Being underground

Earlier this week, the oldest subterranean train system in the world, London's metro, or as they call it, the tube, marked its 150th anniversary. It was in 1863 that lawyer Charles Pearson's idea to create a railway that allowed the working classes living in Paddington to travel all the way to central London's business district, in a relatively short span of time, came to fruition. The line, called the Metropolitan, transformed mass transit and urban housing by allowing people to move to the suburbs if they wanted, without losing out on employment opportunities. In its 150 years of operation, the tube has come to represent the metropolis that is London, in all its messy, sprawling, frustrating, iconic glory. London is its underground, and the underground is London.

There is the ubiquitous signage all along the network, announcing station names in a red circle. The Delhi metro borrows from the design, as it does from the public address system, with its sonorous "Mind the gap"s and "Stand clear of the closing doors". The underground is also enmeshed in the city's culture. J.K. Rowling gave Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore a scar on his knee that depicted a map of the tube, and recently James Bond failed to prevent the dastardly Silva from bombing a station in Skyfall. Musicians, including Paul McCartney, have often joined the ranks of the buskers lining tube stations.

The stations themselves are a microcosm of the bustling city aboveground and most have a motif relevant to their history or location in their tile-work. Tower Hill station, for instance, includes a section of London's original Roman wall. So many stations became a place of refuge for the city's inhabitants during the Blitz, as immortalised in Ian McEwan's Atonement. The tube is as integral to London folklore as the royal family, and arguably, in the 21st century, more relevant.

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