How do people in cities mentally construct the urban spaces they move through in order to inhabit them and to navigate them? I was curious to bring to light the personal geographies of tube travellers whose private copings with the city’s space might mingle strangely with the authoritative suggestions of official maps.
In London the iconic Tube Map, based on Harry Beck’s original diagram, achieves its remarkable elegance by distorting or compressing time, space and direction. For who would wish to see in the darkness of the city under the city?
So I sat about on Underground station benches and asked in turn anyone who unwittingly sat down next to me, over a hundred total strangers waiting for their trains: ‘Please draw your London Underground network’.
The drawings were gathered from just two stations in the first instance: Fulham Broadway in South West London, and Leyton Tube Station in North East London. The locations were chosen to give some sense of the polarity of the city. In a second series, I started collecting drawings at the rate of five an hour from the first train at 5.07 a.m. from a suburban tube station, moving inwards to Piccadilly, the centre, on a Friday at midnight. At five in the morning, no one wanted to draw. Midnight at Piccadilly, everyone did. Taken by surprise, trains due in one or two minutes, no one had time to embellish or pretend.
As travellers drew ‘their’ Undergrounds, their hands re-enacted their different experiences of the space. There are drawings that register in the uncertain pressure of the pencil, how the mind crept uncertainly from point to point. Other hands dashed or swept confidently around. Many hands hovered tentatively above the paper, and then sketched doubt or question in the air before descending to make the mark. Elderly hands trembled the pen across the paper. In every case the line traced a thought, despite differing levels of ease with the concepts of ‘drawing’ and ‘network’.
As different individuals drew ‘their’ underground networks, unfamiliar tube maps briefly, hesitatingly, triangulated themselves in an unlocatable territory between actual routes, imagined routes and the routes officially mapped.
But do these drawings offer anything more than the poignant spectacle of mass misconception and the multiplicity of human isolations?
I think something else emerges from these pictograms. It is that the very spareness of the official Tube Map has freed our conceptions of our London underground journeys from all constraints of geographical accuracy: and in doing so has opened up a different kind of space for imagination. This is a space collectively imagined, dreamed forth, where each fragment contributes to a specifically London variant of the image found so often in the literature of the modern city: a shape shifting labyrinth, shared and yet not shared. Largely shaped and mis-shaped by the London Underground Map, this labyrinth of the communal imagination can be seen as a space simultaneously physical, imaginary and metaphoric; a richly charged territory.
And what did passengers say, when asked: Please draw your London Underground network? Their responses went like this:
That’s easy that’s impossible I can do that easily I’m really bad at that sort of thing
I can’t draw I can’t draw that should be quite simple I really couldn’t no no I couldn’t oh all right then
There’s no picture in my head I ignore it I don’t look it’s vague it’s clear I just don’t know
Oh my god oh my god oh my god oh lordy lordy oh the shame of it
I haven’t a clue I haven’t a clue not a clue not a clue
Something like this something like that somewhere over here somewhere over there somewhere
I don’t know where it goes I don’t know I don’t know of course I know I thought I knew
Are you making fun of me you are making fun is this a joke this is really cruel
This is really interesting I want to see if I can do it that was my train never mind I really want to finish this I want to see if I can do it thankyou thankyou that was so interesting
I hate this drawing by hand stuff it makes me seem tremulous I am not a tremulous person I wish I could do this on my computer then I could use straight lines I’m a straight line person I hate seeing myself like this the readymade characters in my computer would be much better
Don’t ask him lady ask me he’s useless I can do it better no you can’t yes I can c’mon Todd c’mon Wurzel let’s show the lady god this is difficult actually it’s impossible look here’s our train thank god I told you you’d be useless you were worse I wasn’t you were I wasn’t ‘bye, lady, ‘bye
You want me to draw? – I will try… I’m not much use… I’m so sorry, so sorry, so sorry
I failed every exam at school this is a sort of nother test yes yes I see it as a test I really have to do this there’s a train gone it doesn’t matter I have to do this I have to finish it there’s another one gone I’m going to do this there’s another and another I’ve missed five trains doing this I don’t care
I go there… then I go there… and then there… then round there… and up here… and round there and along here and then here… mmm… then I come back like this… and like this and like this… mmm… mmm… here I go, here…mmmmm…
I’m stoned… You want what? Me to draw the London Unground?… Who knows?… Who knows?…