The London Underground is 150 years old today. For tens of millions of people across the UK and abroad the tube is a living symbol of the vitality and scale of London. It can be evoked instantly in the gorgeous iconography, from the London Underground symbol – that neatly bisected circle – to the feverish, evolving, insectile beauty of Harry Beck’s map.
The very names of the stations evoke either London’s grand age (Bow Church, Bank) or its constant re-inventions (Canary Wharf, Hoxton). The names can be mythic (Angel, All Saints) or eccentric (Elephant & Castle, King’s Cross), speak of alluring wealth (Knightsbridge, Maida Vale) or gritty reality (Stockwell, Archway). It’s a beacon of metropolitan glamour and, still – after 150 years – bustling modernity.
All feelings which last for approximately 1 week of living in London, when the endless delays, the Kafkaesque nightmare of engineering works, the rusty decrepitude blighting swathes of the network, the endless push’n’shove of drunks’n’tourists and the sheer stressy hell of rush hour can permanently tarnish the brightest enthusiasm. And yet, and yet…
There are still moments where the London Underground briefly feels like a thing of wonder and beauty again. When the Victoria Line, the network’s unsung hero, swoops you from the deepest South of Brixton to the far North East of Walthamstow in less than 40 minutes. The sheer beauty of Clapham Common and Clapham North’s single platform stations, sleek cylindrical monuments to urbanity – when not filled by thousands of frothing commuters at 8.13 on a Tuesday morning. The long, steep elevator of Angel tube station, lifting you slowly towards the genteel bustle of Islington. The way that Canary Wharf’s vast cathedral interior prepares you for the looming sci-fi surrounds of Canary Wharf itself.
And then there’s pop music, where the Underground has continued to exert an alluring influence beyond what it actually has to offer. Hundreds of great pop songs have referred to the London tube, or places evoked by tube station names, from rusty old classics like “Baker Street” to modern gems like Duffy’s heartbreak lullaby, “Warwick Avenue.”
Pulp used “Mile End” as a symbol of bedsit London, teeming with seedy energy, while The Jam captured the menace of late 70s Britain in “Down In The Tube Station At Midnight”. Even Fergie (the pop singer and crystal meth bore, not the ex-Royal) had a clumsy crack at evoking capital class on “London Bridge”. Rather more memorably, it was the aggressive artificiality of Canary Wharf that inspired Radiohead’s sublime “Fake Plastic Trees”