No, not best poems about the underground – political movement or home of worms and tunneling creatures – but best poems on the London Tube.

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.


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.

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  1. Jane says:

    Hello Susan, I do enjoy your blog. I have a few that I follow and find it a bit like reading a favourite column in the paper or a magazine, neither of which we buy anymore. The manifestation of “Art for Everyone” pops up in all sorts of ways. I have seen some odd things, like power poles, bike racks and park benches covered in colourful knitting. On a recent trip to the Riverina we past a tree north of Heathcote also covered with knitting. I don’t know how artistic it is, but it is surprising and makes you look twice! Regards, Jane.

    • susan says:

      Hi Jane,

      I have been pretty slack about the blog lately – I’ve been trying to get as much writing done as I can before I head off to Varuna – so along with a messy house, there was a blog left unattended. I’m glad you enjoy it;I actually feel quite flattered that you do. There are so many blogs out there, aren’t there?
      I have been considering my packing for Katoomba, and I think it must include lots of warm woollies. I could go very looking hand-knitted as I have a jacket, vest and beanie all home made (and they look it) but one of the joys of being middle-aged is not caring so much about that. I don’t think I can bear to leave my current knitting behind, either. All the best, Susan

  2. Jean Blackwood says:

    Hi I have been trying to track down Sue Green (1986) Machine knitting designer.
    I did a pattern of hers with a mouse poppies and cornfield on and Ive lost it.
    Are you the same lady by anychance please??
    Thanks Jean

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