On January 10, 1863, the world’s first underground train chugged between Paddington and Farringdon in London. As the iconic London Tube celebrates 150 years, we take a nostalgic ride
Bank Station in the London Underground. I was half way down the escalator and could see a speck of platform when I heard the train rumbling in. A draft of wind shoved by the incoming train scurried up the shaft and I felt it on my face. Cold and damp. Would I be able to get into the train before the door closed? The escalator moved down at its own stoic pace. Suddenly, I was in a race against Gwyneth Paltrow. Was it she who just elbowed me to get past? Remember the movie Sliding Doors? It was here, at Bank station, that the scene was shot. If Helen (played by Paltrow) could slip through the closing doors of the train, she would reach home in time to catch her boyfriend cheating on her.
I missed my train. Did Helen make it? I stood alone on the suddenly-emptied platform vacuum-cleaned of people, sucked up by the caterpillar of the train whose taillights mocked me as they receded into the depths of the tunnel. Next train to Woodford in 4 minutes, the board said, and the platform was already warming up with people, like ants descending from nowhere on spilled sugar syrup just moments after a clean-up. Gwyneth Paltrow still pecking at my brain, I gave up Woodford. Instead, I decided to alight at the very next station, Liverpool Street. Why? It was raining up there on the streets of London and it would be dark too, I reasoned. And chances were, at Liverpool Street, I might bump into a rain-drenched Tom Cruise wandering stealthily on his Mission Impossible.
The London Underground or the Tube, as it is dotingly called, has been a darling of the literary and movie world. And if I could walk backward enough in time, I would even catch a glimpse of my childhood hero on an underground platform, his deerstalker hat and flapping cloak clearly glimpsed through the grey and white smoke that the engines of those days belched.
The train arrived and I stepped in. I stood leaning against a handle bar and had just about enough space to hold up the Underground Map eight inches from my nose. Two hulking overcoats blocked my vision and through a merciful slit between them all I could see across the aisle were a pair of dark shapely leggings, a dark chequered skirt above them, a beige blouse with a dark jacket that matched the skirt, and a luxuriant cloud of blond hair haloed around an open Stephen King. I returned to my map, thanking Stephen King, as Tube etiquette demands zero eye contact with fellow passengers.
The train entered the next station with a low, intermittent screech that stretched the entire length of the platform. As the doors opened, the voice boomed ‘Mind the Gap’.
Next day, I popped up from Covent Garden Underground and walked up to London Transport Museum. Here, stories of the Tube are narrated in words, pictures and artefacts. Fascinating among them is the story of the making of the Underground Map, a classic in design which, like the Beg Ben and Westminster, has assumed iconic status as a symbol of London.
Most of London’s ‘would-love-to-visit’ are tagged with an Underground station. Harrods with Knightsbridge, Tower of London with Tower Hill, Westminster Abbey and Big Ben with Westminster. They connect not only places but people too. ‘Let’s meet up at the Kingsway exit of Holborn Underground’ is a common refrain. And the Tube stations themselves are a labyrinth of tunnels laced with hope, contemplation and a smattering of music. While changing over from District to Hammersmith and City line at Paddington Underground, I stepped back from the whooshing crowd and listened to a dark burly man playing on his saxophone while his equally large German Shepherd squatted beside him, looking as if were counting the coins thrown into the open case. The pensive strain of the sax reverberated in the natural acoustics of the burrows, recounting its own story of despair and faith.
In the social milieu of London, the Tube is not just a matter of convenience, but a mate, a companion, sometimes even a co-conspirator; a constant in the dubiously unpredictable realism of London’s weather, tied to the denizens of this larger-than-life city with a translucent umbilical bond. Always there.
THE MAP STORY
1931. Life was dull for Harry Beck, the 29-year-old draughtsman of the Underground Railways. One day, he was idling over the Tube map. Geographically precise but the complex spaghetti lines were difficult to fathom even for a draughtsman. Lightning struck his brain. Years later, Beck wrote, “It occurred to me that it might be possible to tidy up the map by straightening the lines, even out the distance between stations. The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was worth trying”.
He restricted his map to only horizontal and vertical lines for the tracks and resorted to diagonals only as exceptions. And deleted all over-ground features excepting one, the Thames River. With trepidation, he submitted his map to the publicity department. It was rejected as “too revolutionary”.
Harry stuck to it and kept fine-tuning it, submitting it again the next year. “You’d better sit down”, said the Head, “I am going to give you a shock. We are going to print it.”
The management was cautious. They called the title: ‘A new design for an old map. We would welcome your comments’.
Within a month, the map went to reprint. Harry Beck’s design became a hit. Harry received 10 guineas for design and artwork.of a map that’s voted among the top 10 designs of the 20th century by Audi Design Foundation.