Our cosmopolitan party converged on Arras from east, north, south and west, to be gathered together and loaded onto a tourist bus and driven to the Channel Tunnel reception centre at Sangatte, near Calais. There things took an unexpected turn. We were issued with special boots, hard hats, goggle-like glasses and – most alarmingly – yellow oilskins. The last time I had worn these was on a visit to Niagara Falls, where The Maid of the Mist takes tourists into the drenching spray at the very foot of the falls. Marilyn Monroe wears them in the movie, Niagara, and you can see them on Gene Kelly and the gang in the pre-credit sequence of Singin’ in the Rain.

Once we were kitted out against quakes and floods, we gave up our passports for inspection and were taken by bus to a security office at the head of the gigantic well which had been sunk at the very edge of the land, the point from which the tunnel was bored. Here our passports were checked again. Four of our party were refused entry – including all three Slovenians: some discrepancy had been discovered between the information given to Security in advance and the details of their documents. Eventually, after a long wait in a dismal wasteland, we proceeded down the well, which involved a third and final passport check, before descending a concrete staircase to the tunnel below. Meanwhile our Slovenian friends were questioned about their crossing into France from Belgium, which hadn’t been properly registered in their passports.

When we got to the tunnel, it was just as I expected. I was simply there, gazing into the grey distance. Even if I had brought a contraband folding bicycle, it would have been useless to make a dash for England: they had taken my passport, and, in any case, anyone who strayed from our little herd was rapidly rounded up by a minder. After a while, with plenty of time to examine the manhole covers and the no-entry signs, we were herded into a workers’ shuttle, something like a prison van or a rat-trap – all made of metal, with the seats too narrow to sit on and grilles over the windows, before being hurtled back into France, where, I was startled to hear, everyone was already speaking English.

They turned out to be a BBC news crew, who had brought their own location catering – none of that fancy French cuisine for them – and a traditional double-decker bus to eat it in. Their eerie presence turned out to be due to the preparations for Le Walk, scheduled to take place the next day. On the plane back to Los Angeles, where I live now, I read a little filler item about it, headlined ‘Boring Is Over, But Tunnel Still Dull.’ That summed it up. Yet, in a way, I was relieved. I had been invited to visit the Channel Tunnel shortly after the Northridge earthquake, which rampaged through our house like a herd of wild elephants, throwing paintings off the walls, books off the shelves, marmalade out of the cupboards. Going to the tunnel seemed a fantastic idea: an opportunity to go deep down in the Earth, into the belly of the beast, so to speak, and, at the same time, feel absolutely confident that the whole experience would be near zero on the Mercalli scale, the subjective equivalent of the objective Richter scale. (Scale Two ‘is felt indoors by a few people’, Scale Five ‘frightens a few’, Scale Seven ‘frightens everyone’. I went through Scale Eight: ‘Alarm approaches panic.’) In the tunnel, I would be in the company of a convivial international group of artists and intellectuals, far away from the Southland. I was in search of boredom: descent into the tunnel on Saturday, followed by thoughtful remarks in a medieval hospice on Sunday, hopefully throwing new light on the tunnel’s artistic potential and cultural meaning.

Having seen the tunnel, I still had to think of a potential art project, inspired by the experience. From an aesthetic point of view the tunnel was both much too long and much too big. The aesthetic effect of tunnels depends first of all on their scale in relation to people. In a very small tunnel, people look cramped, unnaturally large, with their heads reaching nearly up to the ceiling, as the British sculptor Richard Deacon showed us in photographs of visitors to the labyrinth of tiny tunnels which run under the city of Chicago. The tunnel becomes claustrophobic, oppressive, odd. On the other hand, if the tunnel is very large, it becomes cavernous, awe-inspiring, sublime. People seem like midgets, like miniature toys. The Channel Tunnel, on the other hand, was big, but not too big, still proportionate to human scale. But the effect of tunnels also depends on their length. As the American sculptor, Richard Nonas, pointed out to us, the really exciting parts of tunnels are the entrances and exits, the liminal spaces where we leave one world and enter another, the stretch where we see the light approaching or shudder as we plunge into the darkness. But too much of the Channel Tunnel is just space in between, an inordinately elongated dark and featureless cylinder. The entrance of a tunnel should somehow be like the entrance to the grotto at Bomarzo, where you venture into the cave through a giant, grotesque mouth, the mouth of a fairy-tale ogre. But the Channel Tunnel is not an Aladdin’s Cave or a Wonderland down a rabbit-hole. You can only give it energy with a kinetic form. It needed a film.

