Saturday, 28 March 2009

Tube tales

Following the stunning success of my earlier post about airports, which was literally inundated with a comment, I’ve decided to offer you a few disconnected thoughts/quotations about the Underground, prompted by a recent trip to London to see my publisher and those nice people at the Guardian.

1. The PA systems on the London Underground use the voices of professional actors, digitally recorded and stored on computer. The operator can programme the computer to play several different messages (‘Stand clear of the train doors please …’, ‘Please remember to keep all your belongings with you …’, ‘London Underground wishes to apologise …’) at pre-set intervals. ‘Mind the Gap’, reiterated ad infinitum over the PA system to customers alighting from trains and now emblazoned on sweatshirts and baseball caps, is an uncomfortable reminder that the trains do not quite fit the platforms. (The phrase originated on the Northern Line at Embankment, where the gap between the curved platforms and the train was particularly wide.)

2. With its fluctuating levels of decrepitude and renovation, the Tube is a case study in the unevenness of progress. The contrast is most marked at Stratford, where the scruffy old Central Line platform stands next to a new glass-and-aluminum terminus serving the Jubilee Line Extension. The Underground is full of the residues of past lives: seats with depressed springs from being sat on by countless bottoms, headrests blackened by hair oil and dirt, skeletons of defunct roundels, disused lift shafts, ghost stations with darkened platforms which trains pass through without stopping.

3. ‘For most travellers, distant locations such as Cockfosters, Morden and Upminster are of little consequence; these places, if they exist at all, have a conceptual rather than a physical life, prompted only by illuminated destination boards and the unremitting automated litany of train Tannoy systems.’ – Simon James

4. Even the humblest London office workers have air-conditioning, water coolers and a reasonable amount of desk space. But a Tube train on one of the deep-level lines can squeeze 1600 passengers through tunnels less than twelve feet in diameter. The transport of live animals within the EU is subject to rules about minimum space and maximum temperature that would be the envy of most rush-hour Tube passengers in the summer. The overcrowding on the Tube was brought home to me quite starkly during one journey a few years ago, when I saw a passenger angrily accuse another of using his back as a bookrest.

5. Tube travellers practise what the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman calls ‘dead-eyeing’, in which two individuals accidentally exchange eye contact but ‘do not ratify the exchange of lookings with the ritual of “social recognition”’. The unspoken rule about not staring at one’s fellow passengers exists in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that the layout of the carriages, with longitudinal rather than transverse seating as in most mainline trains, actually encourages staring.

6. There is not enough room on the Underground to undertake essential maintenance when the trains are running. So it’s in the middle of the night that delivery people refill the chocolate machines; cleaners sweep the platforms and remove the 15 tons of rubbish left by passengers every day; bill stickers change the large posters lining the tunnels opposite the platforms; and a train nicknamed the ‘big yellow duster’ sweeps the tunnels of daily debris such as dust, hair, skin cells and particles of brake lining left by passing trains.

7. The absence of published train times – it runs a ‘metro service’, which means that (hopefully) trains turn up too regularly to warrant a timetable - reinforces the sense that the Underground exists outside the normal chronology of the overground world. The principal indicators of time on the platforms are the dot-matrix information displays hung from the ceiling, which tell people how many minutes they will have to wait for the next train. But these minutes are a notoriously contractable or (more usually) expandable resource, because their accuracy depends on incomplete signalling information and boarding delays on stations further up the line. There is an urban myth that London Underground ‘minutes’ are decimalised to last 100 seconds, but in fact they often last even longer than this.

8. The adverts placed above people’s heads in the Tube carriages often provide a barbed counterpoint to the journey: ‘You are here. You should be here [arrow pointing to a picture of a beach].’ ‘Scotland by Air. 1½ hours from this poster.’ ‘After a hard way’s work, I love to ride the tube’ [an advert promoting tourism in the West Country with a photo of a bronzed surfer riding a tubular wave].

9. When escalators first appeared on the Underground in 1911, at Earl’s Court, many passengers worried that their feet would be trapped in the machinery. ‘Bumper’ Harris, a man with a wooden leg, was drafted in to demonstrate how easy and safe it was to travel on them. Soon the escalators were a tourist attraction. People stopped at Earl’s Court deliberately to try them out. When a second escalator was installed at Paddington station, staff directed passengers to it with megaphones: ‘This way to everywhere! Moving staircase in operation – the world’s wonder!’ London Underground began the stand-on-the-right rule on escalators in 1944: ‘Here’s another bright suggestion, standing right avoids congestion.’ Today the Underground’s escalators carry passengers at a maximum speed of 145 feet a minute. Above 160 feet per minute, people hesitate before getting on them. (Source: Peter Campbell, ‘Why Does It Take So Long to Mend an Escalator?’, London Review of Books, 7 March 2002)

10. The notion that our lives can be irrevocably changed by a chance encounter is a recurring theme of Underground narratives – like Tube Tales, a series of short films set on the Underground in which narrative possibilities are sparked by out-of-the-ordinary events, such as a drunken woman vomiting on other passengers or a group of people debating what to do about a bird trapped in a carriage. Then there is Sliding Doors which, like Kieslowski’s Blind Chance, uses two parallel plotlines based on whether or not the central character (Gwyneth Paltrow) manages to catch a train. Many narratives about the Tube overcompensate for its sense of communal loneliness by pointing to the possibility of romantic encounters - like the recent advert on the Tube for Dateline which showed a man and woman passing each other on adjoining escalators with the lines: ‘Don’t let love pass you by. The person you go past or the person sitting next to you could be your future partner.’

