Sunday, 20 July 2014

Victoria: Victor


There was a lot of debate about what to call the Victoria Line.  The example of the Bakerloo was in a lot of people's heads, leading to names like the "Viking" (VIctoria-KING's Cross St Pancras) and "Walvic" (WALthamstow-VICtoria) being bandied about.  Victoria was the only one that people liked, and it just stuck.

It makes sense because Victoria Station is the fulcrum the whole line is built around.  Until it came along, the only lines serving it were the District and Circle, making travelling anywhere else in the city a hassle.  With the new line you could finally cross between the terminii on opposite sides of town without changing trains.


I curtsied to Her Majesty's Royal Seat Backs and then headed upstairs.  Victoria is a bit of a nightmare at the moment.  The relatively small Tube station, buried under the forecourt, is finally being expanded.  For years the staff have had to restrict access at peak times because the station just gets so full; the expanded station will have a whole new ticket hall on Bressenden Place, plus new passages and lifts to try and spread the load.  They're even putting in passive access to Crossrail 2, in case anyone ever gets round to building it.


It means that the roads around the station are currently a whole big mess.  Vast holes in the ground have been dug, meaning that pedestrians are forced to take ever more tortuous routes through shuttered walkways.  Buses are diverted around them.  Small signs try to help the tourists heading for Billy Elliot and Wicked, pointing out different routes from the people who just want to get to work.  A pedestrian crossing has a huge notice: "DO NOT USE THIS CROSSING."


It was all a bit exhausting.  After clattering around the rat run, I finally ended up crossing by Westminster Cathedral and entered Cardinal Place.  It's an astonishingly bland shopping centre, filled with chain restaurants and a Marks and Spencer aimed at office workers who need a new shirt.  The best thing about it is it had some seats opposite Zizzi where I could have a sit down and leech off their free wifi for a bit.


I was soon joined by Ian.  He works in the area, and I'd texted him a picture of me outside the station with the warning "STALKER ALERT".  He recoiled slightly at my dishevelled appearance - it was an unbearably hot day, and my shirt was soaked through with sweat - but he had a sit down and we had a little chat.  It was a pleasing break after spending the morning talking to myself.


Between Victoria and Buckingham Palace are a network of small, exclusive residential streets.  The houses were no bigger than an ordinary town house but there were Mercedes and BMWs parked outside; discreet CCTV cameras covered the entrances.  There were pubs that looked like they hadn't changed for two hundred years.


As so often happens, my thoughts turned to James Bond, and specifically, Moonraker: not the outer space extravaganza from 1979, but the 1955 novel.  Unlike its film counterpart, the novel of Moonraker is entirely set in London and Kent.  There's no globetrotting to Rio or Venice, just a series of taut, well-written scenes.  I think Moonraker's a deeply underrated novel, and its heroine, Gala Brand (short for Galatea) is an incredibly modern woman.  She's an undercover policewoman, she is a capable mathematician, and she shows more bravery and guile than many other Bond Girls put together.

About two-thirds of the way through the novel, Gala is being taken to London in her cover role as Sir Hugo Drax's secretary.  Through a nifty bit of sleight of hand, she steals Drax's notebook with his information about the Moonraker missile, and deduces that its target is not a test site in the North Sea, but is instead the centre of London.  She imagines:
The thin needle of the rocket.  Dropping fast as light out of a clear sky.  The crowds in the streets.  The Palace.  The nursemaids in the park.  The birds in the trees.  The great bloom of flame a mile wide.  And then the mushroom cloud.  And nothing left.  Nothing.  Nothing.  Nothing.
It was written in 1954, but Gala's vision of London as it's obliterated hasn't really changed.  That part of the city - around the Palace, around Ebury Street, where both Ian Fleming and Hugo Drax had homes - is still much as Gala pictured.  The nursemaids in the park might be Russian and Polish instead of starched English nannies, but they're still pushing the babies of the wealthy around St James' Park just as they did then.


