Well, moving right along in the Underground . . . I'm on a little roll. Already I've hopped from the Metropolitan Line over to the District Line with John Lanchester's What We Talk About When We Talk About the Tube (and now have the Central Line at the ready), and so to keep all those Lines straight I had better tell you about what I've read before taking in yet more information. Did I already say how much I am enjoying these little bites of social history via the London Underground? Whoever came up with this idea for a series, which is in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Underground, should get a raise. Or at least an enthusiastic pat on the back. They may be slight little books, but they are so interesting and informative (and I mean that in a good way, not in a dry-imparting-of-rote-facts-only sort of way) and my list of books, movies or new subjects to explore seems to grow more with each new read.
Did you know that there is a difference between the Underground and the Tube? I thought the words were interchangeable, but there is actually a distinction. Like me, Lanchester, who did not grow up in London, wasn't sure if the Tube was something other than the Underground, or if it was simply another word for it. His impression was that the Tube was some other thing--more modern and cooler-sounding. Londoners might use the terms interchangeably, but upon doing research for the book he learned that there is indeed a difference. The first Underground Lines--the Metropolitan (1863), District (1868) and Circle (1884) Lines were not actually Tubes.
Here's where it gets technical. They weren't Tubes because they weren't tunnels. Tunnels being a hole carved out of the ground for a certain distance which opens back out again. The first Lines were made using the 'cut and cover' method--"a hole dug straight into the ground, laid with tracks and brick walls, and then covered back up." So these lines are not even all that far underground and are called 'sub-surface' lines. Now the Tube uses a very different digging technique.
"It features a shield, a huge frame, on which the twelve 'navigators' who dug the tunnels stood: the frame advanced gradually through the earth while the men dug, and then the other navigators bricked up the tunnel walls and roof behind them as they went."
"This was the birth of the Tube: the deep tunnels which were dug using the shield technique, and which run through the clay subsoil underneath London, are in the strict sense the Tube. The Underground includes the Tube, but the Tube does not include the Underground."
How's that for sheer nerdiness? You never know, you might just need this for a trivia question someday. You can thank me (and Mr. Lanchester) later! He notes that this difference is most useful to those who don't like being deep underground. The Tube Line the author uses most often, the Northern Line, is also the oldest of them and is often called 'the Misery Line' as it was for some time the longest train tunnel. It "disappears into the earth at Morden and then not popping up above ground again until Finchley, seventeen and a half miles later." Now that is quite a stretch.
I very much enjoyed reading about the District Line. John Lanchester gives all sort of interesting facts yet he couches them in interesting stories and anecdotes. And he throws in lots of the personal, too, which all overlaps with the Mabey book about the Metropolitan Line. It's part history, part memoir, part social history and maybe even a little science thrown in for good will. So the books tend to build on each other nicely. Going back to the beginning and to share something of significance about the District Line--it stretches across very different social and geographical ends of London. It goes from the poor East of the city to the rich West. And it sounds like the areas it crosses is quite diverse, too. I like the way one of the Underground workers described the demographic differences between the two ends.
"Put it like this, if they're annoyed about something, at this end of the line--we were at Dagenham (East)--they yell at you. You know about it straight away. At the other end, they write letters."
Just like the Metropolitan Line helped create Metroland--those suburbs outside the city, a place for Londoners to enjoy the countryside yet still able to commute in to their jobs, the rest of the Lines did their part to create the city of London as we know it now. That iconic London Underground map, which I am sure you can easily bring to mind makes you think that those lines were simply drawn as if superimposed on top of the city. You would think that the city came before the map, whereas in reality "London as it exists today would not be the same place without the Underground."
"The Underground is what gave the city its geographical spread, its population growth, its clusters of spaces and places. The new Underground stations became the places around which the city grew; they were the first gravitational mass, like the clusters of debris in the nascent solar system, which agglomerated and grew and thickened and became planets."
One other little bit of trivia, before I leave the District Line (and I have really barely scratched the surface of what Lanchester writes about), did you know the word Commute (as in your daily commute, or commuter) is an American thing? The original meaning of the word commute means "to give something in exchange for something else, or to change one thing for another." In the US regular travelers "began to swap day tickets for better-value season tickets; they 'commuted' their daily tickets into season tickets."
"The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first instance of the modern, dragging-your-weary-bones-to-work sense as in the American magazine the Atlantic Monthly, which defined a commuter as follows: 'one who purchases a commutation-ticket'. A commutation-ticket was the American term for a season ticket. Commuters commuted 'commute'."
Hah! Anyway, Lanchester has a very engaging way of drawing you into this wonderful and lively little book! I have once again switched lines and now will be stepping onto the Central Line with Danny Dorling's The 32 Stops. I wonder where my journey will take me next.