Let’s take a moment to actually celebrate the London Underground because believe it or not, Londoners… we’ve got it pretty good.
Now, I don’t want to oversell this. But what I’m about to write might be considered quite groundbreaking. Or should I say – underground-breaking.
I, a man who lives in this city, is about to write an article – right here – which celebrates that oft-mocked parallel universe that we all use on the daily. Yes – the London Underground.
But, OK, don’t get me wrong. I can moan about the tube – as its been known since 1890 because of the shape of the tunnels – with the best of them. I really can. The lack of smiling, of course – like the whole transport system is one giant tribute to Victoria Beckham – can be unnerving. So much so, I’ve had to warn my Northern relatives about making small talk with people on the Piccadilly Line – for fear they’ll be reported to the terrorist authorities immediately by suspicious commuters before reaching Covent Garden.
And yes, the Central Line is hell on earth, changing at Bank requires Marathon-level training before even attempting those 8000 steps, and the Northern Line at rush hour could drive even the most peaceful of pacifists to mass violence. This we know.
And believe me, in the past, I’ve been front of the queue to give the system – which was created in the 19th Century following a successful campaign by MP Charles Pearson, who sadly died in 1862 just before the first train ran – a good old roasting. Not unlike the roasting you might feel when waiting impatiently on the ventilation-less Victoria Line, in fact, as it does its signature stop between Brixton and Stockwell EVERY DAMN DAY.
But what changed for me, exactly, you ask? What turned me from being one of the millions of Londoners revelling in cursing the Underground on a daily basis with every fibre of my being to, you know, actually appreciating it.
Well, let me tell you. Travelling to other big cities – and seeing what they have to offer in comparison. That’s what did it.
Geez Louise. You think WE have it bad? Mate. We don’t know we’re born!
So, not to brag or anything, but in 2017, I was lucky enough to spend a few months living in New York city. And, yes, it was fabulous. Cocktails consumed from the comfort of skyscrapers, the beauty of Central Park and – best of all – eavesdropping on the endlessly entertaining characters that inhabit pretty much every street of the buzzing city on a 24/7 basis. Because, you know, NYC famously has insomnia. And for all this, at a push, I’d have to say it’s my favourite place in the world, (sorry Skegness!)
But you know what isn’t so fabulous about the Big Apple? That bloody underground system. The Subway, they call it.
Even the name itself is disappointing. Conjuring up notions of foot long sandwiches, of which there are none – let it be known. Instead, what there is – is untold misery running under the world’s most iconic landmarks, causing even the chattiest of New Yorkers – AKA all of them – into reluctant silence.
First of all, it’s ugly as sin. You think our Underground system ain’t so easy on the eye? Well, compared to the NYC Subway, ours should be declared one of the Wonders of the World. A place of outstanding beauty. If Monet were alive, he’d surely be painting water colours of it.
New York, on the other hand, seemingly used up all its beauty budget above ground. Down those steps – which are part of a confusing maze of entrances that no one could ever possibly figure out in a million lifetimes – lies a grim world of grey, drab, dated and depressing trains and platforms, not even close to befitting of the wonderful destination they serve.
And that’s not all. You may know you’re a true Londonder when you look at the Underground sign and tut when you see that the next tube is three (THREE!) minutes away, before pacing up and down, incredulous, at the sheer audacity of Sadiq Khan for not understanding that you are now going to be late for spin class, or whatever London-esque activity you’re headed to that’s, like, so important.
But spare a thought for the poor New Yorkers – not to mention the many tourists hoping to take a selfie with Lady Liberty. There, a three minutes wait is practically reason to break out into an celebratory performance of the Star Spangled Banner, by contrast. Believe it or not, fifteen minutes waiting time is not even considered unusual (!) And worse yet, the sign won’t even inform you of the incomprehensible duration you’ll be expected to endure in order to get to Brooklyn for vintage clothes shopping and homemade soups. You’ll just… wait. For untold amounts of time. Can you imagine? Suddenly three minutes doesn’t seem quite so bad, does it?
And then, there’s the issue of how very complicated undergrounds can be, further afield. Yes, we’ve all had a mare at one point or another on the tube. Like many, I’ve got on the District line, thinking it was the Circle line, trusting the colour code system which is NOT always fool proof! But, in spite of this, by and large – the London Underground is fairly easy to navigate. The colour system works. Right? And, let’s face it, it’s attractive. Who doesn’t love that map? If that map were a person, it’d be a great catch on Tinder; looks good, dependable, safe. Not everywhere has this, sadly.
Have you been to Paris? Sounds like the beginning of a rom-com chat-up line, doesn’t it? But seriously. Paris may be the city of love but one thing surely no one there loves is that fucking Paris Métro. Quelle horreur!
Talk about complicated. You practically need a Masters degree in transport to figure out their labyrinth of a system. And no, not just because it’s in, you know, French. I’m not being all Jeremy Clarkson, up in arms that the signs aren’t in the Queen’s English. Fine, I don’t speak French – nor do I let the funky music to the talking, thank you Girls Aloud – but even if I spoke fluently, down there, I’d still find myself much like a Matthew Fox show… lost. There are worse places to find yourself lost, of course, but still. It truly makes you pine for the clear red, yellow and blue lines of that marvellous map we use to navigate ourselves around LDN, and the comforting sight of the roundel – which is the real name of the tube’s iconic logo, (you know, the red circle crossed by a horizontal blue bar? Yeah, you’ve seen it.)
And it’s not just NY and Paris. Berlin? Nice trains – double decker, in fact – but expensive. And confusing. On time, granted. But despite being in Germany, not nearly as efficient as ours, pet.
Los Angeles? Practically non-existent, darling. If you’re not getting into a vehicle in the City of Angels, then your chances of seeing the Hollywood sign are about as strong as Harvey Weinstein’s hopes of getting a Lifetime Achievement award at the next Oscars.
Australia? Pointless. Spain? You must be joking.
Trust me, I’ve been a fair few places now. I’ve ridden more trains – or attempted to, anyway – than most. And what I can tell you is, nowhere has a better system than the London Underground. (Well, if we’re pretending South Korea and Hong Kong don’t exist because, come on, they’re light years ahead in Asia, aren’t they?) And it’s not just me who thinks so.
The tube is consistently ranked one of the best metro systems in the world. And if that’s not enough, it was even used as a giant bomb shelter during the war. Pretty cool, no? In fact, during the World War II, Jerry Springer was actually BORN at East Finchley during a bomb raid. Altogether now: Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!
So don’t mind ‘Mind The Gap,’ and the athletic jumps you need to take for a safe landing. Ignore the strikes for a second – because we really don’t have time to open that can of worms today. And let’s forget about the estimated half a million mice living down there, scurrying across platforms (they become cute after you’ve lived in the capital for a while, don’t they?)
Instead, appreciate the incredible contactless system we all enjoy, allowing us to flow through those underground veins with liquid ease. Marvel in the wide variety of eccentric buskers that provide us with all manners of background music to lift our days before entering the 250 mile-long network. Enjoy our British humour at its best on those signs that London Underground staff scribble jokes on, to amuse us and themselves between strikes.
Embrace all of it. Because it may not be a very London-like thing to admit, but in reality, we’re very lucky to have the tube. Where would we be without it?
Exactly. Stuck in traffic on a bus. Or – God forbid – walking. *Shudders.*