Metropolitan line

Give my regards to a broad 'StreetGrowing up, I thought Great Portland Street was one of the most famous places in London. This was due solely to its frequent mentions on Just a Minute on Radio 4, as the place from which Kenneth Williams would feverishly wail he had come – often against his supposed better judgement – to be on the show.

Sitting in my bedroom in the East Midlands, I concluded this was clearly one of the most illustrious abodes in the capital, by virtue of being worthy not just of the tenancy of people like Kenny, but of such repeated namechecks on (what is still) the best panel game in Britain.

Years later I realised the calculated comedy and self-deprecation behind those repeated cries of “I didn’t come all the way from Great Portland Street for this! It’s a disgrace!” For one thing, the area is barely 15 minutes’ walk from the location of the old Paris studios where Just a Minute was recorded: hardly a voyage of Jules Verne-esque stature. And second, it is assuredly not an world-famous, celebrity-rich, tourist-attracting hotspot. The most cosmopolitan touch is a sign to a public toilet with the word MEN reproduced in four languages.

What it does have, however, is an Underground station of which even the purposefully-snobbish Kenneth Williams might have approved:

Carry on behindThe platforms have a bewitching grubbiness* that they share with next-door neighbour Baker Street. Both stations are fine examples of how to evoke heritage thoughtfully, not clumsily. No unsubtle dollops of Victoriana here.

Admittedly the enormous brick-lined tunnel does much of the job single-handedly. It’s impossible not to be awed by its vast, smooth curve arching above your head, created from thousands and thousands of bricks, smeared not with a few blobs of artlessly added designer-grime, but with 150 years of history.

The alcoves have been reasonably well-preserved, albeit blessed with not quite the same seductively noir lighting as at Baker Street. In fact, the whole interior is brighter than its cousin, thanks to a stab of daylight at the western end of the platforms:

Brighter, laterI’m guessing that’s the Marylebone Road, though I’ve never been able to find the corresponding gap above ground to allow me a peek downwards.

For all its charm, Great Portland Street is not without flaws – much like its most famous advocate. The station suffered terribly at the hands of Metronet, the company briefly in charge of the infrastructure of nine of the Underground’s lines during the last decade.

Metronet’s policy of cheap but ugly concealment rather than costly but beautiful restoration left chunks of Great Portland Street shrouded in plastic. There’s nothing wrong with plastic, of course – except when it shouldn’t be there:

The better endIts five years since Metronet’s expensive and predictable collapse, when the upkeep of this line (and, since 2010, every Underground line) passed back into public ownership.

I do hope Transport for London one day gets round to righting the wrongs its unmourned erstwhile cohort perpetrated.

I didn’t come all the way to Great Portland Street for this!

*Just like the best of the Carry On films, naturally

Diamond lightsNow here’s a warning from history.

If nothing else, these platform signs at Moorgate are a testy reminder of the perils of a rebrand. The red diamond, had it been given the chance, might have persisted long enough to become stoically tolerated, then grudgingly accepted, then maybe even loved.

But it was doomed, and all thanks to bad timing. The diamond came too late. The roundel had already been conceived. Red discs were arcing out majestically across London when the Metropolitan line, as stubborn as ever, decided to launch its own logo. And worse, it was a logo similar enough to the roundel to make the Met’s behaviour look incredibly petty.

Which of course it was. Mere pettiness never stopped the Met doing anything. But as an exercise in brand awareness, let alone one of design aesthetics, it was amusingly hopeless.

Enjoy the silenceThe signs* make Moorgate station a wonderfully eerie if slightly creepy place. For they appear on platforms no longer used by trains, save the occasional service that needs to terminate here.

Yet the platforms don’t look abandoned. Far from it. They feel clean, attended, cared-for. It’s almost as if they were in constant use. But by whom?

There are no security barriers. The platforms are teasingly, tantalisingly, open to anyone. I doubt you’d be able to stroll very far before being stopped… but the temptation is there. As is the potential for misunderstanding. I saw one family start to walk along them, before realising their mistake. I kind of wish they’d have carried on, just to see what happened.

End of the lineI realise I like these platforms for the wrong reasons – there’s very little logic in loving something that is useless – but they don’t quite sit abandoned in splendid isolation.

Platforms five and six (above) might be completely cut off for trains (they used to be the terminus for Thameslink services) but they’ve taken on a new life as a sort of promotional space-cum-display area. At the time of writing they’re hosting a rather nice mural celebrating the Underground’s 150th anniversary. I hope there are plans for other displays in the future.

Platforms three and four are where you’ll find the diamond signs, casting their spiky glare. And both these and the mural are clearly visible from the Circle, Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City trains that call at platforms one and two. So rather than the old bits of Moorgate getting hidden from view and left to rot, they’ve become a “new” feature of the station: a partially-palatable slice of the past for digestion both now and into the future.

And there’s much to digest. But I’ll think I’ll pass on those diamonds. They’re just not my type(face).

Not my kind of type(face)*Cheers to Andrew (in the comments below) for noting that the signs were reintroduced for the 150th anniversary. Will they, along with the mural, survive beyond 2013?

RIPI love cats as much as I love the Underground, cups of tea, Carry On films and other things of varying shades of embarrassment.

But I’m forever disappointed at how badly cats, specifically those who make their home in a particular location, get immortalised for posterity.

Contextualised felines fare especially badly in popular music. Stray cats don’t count. I’m referring to ones who make a specific place their stamping, or rather padding, ground. I can’t find a trace of any song called Station Cat*, the creature doesn’t turn up in the schoolyards remembered by Cat Stevens or Paul Simon, while Farmyard Cat by Prefab Sprout is easily the worst song Paddy McAloon has ever written.

Thankfully there’s at least one cat whose legacy lives on in words, if not in music. Pebbles gets a touching tribute at Barbican station, whose platform nooks and walkway crannies he made his home for many years until his death in 1997.

For part of his life Pebbles had a cohort called Barbie, with whom he apparently shared the run of the station, but about whom no mention is made on the memorial plaque. Both cats were due to appear at a ceremony in 1997, where Pebbles was to have been given some sort of lifetime achievement award before being photographed with Patrick Moore and a gaggle of GMTV presenters.

At least death spared him, and us, this indignity. Instead he remains, to this day, “greatly loved and missed by station staff and customers.” Even by those, like me, who never met him.

*Once I’ve finished all 150 entries, I might remedy this.