Friday, April 18, 2008

Subterranean City

The warehouse where I spend my working hours has a lovely view of a solid brick wall, supporting some raised train tracks. All day long I hear Southwest trains whistle by on their way to Wimbledon. Underneath the tracks there is a small door embedded in the wall; probably meant as a maintenance shed of some sort. Over time I've come to realize that its primary function is as makeshift winter lodgings for a portly homeless man. Who knows how long he's been living there, certainly since before I started working here. Most days he can't be seen, or only glimpsed at through a crack in the thick door. On nice days he is easy to spot; sitting in a lawn chair, soaking up the sun. One morning he had a pair of jeans and a t-shirt hanging on the fence, drying in the windy air. He's pretty bold for a squatter actually.

I kept thinking of this wall dweller whilst I read Neverwhere , a bizarre fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman. I'm not sure how to describe this novel; it's a fairytale for adults I suppose- utterly unlike any other novel I've read (this is the same guy who wrote the novel for the recent movie Stardust- which I am told featured Robert de Niro as some sort of gay pirate). In Neverwhere a fairly average Londoner named Richard Mayhew accidentally falls into the world of London Below- a kind of parallel city which exists underneath everyday London. The plot involves a vengeful angel named Islington, sexy she-vampires and two psychopathic hired assassins who travel through time. It's pretty out there, but what makes the novel work is it stays rooted in the framework and mythology of London- for example Gaiman imagines an actual royal court at Earls Court Tube Station, Knightsbridge is home to a terrifying Night Bridge and Oxford Circus...well you get the idea.

What struck me most about the book is its focus on the hidden and forgotten London. His London Below manages to exist alongside regular London, completely unnoticed. A city that has existed for thousands of years must be weeping with secrets; forgotten landmarks, hidden tunnels, places that have long since been buried over by the detritus of progress. So I did a little research. Paris has it's underground catacombs, London has an entire network of abandoned tube stations. The first underground train in London left the platform in 1863- that is 145 years ago! Since then a number of stations, tunnels and platforms have been built and later shut down. Shut down--but not destroyed. There are about two dozen stations which sit ghostly and unused below the earth. This includes the now defunct British Museum Station. You can see pictures of a lot of these stations at I warn you though, it's pretty eery.

It gets even stranger though. Deep Level Shelters built far underneath even the deepest tube lines. They were built by the government during World War Two as bomb shelters and never inhabitated- they are now used mainly for storage (what is so important- or so useless, that you need to store it hundreds of feet underground? Government secrets? Old Spice Girls albums?). Apparently there is society, Subterranea Britannica dedicated to exploring these underground spaces.

I've been here for five months, and I feel like I know London pretty well. But when I walk down the street, I really have no idea what's behind the next building, or buried deep beneath the streets. London has more secrets then even a lifetime here could reveal.

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