London 2014: Tube Stories, part 3

A few Sundays ago Julia Rose and Stella and I went back to the Portobello Road market, in Notting Hill to look for a new bag for me. I had a man-purse in Italy—bought at an outdoor market for 5 Euro—that I absolutely wore out in less than three months. In my “murse” I carried a 35 mm SLR camera, an extra lens, my moleskin, whatever book I happened to be reading, money, credit cards, a whisperer (a radio with ear buds connected to the tour guide), bus passes, and often the family passports. Depending on the day I usually wore a backpack, since I often carried prepared lunches for the family and the kids’ whisperers for the tours. I abandoned my murse in Paris, in order to pare down luggage weight to the essentials for our flight to Dublin on RyanAir, which will sell international flights for 5 Euros, but charge exorbitant baggage fees and gets a kick back from the bus-lines that ferry passengers out of the city to small airports. I also left behind a pair of well-worn TEVA sandals, which should tell anyone just how serious I was about cutting weight.


I have missed my man-purse, and if my Arkansas culture were a bit more tolerant, perhaps, I could see wearing one when I returned home. Unfortunately, I live in Arkansas. In the meantime I brought over a military surplus, military green, canvas briefcase I found years ago in Colorado after Lisa and I first moved there. It’s a fine bag, but the shoulder strap is fraying seriously after a few years use. Since I’ve been in London, I’ve been looking for a cheap, military style man bag to handle my journal, book, camera, umbrella, etc. while in London. I’d seen one several weeks before at Portobello road, but not since. Thus our return.

On the tube, which wasn’t crowded, we happened to sit opposite a man who was determined to bring someone into an intimate conversation. He was African, middle aged though younger than me, and he was lecturing anyone who would listen on a history of the world. I had trouble understanding him, and I had learned from previous encounters on the tube, not to make eye contact, though it violates my nature. The man, sitting across from me, would say something to the tune of “Not 100 years ago,” then curse violently, using the F word, then proceed backwards through the millenia, all the while curinge violently while making a “safe” sign, as in baseball, and since I was sitting across from him, trying to make eye contact. The girls knew enough to ignore him, though he was inviting eye contact, and I watched the floor of the car, until we got to the next stop, then I jumped up and got the girls moving. They were initially confused, because they knew it wasn’t our stop, but we jumped cars and got back on the same train, one car down, before it had a chance to leave the station. We rode a couple of more stops, all the time watching the guy in the next car, still preaching to a couple of other people who hadn’t bothered to move. Julia Rose was convinced he was watching us from his car, though I knew better, and when we got off at Notting Hill he was still preaching his sermon.

Portobello Road on a Sunday was less busy than a Saturday. There were no booths set up in the streets, but the sidewalks were jammed with tables outside the shops. I didn’t find my bag, but we went inside a used book store that supported the charity Oxfam, an organization providing food relief to distressed nations, and I found a book by Bill, Bryson, titled Notes from a Small Island.


Bill Bryson is an American who traveled to Europe and England while in college, back in the late 70s, met an English nurse and married her, went back to the states to complete his college, then spent the next 20 or so years in England, working at newspapers and making wry observations about the English and their Englishness. I had read one of his books, A Walk in the Woods, about his attempt to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail upon his return to the U.S. in the 90s. It was well done, comic, and featured Bryson’s characteristic mode, reporting on situations where he doesn’t fit in. In England Bryson is regarded as one of England’s foremost travel writers, and his books, like A Walk in the Woods, seem to focus on his walking observations of the people and places he encounters. Notes from a Small Island recounts a last tour of Britain before returning to the U.S., where “he had read that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, and it was thus clear to him that his people needed him. But before leaving his much-loved home in North Yorkshire, [he] insisted on taking one last trip around Britain, a sort of valedictory tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home. His aim was to take stock of the nation’s public face and private parts . . . . “


Following is a passage that captures the London underground, or the Tube, experience, as well as it can be captured:

“I do like the underground. There’s something surreal about plunging into the bowels of the earth to catch a train. It’s a little world of its own down there, with its own strange winds and weather systems, its own eerie noises and oily smells. Even when you’ve descended so far into the earth that you’ve lost your bearings utterly and wouldn’t be in the least surprised to pass a troop of blackened miners coming off shift, there’s always the rumble and tremble of a train passing somewhere on an unknown line even further below. And it all happens in such orderly quiet: all these thousands of people passing on stairs and escalators, stepping on and off crowded trains, sliding off into the darkness with wobbling heads, and never speaking, like characters from Night of the Living Dead.

As I stood on the platform beneath another, fairly recent London civility—namely an electronic board announcing that the next train to Hainault would be arriving in 4 mins.—I turned my attention to the greatest of all civilities: the London Underground Map. What a piece of perfection it is, created in 1931 by a forgotten hero named Harry Beck, an out-of-work draughtsman who realized that when you are under ground it doesn’t matter where you are. Beck saw—and what an intuitive stroke this was—that as long as the stations were presented in their right sequence with their interchanges clearly delineated, he could freely distort scale, indeed abandon it altogether. He gave his map the orderly precision of an electrical wiring system, and in so doing created an entirely new, imaginary London that has very little to do with the disorderly geography of the city above.

Here’s an interesting trick you can play on people from Newfoundland or Lincolnshire. Take them to Bank Station and tell them to make their way to Mansion House. Using Beck’s map—which even p train eople from Newfoundland can understand in a moment—they will gamely take a Central Line train to Liverpool Street, change to a Circle Line train heading east and travel five more stops. When eventually they get to Mansion House they will emerge to find they have arrived at a point 200 feet further down the same street, and that you have had a nice breakfast and done a little shopping since you last saw them. Now take them to Great Portland Street and tell them to meet you at Regent’s Park (that’s right, same thing again!), and then to Temple Station with instructions to rendezvous at Aldwych. What fun you can have.! And when you get tired of them, tell them to meet you at Brompton Road Station. It closed in 1947, so you’ll never have to see them again.”

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