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Friday, May 20, 2011

South Kentish Town Tube & John Betjeman

Update: 27th May 2011:  Last night passengers were
stuck on train for three hours just outside of Kentish Town station - spooky in light of the following story on South Kentish Tube a week ago! Read on.......

Just when I thought I'd heard most urban legends about the Tube, something pops up that I initially had no recollection hearing about before. Thanks to Swirlythingy who left a comment in response to London Transport Museum's new "Underground" Map commission (blogged earlier this week), I learnt that John Betjeman had written a short story based on a true event about a man getting stuck at South Kentish Town London Underground Station a few weeks after it had closed in 1924.

John Betjeman lookalike on Northern Line by Annie Mole
John Betjeman lookalike I spotted on the Northern Line last week

In reality when the doors opened at the closed station, the man got off, but quite soon realised his mistake and managed to jump on the train before it left. But one should never let the facts get in the way of a good urban legend.

Enter TOT a London Transport staff magazine which published a poem in 1933 about the event. The writer had a whale of a time with this incident and created a "Mr Brackett" who was stuck in the station for four days and only survived by eating the posters on station walls!

Here's part of the poem:

"When morning came he started on his hands and knees to crawl,
And made a lot of progress 'till his forehead hit a wall.
Then he sat and chewed a poster which was advertising "port",
But the paste upon it proved a most unsatisfying sort.
All day upon the platform Mr Brackett quietly fumed,
His mind was full of pictures of the day he'd be exhumed;

He managed to escape by burning more posters to create a signal attracting the attention of a Tube driver.

Fast forward to 1951 and John Betjeman, former Poet Laureate and London railway lover, wrote a story about South Kentish Town, broadcast by BBC's Home Service, and changed the name of the man to Basil Green.

Some extracts follow: "This is a story about a very unimportant station on the Underground railway in London .....

Hardly anyone used the station at all. I should think about three people a day. Every other train on the Underground railway went through without stopping: 'Passing South Kentish Town!' Passengers used Camden Town Station to the south of it, and Kentish Town to the north of it, but South Kentish Town they regarded as an unnecessary interolation, like a comma in the wrong place in a sentence, or an uncalled-for remark in the middle of an interesting story. When trains stopped at South Kentish Town the passengers were annoyed .......

Then progress came along, as, alas it so often does: and progress, as you know, means doing away with anything restful and useless."

South Kentish Town by John Betjeman

He wrote about the closure of the station: "All you noticed as you rolled by in a tramcar down the Kentish Town Road was something that looked like an Underground station, but when you looked again it was two shops, a tobacconist's and a coal-merchant's. Down below they switched off the lights on the platforms and in the passages leading to the lifts, and then they left the station to itself. The only way you could know, if you were in an Underground train, that there had ever been a South Kentish Town Station, was that the train made a different noise as it rushed through the dark and empty platform. It went quieter with a sort of swoosh instead of a roar and if you looked out of the window you could see the lights of the carriages reflected in the white tiles of the station wall."

"Basil Green" like Mr Brackett before him gets stuck at the station and tries to make his way out. He climbs up a spiral staircase, no luck. He explores the lift shafts thinking that might work out.

"I don't know whether you know what the lift shafts of London's Underground railways are like. They are enormous - twice as big as this room where I am sitting and round instead of square. All the way round them are iron ledges jutting out about six inches from the iron walls and each ledge is about two feet above the next. A brave man could swing himself on to one of these and climb up hand over hand, if he were sensible enough not to look down and make himself giddy."

That doesn't work either and he beds down for the night with the Evening Standard as a pillow. The full story which you can read online here doesn't have an ending, so you're left wondering how Mr Green will make his escape.

J.E Connor wrote in London's Disused Underground Stations that the story was broadcast on the radio again in 1961 and was the subject of a TV programme in 1997 "which inferred that it was “true”."

Betjeman's London and London's Disused Underground Stations
As you can tell from my pictures above, I own both London's Disused Underground Stations and Betjeman's London which has the short story in it. I even found little post-it notes attached to the story. But if you'd had asked me yesterday, had I heard of the story, I'd have said no. Must be a sign of old age. Soon I'll be ranting at  young policemen on the streets: "Don't tell me what to do laddy, I've forgotten more than you'll ever know".

Anyway I'm pleased to discover both books again and Connor's book will definitely be re-read with interest.

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