The anti-solipsism of the London Underground


I have only just got around to reading John Lanchester’s delightful meditation on the London Underground. I missed it when it was published in the newspaper, but enough people shared it on social media that Twitter saw fit to e-mail it to me as a recommended story.
The essay deals with the rich topic of how we manage to be ‘alone’ in public places. Lanchester describes of the masques we wear and the techniques we use to create mental space to dwell within even though our physical personal space is invaded by other people at rush-hour.

There is something very prosaic about this notion of retreating into one’s own headspace. But I recall Nick Harkaway’s article last week about the difference between mainstream fiction and science fiction. Harkaway says that lit-fic “is focused largely on a notional interior human experience … The conceit is that our humanity is inherent and inward, not a product of our encounter with the world.” Meanwhile, sci-fi deals with the way in which the world around us intrudes on our thoughts, our sense of self, our very humanity:

You can’t genuinely depict “the ordinary mind on an ordinary day” in the developed world if you refuse to acknowledge the existence of the social web, CCTV cameras and online shopping.

Add to that list: commuting.
Lanchester laments the lack of fiction (written, or on film) about the London Underground.

There are quite a few novels and films and TV programmes about Glasgow. Where are the equivalent fictions about the underground? New York has any number of films about its subway – The Warriors, the John Carpenter movie from 1979, is one of the best of them, and explicitly celebrates the network’s geographical reach across the whole city, from Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx to Coney Island. New York also has Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham 123, an all-subway-located thriller, among many other cinematic depictions. Paris has the Luc Besson film Subway, and plenty of other movies. London has next to nothing. (Let’s gloss over the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors…)

This ‘glossing’ over Sliding Doors is a mistake. While the story is whimsical and Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance may grate, it is a film about serendipity and the way lives criss-cross on the Tube. This feature of any mass transport system is probably the most fascinating thing about them. And this aspect is most definitely not about the internality of the individual mind, but about interactions: between people and the built world around them; and between people whose paths cross for one reason or another.
Lanchester says there is “next to nothing” in film and literature about the London Underground. He ostentatiously neglects to mention two pieces of art that are inspired by the tube.
First: Geoff Ryman’s brilliantly conceived 253 explores the precise theme of intersecting lives in a hyperlinked, non-linear form, published first online and then in print. Second: Tube Tales, a feature length anthology of short films set on the London Underground. It features the cream of British acting talent (circa 1999), and again there are links and cross-references between the stories and characters. Both pieces seem to incorporate ghosts, and events that happen due to a fortunate or unfortunate chain-reaction.
I think the real reason subways and mass transit systems fascinate, is because they place us in such close proximity to so many other people, all at once. This forces us to acknowledge that our life is just one of hundreds, thousands, millions, playing out simultaneously. It provokes a kind of anti-solipsism. We may try to exist purely within our heads (and the music or the podcast or the hand-held console or the Kindle or the newspaper certainly helps with that), but The Fact That Other People Exist continuously and rudely interrupts that privacy. To enter the tube system is to acquiesce to becoming, for a time, part of the throng, the hive, the colony – a node in a network, a synapse in a larger brain, just one small part of a larger whole.

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