Laurie Penny on London, Underground


Penny goes searching for what lies just underneath Olympic London @ The New Inquiry.

They tell a lot of lies about London. Here’s one of them: during the Battle of Britain, with Messerschmitts flattening the capital, those Londoners who were too poor to afford their own shelters were encouraged to take refuge on the platforms of the underground. The faded sepia pictures of families bedding down on the platforms of the Central line are still iconic, another representation of the dogged forbearance for which Londoners are renowned. We live in a city that has withstood two thousand years of invasion, rebellion, fires, plagues, wars ,and terrorist attacks and survived. Londoners knuckle down. We don’t grumble. We get on with things. We keep calm – as that resurrected bit of defunct military propaganda now plastering tote bags, tourist tat and novelty chocolates across the country gamely declares – and we carry on.

In fact, it didn’t happen quite like that. What happened was this: When the Blitz began, government ministers decided to close down the Tube during air raids, except for the use of a few officials. They didn’t want hundreds of thousands of refugees in the subways because they feared, as historian Andrew Martin puts it, that if the working class went underground “they might never come out again.” The shelterers, he notes, were “objects of patrician distaste;” signs were put up outside Tube stops forbidding them to enter. Then, on the 19th of September 1940, the British Communist party, who had campaigned against the ban from the start, launched a series of organized riots. They tore open the tubes and Londoners rushed to occupy the platforms as the bombs screamed overhead. After that, the government had no choice but to support the refugees in order to save face.

A lot of London’s secrets spill out underground. The guts of the transport system run from the glittering new Olympic fortress to the beleageaured financial district, which has only recently evicted its own anti-capitalist tent city, right out to Ealing and Croydon and Brixton – the boroughs that burned during a week of riots last summer when the Metropolitan police shot a young Tottenham man, Mark Duggan, in the face.

Forget the official face – forget the Olympic Park, the London Eye, or Buckingham Palace – if you’re a stranger in this city, there’s no better way to see it than to spend a day traveling the London Underground. It’s more expensive now that Mayor Boris raisedthe Tube fares, pricing many of the capital’s neediest people away from public transport altogether. But it’s still here, down in this strange otherworld, with its own rules, its own weather system, the warm winds blowing out of its tunnels, the garish avalanche of rotating ads, it’s here that the lifeblood of the city beats closest to the skin. Where better to take the pulse of a place than through its intestinal walls?
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