News reporter and author Stephen Smith goes below pavement level in London, allowing the reader to vicariously explore burial crypts, dug-up plague pits, sewers, excavated Roman walls, remnants of Henry VIII's tennis courts, poncy wine cellars, secret government bunkers, the bowels of Parliament, and forgotten corners of the Tube.
For me, the the most intriguing chapter dealt with that subterranean environment most obviously accessible to the tourist, the London Underground ("Mind the Gap!"). Did you know that the most prevalent litter in the system, cleaned up during routine housekeeping between 1:00 and 5:00 AM, is human hair blown from the heads of thousands and thousands of train riders every day? Then, there are all those wallets plundered and discarded by pickpockets. And, though it won't be on my Must-Do short list for my next visit to the city, Smith's slog down the northern outflow sewer was gratifyingly informative.
However, UNDERGROUND LONDON is an uneven read. In the chapter dedicated to Anglo-Saxon artifacts, the author first describes a modern day ceremonial ritual involving holding a small schoolboy by his heels over the Thames while he beats the water's surface with a stick, and then goes on to describe the confiscated oddities to be found in the cellars of Her Majesty's Custom House. The connection between these and Anglo-Saxon period seemed forced. And the chapter in which Smith visits an underground vault of safe deposit boxes could just as well have been penned in the above-ground strong room at my local bank. No revelations there.
Perhaps the narrative's best features are the brief lessons in London history, past and recent, that Smith provides as background to the central theme: the evolution of city sanitation, the medieval plague epidemics, the theory and practice of the Thames Barrier, Henry VIII's obsession with tennis, the use of Tube stations as bomb shelters during the Blitz, and the British government's renewed interest in secure bolt holes after 9/11.
A criticism of UNDERGROUND LONDON has been that it includes no photos. Normally, I'd agree. But, in this instance, I'm not sure that the majority of Smith's subjects would've provided opportunity for interesting or instructive visuals. Somehow, a shot of the now-buried Fleet River churning along at the bottom of a well in Clerkenwell, or that of a disintegrating coffin in Kensal Green cemetery, doesn't seem necessary.
For those who love London, UNDERGROUND LONDON will be an occasionally rewarding ... um, travel essay. I'm awarding four stars simply because London is where my heart is. Otherwise, it would rate three, or less.
on 17 October 2007
As an enthusiast for all things London and Subterranean, I was pleased to pick up this book as it promised an insight into areas I myself had not entered. I could not have been more dissapointed.
The prose style does nothing but irritate, and it is abundantly clear the occupation of the author is journalist. This minor niggle would have been fine were it not for the fact that all of the actual information presented by this book, ie the hard facts about dates, historical figures, and even quotes, are seemingly taken en masse from a single publication, that being the excellent "london Under Londer" by Hillman and Trench. How the book passes as original work astounds me, because being familiar with the other book I compared the two and noticed vast swathes were copied almost verbatim in lieu of proper research. And only one reference to the work in the entire text makes for a poor recognition of what must have been a vast input into Smith's work.
The bibliography itself is pretty shameful - listing a vast number of fictional works and very little meat for those wishing to read further details on the topics covered.
This book then mainly comprises of the author smugly entering the world beneath and systematically mocking those who aided him to do so. In one word: Avoid.
It is somewhat hard to see London as the 'flower of cities all' from dozens of feet beneath the surface. However, some of the most intriguing bits of London fall well below the surface on which most people live. London is in many ways like a Middle Eastern tell - hills that contain the ruins of cities, built up in multiple layers over time, such that the stratification can be seen and identified in ever-increasing age the deeper one goes. London isn't quite so evenly distributed, but the idea is still much the same - there are layers of the city from Roman times to the present, and the more one digs, the more one finds.
This can sometimes cause havoc in a city like London, which has a concern both for the success of present-day business and the preservation and study of its often-glorious past. When construction workers and miners find something of archaeological and historical interest, often work stops for time, and particularly in the city of London, time is money. Author Stephen Smith begins his survey of the history of London underground with a vignette about miners - these may well be Welsh and North England coal miners, but here in London they dig for space below the city, space that can be used for utility conduits and that most massive of subterranean projects, the London Underground.
