The Underground as Body16 minute read

‘London as body’

“Some people think London is one thing and the underground is another, but in fact the underground is London. It’s the only thing holding it together.” – (Andrew Martin, 2000).

The Underground is one of the most valuable, fundamental spaces in London. Just like the veins in our body, without which our bodily functions would fail. The tubes are the veins of a complex and relentlessly active body that carry blood towards the heart of London. Hidden inside, at the city centre, is one of the most dominant influences in the world; an assembly of leading governmental, corporative and cultural powers connecting to a much broader power structure.

It is easy to demonstrate how the entire city is, to some extent, influenced by the functions that occur in central London. The veins carry de-oxygenated blood from the tissues to the heart, in resemblance; the tubes bring in the lifeless souls of outer London and inspire them with hope and stimulus. The people of London have, since the 16th Century at least, been indoctrinated by the establishments at the heart of London. ‘London is a “high-speed explosion of cultural influences […] where every kind of conveyance cross each other’s paths at every opportunity” (Patterson, 2006). The culture enforced by the city’s media pumps blood through “the veins” of London, and this central magnetism becomes somewhat of a compulsive necessity for Londoners, just as the blood needs to be moved to the heart to survive.

Londoners begin to develop cravings to feel included in the activity of Central London. In turn, an inferiority associated with the outskirts of the city cultivates. Yet equally, London relies on the consistent support of its population; surging into the centre day and night. Besides, the extent to which events made by the people challenge a higher central authority should not be undermined; it is often an extraordinary movement.

The very foundations of the Underground retain hidden layers of the past- the layers echo social structures and struggles at an intimate level through physical and auditory senses. From this history we can depict former power structures and equate these controls to those of the present. Today, the Underground reflects the might of central corporations relating to a wider western network. It is necessary to concentrate on present systems, as current structures will determine the way future power dynamics form. Therefore, this essay is divided into two main parts; The Past and The Present; the latter of which naturally, addresses the potentials of the future.

Part 1: Power influences in the past: 19th Century London

The War Years represent the body slowing down as London’s spaces disintegrated; without the tubes carrying the population into central London, the city came to somewhat of a stand still.

“My brother grabbed my hand, we were running full strength into Vauxhall station. It was the most horrifying thing. People were crying and screaming and praying.”- Madge Rutherford, 1917.

Figure 1 London Underground Shelter Rules
Figure 1

The very platforms we wait on today shared a much more intimate relationship with Londoners as they sheltered to fight for survival. Rarely do we see strangers publically exposed in such a vulnerable way, but in this space, a unique bond united a community. The only hope this defenceless population were shown was the shelter of the underground, and so under the control of London transport companies, London’s population huddled underground at the refuge of Hitler. Amongst the tragedies, the shelter saved thousands through communal living and on some level- the public’s emotional strength was powerful enough to overcome the psychological controls of Nazi Germany.

For many it was easy to believe that there was no escape from the war; commuters jostled with munitions workers and soldiers- reinstating the notion that the underground is just as much a part of London as aboveground. Passengers were targeted though tube adverts that (alike modern day), captured the insecurities and sensitivities of Londoners.

Shelter Full Sign London Underground
Figure 2

The Underground persisted to act as the veins of London- although wearier, it remained one of the most effective parts of London. Yet, even the sanctuary found in underground came accompanied with power struggles and unfortunate cases of exclusion. Figures 1 and 2 hint at the limited spaces underground, shedding light on just how tragic conditions were; access to safety was not guaranteed, only with the right monetary capacity were you safe, and ultimately the lives of Londoners were left in the hands of the enemy. Moreover, a space that can often seem very protected, has experienced horrific tragedies. Therefore, London’s undergrounds are perhaps the veins of a highly vulnerable body- an easy target of terror that has deep-rooted effects but holds the ability to recover to a superior model. Perhaps belonging to a non-human body- one that can experience breakdown, but recover in ways that a human body couldn’t. Indeed, post-War London was a battered city, but the underground fought on; carrying more passengers then ever before and strengthening itself to the system we have today.