As I reached the Palace, I realised something was happening.  There were more crowds than you'd expect - not that it's ever quiet - and some parts of the road had been fenced off.  For a moment I thought the Queen might be about.  I've never seen the Queen, never seen a single member of the Royal Family in fact, which is probably illegal; after all, I pay for them - the very least I can expect is the odd regal wave from the back of a Bentley.


I pushed through the throng.  That nasty Little Englander tendency that lurks under the surface of every Briton threatened to poke its head above water as I inwardly tutted at the foreigners and their inability to queue or let people past.  Your selfies to send home to Osaka can wait, young lady; permit me to pass!  I heard the distant noise of horns and I realised, delightfully, I was here for the Changing of the Guard.


Every now and then it's nice to be reminded what a ridiculous country we live in.  People were queuing up to see a load of men in bearskins walk round the corner.  In any normal country that would have long been abandoned but in Britain, in London, we carry on with it like it's the most normal thing in the world.  This happens every day, and no-one has said "surely there are more effective ways for the police to be spending their time than closing roads and holding back crowds for this?"  We are a strange little island.


St James' Park was busy.  The sun had brought out everyone in the city.  They sprawled over the grass, skirts tucked up high, shirts unbuttoned to soak up the rays.  Girls rested their heads on their boyfriends' laps; a party of German schoolchildren were corralled into place by an exasperated teacher.  A couple of Americans were bowled over by the tame squirrels who danced around their feet looking for crumbs.


I left the Park behind the unlikely Tudor confection of St James' Palace and headed into Pall Mall.  Marlborough House, the home of the Commonwealth Secretariat, was subtly gated and guarded.  It's such a strange entity, the Commonwealth; a ridiculously dysfunctional family who only get together now and then because the old lady at its head still carries a wave of affection.  Every now and then they get together for a big event - the Games, the odd conference - where they all pretend they don't secretly hate one another.  It's like a giant, multinational version of Christmas dinner.


After a brief wander through clubland (not the Magaluf foam party kind) I doubled back along Piccadilly to head for Green Park.  At one point I passed 138 Piccadilly, the home of Eon Productions, makers of the Bond films; I briefly rehearsed what I would say if Barbara Broccoli wandered past, and eventually settled on "fhasdhjkhgfkjhdsfje" and fainting at her feet.


Green Park station got a makeover ahead of the Olympics.  Disabled access was provided throughout and a small pavilion was built on the Park side to house the entrance.  For the first sixty years of its life Green Park was just a halt on the Piccadilly Line; the Victoria and Jubilee came along in quick succession and turned it into a hub.


Down below, the Victoria Line platforms have a pretty dull seat pattern.  It's meant to be trees, but it just looks like tedious blobs - a bit like the Pimlico spots, only bigger.


I wasn't looking forward to Oxford Circus.  My anxiety goes popping like mad in crowds and everything around Oxford Street is just a seething mass of frustrated bodies, sweating and swearing.  I clambered off the train and went hunting along the platform for the distinctive seat backs.


I wandered up and down, but I couldn't see any sign of Hans Unger's tiles.  The station's been modernised; there are those generic grey seats instead of the Victoria Line's wooden ones.  I'm going to give TfL the benefit of the doubt and conclude that I just didn't see them; if they've actually got rid I'll be writing a strong letter of complaint to Boris.


Oxford Circus was the first station to receive Victoria Line works, and the last one to be finished; the highly restricted site, millions of passengers and two other lines passing through made it all a nightmare.  A deck had to be built over the top of the junction so they could construct a ticket hall underneath.  It's still a mess.  I pushed past the enthusiastic shoppers headed for - urgh - Niketown and pressed onto Regent Street.  The road technically ends with All Souls Church, designed by John Nash himself, but now it's colossally overshadowed by Broadcasting House behind it.


