Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Something lighter

After a couple of blogs dealing in a rather portentous fashion with Occupy Wall Street, I feel this is a good moment to turn to something lighter.

This iconic design - which you may or may not have recognized at once as representing the world's oldest underground railway system, in London, England - depicts, in its most modern form, some 270 different stations, arranged along eleven different lines - some merely subsurface (i.e. "cut and cover" tunnels, dug as trenches from the surface and then covered over) and others deep-bore tunnels (whose circular cross-section inspires the popular nickname "the Tube"). The intricate map was originally designed by a London Underground employee named Harry Beck. It doesn't reflect the distances, or precisely the layout, of the real Underground network; but it does give an accurate depiction of their positions relative to one another - which is of course what travelers on the Underground need to know. Beck's genius was to realize this. Prior to his 1931 prototype map, a more accurate official version existed; however, this version had to devote such attention to the very crowded central portion of the Underground under the City proper that it was unable to encompass the more distant periphery of the network. Beck's model, organized on a system of bright colors, parallel lines, and topological relationships, avoided that problem stylishly.

Beck's version, however, was not officially sanctioned, and the stuffy bureaucrats in command positions of the London Underground were skeptical of its promise; so Beck produced it as a labor of love, shyly offering it two years later for consideration. The public loved it; and, for most of the next thirty years, Beck produced new maps to reflect the evolution of the network.

Every good story needs a villain, of course; in the story of Beck's Underground, that villain was Harry Hutchinson (being called Harry was not a requirement of employment with the London Underground, but it helped). Hutchinson was a publicity officer with the Underground whose lack of design background did not prevent him from producing his own map when faced with the challenge of integrating the new Victoria line with the already complex existing network; Beck, who had surmounted similar challenges for three decades and faced down a rival plan submitted by Hans Scheger in the 1930s, was unimpressed and offered an alternative version. But he had reckoned without Hutchinson's politicking; the London Underground rejected Beck's version, and he never produced another Underground map.

Although the Underground has evolved tremendously since the first Beck map in 1933, the current version still strongly recalls the original - indeed, Beck is formally credited on each new version of the Tube map as the inspiration for everyone who came after. It is impossible to put a price on immortality; the rather feeble recompense provided by the London Underground for Beck's original, unsolicitated, and instantly classic design was... ten guineas.

* * *

One of the many stations on the London Underground was originally planned as Seymour Street, in the London Borough of Camden. It opened to little fanfare in 1907 under the alternative name of Mornington Crescent, and for much of the first sixty years of its history its chief function was to momentarily break up the monotonous view confronting passengers on the non-stop Edgware train. It lies on the Northern Line, which is a dual-branch line; an oddity of this is that taking the Charing Cross branch leads one to Mornington Crescent en route from Camden Town to Euston, while taking the City branch will also allow one to alight at either Camden Town or Euston, and yet find no Mornington Crescent between. The station was seldom used, and indeed by the early 1990s had fallen into such disrepair that significant renovations were needed.

Despite its humble nature - and, in fact, possibly because of its self-effacing now-you-see-it-now-you-don't existence in the mysterious subterranean waste separating Camden and Euston - Mornington Crescent station received those significant renovations, even though they took most of the decade to complete. The reason for this is that Mornington Crescent, too, achieved a form of immortality, featuring prominently on the legendary British radio quiz show I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue from the sixth season in 1978 onwards.

The game of Mornington Crescent combines the pulse-pounding excitement of Cribbage with the athletic demands of Shove Ha'Penny. Its intricacies are difficult to explain to the layman, however I was fortunate enough to track down an episode in which, helpfully, experienced Crescenters Tim Brooke-Taylor, Barry Cryer, and Graeme Garden were able to offer their wealth of expertise to highly-thought-of novice Ross Noble in his very first game:

1 comment:

Heather Henry said...

We have a board game called London Underground, it has that map and you have to go visit several places (there are cards with info about each place) but you have to try to map out the best ways to get around and make it back to your original starting point before your opponent. It's a fun game with some cool info.