Considering all the cynical baggage accumulated on life’s journey, retaining a little lingering magic in relation to a specific source of childhood fascination doesn’t do any harm; even if utterly illogical, it serves a purpose as a welcome interlude from the grown-up grind. I’ve often found that magic via the London Underground. Yes, we’re all aware of its numerous faults and no sane person would use it during the rush hour unless work made doing so an unavoidable necessity; but for me it’s the nearest non-Time Lords can get to owning a Tardis. You arrive in one station, jump on the train, you arrive at another station that looks like the one you just left, you travel up the steps and you’re in a completely different corner of the capital without having witnessed the route from A to B as one would over-ground. I’m well aware of the science, but it’s still magical to me.
However, from its innovative inception in 1863, the London Underground has regularly inspired as much dread in some as it has magic in others. A train service that could travel below the surface of the great metropolis naturally provoked shivers; perhaps it was the thought of people being ferried about in a neighbourhood previously reserved for the dead. These kinds of associations have continued to exert an influence over popular culture’s view of the Tube, something the numerous abandoned lines and ‘ghost stations’ have aided and abetted.
The 1967 ‘Doctor Who’ story, ‘The Web of Fear’, played on these old superstitions by taking Patrick Troughton’s Doctor and his companions deep underground, where the alien Yeti were plotting world domination; and anyone who has seen the 1972 horror movie, ‘Death Line’, will never have heard the familiar Tube phrase ‘Mind the Gap’ in quite the same way since. But there have also been occasions in which genuine horrors have visited these subterranean departure lounges; and while they remain amongst the most used suicide sites in London (643 were attempted across the network in the decade from 2000-10), death has often struck without premeditation.
Bethnal Green 1943, Moorgate 1975 and King’s Cross 1987 – three stations and three dates that marked a trio of disasters. The first was an awful accident, a stampede to Bethnal Green Tube Station’s wartime use as a makeshift air-raid shelter when the crowd mistakenly believed an air-raid was taking place; 173 were crushed in the panic, mostly women and children. It’s believed to be the largest single loss of civilian life during WWII on the home-front. The cause of the Moorgate tragedy of 1975 remains disputed, though many have accepted the driver drove into the tunnel end beyond the platform, killing himself and 43 passengers in an act of suicide. The King’s Cross fire of 1987 killed 31 and was thought to have begun when a lit match or cigarette ignited debris beneath the wooden escalators that were subsequently replaced; the incident also marked the start of a more rigorous enforcement of the Tube’s smoking ban.
There have also been more deliberate attempts at slaughter below street level. The IRA had a crack as far back as 1939, during a mainland bombing campaign that tends to be overshadowed by other events of that year; their more well-known assault on the city from 1973-76 saw various stations targeted, though the intended roll-call of casualties was mercifully small. It wasn’t until the 7/7 attacks of 2005 that the London Underground was the scene of a successful terrorist outrage, with an overall death-toll of 52. For many, the carnage of 7 July 2005 served as a good reason to avoid the Tube altogether, though as we have come to belatedly realise this year, any location in which crowds of people are liable to gather will suffice. Perhaps it’s the instinctive fear of being trapped underground that imbues this particular method of transport with such horrific resonance for many.
Today’s events at Parsons Green seem to have been the work of an amateur or maybe the mechanism simply cocked-up at the crucial moment. The home-made device was planted in a bucket inside a carrier bag in a carriage travelling along the District Line from Wimbledon and was detonated as the train was pulling into the station; its detonation appeared to cause what has been described as a ‘wall of fire’ that left 22 commuters with burns. Taking place at the height of the rush hour (around 8.20am), the device was obviously designed to provoke greater damage than it turned out to and police have already claimed to have identified a suspect via CCTV footage.
I think we can all probably write the script of what follows next, though the surname of the suspect and the mosque he frequented will remain a mystery until all is eventually revealed as the event continues to play out on rolling news channels for the next 24 hours. The well-oiled counter-terrorist machine rattled into action minutes after panicked passengers exited Parsons Green and the obligatory COBRA summit was arranged in record time. But will any of that mean we can sleep easy in our beds? Well, I reckon those of us who don’t suffer from insomnia probably do so regardless of whatever lunacy is currently gripping the waking world. The real concern surrounds public, rather than private, places.
For some it’s simply a convenient means to get from one part of London to another; for others it’s an unnatural incursion into a netherworld that should never have been disturbed; for some it’s a nightmarish, claustrophobic approximation of life as a sardine; and for others it’s one of the greatest engineering achievements those ingenious Victorians left behind for us. It’s all of these things and more, both good and bad. All that life can afford, as Dr Johnson might have said.
© The Editor