Northern line

East of EdenWhen I began this blog, I had a shortlist of only a couple of dozen places about which I knew I wanted to write. That was all. There was no grand plan of campaign, no strategy to help me get to 150. I trusted the Underground to serve up its delights as and when I chose to search them out.

Before I reach the end, however, I do need to make one final, slight return.

I didn’t set out to count down the greatest things, or rank them in any way. It was always my intention to list them in no particular order – albeit earmarking a few particularly notable stations for a few particularly notable milestones (such as numbers 50, 75 and 100). So it’s by happy design that for my next to last entry I find myself revisiting my very first.

East Finchley station is of a piece with its archer. The platforms, canopies, buildings, walkways, stairwells, even the handrails and window frames, are close to perfection. Its curves are as exquisitely-formed as the phrasing of Debussy’s Clair de Lune; its structured elegance equals that of Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings. Its swagger, meanwhile, has the same joyous dashes of stylish exoticism as Ron Grainer’s sublime title theme for One of our Dinosaurs is Missing.

Canopy panoplyIn other words, it’s a mighty evocative place.

And there’s plenty of room to encourage so much evocation. East Finchley station has four platforms, broad enough to feel more like continental thoroughfares than provincial embarkation points.

Here you can loiter, brood, mither and mingle without ever feeling ill-at-ease or out-of-sorts. It’s a nice place to have to wait. I’d go so far as to say it’s the kind of place at which you want to have to wait, whether to catch or change trains. The empty space is as much a part of the conception and purpose of East Finchley as the buildings. It’s one of the most holistic creations on the entire network.

The fact it’s also one of the most beautiful is, naturally, an enormous boon. But then it is the work of Charles Holden, the man without whom this blog would not have been possible.

Well, perhaps not impossible, but a hell of a lot shorter. Which, for those who would have preferred a mere two dozen entries, might not have been such a bad thing.

Holden, his ownA Senate House-sized salute to Charles. London belongs to him.

Arrow through me

Colour me smittenWhen the balloon goes up and it’s time to head down to the air-raid shelter beneath Clapham South station, one of the last things we’ll see are colours. Rows and rows of gleaming colours, snaking along the walls of the platforms, full of a lustre that is unexpected for something so deep underground. The choice of colours is particularly affecting: nothing gaudy, or luminous, or poorly co-ordinated. Instead, stoical RGB basics that even the vaguely colour-blind can tell apart. And I should know.

Tiles of wonderIf the tiles are originals, then they date from 1926 and are in very fine condition. Clapham South was the curtain-raiser for the extension of the Northern line and then, as now, is the first treat for passengers venturing towards Balham, Gateway to the South.

If they aren’t originals, they don’t look it. The taste and the elegance feels authentically inter-war. It’s like walking through Balfour or Baldwin’s bathroom. For me their linear design beats the more scattergun styles you can see at stations along the Piccadilly line. These tiles radiate refinement, neatness, and above all order. If, apocalypse pending, they were to be my last glimpses of the artistry of human race, I wouldn’t mind.

The Common touch

Going Beck to the rootsStuck behind a filthy piece of perspex, its colours sapped by years of direct sunlight, the edges frayed, the lettering fading, mounted in such a way as to defy a decent photograph, and shoved in a nook of a platform where hardly anyone stands, is the world’s most recognisable, widely-distributed and influential piece of public art.

Pedants will say it isn’t a map, it’s a diagram; different pedants will say it isn’t even a diagram, it’s a schematic; conciliators will refer to it a topological hybrid; the rest of us are happy to make do with calling it one of the greatest designs of the 20th century.

Pop artIt deserves better treatment than the kind meted out at Finchley Central. And for the most part, Harry Beck’s map usually gets it. Go to the London Transport Museum, or look through any of the dozens of histories of the Underground, to see its story told in glorious, vivid detail. Pick up any map of the Underground produced since 1933 for more evidence, both of how to evolve and enhance Beck’s work constructively, and how to try and wreck it. Luckily the latter never succeeds, at least not for long.

Beck spent a period of his life living in Finchley, coincidentally just round the corner from where I am sitting typing these words. His nearest station was West Finchley, but for some reason Finchley Central is the place that plays host both to this besmirched copy of his masterpiece, and also to a rather tersely-worded plaque:

Plaque-ing a certain somethingI’ve passed through the station roughly twice a day for the last six years. I can’t recall ever seeing someone admiring either the map or the plaque. This is a shame, but I’m not going to hold it against the entire rest of the world (that particular list is quite long enough already).

Besides, the rest of the world – or at least most of it – now conceives of London only in the way Harry Beck reordered it, and that is tribute enough. Thousands of people can draw the Underground map from memory, correctly naming every station. Millions of people shut their eyes at night to find an imprint of the map filed somewhere in their subconscious. And billions of people know of the map and its beguiling symmetry, its soothing rationality, its universal hues.

Theorists will say it commodifies London. Publicists will say it sells London. I say it is London – and always will be.

Mapping the universe