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Billboard backs

I like Stephen Gill’s photographs. One of his books is called A Book of Field Studies, after those Observer guides produced between the 1940s and 1980s on subjects like Birds, Pond Life, European Costume or Cacti and Other Succulents. He applies the same patiently scholarly approach to his studies of mundane phenomena like road works and cashpoint machines. This is a simple but beautiful idea: he photographs the backs of advertising billboards, which usually look out onto unglamorous settings like railway tracks, car parks or breaker’s yards, and then puts a caption underneath the photograph which is the advertising copy that’s on the other side, the side you’re supposed to see. So some uninviting image of urban grunge is accompanied by words like this:

Free texts when you join Orange. Pay as you go.

No need to keep the receipt. A diamond is forever.

Welcome to Marlboro Country. Smoking when pregnant harms your baby.

L’Oreal Paris. Because you’re worth it.

Turn the key. Start a revolution. Mazda.

The misfit between the image and the caption seems to capture the historical unevenness of daily life, the way that our mundane existences lag behind more spectacular transformations. For the French theorist Henri Lefebvre the everyday is as a kind of ‘residual deposit’ which lags behind the more glamorous, accelerated experiences of contemporary society, a ‘great, disparate patchwork’ that modernity ‘drags in its wake’.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The temporality of the everyday is drowned out by the silence of the ordinary.’ – Susan Stewart

Saturday, 7 March 2009

UnReithian TV

Here is a good game. You look through the TV listings in search of the programme that, from its title alone, would be most likely to make Lord Reith turn in his grave. Here are a few guaranteed winners (I haven’t made any of these up, you know). You will note that the makers of banal TV seem to have an addiction to using the words ‘me’ and ‘my’ in the title. I haven’t actually seen any of these programmes so it’s perfectly possible that they are shining examples of the Reithian mission to ‘inform, educate and entertain’. But I doubt it.

Help! My Dog’s as Fat as Me (BBC3)

Could You Eat an Elephant? (C4)

The World’s Hairiest Man and Me (C4)

Travels with My Beard (BBC3)

Revenge of the Bin Men (C4)

Addicted to Boob Jobs (BBC3)

Stick Thin in India (BBC3)

Squirrel Wars (C4)

Can Fat Teens Hunt? (BBC3)

Help Me Anthea, I’m Infested (BBC3)

World of Stupid Criminals (Five)

Snog, Marry, Avoid? (BBC3)

Other People’s Breast Milk (C4)

Hoodies Can Be Goodies (BBC3)

Freaky Eaters: Addicted to Spaghetti Hoops (BBC3)

Britain’s Worst Teeth (BBC3)

The Hunt for Britain’s Tightest Person (C4)

Baby-Faced Body Builders (BBC3)

Britain’s Really Disgusting Foods (BBC3)

Naked: Estate Agents (BBC3)

My Man Boobs and Me (BBC3)

Kelvin MacKenzie’s Brilliant Britain (Blighty)

PS the FT magazine does a ‘Defining Moment’ column which I write once a month. You can find it at They always have a really good picture to accompany it in the magazine, but they don’t always include it on the website, presumably for copyright reasons.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Down with corporate fonts

I note with dismay the growing trend for enforcing what are called ‘corporate fonts’. This means that companies and organisations have a set font, usually something dreary like Arial or Univers, and even a set font size like 12 point, and they insist that everyone uses it for all official documents, even internal trivia like memos and minutes of meetings.

This is a shameful assault on our typographic liberty. One of my modest and harmless pleasures is experimenting with new fonts. It’s how I bring a bit of excitement into my humdrum life. For a long time I was a Verdana loyalist – that’s the font invented by someone at Microsoft because it looks good on screen. Then I went through a Courier phase, a font apparently loved by older admin staff who have an atavistic longing for typewriters. My favourite font at the moment is Georgia, which is fortunate as it is this blog’s favourite font as well.

I have noticed that I can be working on an incredibly pedestrian and puddingy piece of writing, and just by the simple act of changing the font I can make it seem really urbane and sophisticated. I think it has something to do with getting rid of what printers call ‘widows’ – stray words in a line on their own.

In his rather gripping history of fonts, Type, Simon Loxley suggests that there are basically two typographic traditions: the European one which is interested in scientific questions of legibility, and the English one which sees type as a form of creative expression. No prizes for guessing which side I’m on – even if the English typographers were all a bit bonkers. Eric Gill, creator of the classic Gill Sans, once wrote a book called Trousers and the Most Precious Ornament, which argued that ‘the restrictions of the garment in question dishonoured the male sexual organ’.

My love of fonts is really a displaced love of stationery. When I was at school, particularly at the start of each academic year, I used to think that if I could just find the right rubber or the perfect pencil case, all the other things in my life would slot into place. For a while I was the Imelda Marcos of pens.

I’ve long since given up on the idea of a perfect world created out of stationery. But I’m still holding out for the coming of the great font utopia. In this beautiful year zero, in which I will be king of the typefaces, no one will be allowed to impose a font on another human being. Everyone – even the dull, unimaginative users of vanilla-type fonts like Arial and Times New Roman – will be treated with magnanimity.

Except, of course, for the erstwhile enforcers of ‘corporate fonts’. These people will be shown no mercy. They will be hunted down and called to account for their terrible crimes against taste and beauty. Their punishment will be a life sentence of using WingDings, the infamous font which turns every letter into an impenetrable series of hieroglyphics. There will be no hope of parole.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘I went to join the revolution but I couldn’t find a parking space’ – Song on National Public Radio in the US