A central theme of London’s body is ‘Noisiness’- the sighs, the growling stomachs, the sounds that so clearly depict the emotions of London. By focusing on the sense of sound, the degree of energy and power within the city is expressed. If we look back to Dickens’ 19th Century London, pre-Underground, the streets were the leading way of transport and their noise predominantly characterised the city (Ackroyd, 2000). It was very difficult to resolve London’s noise into a fixed sound- ‘it is not a clatter, hum or roar but thousands of footsteps, thousands of horse hooves and thousands of wheels’ (Smith, 1999). Likewise, the Londoner was always associated with noise; “loud boastfulness“ (Stow, 1618) of a brash cockney twang. Thomas Dekker called London the “Noisiest city in the world” (1922)- this vibrancy projects overall themes of impulse and power in the city.

Modern day society embodies electric noise, dulling down the heterogeneity of sounds, it is no longer an image of the sea (Shelley, 1820) but a mechanic beating heart that we can no longer classify as wholly human or natural. The city has transformed, London’s traffic booms like monotonous far-off guns, crushing something, dead (Lawerence, 2004). We have digitalized the ‘chaos’ and ‘crowds’ of the past; to spend our time locked away in our own separate spaces- removing ourselves from the noisiness of London that remains. The energy that surrounds us is blocked out by our headphones and as individuals we are ‘loud’ no longer; in fact there is a huge anxiety found in social interaction in the city: “You find yourself in your own little bubble”, “it’s just how you kind of survive in London” (Tube passenger, 2015). Moreover, in terms of power, Ackroyd, (2000) makes an important suggestion- the heterogeneity of London was previously seen as an aspect of noise, therefore, is it the case that in the modern day- absent from the perpetual hum of traffic and machines, are our individual freedoms restricted? Is London so strongly defined by politics and control from the central power that all other voices are dispelled and largely unheard? Or, on the other hand, without the constant background sounds, can individual voices are heard more clearly? Perhaps London has not lost its impulse and energy, but developed a better way of life that secures a city more open to democracy and fairness.

Part 2: Power influences in the present: Modern Day London

beach body ready London Underground Advert
Figure 3


Advertising on the tube is undoubtedly a highly effective form of promotion, more than 10 million passengers use the tube everyday. It is a directly influential form of media with a potential to be highly damaging to vulnerable suspects. TFL’s advertising policy entitles them to accept, reject or sponsor adverts- as a result; one of the most instrumental influences in London lies in the hands of TFL.

In the summer of 2015, more than 44,000 people signed a petition to have Protein World’s Adverts removed. Londoners were angered by their controversial advert featuring a bikini-wearing model and asking “Are you beach body ready?”. In such cases, tube adverts can hold grasp over the population on an emotional level; this “unhealthy” body image was accused of “targeting individuals, aiming to make them feel physically inferior, in order to sell their product” (Cosslett, 2015). Indeed it seems, even if unintentionally- Protein World was tapping into emotional anxieties and promoting a cultural system of elitism.

F your Sexist Sh-t
Figure 4

To me, the reaction against the advert reflects the healthy views of London; an understanding of the cultural influences in the media and the psychological disorders that materialise as a consequence of this. In reference to ontology, the reaction reinstates that the public do hold power to challenge mass corporations like Protein World and sway a more complex structure of being. The Guardian’s Rhiannon Cosslett (2015) wrote; “my field of vision is occupied without my consent by images and messages that want to sell me stuff (and, being a woman, it’s usually based on claims that it will make me look better).” Cosslett summarises the feminist conversation; feminists fought against the suggestion of a mass inferiority- that those who were not at a level of slimness determined as attractive according to western notions of female beauty, perhaps those even growing new life within them, cannot go to the beach without experiencing unnecessary trauma.

Overall, it becomes apparent that, since the opening of the underground, influential images and authorities have consistently exerted mass amounts of psychological power over the city’s population. Whether it be wartime recruitment, smoking campaigns, transnational technology corporations, or fitness products; ““We need to be aware of these toxic images.” (Rebecca Field, Beat- Eating Disorders Charity).

Each Bodys Ready
Figure 5

Figures 4 and 5 exemplify the power that exists within the average passenger of the tube. Individuals have modified posters into something entirely new- Figure 4 uses the woman’s body as a palimpsest and writes in a similar capital letter font, using language of rage and rebellion; “Fuck your sexist shit”. Similarly, Figure 5, with the hashtag #EachbodysReady written on top, as a new layer, directly answers the advert with the idea that the voices of London cannot be suppressed, even against culturally powerful corporations.

