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.


Andrew Bowden said...

Given I used to commute via Oxford Circus every day for, well, YEARS, I should know this for sure. But I don't. So I'll just say I'm pretty sure the tiles on the Victoria Line are long gone - or at least buried underneath the metal wall coverings.

Scott Willison said...

I knew there had to be one around somewhere! The Yerkes tiling is being restored so I couldn't see them chucking away a relatively cheap one. Yet another reason why I need to revisit!