Well, I’m just about recovering. It was a very convivial evening. But my advice to you is that if you’re going to drink with tube enthusiasts, remember that they come from a different world. They’re like the jaded hacks we remember who smoked indoors and had three pints for lunch, who slunk shadowlike in that pre-sunshine London, happiest in places with a bit of a fug, happiest when the facts are checked, equally at home in archive, train depot, saloon car, saloon bar, wine bar – people who somehow just know everything, and have done since before Wikipedia. If you’re going to drink with these people, make sure you get some food in you.
It was the launch of Andrew Martin’s history of the tube, published by Profile Books. (Andrew is also the author of the Jim Stringer novels, a series of Edwardian railway mysteries published by Faber.) Underground Overground is a stylishly produced thing, I should say first: look at its vintage-tube-picture cover. A friend at the launch party (at indie bookshop Clerkenwell Tales, in conspicuously tube-free Exmouth Market) did exactly what I had done when I first saw it. He ran his hand over the front and said, slightly awe-struck, ‘It’s embossed…!’ (This friend is also a wine blogger. I don’t know. If you’re going to drink with tube enthusiasts and wine bloggers…) When my review copy arrived in the post a couple of weeks ago, I got another even more pleasurable surprise: opening it to read the press release, I found, nestled inside, a matching Oyster card holder. Apparently they’ve only made about 70 of these. I laughed out loud with sheer happiness, and am ridiculously pleased to have it. The book has beautiful endpapers in the iconic moquette (though printed a little on the red side, unless there’s a red one I didn’t know about, which would seem odd).
In other words, the thing is as carefully made, as user-friendly, as design-conscious, as well thought through, as London Underground itself used to be. Even the trains were beautiful.
Don’t make me talk about those new ones on the Victoria Line, that are made of plastic, and rattle.
The book begins, as did How To Get Things Really Flat, Andrew’s quietly brilliant book on housework for men, by firmly placing it in context, amid memoirs of his early life. He describes his railwayman father, early trips to London with free travel, and his sheer interest in the tube as a series of railways. So as well as following the story of the tube, you are accompanying Andrew Martin on his lifelong interaction with it. And this is what brings the book a level above other books on these kinds of subjects: because the tube is so personal, is so deeply ingrained in Londoners’ lives, it’s through this personal viewpoint that its mysteries can be revealed. And Andrew is a funny, moving, and authoritative guide.
The early chapters, which are as far as I’ve got, are fascinating in their descriptions of mid-Victorian London’s expansion and the beginnings of the underground, on the Metropolitan Line. The vision! The engineering! And, as today, the fundraising and speculation…! Then there will be tunnels, and ghost stations, and maps and typefaces and (apparently) the only really scary ghost story on the underground. This is something you do want from Andrew, who also wrote Ghoul Britannia, a book of true ghost stories (including a couple of mine).
I think the later chapters will be depressing, with the underfunding, terrible service, Public Private Partnership, the enforced transition from ‘passenger’ to ‘customer’, that we have all been living though for years. The fare increases that have taken tube travel away from poor people again. We are living in tumultuous times, and no less so in the tube. This Olympics year will be massive in the future history of the underground: the tube is literally being reshaped right now, and we shall see whether it’s being reshaped for us, Londoners, to improve our lives and our relationship with our city – or whether it’s just being gussied up to show off to the tourists. We’re already being told to make ourselves as scarce as we can in August. It’s been hellish for years, with ‘improvements’ indistinguishable from the usual disruptions, and often whole lines closed for whole weekends – so we shall see.
So it’s good to learn that the tube really is more overcrowded than it used to be. I mean, you do just imagine people decades ago having a little more space to stand…
But the main thing we forget is that the tube really was liberating. It literally enabled poor people to travel. And get work. And also get out of town. We think of it as an enclosing thing, a hellish ordeal – but it was built to give us freedom. That is its romance. Even now, Andrew says, he will ride to the end of a line just to see what it’s like, enjoying the stations, the names, the associations, his fellow passengers, the experience.
It’s also good to know at last why an omnibus is called an omnibus. It’s nothing like the reason I’d always thought!
Finally, a note on the writing. It’s beautiful. It’s just really elegant, effortless, perfect prose. ‘Which’ means which and ‘that’ means that. (This alone is worth the price of the book; this particular little over-correction is getting more and more prevalent, and drives me nuts.) The punctuation is inconspicuous and graceful because it is correct. Just what you’d expect from an urbane, perfectly turned-out man who knows how to iron and likes to ride on trains.