Andrew Martin interview

We have a misty-eyed chat with the Tube enthusiast and author

Did the fact that the London Underground has been so widely written about change the way you approached ‘Underground, Overground’?

Yeah, you take your life in your hands when you start writing about the Tube, certainly. Some people are completely obsessed with the Underground. It was built over a long period of time in a rather sort of unplanned and chaotic way, so the people who know about it are rather possessive of it. So it’s with some reluctance that you step on to their territory.

So you’ve encountered a fair few enthusiasts?

Oh definitely. I used to write a column in the Evening Standard about the London Underground. And in the course of doing that I received hundreds of letters, and they formed a lot of the book. People would ask me questions, “I see the drivers sometimes drinking a cup of tea, where do they get the tea from?” and then it turns that there’s these things called tea points on the platform, behind a panel in the wall of the platform. That was the kind of thing wanted to put into the book, because I think that’s amusing. I think it caters to what I call in the book the morbid interest that people have in the Underground.

Surely you must have had your fair share of frustrating commutes over the years…

I think I’m lucky in that I don’t have to commute every day. And when I do get on the train at 8am, I’m horrified. The system is way over-crowded and as far I can see it is going to remain over-crowded. If I could do one thing to improve the way the Underground works, it’d be to persuade three million people to leave London.

Rush hour never seems to end, does it?

That’s right. When I first came to London, I was living out in Leytonstone on the central line and it was a real pleasure to go into the West End at 11am on a Tuesday morning because you had the carriage more or less to yourself. It was so quiet that you could sleep, too - there were no announcements until 1992 on the central line. I spoke to somebody about suicide in the Underground, and he said that proportionately there aren’t as many now as there use to be, partly because the system is so crowded and people are just embarrassed to jump in front of a crowd. Whereas he said very hauntingly that in the 70s on a Sunday evening east of Kings Cross, "it was just you and the driver".

So would you say that the modernisation of the system has killed the romance of it?

I think the romance is fast fading. The real essence of the romance was contained in the 1938 Tube stocks. Which was used on a number of lines, and in fact didn’t disappear entirely until the 80s, when it was brought back and used on the northern line. These were red trains, and inside the colour scheme was green, cream, red and they had sycamore slats on the floor, as opposed to that kind of kitchen lino they have now, which is a horrible grey and yellow colour. It was like sitting in a snug in the pub. And if you sit in the one at the London Transport Museum, it’s so restful.

Is there anything about the modern system that you admire?

Well some it is tremendously stylish and glamorous. The jubilee line extension is terrifically beautiful. Far better than your typical European metro. I was in Lisbon the other day, and the subway is just like a subterranean car park.

Did you write much of the book while travelling on the Tube?

I certainly write on the train. Overground trains mainly, not really the Underground. But I would recommend a little exercise for anyone who wants to become a novelist, that you can do on a train or Tube. Look at somebody and try to get their character from their face and try and work out how they would speak. Then speak to them and find out if you’re right. Even if you’re not, it’s useful.

Andrew Martin will be speaking about his book 'Underground, Overground: A Passenger's History of the Tube' on Wednesday, July 11 at Royal Festival Hall, as part of the London Literature Festival.