When I went to the UK with my mother in September 1986 we travelled everywhere by train, and I got to feel quite familiar with the London underground or Tube as they call it. I loved the iconic signage (the circle with a bar through it), the vaguely thirties type-face, the radically simplified maps with their different colours for different lines. I loved the station names, too, familiar from the Monopoly board – Liverpool St, Picadilly – and names with roots deep in the past like Blackfriars which was where the Dominican friars (called black freres for their black hoods) had their house in the 1300’s, and the Barbican which was part of the old defensive wall of the city and goes back to Roman times. I loved watching the exotic mix of people (well, to me from very Anglo central Victoria it was), noting their clothes, listening to their accents and eavesdropping on their conversations. And I also loved the poems. I even scribbled one of them down.
STARS AND PLANETS
Trees are cages for them: water holds its breath
To balance them without smudging on its delicate meniscus
Children watch them playing in their heavenly playground
Men use them to lug ships across oceans, through firths.
They seem so twinkle -still but they never cease
Inventing new spaces and huge explosions
And migrating in mathematical tribes over
The steppes of space at their outrageous ease.
It’s hard to think that the earth is one –
This poor sad bearer of wars and disasters
Rolls-Roycing round the sun with its load of gangsters
Attended only by the loveless moon.
Norman McCaig (1910-96)
Why did I write it down? I think what I liked then – and I still like – was Norman McCaig’s see-sawing between beautifully poetic and timeless words and images – ‘trees are cages for them’ – and the brash 20th century of ‘Rolls-Roycing round the sun with its load of gangsters’. But also, with all the overload of sensation (London was the biggest city I’d ever been in, and everything about it was new to me), amid the noise, sights, sounds and smells of the Underground, it was a lovely surprise to have a small window into a quiet private interior space while reading the poem. And that is probably why I remember it so clearly.
I didn’t know then that the scheme was new. It was the idea of three friends who were all poetry lovers and users of public transport.
In their introduction to their anthology Best Poems from the Underground (Pheonix 2010), the editors, Gerard Benson, Judith Chernaik and Cicely Herbert wrote, ‘How pleasant it would be, we thought, if poems could be scattered among the adverts on Underground carriages. Encouraged by far-sighed Tube managers, we put together our first selection of poems, and the project was launched at Aldwych Station in January 1986.’ So the Norman McCaig poem I liked was one of the first five that rode the rails. So far 450 poems have been displayed, and the editors say ‘It is strange to think that a project that began so causally is now part of urban history,the subject of academic theses and government surveys of ‘Great Art for Everyone’.’
It was a great pleasure for me, anyway, to read poems and even try to memorize them on the Underground – more than a pleasure; a very useful distraction from the thought that we were a long way down underneath roads and buildings with tons and tons of earth and masonry on top of us. All that crushing weight, bearing down… The next time I visited London, on my own, I discovered buses. It was bliss for a claustrophobic traveller to be on the top of a double decker bus even though they moved so very slowly through the Monopoly board streets. But no poems.