JOURNEYS ON THE LONDON UNDERGROUND
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FERNANDO SDRIGOTTI
The London Underground is your chance to exist completely in a peace of your own design.
The gates open and you are swept into the depths. Rarely alone and most likely in a rush, rushed you will be, from A to B, in X minutes. It generally turns out fine. Except on weekends, when the London Underground — a.k.a. the Tube — is prone to pangs of unpredictability, in the guise of engineering works, that can leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere. These are the occasions when you realise the logistic feat that this public transport system is. An eternal bus journey across indecently vast London will make sure you do.
Perhaps because I don’t take the Tube too often I cherish every journey below ground level. I travel and observe and reject the refuge of books or music. In, this vivisection of London you can witness the worst and the best of this city. Long miserable faces dreading the daily commute. Heavily pregnant women standing in the middle of the carriage while those seated around them make love to their phones. The broken and the about to be broken and the breakers. The despisers and the despised and the uncaring and the creepy. But also random acts of kindness. Someone helping someone carry a suitcase up the stairs. Lovers (still in love and untainted by mortgages) sharing a morning commute to work after the night before in bed. A fellow traveler, a stranger, illicitly holding the train’s doors open for you to hop on. A friendly hand extending a napkin to someone in tears. I have seen them all, have done them all.
Alone in the multitude pressed sardine-like against you — here is your chance to exist completely in a peace of your own design. Ignored. Anonymous. In silence.
The Underground extends over 402 kilometres of tracks, is entered via 270 stations, and is used by more than 1 billion commuters every year. It dates back to 1863, when steam-powered trains started to circulate from Paddington to Farringdon, under the name of Metropolitan Railway. The need to connect other parts of the city became evident from an early moment, and soon the Tube began to stretch its tentacles. It is hard today to imagine this smokey Victorian underworld. But this was the everyday of the Tube until electric engines started to be set in motion towards the end go the 19th century.
Some of the stations currently in use date back to these seminal moments, their antique façades contrasting with modern London. Many new stations have been born since and many continue to sprout as the city expands.
Other stations have closed. Of these some have been demolished or turned into commercial real estate. Others remain frozen in time – rat-infested ghost stations visible from the road and potentially from the trains; generally unnoticed by passengers or experienced solely as a change of pressure in the air, when the train approaches their empty platforms.
The Tube forms a big part not only of our day to day but also of London’s unconscious. A dark place where a wealth of major and minor events remains buried, occasionally resurfacing. Sometimes they don’t resurface at all in conscious form. But nevertheless they haunt us from the depths.
I think of WWII, when many Londoners escaped the nazi bombs by spending the night on the platforms and tunnels. And I think of the many who went underground to die. Bounds Green. Balham. Bank. Bethnal Green. Direct hits, crushes, subterranean death coherent with the death above.
I think of King’s Cross station in 1987, when a fire took the lives of 31 people.
I think of July 7, 2005, when dozens were butchered in a brainless terrorist attack.
I also think of the suicides — more than 50 a year. The unremembered and unrecorded, sometimes even unannounced or barely uttered: deaths delivered as euphemisms through crackling speakers — messages impossible to decode by passengers in any case unwilling to listen.
Perhaps because I don’t take the Tube too often I cherish every journey below ground level. I travel and observe and reject the refuge of books or music.
In late 2016, someone tried to violate one of our most sacred unspoken agreements: a clearly confused man commissioned badges inviting people to a “#tube_chat”; he then distributed these badges in some stations. According to his plan those wearing the badges would in this way signal their willingness to talk to strangers.
Anyone who has been in London long enough to witness the cringe-worthy spectacle of an extra-muros attempting to strike up a conversation on public transport could tell you that this was bound to fail. The backlash was huge and cruel and with reason.
Part of London’s allure is how easy it is to get lost in this city, how easy it is to be anonymous, to be able to exist unbothered. “One who knows how to live alone has nothing to fear from the dullness of London,” wrote Alexander Herzen, a Russian exile, in 1852. He couldn’t have had the Tube in mind, but it is precisely this opportunity to be alone in the multitude that makes this city unique.
And nowhere else can this be better experienced than in a promiscuous Tube carriage. Alone in the multitude pressed sardine-like against you — here is your chance to exist completely in a peace of your own design. Ignored. Anonymous. In silence. Until someone extends you that napkin and you can wipe your tears away.