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Numbers 126-150

Like riding a bicycle, cooking a jacket potato or gargling, you have to learn how to fall asleep on the Underground before you can truly enjoy it. Luckily, of the many life skills it is useful to have at your disposal, this is one that requires minimal physical investment. The less external effort the better, in fact.

It took me a while to learn how to fall asleep on the Underground. At first I thought it was utterly inappropriate. What a waste of a journey! The Underground, I reasoned, is something to be experienced with all your senses all of the time. How could you prefer semi-consciousness to such sights, such sounds, such romance?

Then I thought it was a bit undignified. People flopping all over the place, tongues lolling, mouths agape, snoring and mumbling, sagging on to other people’s shoulders or drooling into their laps… How embarrassing.

Then after a while I began to change and the longer I used the Underground as a commuter instead of merely a passenger, the greater I found the appeal of a doze. So I tried it. And very quickly came to love it.

What’s the appeal? It’s an escape: from feeling alone in a crowded carriage, from the heat or the cold or the noise or the silence, from everything you’ve left behind and everything you’re heading towards. It’s a novelty: you’re having a nap in conditions not meant for napping. It’s a comfort: you’re shutting out all the stuff about the journey you can’t control and instead are travelling on your own terms, in your own way, in own your fantasies.

And it’s also, despite what I said earlier about needing to have all your senses working at full tilt, a very sensory experience. Your eyes may be closed but you still hear the sound of the train going over the tracks, still feel the Underground’s unique beguiling mix of rattling and rocking and gliding and sighing. All of which seems enhanced, not diluted, because you can’t see anything.

This cocktail of sensations encourages a very particular kind of sleep. It’s strictly speaking a sort of half-sleep, where you’re forever on the verge of consciousness, aware of your surroundings and location (you have to be, if you want to get off at the right station), but drifting in and out of slumber. Phrases, faces, tunes and thoughts from real life are smeared across your brain and mixed with pretend ones. It’s a nice place to be, but only for a short period of time. Thankfully, you’re only ever in it for a short time. The Underground is no place for deep sleep, and you’re soon awake again, pleasantly giddy, slightly refreshed, quietly satisfied.

There’s a method, of course. Corner seats are the best, as you can wedge yourself into them and clutch your belongings around you as if in a den or a nest. It’s trickier if you’re in one of the other seats, as the potential for tumbling sideways into a neighbour is great. If you must fall, train yourself to fall forwards. Your natural reflexes will jerk you back upright. Forget the glances of disapproval from others. This is no time for pride in appearances. Besides, almost everyone in the carriage of a train at the end of a working day looks shabby and exhausted. All the more reason to shut your eyes.

It is possible to fall asleep standing up, but only for a few seconds, and if you’re that desperately tired it’s probably wise to just get off, find a seat on a platform and take a minute to compose yourself.

I know falling asleep on the Underground is abhorrent to some and impractical for others. And I know that the reassurance you need to allow yourself to fall asleep comes from repeating the same journey hundreds, maybe thousands of times.

But through repetition comes familiarity and consolation. The Underground can be a testing, lonely and sad place to have to be. Sometimes you just want to know the world is still going about its business without you. And sometimes you just want to hear the kind of voices that filled Caliban’s dream, that will make you sleep again and fill your dreams with clouds to “open and show riches ready to drop upon me; that, when I woke, I cried to dream again.”

Moor, the merrierThe entire top-left corner of the Underground map is pretty much off-limits to most Londoners. It has the status of a curio, the sort of thing that catches your eye as you pass the window of an antiques shop but which you’d rather not pause to examine too closely. What exactly goes on up there, the majority wonders, in that messy bit of the network that isn’t even in London, with stumps of lines sprouting off all over the place, and stations with names like Chalfont & Latimer?

Blindfold most Londoners, transport them to somewhere in zone 7 or 8, then ask them to find their way back to Charing Cross without using a map or asking directions, and a moral panic would ensue. Moor Park is in Hertfordshire, just outside the boundary of Greater London, but it may as well be in Lancashire, or a county that doesn’t even exist anymore, like Salop. If there’s an unreal air about the place, it could be because it once looked more like a studio set than a working station. If there’s an underwhelming air about the place, it could be because a studio set would have more personality.

But it does have one feature in its favour, and it’s one that compounds the agreeably peculiar feel of this part of the Underground even further. Moor Park has a “secret entrance”. The inverted commas are necessary because were it an actual secret entrance, I wouldn’t be writing about it, because it would be secret. It does have a secretive ambience, however, and that’s a lot to do with it being on the edge of a rather menacing-looking patch of woodland.

Somewhere beyond these trees is Sandy Lodge golf course. There might even be a few houses. But for the most part you’ve really no cause or business to come this way. And if you do, you then have to walk all the way under four sets of railway tracks to the main entrance hall, before you can turn round and head back to your desired platform:

Subway sect The subway is rather splendid, it has to be said: well-lit, tastefully-tiled, lined with posters produced for the “100 years of Tube Art” exhibition in 2008, and above all incredibly clean. But then it is largely uncontaminated by people. I stood at one end, aware only of my own presence and some distant footsteps that seemed to be coming and going at the same time. It was very easy (and rather enticing) to imagine I had in fact stumbled upon one of the government’s nuclear bunkers, humming stoically with the anticipation of filling in forms about the apocalypse.

This is a rum place and no mistake. Other Underground stations with alternate exits can be found, from the hellish (Oxford Circus) to the heavenly (East Finchley), though none are quite as delightfully eerie. Moor Park used to be on the Great Central Railway, which meant that at one time I could have caught a train from here to my home town of Loughborough in the East Midlands. Now it’s cut off from mainline services, despite trains in and out of Marylebone sharing its tracks with the Metropolitan. The circumcised roundel on top of the ‘secret entrance’ rather aptly, if painfully, sums up its plight.

Ouch

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