The London Underground: 150 years later

Hannah Marcus 10 January 2013

London doesn’t have a logo. There is none of this branding rubbish, this ‘I heart’ whatever. We are British, and we do not need such sentimental claptrap.

But let’s be honest, 2012 was quite a sentimental year. The wedding, the olypmics, the jubillee – over and over again, we were forced to ask ourselves what being British meant, to identify with it – and in our cold, ironic little hearts, we liked it. So no, London doesn’t have a logo, but if it did, we all know what it would be – that characteristic red circle and blue line that is such an integral part of our lives.

The London Underground may have been the unsung hero of 2012, but 2013 is its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary. This seems an absurdly long time for it to have been around – and yet it’s difficult to imagine life without it. We might complain about the expense and the unreliability, the crowdedness and the smell (oh god, sometimes the smell), but it is still the easiest way to get around such a big city, and we love it for all its irascibilities.

But I’m a Londoner, I’m trained to think this way. I know how to navigate the different branches of the Northern Line, I’ve stolen someone else’s free newspaper, I’ve wondered at length about Elephant and Castle, but never been. Through the eyes of an ‘out-of-towner’, it is something different – scary and dangerous and overawing. One such friend recently visited London, and at first was excited by the whole experience – and then rush hour happened. Suddenly faced with rows of crammed carriages, packed with the blank, unfriendly eyes of overheated commuters, he withdrew. ‘Let’s just wait for the next one’, he pleaded, as we unsympathetically pulled him through the crowd, and contorted ourselves onto the train. We knew that the next one would be just as bad, if not worse. So we stood, and he whimpered, and we lamented the happier time, during the Olympics, when against all odds the trains ran more efficiently than they have in living memory before or since.

The Underground has many quirks. If you look out between Tottenham Court Road and Holborn you can see a station where no one has alighted since 1932. The ghost of a dead actress is said to roam the tracks at Aldwych, while a mummy apparently haunts the now closed British Museum station. Fiction is fascinated by it; we all know about Harry Potter, but Paddington Bear would be nothing without it, while I personally am not allowed to go to Tottenham Court Road by myself in case the werewolf from An American Werewolf in London returns. (No seriously. My parents are weird).

The London Underground has become an institution, and is as inherently British as the Paris Metro is French. You won’t get accordion players, like you do in Italy, or conversation between strangers, like in Germany (unless there’s an accident, then we all like to band together and pretend we’re in the war). What you will get is where you want to go, eventually. Complaining about the Underground may be an integral part of the experience, but after 150 years, it’s nice to take a moment to appreciate it too. Even though it may feel like you’ve been waiting that long by the time your train finally pulls in.

Hannah Marcus