I'd not been to Broadcasting House since they finished its redevelopment.  I'm still not sure about it.  I'm bored with mint green glass, and I think I might have been happier if the BBC had built a separate building that didn't relegate the wonderful Art Deco building to just a side entrance.  I'm also still bitter about Television Centre being decommissioned.


It's impossible for me to be mad at the BBC for too long, though.  The Beeb is a wonderful institution, a powerhouse of British culture which we should treasure and adore.  It's not perfect but nothing is perfect.  Not even me.  Imagine if it wasn't there - if it was like ITV.  Or worse, Sky.  It doesn't bear thinking about.

With a celebrity spot under my arm - Joe Lynam, BBC News' red-headed business correspondent - I ducked into the streets of Fitzrovia.


I was starting to flag.  I was wearing an old pair of trainers that rubbed my feet; when I took off my shoes that night they looked like a Zygon's back, peppered with blisters.  The sticky hot weather wasn't good to walk in.  It was the kind of heat that squats on your chest and breathes heavily in your face.  My t-shirt was still dripping wet, and my underwear felt like a marshland.

It didn't help that I was in a part of London I'd seen a million times before.  I know, I know, when you're tired of London you're tired of life, etcetera, but the streets between Oxford Street and the Euston Road were one of my old stomping grounds.  When I was at Sixth Form, I had a single lesson at 9am on a Friday and then nothing for the rest of the day.  I used to use this time to go up to the Capital, and I'd spend the day wandering about the city, visiting book shops and music stores.  Soho, Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury were my pet territories; they were the places I floated towards.  That and the Tube, of course; I'd spend hours just riding the network, clutching my bible - London Underground Stations, by David Leboff (incidentally, if you're reading this David, an updated version would be most welcome).

As a result there wasn't much new for me to see.  It's not a particularly interesting part of the city anyway - it's offices and flats and churches.  It's generic Zone 1.


Apart from the piece of 1960s glory that's the Post Office/Telecom/BT Tower.  It looks a little naked now they've taken off all those old satellite dishes, but it still shines as an improbable beacon of the future.  My favourite urban myth is the story that it's designed to wobble but not topple in the event of a nuclear explosion; I quite like the idea of Drax's Moonraker rocket smashing into the city and the only thing left standing is a wildly oscillating BT Tower, boinging backwards and forwards like a car aerial in a cat's paw.


Damn you, IRA, for that bloody bomb.  I could have been supping a cocktail in its revolving top if it weren't for you.  Of all your crimes, this is perhaps the worst.*

Soon I was on the Tottenham Court Road, approaching Warren Street station.  It's a particularly unlovely junction, a confusing mass of traffic lanes and caught up buses.  There are loads of blank tourist hotels here too so there's always a preponderance of confused people with maps trying to find 221b Baker Street.

The station's pleasing though, with its circular entrance calling your attention.


It was another late addition to the Victoria's line up; the planners were keen to whisk you from Euston into the West End as quickly as possible, until it was pointed out that an interchange here would spread some of the load of people changing for the Northern Line.  Powers were snuck in quick to build it so that construction wouldn't be delayed.


As for its seat back design, the wordplay made a welcome return.  What's another word for a warren?  A maze!


Apparently there is a solution to it, if you want to stand on the platform for ten minutes.  I was almost tempted, but there was a train waiting for me, so I just jumped aboard.

My final stop was Euston.  You heard me; final.  I'd had enough.  My feet were killing me and I was incredibly thirsty - my bottles of water had run out somewhere around Green Park.  Plus it was lunch time and I hadn't eaten for ages.

Being at Euston didn't help.  I know Euston far too well.  I've spent too many hours stood in its empty marble forecourt, staring up at the departures board in the hope that they'll announce my platform.  They never do, because apparently the platform for the Liverpool train is a state secret, and it can only be revealed moments before it leaves.  (On our trip home that night, the train was actually delayed because they didn't announce the platform, and it merrily fell off the end of the departure board.  Cue an emergency announcement and a whole load of Scousers belting their way to platform 15).


