain. We get scared in the basement of Harvey Nicks'
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The Independent Online

The Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, has announced a crazily ambitious plan to dig out 80 per cent of the land underneath Moscow's streets and squares and start building a second city beneath the existing one. The expansionist capitalist dogs now in charge of the Russian metropolis have earmarked 25 zones where they want to build huge subterranean shopping centres, sporting halls, concert venues, omniplexes, museums, even roads and pavements. They'll start digging up the first three million square metres next year.

There's something terribly futuristic about the plan, but something strangely bourgeois and cosy too. It reminds me of my friend Henry's decision to extend his home in Putney, not by the traditional route of patio, conservatory and loft conversion, but by digging into the bowels of the house and creating a basement with music studio, movie parlour, teenage chill-out region and (what the hell) nuclear shelter. The only drawback is that, because none of the rooms has a window, his guests seldom feel like hanging around for long.

Another pal, in Chiswick, proudly demonstrated his new wine cellar last week; it's a hole in the kitchen floor which takes you, via a narrow spiral staircase, down to where 24 bottles of Wolf Blass Grenache are slotted into the subsoil. The only problem is the screaming claustrophobia that overcomes you when you're descending into this cylindrical coffin. An Englishman's home is his castle, they say. These days, it seems, the Englishman is starting to embrace the idea of the upmarket dungeon.

But back to Yuri. It's not just Moscow, of course; underground cities are springing up all over the place. Half a million people hang out every day in Montreal's massive and flourishing ville souterrain; you can pop into a ball game underground - hell, you can attend university underground. Hong Kong's got a network of basement malls that connect up whole districts. Japan's got five under-megalopolises. Cappadocia has lots of underground cities, which were once hiding-places for early Christians. Singapore has an underground pedestrian network that stretches across the entire downtown. Geneva's got under-malls, so has New Delhi.

And Britain? Would we enjoy life in an urban underworld along the lines of Moscow? Would we happily live and work in a 150-watt Unterwelt of halls and omniplexes, paying the above-ground world a leisure visit only at weekends? Oh, come on. OK, London has Canary Wharf, with its throng of suited shoppers ambling through the underground chrome and steel corridors, but it's hardly a city, is it? It's a lunchtime retail opportunity. It's an Emergency Mother's Day Gift Solution.

There's something not very British about the concept of the UnderCity. I've been in the basements of enough department stores (Peter Jones, Liberty, Harvey Nicks) to register the look of pasty concern on the faces of hardened shoppers at being just one floor below street level. I've endured the pedestrian walkway under the Thames at Greenwich, and noted the sweat-beaded foreheads of fellow walkers as they see the condensation above and think the river's about to engulf them. Going down the escalator into Holborn Tube is as much as the average Londoner can stand. It was all very well for Dostoevsky to invent a revolting existentialist anti-hero living on the margins of society and call the book Notes from Underground. The closest we come to these dark regions are the steps down to Gerry's drinking club in the agreeable Hades of Soho.


The people who compile the excellent Lonely Planet travel guides have just launched a festival (at Greenwich, Exeter, York, Edinburgh and Brixton) of films that show off foreign countries or cities to good effect and might inspire people to visit them. The organisers were on Radio 4's Today yesterday, explaining how viewings of The Sound of Music in the 1960s sent millions of sentimental visitors to check out the Tyrol (while mentally promising themselves that, should they actually meet that weirdly creepy septet of children, they'd belabour them with an alpenstock).

Lonely Planet is kicking off the festival with The Italian Job (the original) so that viewers will feel drawn to visit Turin, presumably because of its endearingly chaotic traffic system and its attractive drains. They're screening Amélie, the French movie about the do-gooding moppet with the Betty Boop hairstyle, in the hope that viewers will flock to Montparnasse, convinced that the entire district is painted green (with occasional red bits). They're showing Almodovar's Volver, starring Penelope Cruz, which will doubtless have patrons flocking to La Mancha this summer in the hope of meeting the region's glamorous but homicidal cleaning ladies.

Which films will they choose next? Hundreds of movies sensitively evoke foreign destinations, but they can't be confused with tourism commercials. Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now reeks of the darkness and oddness of Venice but won't "inspire travel", unless it's in people keen on empty hotels, sinister cops, mad clairvoyant sisters and bodies being fished out of the Grand Canal. The Deer Hunter is a powerful work, no question, but it was never going to put either Pittsburgh (mines, smoke and beefy men shouting "fuckin' A!" at each other) or the backstreets of Saigon (hysterical Vietnamese gambling on Russian roulette) at the top of a tourist itinerary.

And London? Will travellers feel more disposed to visit the place after seeing David Lean's Oliver Twist (cobblestones, East End taverns, boy thieves' slum) or Richard Curtis's Love Actually (cobblestoned mews, East End galleries, excruciatingly cute schools)? They're in for a shock, either way.