blast! Films has put together a really fun, interesting series looking at the life both in front of and behind the scenes of London’s Underground railway. I’m coming at it as someone who’s rather fond of the Tube, and I can see that it might not appeal to everyone. But for the most part, like any good documentary, it’s just a story about people.
Episodes have focussed on ticket inspectors, drivers, station staff, track engineers and head office and many more. It’s slickly edited to give a broad view of the system over the course of a day, night or weekend, with lots of interwoven ‘stories.’
You can catch The Tube on BBC iPlayer. All episodes to date are still online. Episode one is here.
As a series of vignettes, I can’t help but find that it reminds me of HV Morton‘s series of essays, brought together in little volumes with titles like Nights of London, The Spell of London, or The Heart of London.
Although Morton’s London was studied and written about in the 1920s, the London Underground features regularly in his writing – as it will in most London stories from the 20th century onwards.
Morton’s writing is detailed and vivid – but not without humour. His observations are often as amusing as they are serious. One of my favourite things is that he writes about scenarios and people that you can still find in London today – just as much as he writes about ways of life that have all but vanished.
I love Morton’s books on London – it’s a joy to flip through slices of life from all over the city, all walks of life, from almost a hundred years ago. He also wrote books about travels in England and beyond.
You can read his 1936 book The Call of England online, and the chapter on Manchester is great. It opens with: “I came into Manchester over a road as hard as the heart of a rich relation,” and goes on to say: “I have been told that it always rains in Manchester. This is a lie; it had just stopped.”
Here is the brand new MLC building at the corner of Lambton Quay and Hunter Street, photographed in 1940. It is from the negatives and prints of Gordon Burt, one of Wellington’s best-known commercial photographers. He was determined to show the building in all its art deco glory. In the real world overhead wires and cables criss-crossed in front of the camera, but on this print Burt has painstakingly retouched them out of existence.
I was interested to read that the ubiquitous overhead tram cables that run throughout downtown Wellington had been edited out of this image – if you click through to the Flickr page and view it larger, you can easily see where this has been done. And while I agree that it does make it easier to focus on the building’s proud frontage, I can’t help but feel slightly queasy about the removal of something so obvious.
But that’s just me; I love lines and silhouettes in photographs – and overhead cables bring a lot of that to an image. Often when I’m out and about, an image can be framed, or divided up, by some previously unnoticed cables. Other times, the unique arrangement of cables against a solid coloured sky can make the image itself. Even the latticed windows of my bedroom make for a beautiful composition against the right cloudscape.
I remember at least one example where I’d taken a photograph of a particularly nice sunset out of the back of my home in Manchester. Criss-crossing the image are the collection of telegraph cables that proliferate in such a densely populated residential area as this. For me, it made an image where the primary feature was swathes of colour a little more dynamic and interesting – the thick black lines against the bright colours of a fiery sunset made for a wonderful contrast.
Or so I thought.
The image ended up on my Manchester Daily Photo blog, and although I can’t remember it exactly, one of the comments left by a site visitor said words to the effect of “Lovely sunset, shame about the wires ruining it though.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. One man’s defining feature in a photograph can be another man’s distraction. And I quite like that.
Oddly enough, my mother was quick to jump in to the comments and defend the presence of the wires, saying she felt that they made the image. That must be where I get it from…
Incidentally, I’d show you the image I mean, but my Flickr account is currently in a somewhat dormant state as my subscription fees have expired for the first time in six years. This means my 12,000-odd photographs are ‘hidden’, with only the latest 200 showing. I will get around to renewing it when I can though, of course.
The other day, I and some folks from CILIP North West were treated to a tour of Chetham’s library, situated between Urbis and Manchester Cathedral. I must admit I didn’t know a great deal about Chetham’s beforehand, other than that it is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, and some other little titbits that can be summarised as it being a very old, very beautiful library.
Being a fan of such things, I jumped at the chance, even leaving a riveting lecture on organisational culture early. My lecturer decided to spend five minutes telling an anecdote about a previous job and I just happened to have to leave part way through her story. Satisfying.
The stroll I took through the city to get to the library was very enjoyable in its own right; Manchester was cold and crisp, with the late afternoon sun casting long shadows and throwing a golden hue onto whichever surfaces were tall enough to catch it. The Christmas Markets had opened that day in and around Albert Square, and it was lovely to have a quick look as I went past.
It reminded me that Manchester is a wonderful city at this time of year. Sure, it gets as busy and suffocating as any shopping city in the run-up to Christmas, but everything else is just very enjoyable.
I got to the library just in time to say hello, and to confirm if I could take photographs inside.
The tour was very entertaining and enjoyable. Our guide struck a nice balance between being informative and amusing, and never veered into boring territory. He seemed proud of the collections, and had many quips and stories pertaining to old traditions, the library’s place alongside the School of Music, and Manchester in general – as well as his mild obsession with books dealing with death.
The place oozes history. You can’t walk down a hallway or glance at shelving or sit on a chair without feeling its many centuries of age. So many of the fixtures and fittings are either original or merely very old. Indeed, very little of the library is ‘modern’, and the whole place has a very satisfying consistency in terms of decor and style. We were told, in fact, that a lot of the furniture spans many hundreds of years in styles, but it still all looks appropriate.
We were told many interesting things about the ‘mechanics’ of the place: for example that the books are mostly sorted in size order for reasons of practicality. One librarian attempted to get the collections sorted in Dewey order, but for a library of this kind, such an effort is futile.
The library is very dark inside. Old lead-lighted and stained glass windows offer an eery, pleasing light – but at levels far below that necessary for reading and writing. Indeed, even with the aid of electric light, it wasn’t hard to imagine visiting the library a century or more ago – nor to understand how in the winter months all those years ago, the library would usually close around 2pm.
Of interest to many was the staggering list of names of its users through the past. Karl Marx was a particular highlight, with his favourite location being easily identifiable, and that ever-present connection with the past making it so believable and alive.
A personal highlight was talk of the Leech collection, a vast archive of diaries, scrapbooks and photographs spanning a couple of hundred years of one family. There is a staggering amount of material held on this family, and it’s a wonderful resource. With my personal university project on how and why we keep diaries, I was especially fascinated to hear more about it.
It was a lovely tour and I’m glad I’ve finally been able to visit the place. It turns out you can just pop in any time, but it was especially good to be given a guided tour by someone so knowledgable and enthusiastic.