Author Insights - David Ashford
Moving to London — and *not* using the Tube. As a tourist I had relied on the network to get around. It made the city navigable. But now I began to explore the city on foot and to use buses. It was then that I realise how the Tube had been distorting my sense of the geography. My experience of the city above had been broken into fragments by Tube journeys, held together only by the Tube Map, and it turned out this orderly arrangement of brightly coloured lines bore little relation to the reality. I thought this magical. Illusions of an orderly Modernist utopia that existed only a Map. Why build such a city when you could simply map it? I wanted to find out precisely what had happened here.
2.What is the main argument of the book?
The Tube is the prototype for what French Anthropologist Marc Augé terms non-lieu — spaces like airports, motorways and supermarkets that have tentative connections to the physical geography, and that interpret themselves to their users through the media of signs, messages and maps. I trace the origin of the non-place back to the Victorian sub-surface railways, and show how British Modernists developed an aesthetic for this space that made it comprehensible, providing a template for the non-places that have since become so pervasive.
3.How does your approach differ from other research in this area?
Other research on the London Underground focuses on the commercial history of the railway company — or else consider it as an underground place, i.e. as part of a much longer history of underground spaces that extends right back to the Babylonian Underworld. This book provides a new framework for thinking about the network, that draws on Cultural Geography.
4.Did anything within your research surprise you?
When I began I’d expected to write a Cultural History of the Tube, that is to say, the history of how this railway has been represented over the past two centuries. What I found was that the literature and art were not just representing but producing the space. I’d stumbled across a dialectical process that enabled me to tell a story of how Londoners have transformed the spaces they have to negotiate each day — through literature, music, art.
5.Is it possible to conclude the influence which the London Underground has over the capital today?
I think it’s curious that such an intangible space — a prototype for the non-lieu — has become an emblem of the city under which it operates. London is a World-City at the heart of a global system for transits and transfers. So perhaps it’s apt the Underground Roundel is now a symbol for this city. Like the Tube Map itself, the London Underground enables us to grasp the history of the reality we now inhabit, and those ways in which we might change it.