Underground Writing: The London Tube from George Gissing to Virginia Woolf 
by David Welsh.
Liverpool, 306 pp., £70, May 2010, 978 1 84631 223 6
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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.

Merton Densher makes the decisive gesture of not stirring at the next station, South Kensington, where, as Kate knows, he would normally alight. By High Street Kensington, he has taken the seat opposite; by Notting Hill Gate, he is at her elbow. ‘The extraordinary part of the matter,’ James observes, ‘was that they were not in the least meeting where they had left off, but ever so much further on, and that these added links added still another between High Street and Notting Hill Gate, and then worked between the latter station and Queen’s Road an extension really inordinate.’ Mere quantitative ‘extension’, from one stop to another, and thus from one degree of certainty to another, has altered the quality of the relationship. Anything more implicit on Densher’s part would have required Kate to gamble on his feelings for her, and so take a risk she is in no position to take; anything less implicit would have cast him as aggressor and her as victim, with equal injustice to both.

The same stretch of line had already worked its magic on two of the main characters in George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893), who both get on the train, as Kate Croy was to do, at Sloane Square. Adopting ‘an intimate tone, though one that was quite conventional’, Everard Barfoot flirts with the safely married Monica Widdowson by expressing his warm admiration for another woman, the staunchly feminist Rhoda Nunn, whom he will subsequently pursue to the brink of a proposal. Although not herself susceptible to him, Monica nonetheless feels aroused by the frankness of his confidences. ‘And when Barfoot alighted at Bayswater they shook hands with an especial friendliness, both seeming to suggest a wish that they might soon meet again.’ The time spent together, from one station to the next, has proved timely. However, Rhoda Nunn, exiting through Sloane Square station as Barfoot and Monica enter, has witnessed their eagerness for intimacy. In Gissing’s novels timeliness is never far removed from catastrophe.

By the middle of the 19th century, the population of London had risen to well over two million. From the 1830s onwards, the capital’s already impassable thoroughfares had in addition to absorb the flux of arrivals and departures produced by the mainline stations encircling the built-up central area. By the mid-1850s, London Bridge Station, completed in December 1836, was discharging close to 11 million passengers a year, while a further 16 million entered the city by way of other termini. There was little or no scope for the development of surface railways within the built-up area. The bus services established after the revoking of the hackney coach monopoly in 1831 made the congestion worse. The obvious, and visionary, solution was to pass either above or below the ground. Passing below seemed the marginally less implausible alternative.

In February 1860, work began on the Metropolitan Railway, which would pick up passengers at Paddington, Edgware Road, Baker Street, Great Portland Street, Euston Square and King’s Cross, before turning south to Farringdon. The line was built by the cut-and-cover method, which involved digging a large trench down the middle of the Euston and Pentonville Roads. Ingenious arrangements had been made to capture the exhaust steam generated by the tank engines, but not the dense, sulphurous smoke billowing infernally from their funnels. The Metropolitan opened for business on 10 January 1863, with connections at Paddington and King’s Cross so that Great Western and Great Northern trains could use the tunnel. The 30,000 or so paying passengers who took a train that day, in first, second or third-class carriages, were the first ever to travel on an underground line anywhere in the world.

From the outset, the Metropolitan was not so much an underground railway as a railway that happened to run underground. It had been designed for expansion to the north-west, using surface lines wherever possible. Similarly, the District Line, which at first ran between South Kensington and Westminster, reached Hammersmith by 1874, Putney Bridge by 1880 and Wimbledon by 1889. The Tube proper would require the further development of two techniques: rotary excavation, which enabled tunnels to be driven deep beneath the city streets, and smokeless electric traction. The world’s first unequivocally underground railway was the City and South London, inaugurated on 4 November 1890, connecting King William Street, in the City, to Stockwell, three miles to the south across the river. The engines, powered by electricity from a generator at Stockwell, just about made it up the slope to King William Street, lights flickering. The carriages were known as ‘padded cells’, on account of their slit windows and luxurious upholstery. For the first time, no distinction was made between first and second-class travel. But the heavy capital cost ensured a low return for investors, and ten years elapsed before a new burst of optimism led to the building of the next major underground line, the Central London Railway, also known as the ‘Twopenny Tube’, which ran from Bank to Shepherd’s Bush.

Engineered, clean and democratic, and beset from the 1890s onwards by interminable wrangles over its funding, organisation and maintenance, the Tube now had to be understood as a system, as well as an occasion for otherwise elusive experience. It came to represent the modern in general, as David Welsh ably demonstrates in two immense chapters, one on utopian fantasy from the turn of the 20th century, the other on the inevitable ensuing sourness. In Anticipations (1902), H.G. Wells imagined the Metropolitan Railway’s ‘black and sulphurous’ tunnels ‘swept and garnished, lit and sweet’, with fast trains ‘perpetually ready to go’ and never full. In Wells’s fiction and polemic, the new elements of the system serve both as a model for the city of the future and as a navigational guide to the city of the present (at once exhilarating and imponderable in the freedoms it now offered to women as well as men). Welsh sets this more abstract emphasis solidly in the context of contemporary social and political theory. Wells, he points out, could offer a ‘formulaic account’ of underground travel because his thinking remained ‘in tune with the press and opinion-formers of the period’.

