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A nationalism that bristles with resentment and is all astrain with the passion of self-defence is only less perverted from its natural genius than the nationalism which glows with the animus of greed and self-aggrandisement at the expense of others.
(J. Hobson, Imperialism, 1902)
In the course of his trip to Europe in November 1911, US novelist Theodore Dreiser followed the Thames ‘to the giant plant of the General Electric Company, not unlike those which supply the power to drive the subway trains in New York, and thought of Sir Thomas More and Henry VIII, who married Anne Boleyn at the Old Church near Battersea Bridge, and wondered what they would think of this modern powerhouse!’ The plant at Lots Road had been built by the American transport magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes, in the final phase of his extraordinary career, when he boldly attempted to monopolise the emerging London Tube–network; the model for Frank Algernon Cowperwood, the hero of Dreiser's magnum opus the Cowperwood trilogy, Yerkes was thus the chief reason for Dreiser's presence at Lots Road in 1911: ‘since the last one-third of my story was laid in London’, he explained, ‘I thought that possibly in February or March I would run over to that city, look up my data, run right back and complete my book’. With the final instalment of his trilogy in mind, Dreiser gazed upon the immense American power-station, with its two chimneys nearly twice as tall as Nelson's Column, and was struck by the fact that there seemed to be no continuity between the new American force represented by Yerkes and the pageant presented by British history, only conflict. ‘What a change from Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More’, he concluded, ‘to vast, whirling electric dynamos and a London subway system!’
This perception was not without foundation: the period of Anglo-American interaction that Dreiser had set out to chronicle was in fact one of tremendous antagonism, a significant low point in the history of the relationship between the two countries. But the remark seems prophetic, too – for Dreiser's political views were to become increasingly dominated by the national binary formulated at Lots Road, a process that culminated in a visceral Anglophobic outburst shortly after America's entry into the Second World War.
At every Underground stop, people climb to the surface, emerge into the light of day, but the train goes on, the circulation continues, the Circle Line providing a visual and conceptual magnet for the way the city stays alive by pumping flows of energy around the system. At the end of the line this fiction dissolves; it is not only people but the place itself that releases its grip on the idea of the city as a closed system.
(Rod Mengham, ‘End of the Line’, 2003)
Turning away from the rationalisation of time and space represented by the Tube Map, Rod Mengham and photographer Marc Atkins set out to chart the region where this pattern most obviously unravels. In their photo-essay ‘The End of the Line’, termini on the Central, District, Metropolitan and Jubilee are shown to burrow into other organisations of space, or even into entirely different times, ‘portals into something other than the idea of the city we automatically link them with’. At the western extremity, Uxbridge is entombed in a future remembered by all who were teenagers in the 1960s. Stanmore is paralysed at a fixed point in the history of the Underground's development: ‘Passengers climbing up and down the hill traverse the strata of transport archaeology, with the prehistory of railway heritage’. And in Richmond, there is a peculiar overgrown patch of ground between the buffers and the end of the track: ‘This small deposit of neglect, with its little pockets of chalk and the different-sized gravels, has accumulated indifference at specific moments of alteration and redefinition: it is a transport midden, a municipal burnt mound; by-product of energies that were focused elsewhere’. Mengham concludes that this overlapping of materials, constantly revised by the superimposing of new layers, provides an even better insight into the historical process than the more striking anachronisms at Uxbridge and Morden: ‘the evidence of powerplay is not enshrined in the canonical details of a metal-framed clerestory, or an abstracted Egyptian façade; it is preserved in a pile of detritus’.
This emphasis on the marginal aspects of a place is a feature of psycho-geography.
The pale children are asleep in the Underground, In the rabbit burrows, in the roots of goblin wood.
(Naomi Mitchison, ‘Siren Night’)
The sleepers lie packed together making a continuous layer of bodies from one end of the platform to the other’, wrote Louis MacNeice in his ‘London Letter’ to America on 1 January 1941. ‘They sleep in a blaze of lights and their coloured blankets and patchwork quilts, their sandwiches and mouth-organs, give almost a Bank Holiday atmosphere…. Someone remarked to me that this was really Back to the Village, a revival of the archaic communal life in which the Tube station takes the place of the Village Hall.’
This is undoubtedly the impression of the wartime Tube that continues to hold the public imagination. In 1940, as the metropolis became a terrain of blackout, ruins and inferno, the London Underground underwent an astonishing alteration. The transport system that had consistently been represented over the course of the previous century as a space of abstract circulation – as the archetypal non-place – became home to thousands of Londoners overnight. As Leonard Woolf recalled, when the bombs fell, the London Underground was where one might experience most fully ‘the extraordinary blossoming of the sense of comradeship and good-will that settled upon us in London during the blitz’. A showcase for the morale of civilians under fire. A crucible for a new collective spirit. The bombs of 1940 were to transform the Tube into the very centrepiece of what Angus Calder has labelled the myth of the Blitz. ‘That civilian “morale” survived exposure to conditions often as frightful as those of battle’, explains Calder, ‘is what guarantees, mythically, that the British people, as a whole, deserved to save Europe and defeat Hitler’. Quoting Roland Barthes, Calder defines myth as the abolition of complexity: ‘it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organises a world which is … without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves’. It does not matter if one later sees through the myth because ‘its action is assumed to be stronger that the rational explanations which may later belie it’.
Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk – that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh – a woman, about five foot high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.
(E.M. Forster, ‘The Machine Stops’, 1909)
Her name is Vashti and she lives in the Machine, a subsurface residential complex that has evolved over time from the London Underground. But in Forster's ‘The Machine Stops’, the rail-network stretches from Somerset to Sumatra, and the tubes containing railways have been supplemented with speaking-tubes, food-tubes, medicine-tubes and music-tubes to form a colossal automated service-provider capable of supplying its users with every commodity they could ever desire, at the mere touch of a button: ‘There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.’ The comprehensive nature of the Tube-network in the story reflects the huge expansion of the system taking place at the time that Forster was writing. London's was the first underground network in the world; the earliest line was opened in 1863, but for the first thirty years expansion was slow, and trains, for the most part, ran through open cuttings. The completion of the first ever deep-level Tube-railway in 1890 ushered in a new era. Soon an enormous subterranean transit network extended beneath the metropolis, and though it was never in fact to offer the full range of services listed in the fable, Forster was right to suggest that the London Underground represents the earliest phase in the development of that new category of space embodied in his story by the Machine.
In London Underground: A Cultural Geography, David Ashford sets out to chart one of the strangest, as well as the most familiar, spaces in London. This book provides a theoretical account of the evolution of an archetypal modern environment. The first to complete that slow process of estrangement from the natural topography initiated by the Industrial Revolution, the London Underground is shown to be what French anthropologist Marc Augé has termed non-lieu - a non-place, like motorway, supermarket or airport lounge, compelled to interpret its relationship to the invisible landscape it traverses through the medium of signs and maps. Surveying an unusually wide variety of material, ranging from the Victorian triple-decker novel, to Modernist art and architecture, to Pop music and graffiti, this cultural geography suggests that the tube-network is a transitional form, linking the alienated spaces of Victorian England to the virtual spaces of our contemporary consumer-capitalism. Recounting the history of the production of this new space, and of the struggles it has generated, London Underground is nothing less than the story of how people have attempted to make a home in the psychopathological spaces of the modern world.
A spoiler follows: the woman was murdered by her husband, who pushed a ring containing prussic acid onto her finger as they travelled together in a compartment on London's steam-powered Victorian Underground. The resolution to Baroness Orczy's ‘The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway’ (1901) might suggest a malevolent inversion of the Orpheus myth, the transposition of that primeval narrative of descent into an Industrial Underworld. It is therefore baffling to find no reference to the infernal properties of this smoky, subterranean space in Orczy's story. The reader is presented with a first-class carriage merely, like that on any conventional railway, save that there is nothing to see through the window. Yet setting is certainly central to the plot. The premise of Orczy's murder mystery is that the average Englishman might get away with murder on the Underground, because he can count on the fact that the other passengers will resolutely refuse to pay any attention whatsoever to anyone else in their compartment. The first witness, Mr Joseph Campbell, can recall that a man in a tweed suit seated himself next to Mrs Hazeldene and that the man alighted at Farringdon Street, but took no notice of them because he was very much engrossed in some calculations, buried in the Stock Exchange quotations of his evening paper. The second witness, Mr James Verney, can recollect that there was a lady sitting in the corner opposite to him, apparently asleep, but he paid no special attention to her: ‘He was like nearly all business men when they are travelling – engrossed in his paper’. The phenomenon explored in ‘The Mysterious Death’ is not the nineteenth-century Industrial Underworld but the peculiar behaviour generated by modern urban spaces like the Underground railway. ‘The great secret of successful crime is to study human nature,’ observes Orczy's sinister sleuth, the Man in the Corner: ‘[and] Edward Hazeldene knew it well’.
Orczy's curious failure to engage with the popular trope of the Industrial Underworld reflects the limitations of the vertical framework employed in the only full-length critical survey of the nineteenth-century Underground railways, David Welsh, Underground Writing: The London Tube from George Gissing to Virginia Woolf (2010).
‘J'habite Metroland’, declares Julian Barnes's protagonist in the novel of that name, explaining that it ‘sounded better than Eastwick, stranger than Middlesex; more like a concept in the mind than a place where you shopped’. And this is precisely what Metroland is, as one of the booklets produced by the Metropolitan Railway to promote the region explained: ‘Metro-Land is a country with elastic borders which each visitor can draw for himself, as Stevenson drew his map of Treasure Island’. From the start, Metroland has been a territory that exists primarily in the imagination. The moniker ‘Metro-land’ was coined in 1915 in order to impart integrity to a thin corridor of land that lay to the north-west of London along the Metropolitan Railway In the inter-war years, spacious and leafy housing estates began to be built in this region, constructed in a syncretic style, incorporating elements from Tudor, Queen Anne and Art Nouveau. And the word remains evocative long after it lost this tenuous connection with reality, flourishing in poetry and fiction, and entering the language as a ‘generic expression of suburban life’, representative of at least one-third of the total housing-stock in Britain immediately prior to the Second World War, the archetypal commuter belt. But, in fact, ‘Metro-land’ represents a paradoxical combination – a locality, a region, a place that is defined entirely by its relation to a non-local transit system – a non-place. In previous chapters I have argued that the London Underground was taken by the avant-garde to be a symbol of the exciting new mediated spaces brought into being by the rise of international circulatory networks. To study Metroland is, then, to consider how people have managed to inhabit a space that would not seem to lend itself to habitation; it is to examine how and with what success people have attempted to make a home in modernity. The present chapter will attempt to chart this virtual space, considering its antecedents in the fiction of H.G. Wells and G.K. Chesterton, exploring its unrelentingly negative portrayal in the inter-war years – as a failure to meet modernity with modernism – and then looking at the subsequent reassessment of the Underground garden suburb's success in meeting its own objectives following the Second World War, with special attention to Julian Barnes's first novel, Metroland (1980).
