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London’s Cultured Underground

Published 15 May 2010

Some defile and vandalise it. Some find themselves late to work or stranded at the weekends because of it. And time seems to exist on a different scale for it. We love to moan and groan about our London Underground (LU) – and who can argue when it’s one of the most expensive public transport systems in the world (and yet still, can be cramped, unbearably hot and cause havoc with weekend plans).

For something which has the purpose of getting us from A to B, the London Tube can be a right royal pain in the neck. However, you’d be mistaken for thinking that the only purpose of the Tube is to get us from one place to another. Whilst that is its main function, it seems that our beloved Tube system has become quite the bastion of British culture, as I was to realise.

Today I stood in a packed, rush-hour Central Line train carriage and found myself in that awkward position of not knowing where to look. The choice was to either unintentionally stare at the sweaty armpit of Mr I-Am-Businessman, directly at Person A’s face, or Person B’s derriere. Quite soon, I realised that doing any of the three could cause ridicule, annoyance or raised eyebrows by some passengers and so I resorted to gazing around the carriage. Ah – thank goodness for the adverts! I read them as far down the carriage as I could see – which lead me to a poem, Out There by Jamie McKendrick:

Call me romantic, but for those few moments – reading that poem – I found myself transported to another world; away from red faces, trampled feet and Metro litter. The poem is one of many commissioned for use on the Tube under the ‘Poems on the Underground’ scheme. In fact, this is a scheme that will be celebrating its 25th anniversary next year. Conceived by American writer Judith Chernaik, the aim of the scheme ‘was to bring poetry to the wide ranging audience of passengers on the Underground’. Love or hate poetry, its aim was certainly met, with the ninth edition of the scheme’s eponymous book, Poems on the Underground (published 1999) having sold more than a quarter of a million copies and followed shortly by a tenth edition in 2001 – a definite indicator of Poems on the Underground’s success.  The poetry programme’s success was such that since then, public poetry is now shown on public transportation systems around the world, from New York to Shanghai, including Dublin, Paris, Athens, Stuttgart, St. Petersburg, Moscow, San Francisco and Barcelona. A newly compiled volume, Best Poems on the Underground, was released in 2009.

In addition to Poems on the Underground, the LU hosts Art on the Underground – a scheme launched 10 years ago that has enabled artists to produce original artwork to brighten up the Tube network. You can see the artwork on various billboards that occupy the walkways in stations, as well as covering the long station tunnel paths, and on the pocket paper Tube maps that are issued every month or so. Just like its sister scheme, Art on the Underground also gave rise to a book [Platform for Art, Art on the Underground]. And who could forget the buskers that line the subways? There are around 39 busking pitches across the Tube stations showcasing a variety of music throughout the week. Just recently, the LU held an underground busking competition during the Rhythm of London festival which took place from 17th-24th April. Videos of the 40 competitors will be put online on 17th May, when Londoners can vote for their favourite performer. The winner will be granted much coveted subterranean tunnel space and, of course, a busking licence.

But are these schemes necessary, or just a waste of LU time and commuters’ money? Judging from my own reaction to the poems and artworks, as well as those of friends and family, the LU is right to spend a little on cultural entities such as those mentioned. Poems like Out There by McKendrick have the ability to make a big impact on its readers, just as music and artwork can have a profound effect on its consumers. Whilst poems on the London Tube are not necessary, they certainly make a welcomed change from the hoards of adverts we are constantly bombarded with. And whilst Terry the tone-deaf trumpeter might not be the next Louis Armstrong, he certainly makes the daily London commute a less boring affair.

  • Hem

    You just can’t look at anyone on the train without looking like a pervert or just an awkward person nowadays. Everybody’s just reading or doing something else… For the amount we’re paying, they should at least install video into the trains, they’ve already done it with some buses…