During the 1920s and 1930s, the Tube came under increased scrutiny, both politically and as a result of persistent overcrowding and delays. Lit and sweet it certainly wasn’t. To judge by the evidence Welsh has amassed, the critiques of the 1920s and 1930s were on the whole as formulaic as Wellsian fantasy. Again and again, in fiction, polemic, memoir and correspondence, the Tube exemplifies a loss of personal autonomy thought to be endemic in modern life. The strap-hanger, by now as likely to be a woman as a man, had become automatism’s latest avatar, and as such an object of relentless vilification. The worst culprits by far were poets, who saw little but greed, apathy or cowardice in the faces opposite them. Tube poetry between the world wars, from F.S. Flint and Richard Aldington to Eliot and Auden, is a monument to triteness. None of these writers took the trouble to grasp the experience of underground travel in its specificity, as Hitchcock did, as Gissing and James had done. They rendered it as an unvarying condition in some manner representative of the state of society.

Rather surprisingly, given its reputation for waftiness, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931) is the exception that proves the rule. Woolf followed Gissing and James in exploring the specific duration (or durations) of travel by underground railway. Indeed, she went further, in an avowedly episodic novel, by associating underground travel most closely with the two protagonists out of six who could be said to cultivate sexual promiscuity, Neville and Jinny. To be sure, Neville’s brief reflections on the Underground as underworld are portentously Eliotic. For him, it’s a theme-park ride equipped with special effects left over from The Waste Land (a ‘hollow wind’ roars across ‘desert boulders’). But a journey taken with a new lover, soon to prove unfaithful, prompts thoughts of his own about love’s likely duration, and durability. Jinny’s long rumination in and about Piccadilly Circus station is more specific. It depends, as Welsh is the first to point out, on a sure grasp of the vision informing the fundamental redesign and refurbishment the station had undergone as recently as 1928.

A crucial part of that overhaul had been the introduction of two flights of escalators leading down to the platforms. Escalators began as a Coney Island novelty ride in the 1890s, but soon proliferated in factories and department stores, without altogether ceasing to thrill. When they came into operation at Earl’s Court station, in October 1911, the London Electric Railway found a man with a wooden leg to demonstrate how safe they were. Earl’s Court became a destination for joy-riders. Something of this uncertainty of status and function clung to the escalator long after it had been established as the Underground’s most distinctive portal, and a fixture in department stores. The first set Charlie Chaplin installed in the Lone Star Studio in Hollywood in March 1916 was a department store complete with moving stairway. Escalator mayhem propels The Floorwalker, one of his sharpest comedies of the period. For it does play tricks on us. The fact that we stumble if we step onto an escalator that has stopped moving, unable to believe the evidence of our eyes, was already the topic of articles about the ‘subconscious mind’ in the early 1920s. And how reassuring is it that not quite dead David Niven should be seen to ascend to heaven by escalator in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death? It’s hard to forget, in all this, the King’s Cross fire of November 1987, which began beneath an escalator, and killed 31 people.

Escalators could be said to serve a disciplinary purpose. They instil in us in advance the active passivity required to negotiate the system successfully (not to mention a susceptibility to the advertisements papering every available surface). But they also anticipate the effect of the opening and closing of the carriage doors. They ask questions about time, and timing. The enfant sauvage heroine of Rose Macaulay’s Crewe Train (1926), one of Welsh’s many worthwhile discoveries, cannot understand why apparently able-bodied people should ‘crawl’ down them like invalids, even as the train pulls in below. If they prefer ‘slow movement’, that’s fine. But wouldn’t it make more sense to run? Some people do run, of course. When they run, they take a gamble on duration, because chances are there won’t be a train down there for them to be in time for. On the way back up out of the station, hardly anyone runs, unless they have something to prove. That up-escalators sometimes induce a state of trance-like acquiescence may not be news to pickpockets. The only time I’ve ever been robbed on the Tube was while daydreaming up into the light. To judge by correspondence in the Times, there was plenty of this going on in 1930. On those grounds, you’d have to worry a little for Jinny, in The Waves. Her ‘adhesion’ to the fluid, changeful, venturesome world below has generated a self-assurance bordering on complacency. ‘Therefore I will powder my face and redden my lips. I will make the angle of my eyebrows sharper than usual. I will rise to the surface, standing erect with the others in Piccadilly Circus.’

For Welsh, underground travel remains in essence an event occurring in space rather than time. It is the work done by a circulatory system best conceived as map, diagram, grid or mass of connective tissue. The book concludes, appropriately enough, with a dense and evocative chapter on the use of Underground stations as a refuge during the Blitz: ‘Tubism,’ as Welsh puts it, ‘without the Tube trains.’ Space resumed, on those dormitory platforms, for the raid’s duration. When a train came to a halt at a station, one observer noted, the carriage doors would open onto a brilliantly lit stage full of activity and animation. Welsh’s is a compelling story, told with the aid of a rich variety of sources. But I quickly found myself waiting for the platforms to empty and the trains to run again. For it’s in and through the time spent in transit – on-line, as it were – that underground travel distinguishes itself.

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