Beneath the pavement, sunk in the earth, hollow drains lined with yellow light for ever conveyed them this way and that, and large letters upon enamel plates represented in the underworld the parks, squares, and circuses of the upper. ‘Marble Arch – Shepherd's Bush’ – to the majority the Arch and the Bush are eternally white letters upon a blue ground. Only at one point – it may be Acton, Holloway, Kensal Rise, Caledonian Road – does the name mean shops where you buy things, and houses, in one of which, down to the right, where the pollard trees grow out of the paving stones, there is a square curtained window, and a bedroom.
(Virginia Woolf, Jacob's Room, 1922)
The historian Eric Hobsbawm once made the startling claim that the most original work of avant-garde art produced in Britain between the wars was Harry Beck's Tube Map (Figure 1). In a fascinating essay published in the book Imagined Londons, David L. Pike examined the basis for this polemical assertion, and concluded that ‘By simplifying the complex network of urban railway lines into a visually pleasing and easily legible map bearing little or no relation to either the experiential or the physical metropolis of London, Beck codified a particularly modernist conception of space’. In Pike's view, the Tube Map fits into a genealogy of modernist space that originated in the mid-nineteenth century with the blue and red and yellow lines Baron Haussmann imposed upon a map of Paris. ‘Such projects undertook, in the physical space of Paris, to control the chaotic, ungraspable reality of the modern city through color-coding, straight lines, and diagonal cuts.’ Beck's Map achieved this same goal but, in a manner symptomatic of the history of such schemes in London, through its impact upon the representational, rather than physical, space of London. The tangle of subsurface railways, Tube-railways and light railways, built at multiple times and at various levels, had been flattened out and homogenised in a totalising vision of what French sociologist Henri Lefebvre termed abstract space, that is to say, the conception of space as a coherent, homogenous whole, which can consequently be bought and exchanged in the same manner as any other commodity: ‘Abstract space is a planned and organised space, thought rather than lived, and known conceptually rather than directly experienced’.
Wanda: Aristotle was not Belgian, the principle of Buddhism is not ‘every man for himself’, and the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.
(Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda, 1988)
‘With the aid of old maps, aerial photographs and experimental drifts, one can draw up hitherto lacking maps of influences, maps whose inevitable imprecision at this early stage is no worse than that of the first navigational charts’, wrote Guy Debord. Among the many old maps that provided the raw material for this psychogeographical reappraisal of the urban landscape in Debord's Mémoires (1959) is an early map of the London railway network. Mémoires consists of text lifted from sources such as travel brochures, novels, political tracts and newspapers, juxtaposed with photographs, cartoons, maps and old book illustrations, and held together by the drips, dribbles and blotches of paint added by the artist Asger Jorn. The inclusion of the railway map recalls Debord's remark some years earlier, in the Belgian surrealist journal Les Lévres Nues, that he scarcely knew of anything that could rival in beauty the maps of the Paris Metro (which had not yet been remodelled on the pattern of Harry Beck's Tube Map): ‘It will be understood that in speaking here of beauty I don't have in mind plastic beauty’, he wrote, ‘but simply the particularly moving presentation in both cases, of a sum of possibilities’. As Simon Sadler observes, the inclusion of a map predating the one produced by Harry Beck points towards the new trends in art that were trying to break away from modernism's hard-edge geometry: Debord must have ‘enjoyed the way the drifting nets of track reminded him of psycho-emotional meanderings generally – a little like those that guided Jackson Pollock's drips – and resembled the courses of the drift, which paid so little regard to the internal boundaries of the city’. Where the modernist map imposed order upon the city's transport system, the image produced by Debord and Jorn encouraged uncircumscribed reverie: ‘Rather than float above the city as some sort of omnipotent, instantaneous, disembodied, all-possessing eye, situationist cartography admitted that its overview of the city was reconstructed in the imagination, piecing together an experience of space that was actually terrestrial, fragmented, subjective, temporal, and cultural’.
Identifying animals to species from relict proteins is a powerful new archaeological tool. Here the authors apply the method to answer questions relating to the Salish of west coast North America. Did they weave their blankets out of dog hair? The proteomic analysis shows that they did, interweaving it with goat, and that the woolly dog was increasingly superseded by sheep in the later nineteenth century.
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