Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


What I've been reading

It's been a long time since I read a book. I have been trying to catch up on my magazine reading, so I stopped reading books for a bit. Then, one day, I decided to pick up the next book on my list. I know you don't care, but I just thought I'd let you know. So let's move on!

Underground London: Travels Beneath the City Streets by Stephen Smith
393 pages, 2004, Abacus Books

One of the reasons why I need to get out of Phoenix is its lack of history. As you know, I love history, and living in a place that is only 150 years old, and really only 50 or so years old (if you count from the time when it became tolerable to live here), is just not my thing. I know there is history everywhere, but the kind that Phoenix has is just not interesting.

Along with history, I'm fascinated by the underground. When we visited Seattle once, we took the underground tour, and I loved it. The idea that cities, as they exist today, are simply built on the various layers of the previous towns is a wonderful idea, and I would love to go underground in cities around the world and check them out. Recently the History Channel has a show on the New York subway, and of course I watched, because it's cool. Which brings me to this book.

Smith has written a book that takes us into the underground part of London, a city that cries out for this kind of research if any does. London has been rebuilt so many times that it has swallowed up rivers and walls and looks nothing like the place it did originally. Smith structures the book like a standard history, beginning in Antiquity and bringing us up to the Cold War, and it works. He traces the flow of underground rivers, finds part of the Roman wall in a carpark, goes into the sewers (always charming), tries to avoid the plague pits where, presumably, the plague rests dormant, always ready to break out, and peeks into secret government meeting rooms. It's a fascinating and bizarre journey.

One of the early chapters, "Monster Soup: London's Lost Waters," is perhaps the best. In it Smith takes a standard walking tour (which you can apparently do in London) and discovers all the tributaries of the Thames that have been covered up over the centuries. He walks along the Fleet (or, at least, the path of the river) and learns the history of the waterway and the areas near its banks. The most fascinating thing about old cities is learning the antecedents of its names. Therefore we hear about Dead Dog Basin (pretty self-explanatory), but also something as seemingly mundane as "Fleet," which is Anglo-Saxon for "tidal inlet." Plenty of other word origins pop up throughout the book, and it makes the writing lively and grounded.

The whole book is lively and grounded. Smith writes with a pleasant informal style that easily mixes historical data with his meetings with the various underground denizens. Partly because of his subject matter and its obvious proximity to human waste, the book also brings historical figures to life more than a more highbrow book might. We learn about court cases from the 14th century in which one neighbor complains because another has emptied his overflowing "cloaca" into his yard. We learn that in his great diary, Samuel Pepys once recorded that he stepped on a turd in his basement. We learn that workers in the Tube call suicides "one-unders." We learn that Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar (well, I certainly didn't know that). All of this trivia makes the book much more engaging.

Smith walks around the city, bringing each layer to life. A parking garage has been built around a portion of the Roman wall, which blew my mind. In the U.S., and especially in the West, people are always tearing things down to build the new, but the British simply built their modern building around the old. I have some problems with preserving the past to the detriment of everything else, but, as in all things, there needs to be a balance. The Londoners, at least for this small section, have found that. He takes us to Westminster Abbey and Henry VIII's tennis courts. A tour of underground London would not be complete, of course, without a visit to the room under the Palace of Westminster where Guy Fawkes planned to blow up Parliament. Scientist have determined that Fawkes could have blown up most of Central London if he had managed to get away with it.

One the eerier parts of the book is when Smith discusses the Tube and its ghost stations. There are a lot of them, apparently, and some are used for maintenance supply stations, while others are used occasionally by film crews. The stations are obsolete, either because stations were built nearer to them or the buildings above simply fell out of use. Smith introduces us to Tube workers who patrol the underground at night, checking the rails and making sure everything is in working order. It has to be a creepy occupation, and Smith gives us some excellent portraits of exactly what kind of people do this sort of work. We meet Billy McKeown, whose job is to walk the line between 1 and 5 a.m., when the current is turned off and it's relatively safe. "Relatively," of course, because he does this in almost total darkness. Billy checks to make sure everything is working correctly, while others perform maintenance on the aesthetics of the Tube - getting rid of old posters, that sort of thing. These workers are completely unsung, but they, along with the sewer workers, perform functions that the rest of us take for granted, and Smith brings them to life.

There's a lot more to the book. Each chapter lets us in one another slice of hidden history and another interesting group of people who work on it. Smith tells us that the miners who lost their jobs in the recession of the 1980s and 1990s have found new work digging tunnels in the underground. He introduces us to the folk of Subterranea Britannica, who are obsessed with finding the secret government labyrinth underneath the city and therefore worship Duncan Campbell, who claims to have penetrated it. Fun stuff.

This is the kind of book that keeps you interested on each page - Smith just keeps piling tidbits on tidbits and tying everything together. He is clearly putting himself into the story, which is fine, because it's not supposed to be a highbrow history book. It's a neat book that illuminates a part of history we usually don't think about. It makes me want to tunnel down into the bowels of cities and see what I can find!

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Blogger Ashley said...

This is something we have in common. I live in a city devoid of realistic public transportation (something I long for). Every few months, I find myself in front of the PC, spending hours searching for a job in London. I absolutely love riding the tube. My grandfather was one of the many workers who built parts of the London underground before WWII, that's probably why I gravitate toward London travel, more so than anywhere else. If you haven't been to London, I think you would love it.

17/3/06 9:20 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

I haven't been in London in over twenty-five years (probably close to thirty) and when I was there, I was a wee lad and didn't appreciate it. I'm dying to go back to England, because I love it.

17/3/06 9:44 AM  

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