Having the (then recently demolished) Euston Arch as the logo just makes things worse.  It prepares you for a temple to classicism, not the glass and concrete mess that's upstairs.  It's going to get worse before it gets better, too; HS2 will terminate here, meaning another dozen platforms have to be squeezed in somewhere, plus Crossrail 2 will pass right underneath it.  The plans at the moment involve one giant behemoth of an underground station linking King's Cross St Pancras with Euston (and probably Euston Square as well); I quite like the idea of walking the length of the Euston Road without ever poking your head above ground.

I rode the escalator into the mainline terminus (unusually, there's no separate access to the tube station) and hunted around for a decent sign.  The one above the escalator didn't have the station name on it so I wandered off to one side and made an idiot of myself by the cash machines.


Part of me really wanted to push on and finish the line.  I've barely travelled north of King's Cross, and I've certainly never gone as far as Walthamstow.  But I was tired.  I'd come back to London another day and finish it.  The Victoria Line wasn't going anywhere, and I was always happy to ride the Tube.  It's one of life's simplest pleasures.


*obviously I'm joking.  Please don't shoot me in the kneecaps.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Victoria Regina

Earlier this week the BF had to go away for a meeting.  Normally I'd wave him off with a cheery smile, looking forward to an evening of self-indulgence (pizza, beer, and at least one Bond film).  However, on this occasion, I decided to tag along, as it meant 24 hours in London.  You can never visit London enough.

While he was in his meeting, though, I'd have to find a way to amuse myself.  I thought about walking the Crossrail route, but that's largely picking round a series of holes in the ground these days.  Perhaps a stroll round the Circle Line - no, wait, Ian and Adrian did that the Saturday before.  So I settled for the Victoria Line.

If pressed, I'd probably have to name the Victoria as my favourite of all the Tube lines.  The deep-level tubes are better than the sub-surface ones, for reasons too obvious to mention, and the Victoria is the only one that never pokes its head above ground (unless you're an employee headed for the depot).  Since it was planned and constructed within a relatively short period of time, there's a consistency to its design and layout; this is in direct contrast to the mainly cobbled-together nature of the other lines (Kingsbury and Westminster are both on the Jubilee, but Kingsbury is like a garden suburb semi and Westminster is a glittering steel station from the future; sixty years separate their construction).


I started at the end: Brixton.  The plans for the Victoria Line took decades to come to fruition - it was first suggested in the 1930s - and its southern terminus thrashed around all over the place.  East Croydon, West Croydon, Coulsdon; there was even one idea that the line would make a weird turn to the west after Victoria and take over the Wimbledon branch of the District line.  Brixton was finally settled on.  It was cheaper than heading all the way across South London, but it still brought the Tube to an area of the city that was without Underground lines, and was close to Brixton railway station for interchanges.

On the platform, I found one of the Victoria Line's little delights.  Each station had a unique piece of artwork commissioned and installed in the seating alcove; it took inspiration from the surroundings or the name or the history.  At Brixton they have - and it makes me smile just typing this - a ton of bricks.


Genius.

I'd been here once before, about 19 years ago, but it had been a very brief visit.  Since then the ticket hall's been revamped, given lifts for disabled access, and had an absolutely colossal roundel installed in the glass window over the entrance.


I immediately took a wrong turn out of the station, going left instead of right.  I blame the fact that I spotted a sign for Electric Avenue in the distance, and, as it's widely known, you've got to rock down to Electric Avenue.


Then I took it higher, continuing along the Brixton Road towards Windrush Square.  I saw the legendary Ritzy cinema, then did a circuit of St Matthew's Church before heading back the way I came.


