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Monday, July 11, 2005

going underground

Minding the Gap

That Yorkshire Afternoon rambling started life as a convoluted musing on the London Underground and the large part it played in my life as a street singer back in 1966 and most of 1967.

Listening to the radio reports of the appalling effects of the bombs, I was reminded of a book I once promoted - The Underground Connection - that dealt with a bomb aboard a Northern Line train set to detonate when it reached a crucial depth. And that's how the reading public got to learn that, at 192 ft (58.5 m), Hampstead tube station holds the record (reached by the deepest lifts on the system which descend 181 feet.)

I don't suppose one could publish such a novel these days lest it be regarded as a handbook hint for terrorists.

Brooding amazed that I even remembered the book and the Hampstead trivia, I decided to look up more facts on this oldest of underground rail transport - and gosh there's a lot out there to Google.

But I'm getting ahead of myself: this blog is not called 'Busker' for nothing.

Back in '66, al fresco musicians were a scruffy lot, poorly garbed and capable of little else than mumbling Bob Dylan at their tatty shoes and with narry a thanks for the pennies tossed to them by the affluenti. Even the police were unsure of what exactly to charge us with and it got even more complicated when one was croaking in the underground because that came under the aegis if the transport police.

I lived in a one-room hovel off Baker Station, occasionally catching the Metropolitan line back to my granny in Preston Road.

The very first song I sang was actually on the train heading south from Preston Road and I remember it clearly:

I'd said goodbye to granny but, naughty lad, had detoured via The Fox pub to chat up the buxom barmaid so, by the time I got on the train I was pretty tanked and feeling in good voice.

I got out the old guitar and launched into a hearty "Greenback Dollar" which went down so well that one or two fellow passengers came over and looked for my 'collection box', of which I had none, not thinking that I'd actually make any bread out of the impromptu gig. I soon fixed that, spreading leather guitar case in front of me and adding a brace of £1 notes pour encourager les autres. By the time I reached Baker Street, I'd collected around a fiver and, being no soberer, simply lugged my guitar and case and 'float' down the Baker Street/Marylebone Road pedestrian underpass and carried on singing.

The Muse of Buskers was with me because when I finally decided to call it a day, I took my pile of coins into the Globe pub, counted my takings (£15+) and ordered a pint of Charrington and a whisky chaser. Embarrassed by having to pay in pennies and silver, I also counted out a couple of quid for the bar staff and manager to have a drink on me, so it went:

"Pint, please, and a whiskey and - look, sorry to pay with all coins but here's three quid to buy you all a drink and please ask the guv'nor and his missus what he'd like."

"Oh no, we can't do that," said grouchy Ernie, but just then the boss asked what the problem was and when he heard I was buying - and that I'd counted it all out precisely - all was OK and i got my booze and the perfect intro to the manager.

Rather than bore myself here by recounting the saga of my busking days, I'll stick to core bullet points that map my career as a subway singer.

  • The Globe was run by an ex-policeman whose clientele included some very senior and useful current cops
  • The guv'nors two sons were guitar players and we became close pals
  • The Globe was the local for most of the Baker Street station staff who, when they saw the powerful connections I had, also fell into line
  • Result: I had major contacts and very good protection from being treated like the rest of the riff-raff.

For the rest of the story, you'll have to read my blockbuster exposé, "Busking the Cost" (still in the writing), or stick with this blog for occasional updates.

And so back to all the fascinating trivia (also here) I've uncovered about my second home, of which the following caught my eye:

  • Travelling on the tube for 40 minutes is the equivalent of smoking two cigarettes
  • The phrase "Mind the Gap" (of which I only became aware from giggling American pals over here) originated on the Northern line.
  • Men have to sit with their legs apart when travelling on the tube. This is due to special magnetic fibres on the upholstery of the seats which interacts with testosterone to provide an antimagnetic outward force. (Sounds *so* unlikely)
  • Julian Lloyd Webber was London Underground's first official busker - *official*? No idea what that means, but I bet I'm close with my 1966 début
  • The peak hour for tube suicides is 11am.
  • Harry Beck, designer of the tube map in 1933 - and a classic map cited by the great Edward Tufte - was only paid five guineas for his original job. His design is still the basis of today's map.
  • Angel station has Western Europe's longest escalator - 318 steps.
  • Mosquitoes that live in the underground have evolved into a completely different species, one that appears separated from the above ground mozzie by over a thousand years.
  • Pigeons regularly travel from West Ham in east London to central London on the tube in order to get more food.
  • Only one person was ever born in a tube carriage and her name is Thelma Ursula Beatrice Eleanor ( check those initials), born 1924 on a Bakerloo line train (yaayy) at Elephant & Castle.
  • The Cadbury's Whole Nut chocolate bar is the biggest seller in the chocolate machines at tube stations.
Also a wonderful jokey map of which detail is here.

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