I proposed lining the tunnel (or both tunnels, one for each railway track) with giant photographic transparencies, so that the trains passed them at a rate of 24 images a second, the same speed that film frames go through the projector gate. That way, the tunnel journey itself would be transformed into an illusory cinematic experience. The film itself would be taken by a miniature endoscopic camera swallowed by a human subject, thus recording its passage down the throat to the stomach and then on through the intestinal tract till it reached the anus. The trans-tunnel passengers would have the uncanny feeling of being swallowed up on leaving England, digested, and then excreted again half an hour later into France – or vice versa, depending on which way they Were travelling.

In many respects the Channel Tunnel, like the much longer Honshu-Hokkaido tunnel in Japan, can be seen as a supplement or a throwback to the heroic age of 19th-century technology, when railway development and tunnelling expanded together in such spectacular fashion. Indeed, the 1994 Channel Tunnel follows the same route (from Shakespeare Cliff to Sangatte) and the same design (two separate rail tunnels, joined by transverse ‘cross-passage’ communication tunnels) as the tunnel which was promoted in the late 19th century by Edward Watkin of the Southeastern Railway Company and his partner and engineer, William Low. Despite the success of the great Alpine tunnels – Saint-Gotthard, Simplon, Mont Cenis – it is doubtful that Watkin and Low could have succeeded with their project of tunnelling under sea over such a distance, given the technology and the geological knowledge then available. But, after the Alpine experience, and that of the London Underground, perhaps they could. Certainly it would have been much better if the Channel Tunnel had been built, as they proposed, over a hundred years ago. In the 1880s, it would have been a truly historic feat with incalculable effects. Today it is no more than a long overdue upgrading and rationalisation of a section of Europe’s railway network. And thanks to British poverty, parsimony and prejudice, its potential benefits won’t be fully enjoyed until early in the next century, if then.

In the 19th century the tunnel would have been an avant-garde event. It was the Saint-Simonian economist Michel Chevalier who argued in 1838 that the newly industrialising countries of Europe should be linked by a common railway infrastructure, with a trans-Channel London-Paris link as a crucial element. In the 1860s, at the urging of the visionary French engineer Thomé de Gamond, whom he had known from Saint-Simonian circles in the 1830s, Chevalier agreed to head a committee of French promoters eager to work with Low on an early Channel Tunnel project. Then, in 1872, he presided over the Channel Tunnel Railway Company, the first to start tunnelling at Sangatte – driving a pilot tunnel over a mile out under the Channel. The ‘staggering monument’ Chevalier envisaged got little further; and although Watkin and Low soon tunnelled half a mile or so out towards France from Shakespeare Cliff, in the end this was used only to entertain invited guests at undersea champagne parties.

Had this early avant-garde attempt succeeded, it would have been a practical realisation of the awesome subterranean and subaqueous dreams which haunted 19th-century writers and artists. The underworld became the site of the sublime. In 1827 the actress Fanny Kemble described a visit to the not-yet-complete Rotherhithe-Wapping tunnel beneath the Thames – the first significant subaqueous tunnel. (Paying visitors were actually a source of funds for the tunnel’s completion.) There ‘an indescribable feeling of subterranean vastness quite overcame’ her as she contemplated the gas-lit vista, ‘like one of the long avenues of light that lead to the abodes of the genii in fairy tales’, though in this case it led to the ‘Hades’ of the work-site, with its grimy, muscular navvies standing up to their knees in black water, while lantern light flickered as they shovelled the black muck. Rosalind Williams, in her Notes on the Underground, has brilliantly described this mingled feeling of amazement, delight and terror, as it is delineated in Journey to the Centre of the Earth or The Time Machine or Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race – a tradition which reaches its last, great triumph with Fritz Lang and Thea Von Harbou’s Metropolis, combining the 19th-century catacombs myth with the 20th-century skyscraper cult. This is the context of the technological sublime within whose aura the Channel Tunnel should have been properly mined, a fit companion to the Eiffel Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Nineteenth-century tunnel-goers were over-whelmed and psychologically shattered by panic fears and disconcerting shocks. Dr James Johnson drew on his own experience of a railway tunnel when he gave evidence in 1834 before a Parliamentary committee: ‘the deafening peal of thunder, the sudden immersion in gloom, and the crash of reverberated sounds in a confined space, combine,’ he said, ‘to produce a momentary shudder, or idea of destruction, a thrill of annihilation.’ The tunnel which he had been through was only forty yards long and the train was travelling at no more than thirty miles an hour. It is hard to envisage the extremes of railway neurosis, muscular and mental strain, trauma and terror, which the Channel Tunnel would have created in its 19th-century victims as they hurtled for miles through the echoing darkness under the terrifying weight of the sea. It is not really possible for us to experience the same thrill today. The thresholds of claustrophobia and shock have been pushed back by a further century of assimilated technology – only to be recaptured in a space probe or an urban earthquake or a missile raid. Now the tunnel is simply a convenience.

