- Underground Writing: The London Tube from George Gissing to Virginia Woolf by David Welsh
Liverpool, 306 pp, £70.00, May 2010, ISBN 978 1 84631 223 6
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange (1931) includes a quietly compelling scene set on a Tube train packed with office-weary commuters. The dim and sluggish hero finds himself standing next to an attractive blonde in a beret and white raincoat, whom he manages to ignore completely as he struggles to stay upright while unfurling his newspaper. She doesn’t quite return the lack of compliment. His antics amuse her, evidently, but there’s a hint of pleasurable speculation in her glance, too, an assessment, perhaps, of what he might yet be encouraged to amount to. And that’s it. She departs from the film as abruptly as she entered, taking with her pretty much all that’s rich and strange about it.
To a greater extent than any other form of mass transit, underground railways create an experience predominantly in time rather than in space. Length of time is their medium, rather than the breadth of space provided by planes, trains and automobiles, which at least prompts you to wonder where you might be. The bit of the journey with not a lot to look at is the bit we tend to remember (55 per cent of the London Underground system runs above ground). Dull, unforgiving tunnels exacerbate our awareness of the time that still remains before space will once again resume with a welcome savage rush. And there’s a further, even more distinctive exacerbation. Other forms of mass transit box you in too; air travel can be just as shuttered, and it lasts a lot longer. Underground travel alone mixes significant regular interruption into its lengths of time. Each brusquely tidal opening and closing of the carriage doors provokes a migration. It resets all the clocks. Of course, you can find your own oblivion, or convert time endured into timing: when to look, rather than where; when to start to edge down the carriage towards the exit, when to slip into a seat as it becomes vacant. But there’s something odd, nonetheless, about an experience at once interminable and frequently interrupted. Tube travel, during which time hangs not too heavily on our hands, but too lightly, and in pieces, has lent itself to a certain kind of narrative, or to a certain kind of episode at once central to and slightly removed from narratives which otherwise usually develop a single and singular momentum.
It takes a ‘choked compartment’ in a train on the Underground Railway to persuade the ambitious young lovers in The Wings of the Dove (1902) that they really are meant for each other. When Kate Croy and Merton Densher get talking at a party in a London gallery, there’s more to it than a shared interest in contemporary art, as Henry James explains with just a faint smack of the lips. ‘It wasn’t, in a word, simply that their eyes had met; other conscious organs, faculties, feelers had met as well, and when Kate afterwards imaged to herself the sharp deep fact she saw it, in the oddest way, as a particular performance.’ But nothing comes of this first encounter. It will take a very different kind of performance, a chancier and thus more concentrated meeting of faculties and feelers, to illuminate for them the sharp, deep fact of mutual attraction. One afternoon, Kate finds herself in the same Underground carriage as Densher, though at some distance from him. She has got on at Sloane Square, to go to Queen’s Road (what is now Bayswater). The crowdedness of the carriage rules out explicit response: ‘In the conditions they could only exchange the greeting of movements, smiles, abstentions.’ The implicit, it turns out, is exactly what they need.