I started to feel guilty.  This is nothing new - I feel guilty about something on a minute by minute basis - but here I felt bad for pre-judging Brixton.  The name is tainted; it brings up images of riots, violence, urban blight.  I'd expected it to be something like a ghetto.  Instead I found a lively, exciting district, filled with trees and shops.  It was just another town centre.  It certainly wasn't a byword for the collapse of society.

I ducked down a side road filled with tall villas with staircases up to the front and emerged on the Stockwell Road, opposite a skate park.  A BMX-er was already putting it to good use, riding the humps on one wheel, two wheels, spinning the frame of his bike under his body in mid-air.  Behind him a pair of cranes hinted that the rich arms of the city were starting to stretch this way.


There were a parade of different cafes and stores all along the road, each representing a different country and each one happily co-existing with its neighbour.  A Lebanese cafe next to a West Indian food store; a Portuguese restaurant beside a Ghanian hair salon.  Posters advertised cheap call cards to contact home during Ramadan.  A woman in the full burka passed the Chinese Community Association.


It left me feeling excited and thrilled.  It was like being abroad, but in Britain; surrounded by strange, unfamiliar sights and listening to unknown languages against a backdrop of Radio Two and red double-deckers.  It was a glorious mish-mash, and so much more interesting than another British high street of Boots, WH Smith, McDonalds, and Primark.  I guess this is the kind of thing that would cause Nigel Farage to have an embolism - foreigners!  In our England! - but it made me even more proud of our country.  People just get along if you let them.  They just make a little space and then they bump against the person next door and there's a little moment where the two exchange a look of understanding, and then they just get back to doing whatever they were doing.  It was great.


I'm not saying that things are perfect, by any means, and my next station was a reminder of how things could go horribly wrong.  Stockwell station is now perhaps better known as the place where Jean-Charles de Menezes was executed by Metropolitan Police officers in the paranoia after the 7/7 bombings.  A tiled memorial to him has been erected in the wall outside.


An innocent immigrant murdered by the police after a bombing by British citizens; it all became confused.  I'd had a moment of panic that morning, thinking that I might have arrived on the 9th anniversary of his death; I didn't want to intrude.  I was a week out.

Stockwell station was one of the few surface buildings constructed for the Victoria Line.  It's nothing special.  The whole line suffered continual budget cuts and economies during construction, and so they ended up with a plain brick building.  It's not the Tube's finest hour.


Down below, the tile pattern looks like just a random zig-zag, until you spot that little orange triangle and it becomes clear that you're staring at a swan.


Vauxhall is involved in one of my favourite pieces of "fancy that!" trivia, gleaned from spending my teenage years reading A History of Luton (I was such a cool kid).  The Sheriff of Bedfordshire under King John was a man named Falkes de Breaute; he had a home in Luton round about where Castle Street is now.  His London home, meanwhile, leant its name to the local area, eventually morphing from Falkes' Hall to Vauxhall.  When a brand new car manufacturer in the area needed a logo, they adopted Falkes' Griffin, then, when they got too big for the middle of London, the Vauxhall Motor Company moved out to... Luton.  History goes in cycles, folks.


Hey, I thought it was interesting.

The tiled seat backs at the station take their inspiration from the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a sort of 18th Century Disneyland.  They're disappointingly traditional after its more abstract predecessors.


Up on the surface, Vauxhall underground station is overshadowed by its transport neighbours.  The National Rail station is easily visible beneath the viaducts, and the distinctive Vauxhall Cross bus station gleamed in the hot summer sun.  Its distinctive "ski-jump" outcrops house solar panels, which power the station.


It's now one of the busiest bus interchanges in London, but it was opened under the Ken Livingstone era, so now Boris wants to demolish.  Apparently he wants to make this a "linear park"; what he actually means is a lot of posh people have bought apartments in the area and a bus station isn't too desirable.  The buses, instead of gathering in a central place, will be spread around the roundabout.  Inconvenient and confusing, but it'll only affect the poor people, so it doesn't matter.

(Dear London readers: please vote this bugger out at the earliest possible opportunity.  Many thanks).


Next to all that, the totem signs and underpasses for the Underground stations seem a little inadequate.

Obviously the real star of Vauxhall Cross isn't the transport hub at all: it's Terry Farrell's gaudy, over the top, brilliant headquarters for MI6.  (Incidentally, the bus station is located on Bondway; a fantastic coincidence that makes me grin like a loon).


It's hard not to look at those two on the pavement and think, are they spies?  Surely that's a flaw in housing your Secret Service in a really obvious building - the Russians can just set themselves up on a bench on the other side of the street and film everyone going in.  It's good to see they repaired all the damage that Silva did to it in Skyfall, though.

There's an actual Vauxhall Cross underground station in Die Another Day.  That should be a perfect nexus for me of 007 and the Tube, but actually it really annoys me.  Bond enters it by County Hall and ends up on a Piccadilly Line platform; none of that is anywhere near Vauxhall.  Such a basic flaw in the idea.  Not that I wouldn't climb over the corpses of a thousand infants to get a look at it myself, mind.

I crossed Vauxhall Bridge, looking down the river and thinking, nope, London just doesn't get any uglier, does it?


At the foot of the bridge, a new residential development was being squeezed into the triangle of land between the river and Millbank.  I'd crossed over into rich, serene Pimlico now, home to Tate Britain and embassies of former Soviet republics.  White fronted houses surrounded silent garden squares.


There nearly wasn't a station at Pimlico.  The Victoria Line was designed for interchanges, and all its other stations crossed another Tube line or a mainline.  This bit of the city was untouched by any public transport, so while there was a suggestion in the initial plans that there should be a station here, budget crunches saw it drop off the list.  The Crown Estates, who own much of the land round here, stepped in and offered a spot for the station for free; they cannily realised that their property would be worth a whole lot more with a fast link to the West End on its doorstep.  A similar deal was hammered out for the forthcoming Woolwich Crossrail station.


The deal was so last minute that Pimlico ended up opening a year after the rest of the stations on the Brixton extension, in 1972.  I was pleased to go inside and find a station that was still much as it had been when it opened.


I pushed past the gaggle of French backpackers who were cluttering up the ticket hall and headed down below.  Note the central staircase in the tunnel; yet another cost cutting feature, where space for three escalators was provided, but only two were installed.  The idea was if traffic demanded it, a third escalator could be installed later.  For most of the Victoria Line's stations, this happened almost immediately, except now you had to install an escalator with passengers going by and without interfering with the train running.  Those third escalators ended up costing a whole lot more in the long run than if they'd just been put in right away.


Below ground, it felt like something right out of the era of the Three Day Week.  The Underground's current elegant, confident corporate look hadn't filtered down here; this was still the ALL CAPS, slightly rattled 1970s London.  A city that was a bit shitty, really, and dirty, with a transport network that was short of cash.  The line guide on the tunnel wall still listed interchanges with "British Rail", and Green Park had a very obvious patch where the arrival of the Jubilee Line in 1979 had been cheaply filled in.  There was also a dimly backlit roundel sign, something that seemed like a great idea until London Transport realised they'd have to go round changing the bulbs and keeping it clean.


It sounds like I'm picking on Pimlico, and that's not the case.  I found it charming and fun.  Its seat design is a let down though.  Practically next door is the Tate, so it's no surprise that they took inspiration from its collection for the tiles.  Perhaps a replica of a work by Turner?  A Warhol?  No, they did some yellow dots.


Still, twenty years later Damien Hirst was doing something similar for his Spot Paintings and earning thousands of quid, so maybe the Tube was just very prescient.  I was busy taking photos, so I let the train behind me pass; the rest of the people on the platform were more keen to get away, despite the dispatcher announcing "there is another train right behind this one, which will be less crowded."

The train pulled out and left just the two of us behind.  He sighed into his microphone.  "I may as well talk to myself."