In light of the existing public awareness of corporative cultural and psychological power, it seems there may be potential for a growth in ‘taking back power’ against controversial images and messages. Yet will this growth be durable enough to override the probable surge in the dominance of mass corporations as advanced technology progresses and becomes more accessible? In this future the media will become further entrenched in our lives and it may become harder to distinguish psychologically damaging influences. We may see a conversion to more politically direct advertisements in particular, in turn the underground could become a space of extreme vulnerability, and the passengers: ‘easy targets’ of political and cultural persuasion.

Authorities of power in daily life on the Underground

No eye contact sign tube
Figure 6

An amalgamation of spatial structures on the underground work to direct and control passengers, most of which we obey subconsciously. As soon as we enter the space we become agents of TFL; we follow their every direction and place our complete trust in the paths they create.

“Stand on the right”, “Stand behind the yellow line”, “Green arrow: enter here” “Red arrow: do not enter here”.

It becomes clear that there is a certain social anxiety associated with making a mistake, or following the wrong sign- we become ashamed to step out of the social guidelines TFL constructs. Have you ever thought about going underground to roam around the space and walk in whichever direction you choose? To stand in the middle of a passage where TFL expects us to be constantly moving? In TFL’s space, we cannot behave in a way that is free to our natural desires. Thus, as well as complying with social norms that have developed aboveground; “The rhythms of the city are endlessly mimicked beneath the city” (Ackroyd, 2000) and additionally, new social conditions are created and directly enforced on the underground.

Signs on the London underground
Figures 7 and 8

However, this is not to say that the entire population of London have overlooked TFL’s overbearing guidelines, between 2012-2014 TFL’s passengers produced a series of comedic “fake London underground signs” (Edds, 2014). The signs underline the peculiar system of minimal social interaction and the unusual behaviours passengers comply with on the underground (figure 8). The images highlight the social anxiety found with acting as an intermingling community on the underground; see figures 6, 7 and 8. In turn, these passengers address their full awareness of the power TFL holds over them when they are underground, but using this humour they also display how they can challenge TFL’s authority. The sign in Figure 9 publicizes the weaknesses of TFL’s standards. The public were able to voice themselves against TFL and spread this power through the media- illustrating that Londoners can hold a certain power over TFL if they so choose to use it. Yet, I doubt the extent to which Londoners can really rule TFL’s spatial structures in daily life, truly we remain held inside a bubble of regulations when we enter the underground system. Subsequently, I believe that ultimately, TFL have control over the average passenger on the underground.

keep clear of the doors sign
Figure 9

Discriminative power structures are not limited to the authority of TFL alone. The British Transport Police show that in 2013, 429 sexual assaults took place in the London Underground. By 2014 that figure had risen to 567. TFL and BTP recently launched a YouTube video awareness campaign called ‘Report It To Stop It’ to encourage victims to come forward. Indeed, the standard of living has developed in London since the age of prostitution on a wide-scale during the 19th Century, yet recent realizations of the commonality of sexual abuse on the underground demonstrates the state of vulnerability that remains. Moreover, added social structures such as the normalisation of absenteeism on the tube; entering our own ‘bubbles’ (with headphones, phones, newspapers)- enhances the danger on the Underground. The level of non-attendance we adopt is so powerful that it perhaps led to the statistic that ‘10% of passengers experience unwanted sexual behaviour on public transport in London, but only 1 in 10 will report it’ (BTP, 2013). Further, in November 2015 a Youtube group; Trollstation (2015) completed a social experiment to see whether passengers on the tube would speak out and defend a person if they were subject to sexual abuse. It is suggested that, as a result of the anxiety in interacting with strangers on the tube, only one man defended the woman subject to the abuse. Thus, there are strong risks that arise when power systems merge. It becomes clear that the social normalities of the underground created by TFL and the public across time are very deeply embedded in our behaviours.

