Tunnel vision

Underground London: travels beneath the city streets

Stephen Smith <em>Little, Brown, 390pp, £17.9

When I started in journalism, it was always said that there were two classic stand-bys for feature articles. The first was afternoon tea dances, which surprisingly (except that everyone knew about them) survived at certain genteel restaurants and hotels. The other was known as "London under London", which would allude to a range of underground phenomena. Learned stuff such as discussion of Roman remains would be optional, but anything macabre - tombs and abandoned Underground stations, for instance - would be compulsory. The difference between these subjects was that "London under London" was inexhaustible and foolproof. Anybody could write it, and everybody would read it. It was just interesting.

The standard text to crib was actually called London Under London, by Richard Trench and Ellis Hillman. First published in 1984, this was an excellent book, but it now faces stiff competition from Stephen Smith's Underground London. Smith has clearly read Trench and Hillman's work, and gives it a credit in his bibliography, secure in the knowledge that his own book, while covering similar territory, is quite different in tone.

Trench and Hillman would never have written, as Smith does in describing an explosion that occurred in 1846 within the buried River Fleet, ". . . a Thames steamboat rammed into Blackfriars Bridge on a bow wave of crap"; or that London "rests on its cold, wet base as negligently as a fat old man on a waterbed". Underground London is more writerly than the earlier book, and far more personal, to the extent that much of it consists of first-person reportage.

Smith has a good eye. In the crypt of St Andrew's Church in the City, he contemplates the distorted lead coffins of plague victims: "They reminded me of the vanished fashion for blowtorching classic Coca-Cola bottles until their elegant necks were stretched into glowing icicles." He has a fine ear, too. Visiting the silver vaults under Chancery Lane, he detects a latent melancholy among the dealers who work down there, and quotes one who says: "They used to make everything in silver . . . Too many things. You'd need a football pitch for all of them. And you'd have to keep them clean. And they wear out."

All the main under-London phenomena are dealt with - the hidden rivers, the Tube, the Thames Ring Main. And in most cases they are personally observed by Smith in the company of guides at whose expense he has some wicked fun. Visiting Westminster Abbey (with the under-floor interments in mind), he notes that the advertised "verger-guided tour" sounds curiously like "heat-seeking missile".

But he does not manage to penetrate the secret subterranean governmental facility reputed to radiate across central London with Whitehall as a hub. In 1980, the investigative journalist Duncan Campbell entered this network via a manhole on a traffic island in Bishopsgate. He rode a collapsible bike around it, apparently while guards were having their tea, photographed it, and described it in an article published in the Christmas 1980 edition of this magazine. As a result, Campbell is a hero to the members of Subterranea Britannica and, Smith suggests, is a regular turn at the meetings of that mole-ish club. Smith believes that no outsider has been into the tunnels since Campbell, and he ruefully notes that there are "those who enter the government labyrinth and don't write about it, and those who write about it but don't enter it".

Smith's book still manages to be full of revelations, albeit ones of a non-security-sensitive nature: Underground railway lines tend to rise up slightly within stations to assist the trains in braking; scientists from the Centre for Explosion Studies at the University of Wales worked out that Guy Fawkes and his colleagues had enough gunpowder to flatten the Houses of Parliament 25 times over; there are more bodies in Bunhill Cemetery than there are people living in Southampton. (To which the true Londoner will respond by asking Stephen Smith: Ah yes, but what do you mean by "living"?)

Smith has a good go - well, lots of them - at explaining why we are fascinated by the underground life of the city, but I liked this one best: "The lore of the London criminal would be incomplete without the stash of moody money, to be dug up and divvied out as soon as the gang is back together again." It's the secrecy and mystery, in other words, plus the sinister overtone, speaking of which Smith actually encounters a sewer worker who extends his arms and says: "The rats are this size." That just about sealed it for me.

Andrew Martin's most recent novel is The Necropolis Railway (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Bush or Kerry? No difference