Sunday, February 3, 2008

Notes from the Underground

London is a city that is in many ways defined by its public transportation. London has, to my mind, one of the best (but quirkiest) public transportation systems in the world. Because the system is so old, constantly breaking, hamstrung by striking unions or oversensitive security measures, or delayed for numerous other reasons, it can be easy to forget just how good it is, especially when you’re stuck hundreds of yards below ground in stifling air with 500 irritable strangers. And it certainly isn’t cheap, come to think of it, nor particularly self-explanatory. And people can be downright pushy. Nonetheless, the system is truly remarkable in its coverage and integration, particularly for someone used to the much worse to nonexistent American systems. In London, there is always a way to get anywhere you want to go, be it by bus, train, or boat. Unless they happen to not be working that day.

A typical London scene complete with a new-style double-decker bus

The public transportation of London is also iconic, achieved through a mixture of historical precedence and clever marketing. If you ask anyone to picture a London scene, chances are the picture includes a red double-decker bus, a black cab, or an Underground sign. This imagery is also very much part of the local psyche as well, not just fodder for souvenir t-shirts and refrigerator magnets, and Londoners have fought to maintain the old Routemaster buses and the long tradition of excellent Underground art and station architecture. In a city that has a museum for nearly any random subject one might imagine, there is predictably a museum in central London devoted entirely to the history of London transport - the aptly named and just recently reopened London Transport Museum.

Inside the London Transport Museum

Unlike most major cities, there is a lot of history to cover on the subject since London was usually the first to do many things, e.g., the first underground train line (1863), the first underwater tunnel (1843), etc. In order to walk you through all of this history, you first have to enter a lift (elevator) that pretends to be a time machine: instead of counting up floors as you ascend, it counts down in years and plays some momentous sounding soundtrack. This was a bit silly. The time machine drops you off in the horse and buggy era, with several examples of period carriages pulled by model horses (complete with model horse droppings).

It's fake, honest.

It took a few minutes to realize that the time machine and the fake horse poo were symptoms of the museum being largely focused on kids, something we hadn’t anticipated. I was expecting some long-winded explanations of the engineering feat of the Thames Tunnel, poorly built braking systems, and other bits of arcana mostly appreciated by train and bus afficionados, and, to be fair, there was a good amount of this type of information that was well presented and organized. However, it was hard to not be distracted by the multitudes of creepy mannequin people dressed in period costumes, presumably there to “entertain” children. If I were a child, I think I might develop a chronic fear of mannequins from these exhibits (much like my own fear of clowns).

Just don't make eye contact

Two hip cats and a real square

We chose to go on a Saturday with nice weather, the museum is right on the busy Covent Garden plaza, and the museum is full of trains, buses, and carriages to climb on, so perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising that the museum was a virtual playground. As much as I love kids, I do find it a bit hard to read long passages about the role of Underground stations as air raid shelters during WWII while screaming children dart through my legs.

The original Metropolitan Line train cars

Too bad this creepy guy was on board

Apart from getting to see real examples of a lot of the historic trains and buses and trolleys, many of which you could go into, I loved the poster art and the period photographs. The London Transport Museum has made a huge portion of its archive searchable online, and you can actually order reprints of any poster or photograph you want (we mined this resource heavily for Christmas presents this past year). We both love old poster art, and London has some of the best, so this is a dangerous thing for us to know about.

I wanted to play on the train, but they wouldn't let me

Some classic London Underground posters


Hildy von B said...

Was that an intentional MMW reference? You know, they were influenced by me.

Andy M. said...

Actually, Hildy, it was meant to be a Dostoevsky reference - I forgot about the Medeski, Martin & Wood album of the same name - but interpret it how ever you like. You do have amazingly long lasting musical influence, I'll grant you that.