Going underground - RSA

Going underground


A week of madness lies ahead with seven speeches on different topics including three on Wednesday alone! Anyone out there recruiting to the Trappists should think of approaching me on Friday, so sick will I then be of the sound of my own voice (presumably Trappists rely on direct mail rather than telephone sales for fund raising and recruitment).

The first speech is this afternoon. I am the last speaker in a Guardian Conference called Capital Ambition 09 – Transforming and Improving London Services. I’m not sure of what to be more nervous; the possibility that a demanding and well-informed audience will expect me to have brilliant ideas or that I will be speaking to a dwindling and speech-weary group of delegates.

I sometimes refer to the final session at all day conferences as the ‘wonder-time’, not because it is a moment of imagination and possibility but because most people in the room are surreptitiously looking at their watches and saying to themselves ‘if I leave now I wonder if I have time to get the early train home’.

But one thing I know I want to mention is the bringing of culture to the London Underground. This is great. I am sure there is a longer history to this and, of course, Harry Beck’s underground map and many stations are wonderful designs but I started to notice the attempt to civilise metro life with the Poetry on the Underground initiative which began in 1996. Then in 2000, building on a long tradition of commissioning artists and designers, Art on the Underground was launched. This year has also seen Jeremy Deller’s work with Piccadilly Line staff to produce a booklet of quotations for their use in station signs and announcements.

Oval station is on the Northern Line but when I arrived this morning classical music greeted me as I came in from the wind and rain, there was a quote of the day on the travel information notice board and there was even – which I think is new – a quotation scrolling along the train information indicator. And to put the icing on the cake the platform announcer – who stands among the passengers with his hand held microphone - was speaking clearly and with just the lightest touch of humour.  

I want to argue this afternoon that for a city to have a positive and useful identity it needs to be having a conversation with itself. This gives a place more meaning to its citizens, a stronger brand, and helps us understand the choices we and our leaders have to make.

The fantastic work of the team that is promoting art on the Underground shows what is possible even in the uncongenial context of overcrowded commuting. It contrasts with what feels like a vacuum in the broader debate and the capital’s aspirations and choices – as if the Olympics somehow relieves London of the need for direction or discourse.

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