Going Underground A letter from London

Text: Will Self

The jokes about British inability to deal with any even moderately severe weather conditions are worn thin by repetition – leaves on the line stop the trains running, blushes on a young girl’s cheeks stop the trains running, and snow and ice (or any variation thereof, such as slush, frost or indeed… rime) is guaranteed to gum up the public transportation works. The soi-disant ‘Beast from the Baltic’ has been blowing in across the British Isles the past few days, and up north the entire infrastructure has freeze-dried into paralysis.

Here in London, however, the great hypocaust of the city – filled with fibre-optic cable tracking, sewers, electricity power lines, gas mains, secret government bunkers etc. – together with the background radiation pumped out by the myriad overheated buildings, ensures that what snow does fall, pretty much melts on impact. This morning, however, I awoke to a scene I haven’t seen for at least a decade: a thin white coating of the stuff that’s at once highly individualistic – no flake the same as its neighbour – and an undifferentiated mass. In a way, London snow stands proxy for Londoners – and indeed any big city dwellers; after all, soon enough it – and we – will be gone.

Why so gloomy, Will? Well, the cold snap is a kick in the hyperborean’s arse, if you see what I mean: we’ve struggled through a long, chilly, dank-dark winter, and now comes this!

Under such conditions the only way to go is down – so down we go. The London tube system, with its 210 stations and 250 miles of track is a crucial component of the city’s hypocaust, and in winter, besides providing you with the quickest and most efficient way of getting from Arnos Grove to Baker Street, it’s also reliably toasty. I more or less grew up on the London tube – indeed, I sometimes think of my childhood as one long tube ride; one I embarked on, aged 7 (when I first started riding alone), and which ended… well, to be frank, I don’t think it’s ended yet.

Because for me, the tube, with its foodie-virus-laden zephyrs-from-nowhere, its swaddled, whey-faced commuters, and its fallopian tunnels, is nothing so much as a giant womb, within which I live out my own neoteny-without-end. I love the tube in all seasons – but colder seasons are best down below. In London, when the winter solstice is nigh, you can often feel as if you’re living entirely underground. Apart from a few hours in the middle of the day, it’s dark outside – while you travel, via a vast system of tunnels, from one well-lit burrow to the next. And this bouleversement takes place not only at the physical level – but at the psychic one as well. We think in this context of Freud’s distinction between the manifest and the latent content of the dream that’s human being.

The superficial city, with its well-appointed office blocks, hurrying pedestrians, and myriad fast-food outlets, is what constitutes our waking reveries: it’s about going to work and going home again to feed your family – it’s about being a useful and productive member of society; it’s about revolving in the hamster-wheel defined by the intersecting metrics of time-and-money – a state of being I once saw beautifully summed up by a graffito on a supermarket car park wall: ‘Work, Consume, Die’. But this is only the manifest city – the latent city is the fibre-optic cable tracking, the sewers peristalsising massive fatbergs, the electricity power ducts, the gas mains, the secret government bunkers, and of course, the tube. This ulterior realm is where all the intensity of our febrile desire is generated – and where all the bodily fluids we deny ooze, flow, flux and reflux.

Down in the stygian depths, ill-lit by neon, the Cockneys sway and lurch. All are silent. I was in a carriage this morning packed to its filthy steel gills with commuters – a giant canister of corned human – and not a sound was to be heard save for the faint scritch-itch of wired r‘n’b. Visitors to our fair and overpriced city find the monumental ataraxy of its inhabitants hard to take, but trust me: this is the true unconsciousness of London, a great and turbid flow of humanity, pulsing forward to the deathly drive of late capitalism, each one gripping a copy of the Evening Standard, its headline screaming, ‘BEWARE THE BEAST FROM THE EAST!


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