Going underground: meet the people exploring life below the street

The Forum: Underground looked at the increasing number of people living underground and those exploring among the dead.

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A conversation between three underground explorers (6 September, 9am) showed how much we are tending towards “3D habitability”: looking to live subterranean. In London, the rich are burrowing out vastnesses beneath their houses. In Beijing, 5 per cent of the population lives in former air-raid shelters; in Vegas over 300 people make their home in storm drains. The proposed “Earthscraper” in Mexico will be a (“Ballardian”) inverted pyramid of glass and steel, wedged deep into the ground. A literal (though chaotic) stratification of society?

Then, it was on to talk of the Paris catacombs – 160 kilometres of rooms, walkways, gigantic quarries, stores and pits, some dating back to the 4th century, some official and some not. It is technically ­illegal to visit the unofficial area, which is immense, though it’s accessible by defunct railway shaft, and so on. Beautifully intricate maps of the hundreds of unofficial tunnels and chambers are posted online, detailing the various floors and underground lakes to be found – here an enigmatic salle du dragon, there a cabinet de minéralogie.

None of this can ever be sealed up by the authorities, given that they have no idea how many people are down there at any time. It seems the catacombs are far from the preserve of the homeless: you might meet anybody. My twentysomething neighbour Emmanuel emerged only two weeks ago, after a long night exploring, and his stories trumped those told in the programme. He recalls wading along passageways, chest-deep in markedly clear water, but finding perfectly intact halls on other floors. One was lined with books (left by fellow adventurers?); another was a pillared cavity as mammoth-seeming as Tolkien’s Mines of Moria, with tens of hidden outlets leading to who knows where, leaving you, like Gandalf, sniffing the abysses and trying to guess the one safe route out of Khazad-dûm.

And then, around 5am in a very deep and distant but perfectly dry chamber, he came across a group of well-dressed teenagers sitting around listening to music and reading, as though it were just someone’s bedroom. Quietly engrossed in their magazines, they scarcely acknowledged him as he stumbled in. Now that’s Ballardian. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 08 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers

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