When I was young, we rarely came to London. Sometimes we would go with a relative who knew his way around but if we went on our own, it was a nerve-racking experience.
I don’t think my mother ever managed to understand how the London Underground worked and if we used it, she would stop people and ask them where to catch a train to the desired destination. To me the tube was a mysterious place and I was puzzled by the train doors: how did they know when to close and what closed them?
It may seem strange these days but we found the escalators frightening and always avoided them as long as there were stairs or lifts to use instead. To leave a station or change platforms, we would roam up and down until we found a way that didn’t involve using the escalators.
All was well until we one day found ourselves on a station with no lift or fixed staircase: we would have to use the escalator. As we stood vacillating at the foot of the moving stairs, which were then the old noisy wooden ones, a passing gentleman, seeing our distress, stopped to help.
"It’s easy," he said encouragingly. "Just step on. Follow me."
We did and it was. Then, of course, being a young lad, now that I was over my fear, I just couldn’t get enough of riding on the escalators! Escalators were fun!
It’s strange to look back to those times and to remember that we could find the escalators daunting. I think of that passer-by, too, who was kind enough to stop and help when others would have sneered at these silly provincials and rushed on by. I never dreamed then that I would one day live in London myself and that the vast and incomprehensible city would come to feel like home.
When I did come to London, I straightaway renewed my acquaintance with the tube and fell in love with it. Like many who are new to the metropolis, I found the tube an easy and helpful way to get around. Once you had a map, it was easy to understand and use the system and as long as there was a station near your destination, the journey was quick and easy.
I also loved the old stations, every one unique and most of them, in those days, still decorated in "retro" style in cream, brown and green glazed tiles, with the word “Exit” beside a hand with a pointing finger or an arrow pointing along the track and labelled “Hampstead”. I am sure I am not the only one to regret the garish modernization on the stations in the centre of town.
But it wasn’t only the stations that caught my attention. There was also the antics of the passengers. Some would pass the time soberly reading books and newspapers but others would knit, do crochet work, sew or do puzzles. I saw a young man spreading himself over two seats to sort out a collection of photographs. There were those who used the safety bars to do gymnastics while others contently snored away the time of the journey.
On some platforms there stood a transparent booth containing a device like a telephone. This was used to announce the trains. One day as I passed such a booth, the uniformed occupant rapped on the window, looking insistently at me. I saw him mouthing some words which I could not hear. Did he mean me? I wasn’t sure but approached and gestured him to repeat. He did so and in a foreign accent said "Please find a colleague and inform him that I am locked inside this cabin." All around us the rush-hour crowds were milling and only we were aware of this surreal conversation between a member of the public and a caged representative of London Underground.
Years later, though I still love the tube, I am more aware of its faults. Its dangers too. What passenger on the Underground never thinks of the Kings Cross fire, the Moorgate crash or the terrorist bombs? Or indeed of those who night after night during WWII sheltered down here from Hitler’s Blitz?
Using the tube also discourages the new Londoner from learning his way about. I would always take the tube, even for short journeys, simply because then I needn’t worry about finding my way. It was only after some years that I discovered that some of the complicated tube journeys I made were pointless because departure and arrival points were only a short walk apart. I came to understand that the buses sometimes deliver you more quickly to your goal while allowing you to see where you are going and learn the layout of the city.
Nonetheless, having once fallen in love with the strange and strangely wonderful underground railway system, I still love it and use it often. I still admire the stations, especially those away from the centre with their old-fashioned but elegant design and decor. It still thrills me when a train bursts out of the tunnel into the station and the crowd on the platform moves expectantly forward to meet it. It amuses me to see the underground mice rooting about on the trackbed and even more so when at quieter moments of the day they boldly erupt onto the platform to the squeals of some of the waiting passengers!
The old wooden escalators are long gone and so are the shaky old lifts with their sliding iron gates. I once got stuck in one of these. It was at Goodge Street and perhaps too many of us crowded into the lift which then ascended slowly, groaning and creaking like an old ship. Just as the top of the door cleared the floor, the lift came to an abrupt halt. We passengers all looked at one another in silence. What would happen next?
What happened next was that a woman in LU uniform approached, bent down to peer at us through the 12-inch gap and said "’Ang on!" We all roared with laughter. "What else are we going to do?" a passenger called back. The incident had relaxed the tension, however, and we waited patiently until the lift was winched to the top and we were set free, some of us still chuckling to ourselves.
The tube continues to evolve and modernize, transforming itself again and again, but ever and anon I recall the 10-year-old who was fascinated by the mysterious underground and found riding the escalators such fun.