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Giles Coren: ‘I love the nurturing smog of the Underground’

Posted at 10:00 am, May 5, 2015 in Fun London, Transport
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© Flickr: Paolo Margari

Giles Coren really doesn’t want YouTube on his tube.

I’ve only just noticed that there’s wi-fi on the tube (not on the trains yet but on the platforms) and I think it’s a damned shame, because by plugging their faces into the internet while they travel people are going to miss out on the primal awesomeness of simply being in a tube station.

The joy of the tube in recent years has been that you lose connectivity about a third of the way down the escalator (I love how people back-pedal on the first few stairs, trying to finish an SMS before they go out of range) and, cut off from the web, are forced to experience your environment directly and to take what entertainment you can from it.

Unconnected on the escalator, you have time to admire the hilarious places people have thought to put blobs of chewing gum: a wart for Clooney’s nose, a couple of thumb-sized nipples for a lass in a Wellwoman advert, a straggly, grey little cock for Russell Brand… I particularly enjoyed a huge bogey affixed to the nose of Kristin Scott Thomas’s Queen Elizabeth II (promoting ‘The Audience’) the other day at Cockfosters – imagine the loss to street art if the guy had wasted his booger on ‘The Lion King’ and only then spotted Kristin’s regal shnozz.

And then there are all the places where people, by chance unobserved and happening to have a pen handy, have had the presence of mind to write ‘fuck off’ on a TfL safety poster (I love those posters, with their old-fashioned rhyming: ‘Feel the need to do a poo? Wait until you find a loo!’).

I love the warm blast of air and soot, the nurturing smog of the Underground, the tiled bends in the corridors, the dorks who run because they think they can hear a train coming but it’s going the other way and the reassuring yellow metal barriers, there to stop you hurtling down the steps and straight into the path of a train.

If you’re writing an email on the platform you’re never going to go over and look down for the little mice: those tiny, soot-black soldiers scuttling along the lines, reminding you that they’ll be there with the cockroaches long after nuclear Armageddon, when we commuters are but dust.

Gripped by a Skype call, you won’t hear the announcements. The smug ones about how all lines are running smoothly, the way they now say: ‘Mind the gap, pleeeease’ because someone told them the old instruction was rude, or the inexplicably posh old woman at Tufnell Park who trills: ‘No smoking anyWHere on the Underground’, aspirating that ‘WH’ like an outraged duchess in an Ealing comedy.

Gawping at your tablet, you won’t notice the huge rivets on the spiral stairwells, like the inside of an Edwardian submarine, or all the mysterious wooden doors (where do they lead?), or the ‘quote of the day’ on the noticeboard, or the maps at those stations only one stop from a terminus, which are just two names joined by a line.

You won’t have a chance to marvel at the wood and brass of stations like St John’s Wood, or at the big red padlocked metal trunks (fire tools?), or the menacing, fenced-off ‘ventilation plants’, or at the duelling motifs at Finsbury Park (unless they’re local muggings) or the Sherlock Holmes excerpts at Baker Street or the spooky medieval murals at Charing Cross, or to laugh at the oscillating lizard eyes of passengers arriving too fast to read the name of the station.

Connected electronically to the outside world, kids may never again take their life in their hands just to draw a hairy cock and balls on the other side of the track, or play standing-on-the-white-line-until-the-controller-makes-a-safety-announcement-for-your-personal-entertainment.

It’s cheap, it’s inescapable, it passes the time until you die; but like everywhere else, the internet on the Underground takes all the ‘life’ out of life.

Scrolling through Twitter on the Tube? Tweet him @gilescorenRead more of Giles Coren’s columns.

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