The 24-hour city is no longer a new phenomenon and in last 15 years London’s population has increased by nearly 20%- 8.6 million (The London Transport Museum, 2015). The population is desperate for a night tube, and when it opens in 2016, London will quickly become highly dependent, enforcing the metaphor of the tubes as the veins of the body in an endless, 24-hour format. It will be considerably more difficult to control violence and sexual abuse on the underground; a confined space, combined with high intake of alcohol and a higher intake of drug usage at night is likely to increase the number of violent crimes. In a survey by the South London Fawcett Group (2005), several women recounted tales of unpleasant experiences or intimidation. Many said they could not consider giving up their cars at night until the issue of safety on public transport is addressed- women are the fastest growing group of car users (University of East London, 1999). Therefore, although TFL and BTP seem to be on the side of public welfare, with these future schemes in place, there is implied a desperate need for more action to prevent vulnerable groups from being victimized within the social structures in place on the underground.


The Underground; the veins of the city that keep London moving, evinces a confluence of time. The histories of the underground saw the population subject to horrific controls of power at their most vulnerable state during the War Years. In addition, in transport across time, we can compare the transformation of sound, and the reflection of changing structures in the heterogeneity of London. It is found that, as individual voices are heard more clearly, London progresses towards developing a life of equality. In a later context, in 2015 the power structures exercised on the tube project an almost disturbing realization that organizations can hold grasp over the population’s psychological state in a way that is often subconsciously exercised. In light of the mighty forces that dominate the space of the underground at present, combined with the ability of individuals to take back this power, we can apply this structure to the future, to predict a development of victimization for potentially vulnerable individuals on the underground.

Montague Black (1926) presents a futuristic London in 2026 where public transport has spread into the sky, nevertheless at street level the red roundel glows reassuringly to remind us that whilst the future may be ‘all in the air’, the solid service of the underground remains guaranteed (The London Transport Museum, 2015). Therefore, it is suggested that what remains throughout time is a dependency on the ‘veins of London’ and the magnetism to central London, which are unfortunate conditions for a city so dense and over-crowded. Thus with little alternative way of mobility in London, the Underground is in need for a desperate restructuring of power, in order to remove the discriminations and cultural pollution of the future.

London 2026
Figure 10


Ackroyd, Peter. London. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2000.

Cosslett, Rhiannon, ‘Am I beach body ready? Advertisers, that’s none of your business’ The Guardian, 2015.

Dekker, Thomas, and H. F. B Brett-Smith. The Seven Deadly Sinnes Of London. Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1922. 

H. Lawrence: Late Essays and Articles, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, 1 Apr 2004

Edds, Robbin. The 26 Greatest Fake London Underground Signs In The History Of Fake London Underground Signs, Buzzfeed 2014.

Martin Andrew, The Evening Standard 2000.

Paterson, Mike. Voices From Dickens’ London. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 2006.

Percy Bysshe Shelley. From a letter to Maria Gisborne (1820) compares London to sea ‘vomits and wrecks but still howls on for more’

Rutherford, London Transport Museum Archives, 1917

Temple, Julien. London: The Modern Babylon, 2012.

The British Transport Police, ‘Report it Stop it’, 2013.

The Public Transport Gender Audit, University of East London, November 1999.


Smith, Bruce R. The Acoustic World Of Early Modern England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

Stow, John, Anthony Munday, and Henry Holland. The Suruay Of London. London: Printed by George Purslowe, dwelling at the east end of Christs Church, 1618.

Figure 1: London Transport Museum Archives

Figure 2: London Transport Museum Archives

Figure 3: Protein World Tube Poster: google image result, 2015

Figure 4: Protein World Tube Advert: google image result, 2015

Figure 5: Protein World Advert; Twitter Result, 2015

Figure 6: Dangerfield Andy, BBC News, London, Guerrilla sticker craze hits London’s Tube, October 2012

Figure 7: The 26 Greatest Fake London Underground Signs In The History Of Fake London Underground Signs, Buzzfeed 2014.

Figure 8: Dangerfield Andy, BBC News, London, Guerrilla sticker craze hits London’s Tube, October 2012

Figure 9: The 26 Greatest Fake London Underground Signs In The History Of Fake London Underground Signs, Buzzfeed 2014

Figure 10: LONDON 2026; A.D. This is all in the air: Montague B Black 1926

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