* Prices may differ from that shown
This was surely not a straightforward book to complete. Universally recognized as the oldest and downright illogical metropolitan transport system in the world, 'the tube' has developed in a curiously haphazard version ever since the Metropolitan Line opened in January 1863, running from Paddington (then Paddington Bishop's Road Station) to Farringdon. Ever since then, it has been a sprawling network of improvisations and botch-jobs - but, in that peculiarly British compromise of 'muddling through', it works very well in practice. If it did not, it would hardly be carrying over one billion passengers a year.
That the Victorians ever had such a means of transport was down to a handful of forward-thinking souls. One was Charles Pearson, a Solicitor to London Corporation, a man of radical views who campaigned tirelessly for good causes. Another was the future Prime Minister William Gladstone, who was greatly in favour of public transport for several reasons and said that the best way to see London was always from the top of a bus. Over a century later, that's something that has probably not changed. While underground trains may not allow their passengers comparable views of the world around them, it is worth noting that the early carriages were essentially ordinary steam trains which ran below the streets in the middle of the City. As they were on normal tracks, after emerging from their tunnels they reappeared in the open air, and once more became part of the main-line railways. Even today, the 'underground' is 55% overground.
Within a year of the Metropolitan Line opening, the system had expanded eastwards to Moorgate, a station which in 1975 would be tragically associated with the worst peacetime accident ever to occur on the system. Within a few months it was joined by the Hammersmith & City Railway - in the days when, as the author reminds us, Hammersmith was still a pretty village. It proved an immediate success, and The Times was soon forced to eat its words of November 1861 that the proposed railway was 'Utopian', adding that even if it could be accomplished it would surely never pay. When it opened, the Metropolitan was hailed by the same paper as 'the greatest engineering triumph of its day', and its 'ingenious contrivances for obtaining light and ventilation were particularly commended'. By 1875 the Metropolitan and the District lines were carrying about 100,000 passengers on their branches and unclosed circle, as further stations were added to the network. The doubters who maintained that it could never work were soon proved very wrong.
Throughout his text, as he traces the development of an enterprising Victorian scheme which like Topsy just growed, Martin produces several rather appealing facts and tidbits. Overcrowding was declared to be 'a permanent feature of the rush hour operation of trains' - not since the introduction of the Travelcard in 1983, but as long ago as 1915. That sounds familiar, doesn't it? The Circle Line was known as the comedy turn of the Underground, and generated various urban myths such as the man who died on it and then went round all day, or the language school which conducted its classes on Circle trains, as the collective daily fare was cheaper than office rental. The author was personally informed by an engineer that it would be better if we did not walk on the escalators, but merely stood patiently on them, as the swaying and bouncing motion is bad for them. Moreover, it is perhaps not surprising to read that when the Lost Property offices opened, the most frequently mislaid items were umbrellas, with quarter of a million a year being received. These days it is nearer 10,000, indicating that the age when every white-collar professional carried one is long since gone - or maybe people are more careful with them these days. The fact that mobile phones were not surprisingly high on the list of lost items on the trains in 2011 seems to disprove the latter theory. Also Victoria is the busiest station, with Oxford Circus and King's Cross not far behind.
This is a very informative and also entertaining history of the sprawling system which has long been part of every resident's or visitor's experience. Martin writes with commendable humour, while not brushing aside tragic aspects such as the Moorgate disaster referred to above, and likewise the even more shocking wartime tragedy in March 1943 at Bethnal Green when 173 people were killed, largely as a result of panic when people crowded into the station for shelter at the sound of anti-aircraft guns and many were trampled to death underfoot. Like it or loathe it, it is surely impossible to imagine London without the Underground, and anybody who was ever travelled on a train through those often dark and overcrowded tunnels will surely approach this book with fascination as I did, unable to resist the opportunity to learn more about how the mighty oak grew from a small acorn in mid-Victorian Britain.
Although he was born in Yorkshire, Andrew Martin has long been enthralled by the London Underground. His father worked on British Rail, and Andrew himself therefore had free travel on the system as well as a Privilege Pass which entitled him to free first-class train travel on the national rail network. Having lived in London for twenty-five years, commuting to various newspaper offices in his employment as a journalist, a job which has included writing a regular magazine column, Tube Talk, he is well qualified to write this enjoyable, and enlightening social history of the world's greatest and most famous underground railway.
This is a revised version of the review I originally posted on other review sites
Underground Overground by Andrew Martin is subtitled "A Passenger's History of the Tube". Since he was young, Martin has been fascinated by the tube, and this is his attempt to tell its history, not from the historian's point of view, but as a passenger.
Since I moved to London, I've developed an interest in the tube. I have read about it, but I'm not that interested in the technical or engineering side of its history. I am interested in the social history of the underground, of how it contributed to London's growth and made it into the city it is today. From this point of view, Martin's book seemed ideal for a reader like me.
The first underground line was the Metropolitan, and it brought a wave of other sub-surface lines with it - those are the lines which are literally just below the surface, such as the aforementioned Metropolitan or District, not the deep tubes like the Central or Piccadilly lines. The deep tubes soon followed however, and with the underground network growing and flourishing, people were able to work further from their homes and travel there cheaply. It brought about residential growth, most famously "Metroland" along the Metropolitan line. London now is unimaginable without the underground, despite all the complaints about the service and the overcrowding, and indeed London would not exist as we know it without the underground.
Martin is not an engineer, but a journalist with an interest in the underground. He wrote a transport column for the Evening Standard, and through that seems to have made many contacts within Transport for London. In Underground Overground, he tells the full history of the underground, but in a friendly and accessible manner, keeping it light on technical details and light in tone. This is not a book by an historian: you may find many of the same interesting facts or amusing stories you would read in, say, Christian Wolmar's The Subterranean Railway, but Martin's interest is mainly in the social history rather than the railway history.
His tone is light and often wry; he shares amusing anecdotes and is frequently ironic in his attitude. He may mock the underground and its less-than-straightforward history, but it is with affection, and it is clear that he really does enjoy the underground. He explains in his introduction that for him, a tube journey is something to be enjoyed in and of itself, it is not merely a way of getting from A to B. This is something I can understand, having done the same myself.
The subtitle of "A Passenger's History of the Tube" had led me to expect a work which was full of passenger's observations through the years, but this was a misapprehension. The passenger is Martin himself, a tube passenger with more than a passing interest in its history.
Underground Overground is a thoroughly enjoyable book, and one which all Londoners should read - how often have you travelled by tube but never thought about how that tube came to be there? There is so much history in something we take for granted every day, and Martin reveals that history in a book which is highly readable and full of humour.