With regard to the London Underground, again the truth is far more fascinating than at first glance. Smith talks about Beck's map of the Underground (a rather ubiquitous sight in London, and a popular tourist item of memorabilia in its own right), and the way in which it gives just a surface glimpse (if you'll permit the expression) of what is down below. There are dozens of disused tunnels, both from redesign as well as structural flaws, and many no-longer used stations, most of which still have maintenance staff assigned to them - Smith highlights the Aldwych Station, which was in use off-and-on until 1994; even this station had secrets while it was functioning, as part had been closed in 1917, and another major section (about as large as the functioning part) was never opened in the first place.
After looking at this criss-cross of mines and tunnels, Smith looks at the London water supply - the Thames is a mighty river flowing through the midst of London, but is far from the only water source, and both feeds and is fed by underground streams and currents of all sorts. Also, there are areas of London that have water supplies independent from the rest - the Vale of Hampstead was termed 'the Vale of Health' because it had a water supply separate from the rest of London, so it escaped the worst ravages of the plague when it swept through. Like many things in London, much of the surface tributaries and streams of the city have gone underground, but are remembered in place names, building titles, and street signs.
After this two-chapter introduction, Smith progresses in a more or less chronological fashion (drawing in modern features as warranted in the discussion). He breaks the chronology into Roman London, Anglo-Saxon London, Medieval London, Tudor London, Victorian London, and Cold War London. Mixed in with these chapters (in more or less the proper spots chronologically) are sections devoted to The Gunpowder Plot, The Plague, London's Treasures, the London Underground, and even London's Lost Railway.
As Smith states in the introduction to this last chapter, 'If the dead stations of the Underground exert a fascination, how much more so an entire subterranean railway running the breadth of central London, decommissioned and shut down but still in perfect working order beneath the streets of the city? This deserted line I all the more intriguing for being pint-sized, a scale model, a miniature railway.' No, this wasn't some railway enthusiasts idea of a practical joke or a toy train hobbyist gone mad - it is the Mail Rail, part of the transport system for the Royal Mail throughout London, operated independently of the Underground, British Rail or other major transport systems.
Among the more fascinating bits of information, given the recent Hurricane Katrina disaster, is the discussion of the problem of flooding in London, a city which is very slowly sinking into the sea (along with the rest of southeast England). The Thames Barrier, the Embankment, and other such defences might be adequate, but the city has never had to face such situations, and what becomes of underground London in such a catastrophe is a cause for concern. The terrorist bombings of the summer of 2005 showed how easily disrupted the normal flow of things can be.
There are a few oversights in this book. H.G. Wells is perhaps the most of literary artists to explore the idea of Underground London carried to extremes in his work 'The Time Machine', in which the Morlochs, descended from those who went to work in the smoky, grimy time of Victorian London, menaced the 'upper' class of people who lived on the surface - however, Wells' name cannot even be found in the index of Smith's book. There are times that the connects are a bit tenuous with the time periods he intends to illustrate, and sometimes his own tours of places are a bit lacking (as someone who worked in the Palace of Westminster / Houses of Parliament, I know there are things that could be highlighted about the underground facilities there that Smith left off, but he did mention the chapel in the Undercroft, and so gets high marks for that).
This is a travelogue more than anything else, and those who have a deep and abiding love of London will find this an interesting tale, possibly with new information and certainly with new perspectives.
on 30 June 2005
This was one of most disapointing and frustrating books I've read in while.
The author has not added anything to the subject, and seems generally more preoccupied recounting his past phobia of confined spaces (although now, joy of joys, cured through the cathartic experience of writing the book)
It appears that no research has gone into the material - and the chapters simply describe the authors experience on one of his numerous guided tours around the underground areas of London.
The style of writing is also appalling - generally I find the non-fiction I enjoy best is clear, concise and factual. Instead, with this, we get passages of flowery monologue which just annoy - "We turned onto Eastern Avenue and there was an explosion from the drivers' seat, a stentorian sneeze from Keith"
So, an interesting subject matter, totally ruined in this awful book