When I was a kid living in Brighton, we came to London only on rare visits, perhaps a day out to visit a museum or just to change trains en route to a holiday destination. To my child’s eyes, London was a bustling exciting place, larger than life, deep and mysterious.
The occasional visitor to London has difficulty finding his way around and my mother and I, like two timorous wood-dwelling creatures forced into the open, scuttled nervously around the tube system to find our station. I was fascinated by the Underground and still am. As we usually travelled in the middle of a train I had no idea what made the doors open and close and thought it must be some automatic system. Later, when I discovered that there was a guard at the back of the train who pressed buttons to control the doors, I was even more enchanted.
I never dreamed that I would one day live in London but it came about nonetheless. Coming for job interview and looking for somewhere to live while still living and working somewhere else was difficult and, of course, on my forays to London, I used the tube both because of its speed and the ease of finding your way around. Once set up in London, I continued to use the tube to go to work and travel about the city.
If you think that this familiarity bred contempt, you would be wrong. My childhood fascination grew and developed into an affection that I still have. Like other regular users of the tube, I moan about late running, gaps in the service, cancellations owing to “scheduled engineering works”, trains suddenly terminating short of their destination and so on but to me, these are like tiffs with a loved one: it is soon forgotten and everything is fine again.
I never understood buses and always avoided them but under Tigger’s expert tutelage I have come to know them better and to recognize that they are a fine way to explore London. But I still love the tube with its mysterious rabbit warren of tunnels, its sudden open sections, its slow meander through mysterious underground caverns, its creaking grinding curves and bounding, bouncing straight sections.
Some my acquaintance avoid the tube. They speak of claustrophobia, of being trapped with nasty people, of the noise, of the dirt, of the smell and so on and so forth. I recognize that these is something in their claims, perhaps as the hardened smoker recognizes the health dangers of tobacco but goes on smoking nonetheless. Similarly I go on travelling by tube and enjoying the sensations and the quaint old fashioned architecture and furnishings of the stations.
The Underground is changing like everything else. We have to accept that with good grace. Some changes are beneficial, such as the refurbishment of line and signalling that is necessary despite the inconvenience to users. Some are less so. I liked the old suburban trains with their feel of an Art Deco sitting room. The modern trains may be safer and more efficient (though I wonder) but they have no style. Self-consciously “modern”, they are as dull as ditchwater. They look as if they have been designed by a committee whose members can’t muster one idea of style among them.
The Underground is still a noble, if largely unsung, institution for all that. I will raise my glass and toast it any day. What it needs is a management that appreciates and understands it and treats it accordingly. We have not had that for many a year.