London Underground: 2007


When I’m at the dentist, GP or even the hairdresser, I always go for the trashy magazines, the ones with the short interview at the end, when someone famous is asked who, from history, would they like to have dinner with.  It’s a bit like hearing Desert Island Discs and imagining which 8 discs you would choose.  My dinner guest would definitely be Frank Pick.  It would have to be a small dinner party because, from all I have read, Frank Pick was a very shy man, a man who did not like the limelight.  In my eyes, he was an absolute genius and virtually unheard of unless you are big into London Transport, railways, buses and all its history.  He was also a modest man who knew his own strengths and weaknesses; he was a man of endearing honesty: “I have always kept in mind my own frailties – a short temper. Impatience with fools, quickness rather than thoroughness.  I am a bad hand at the gracious word or casual congratulation”.  A man of such honesty would make a great dinner guest.  But why do I think he would be so worthwhile meeting with, and talking to?  “Virtually every Londoner will daily come across an aspect of Frank Pick’s legacy, yet few will be aware of it.  Without Pick, we would not have the Roundel, that iconic representation of the London Underground, the famous tube map, the typeface in which station signs are written or the Art Deco stations that pepper the outer reaches of the Central and Piccadilly Lines”.  Frank Pick was also responsible for commissioning some of the great designs of railway and Underground posters; he was responsible for the vision of an integrated transport system in London and saw the potential that would have for London Suburbia, together with holiday destinations.  He did all this over the period between 1908 and 1941, when he died.  When Frank Pick was given the responsibility for the London Underground’s publicity in 1908, he recognised the huge potential of advertising.  He decided on a standard size for advertising posters; he limited the amount of posters in any station, to maximise their impact.  (It’s a pity a lot of shops and cafes these days have not learnt from him).  His concept of the standardised typeface, ‘branding’, was well ahead of the game.  Today, if you look at the old railway and Underground posters, most people I know look at them with nostalgia but also with admiration, as an art form.  This is why I am forever saying, about those posters, “that would make a great tea towel”.  Someone said that Frank Pick saw posters as having a “loftier purpose than simply encouraging the greater use of transport services”, he saw them as an integral part of urban life in London, and wider Britain.  So my dinner party topic would definitely include something about the potential that all his publicity work would have for a collection of tea towels, which images he would choose and how he came to the idea of using a capital ‘U’ and a capital ‘D’ on the word Underground that would make it so unique.

I love the the London Underground map; ‘iconic’ is the only word I would use to describe it.  In the last few years, you can buy it, or part of it, on anything you want: mugs, notebooks, post-it notes, pencils, pencil cases, coasters, trays, table napkins, table mats, jigsaw puzzles, files, pen holders, erasers, diaries, postcards, board games and so forth and, of course, even a tea towel.  And when I saw the tea towel in the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, I knew I had to have it.

I have lived with the London Underground map all my life.  I was born in London, spent my first 18 years there, was desperate to leave at that time and now I love returning as often as possible, as a tourist rather than as a resident.  I was born in a flat in Ealing, in fact, opposite Hanger Lane Station.  In those days, Hanger Lane Station was an Art Deco station on the North Circular Road, before the MI was built; today Hanger Lane Station is in the centre of a roundabout on the most scary and complicated giratory system, with the traffic pounding down from the MI.  When I was 7, we moved to the centre of Ealing, much nearer Ealing Broadway Station, not such an attractive station.  So if you look on this tea towel, where are Hanger Lane and Ealing Broadway Stations?  They are not on it.  Shocking.  They are both Central Line Stations but this tea towel appears to only cover Zones I and 2, and clearly Hanger Lane and Ealing Broadway Stations are in Zone 3.  I can look at a map of the London Underground all day, day dreaming.  I’ve never been to Arnos Grove and Cockfosters but always felt that I should have.  I have no idea where they are, in real life.  There is something bizarre about the London Underground map: if you want to travel around London by tube, it is an easy-peasy way of getting around but don’t be fooled, it is not an overground map, that puts destinations in relative positions to each other.  There are tiers of underground lines, so some stations will be very near to each other, in real life, but may not seem so on the map.  When Frank Pick commissioned Harry Rock to design the London Underground map, in 1931, it was thought that it was much too complicated for passengers but, in fact, it was welcomed by everyone.  I am a traveller who gets anxious about getting lost but I can navigate my way round London on the tube very easily with the help of Harry Rock; this is an easily transferable skill, usable on the maps of New York or Paris Metros or the London bus routes.

I look at Harry Rock’s map and see the bright red Circle Line, driving through the centre of the map, probably the line that I have used most but then I think of the Circle Line, bright yellow, and going around in a never ending circle and I have done that, just travelled round on a continuous ride, marvelling at the variety of stations, the volume of traffic, the United Nations of a travelling public. I love it. But there are also other memories: the Moorgate Crash of 1975 on the Northern Line where 43 people died or the 2005 London Bombings where three tubes were attacked almost simultaneously on the Piccadilly and Circle Lines.  There is a plaque on the railings at Russell Square commemorating those that died.  There are all the stories from World War II, where people used the Underground Stations as air raid shelters during the bombing.  The London Underground has reached out to many people, through time and place.  I wonder if Frank Pick realised how it would play into the lives of so many people.

However, for those that listen to Radio 4, there is the programme ‘Sorry I haven’t a Clue’, where the game Mornington Crescent is played.  Introduced in 1978, this is something I have enjoyed for years and have also been baffled by for years.  This is “a game that is intentionally incomprehensible.  There are no rules; rules are based on stream-of-consciousness association and improvisation”, as Humphrey Lyttleton would say.  The objective is to give the appearance of a game of skill and strategy; to add interest Humphrey Lyttleton would introduce a ‘variation’ like the  Trumpington’s Variation.  He joked at one point that the game predates the London Underground.  Tudor Court Rules were described as “A version of the game formally adopted by Henry VIII and played by Shakespeare.  At this time, the Underground was far smaller than at present, and so the playing area also was more restricted, primarily due to the plague”.  The whole game is threaded by such ‘rubbish’, which is why it is so entertaining.  When Mornington Crescent Station was re-opened in 1998, after being closed for 6 years for refurbishment, the ‘Sorry I haven’t a Clue’ Team was asked to carry out the official opening. In 2002, a plaque dedicated to Willie Rushton, a longstanding member of the radio show, was unveiled at Mornington Crescent.

There is no question that for me the London Underground map is a wonderous marvel that I thoroughly enjoy looking at. It makes wiping up so much more enjoyable.  Every time I go to London, I try and visit Covent Garden and the London Transport Museum, whether it is to go round the museum or just to have a cup of tea in the cafe with seats covered in the traditional material of the London Buses, and to have a quick look round the shop.  I don’t think I’ve ever been in the shop without buying something.  I just need to see a few more tea towels in there.  My thanks goes to the vision of Frank Pick, an unsung hero; even Spalding, where he was born, has only recently realised what a genius was born in their midst.  Without Frank Pick I would not be the proud owner of this tea towel and I can continue to dream about my dinner party wih Frank Pick.

Click below to return to the Virtual Tea Towel Museum



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