Some of us knew why they were striking. It was never the actions of an over-entitled and power drunk union. It wasn’t money grabbing and it wasn’t one big fuck you to the people of the city. They were scared. And they were trying to protect us.
My mum worked the ticket offices back in the 80s. She had good anecdotes to spill at family gatherings about gangs of Chelsea and West Ham hooligans terrorising the carriages, ripping up seating and running riot. New Romantics like preening peacocks among the drab grey commuter pigeons. The forgotten tribes of construction workers lost and mutated for two generations following a covered up cave-in (she told this one with the required wink).
The drivers and station staff alike had a kind of coded shared mythology, mum told me, one where they could joke about subjects that were no joke at all. Stories like the overtired driver somewhere in the tunnels deep below Highgate, screaming at wet-mouthed things that stuck lamprey-like to the glass separating him from them. Take a sabbatical, he was told, too much time down in the tunnels can spin a man out. It’s not natural to spend too much of your life in strip lighting and darkness.
For a long time, mum said, I could only see the areas where the platforms ended and the dark tunnels began as a devouring mouth, a greedy toothless maw. We had a deal, see, that not even the Mayor new about. Not the GLC nor Red Ken, not anyone but us. They had a rough idea, sure, and that’s why we were cut some slack, paid well enough. There were dangers to this job that granted special privileges, trust me. They knew we kept things running and we kept other things placated.
Londoners always sensed there was something not quite right about the underground. Certain writers noted there was a kind of magic about disappearing down into the depths at point A and miraculously reappearing at your destination at point B. Metaphorically, yeah, it was nice observation. They didn’t know it was really real.
In the late 90s I again asked mum about her time as a station worker. I was getting to grips with the city through adult eyes, was falling in love with its mysteries and hidden byways. The gas towers along the canals were more beautiful than any tourist-destination architecture, the spriggan sliding from brickwork in the disused arches of Parkland Walk gripped my imagination hard, and the dead stations of the tube were begging to be explored. I hunted down out-of-print books of tube lore, traumatic urban sightings, weird short fiction charting the city’s psychosis.
It’s a bit like those sci-fi films you watch, mum said. You enter at point A and appear at point B, but while you travel you’re not here, in the city, but you’re travelling through another space. Things work differently there. It’s not empty space either.
There were tolls to pay, a kind of taxation system that funded the wet mouthed things’ own development projects. We leased this space off of them and they, for the right price, let us run the trains through their turf. They stipulated the running times, not the Mayor. They didn’t care too much about how London was expanding and how the needs of its populace were changing. Our lobbyists tried to explain that it was ridiculous for a modern, vibrant, multicultural city like London to still not have twenty-four transport. But they didn’t listen. They had their own problems anyway, with a hefty NIMBY contingent, happy to take the money the trains brought in but not willing to allow any disturbance into their own lives. They had the movements of their own extreme right, wanting no foreign incursions into their space. Wet mouthed, howling nationalists.
Then there were the patches away from their urban areas, trains running through the territories of unknowable flora and fauna. Accidents happened.
You probably won’t have heard most of the stories. It was a rare occurrence back then for a train to never make it. Once, a mauled and ripped Met line train managed to limp into the safety of Finchley Road, back under grey London skies. The driver was dead of a massive coronary failure, and the passengers who had not followed suit were left simple drooling invalids, occasionally screaming about a chittering thing with too many legs. Most of them, I believe, ended up in a speciality unit in one of the asylums on the rim of the M25.
When bombs ripped apart the network back in ’05, the unlucky who had to tread those tunnels back to safety saw things they should never have seen and could not unsee. But their experiences were put down to the trauma of the day, PTSD, and perhaps in a way that was true.
Mum died in 2010, quick and painlessly. When the strikes came I thought of her and I stood in solidarity with the unions, decrying the idiocy of people’s complaints about issues they could not possibly understand.
Inevitably, the Mayor got his way and by 2016 the night services were up and running. London, now a true twenty-four hour city. The pissed and the chemically-altered sat next to early morning cleaning staff and bleary eyed shift workers; none of whom knew what danger they were in. The station staff and the drivers, by then, were sullen and unhelpful, tight-lipped and doing their jobs with a grim fatalism.
There were incidents. I knew there would be, but who could I warn? A four am train carrying a lary stag-party from Billericay simply disappeared somewhere between Old Street and Kings Cross. Psychotic breaks among late night revelers
began to spiral, something attributed to a glut of bad ketamine flooding the city. A new urban myth grew about the many-legged thing that haunted the stretch of tunnel between Highbury & Islington and Tottenham Hale, given the cheerful name of ‘Victoria’.
As for myself, I bought myself a bicycle and use it for local journeys. When I have to take the tubes it’s in daylight hours, and on the odd occasion I ever have to travel at night, I take the bus.