Recently I travelled on the Nozomo bullettrain from Kyoto to Fukuoka and I was not even aware that I had gone from one island to another, from Honshu to Kyushu. The whole journey was so punctuated with tunnels – and the train travelled at such speed – that it was rather like being trapped in a kind of flicker film, alternating between sequences of bright and black frames, an impression intensified by the fact that the valley landscapes outside were covered in a thick layer of reflective snow. The Channel Tunnel’s single stretch of half an hour in darkness is nothing compared with what we are already used to from airplanes. It is really no more than an empty interlude, a stretch of blank pages between two discontinuous chapters, a kind of darkened entr’acte between the two scenic spectacles of France and England, at most a pleasantly elongated border crossing during which we can muse at our leisure on the future of a hybrid and heterogeneous Europe. The idea that the Channel Tunnel will be seen as a ‘link’ has been much exaggerated. It is the vertical aspect that will strike imaginative travellers, rather than the horizontal: the fantastic fact that it goes deep into the earth and runs beneath the sea rather than its practical function as another connection between two areas of land. Tunnels are features of a mythic underground world – the realm of hell, of caverns and grottoes, of mines and of catacombs and, of course, of tombs. Tunnels can easily turn into tombs. Historically, they often have. How many tunnels contain the bodies of their miners and navvies? (Ten died during construction of the Channel Tunnel.) How many tunnels have collapsed on terrified travellers? I know of only one novel about the Channel Tunnel: Joe Poyer’s Tunnel War, written in 1979, some years before the present tunnel was launched, and set in the period before the First World War. It is based on the supposed diary of James Bannerman, an engineer working on a tunnel project in 1911. The novel ends on Christmas Day, when the tunnel is blown up by Fenians:

Beyond the white cliffs, far in the rainy distance, five gouts of flame burst in succession and an instant later the great steel Tunnel doors were blown out in a single stunning concussion, and sailed like monstrous plates half across the valley. The Tunnel disappeared into a boiling cauldron of flame pouring from the ruined entrance like a jet of Greek fire. The gathered crowd saw great masses of chalk and soil flung skyward as the cliff above the shaft line erupted ... After a while someone pointed out a cut that had appeared in the cliff top. It was little more than twenty feet deep but it marked the line where the great Tunnel shaft had collapsed upon itself.

Fiction, of course, deals in the complex matrix of fear and desire which feeds mythology and fantasy. Reality is very different. But my favourite real fact about the Channel Tunnel, I must confess, is that the giant tunnelling machines which made it all possible could not be retracted from the Tunnel after they had met in the middle and their work was complete. They were too big to go back through the concrete-lined tunnels they had excavated. On the French side the outer shield was left behind and the rest dismantled. On the British side, the machines veered off course to dig their own graves, to be sealed up in mid-Channel and drowned in concrete. The remote ancestor of the giant machines, over a thousand tons in weight, was the Brunel shield invented by the great British engineer (actually a French émigré by origin) who designed it for the Rotherhithe-Wapping tunnel in 1818, after picking up a piece of teredo-riddled oak timber in a naval yard and noticing how the mollusc was protected by twin shell-plates as it gnawed its way through the wood. Like teredos, the giant tunnelling machines now lie buried deep beneath the sea, heroic martyrs to their own monument. May they rest in peace – belated builders of a dream, immured in deep blue chalk.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences