Written in muscular, fast-moving prose, this account of the Tube is so packed with surprises and pleasures that it deserves an audience far beyond transport buffs and Londoners.
The system began with the Metropolitan line, which was constructed with considerable difficulty between Paddington and Farringdon. The 79-year-old Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, excused himself from the opening ceremony in 1863, stating that “he wanted to remain above ground as long as possible”.
Despite the sulphurous fumes from the steam locos, which the Metropolitan Railway with typical Victorian verve turned to its advantage by advertising the line as “a sort of health resort” for the asthmatic, this efficient and hidden transport system steadily spread across the capital. Noting that “London would not be London without the Underground”, Wolmar laments the scant commemoration of the world’s first underground railway.
His book glories in the quirks of the Tube, ranging from the collection of stuffed animals killed by the electrified District line to the revelation that the London Transport HQ at 55 Broadway, once the tallest office block in London, caused a furore when it opened in 1929 because of two Epstein nudes, one of which “displayed the male organ in all splendour.”