03 May 2007

Tube Tales

There's something very atavistic about responses to the tunnels of underground rapid transit systems. Perhaps I should say all tunnel systems; folklore is, after all, full of goblin tunnels and the like, probably born of similar feelings about mines and quarries. But it seems to me that rapid transit tunnels, with their endlessly unvarying fluorescent striplights, are a new variant. The Tube (London's underground railway network) is the structural skeleton of London Below, the convolutedly anarchic and claustrophobic setting of Neil Gaiman's modern folktale Neverwhere, and for good reason.

Most of the time I don't notice; a tunnel is just one more connecting thoroughfare from A and B. But sometimes the ancient irrationalities show through. Just now, for instance, I was ambling along a foot tunnel from Hyde Park to Marble Arch tube station (a familiar autopilot run which I've taken a hundred times) when two unusual things things happened at once.

The first unusual thing was that I was the only person in the tunnel. It's a busy route, in a busy part of a busy city, and to be alone in it is rare - but there I was, the only human being in sight, halfway along a hundred metres of tiled concrete cylinder.

The second was that, passing a junction with a side tunnel, I automatically glanced up at the wall to check my location against the direction signs on junction walls - and there was no sign.

So now the wild animal which lurks at the heart of each of us wasn't just alone - it was alone and lost. It was an extraordinary feeling. I wasn't really lost, of course: I knew perfectly well where I was, and there were arrows pointing ahead of me (Marble Arch) and back the way I'd come (Hyde Park). But the inner savage was looking only at that unmarked side tunnel, a downward curving grade restricting vision to about ten metres, shrieking "Unknown! Potential hazard!"

But the unknown is also potential opportunity, and my feet took me unbidden down the side tunnel for several seconds before, my subconscious full of images from Thomas Disch's Descending, Dante's Inferno (where the straight way was lost) and Poul Anderson's The Corridors of Time, I deliberately turned back and rejoined the main route.

The sensation of raised hairs on the back of my neck stayed strong. even back on the known way, until the solitude was broken by a sudden flow of other pedestrians who swept past both me and the unmarked tunnel without noticing. At which point, feeling very foolish, I've paused to note it all down here before it disappears from mind.

(The title of this post, by the way, is misappropriated from an excellent set of short TV psychomyths, available on one DVD and thoroughly recommended viewing - see below.)

  • Dante Aligheri and M. Palma, Inferno. New York & London, 2002, Norton. 039304341X
  • Poul Anderson.The corridors of time. London, 1965, Century. 0712610502
  • Thomas Disch. Fundamental Disch: "Descending". 1980 (1964), Bantam Books.
  • Neil Gaiman. Neverwhere. London, 1996, BBC.
  • Various directors. Tube Tales. London, 1999, Sky Television and Horsepower Films.

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