The representation of space: Prose and maps about the London Underground

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

20 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. Spatial Theory and Spatial Stories
2.1. Michel de Certeau on Spatial Theory
2.2. Spatial Stories.

3. Contemporary Spatial Stories about the London Underground
3.1. In Defence of the Underground – Travelling the Jubilee Line
3.1.1. A Brief Summary
3.1.2. In Defence of the Underground as a Spatial Story
3.1.3. The Representation of London in Lessing’s In Defence of the Underground
3.2. The Red Line – Travelling the Northern Line.
3.2.1. A Brief Summary
3.2.2. The Red Line as a Spatial Story
3.2.3. The Representation of London in Higson’s The Red Line

4. The Representation of Space in London Underground Maps
4.1. The Early Underground Maps: a Map from 1910
4.2. The Recent London Underground Maps: a Map from 2006
4.3. Underground Maps and Spatial Stories
4.4. Remapping London I: The Great Bear by Simon Patterson, 1992
4.5. Remapping London II: A Satirical Map by Jimmy Mulville and Colin Swash, 1997

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Some people say you can only experience London as you walk it. Others say that riding the London Tube gives you the real picture of the city as you receive different perspectives.

Indeed, the world’s oldest and largest underground, is one of the city’s most prominent and prototypical features. For more than 140 years, a diverse range of people such as tourists, visitors, provincials and commuters have travelled the metropolis by underground. Yet all of them for the same reason: to get from one place to the other.

From the opening of the first line in 1868, the London Underground also attracted the attention of many writers who depicted this means of transportation in their works. In fact, the London Underground still fascinates many contemporary authors such as Doris Lessing and Charlie Higson.

Reading Lessing’s In Defence of the Underground or Higson’s The Red Line you are taken along on a journey below the city, exploring the metropolis. While the story’s characters travel through London they organize space. When riding one of the underground lines, certain places and linked together. As the story continues, the narrative structures unfold to be spatial syntaxes that take the reader along on a tour through the metropolis.

In this paper I will argue to what degree texts about the London Tube as well as the London Underground maps can be considered a way of organizing the space of London. First of all, I want to give a short introduction on spatial theory and a definition of the concept of spatial stories. Afterwards, I will apply my findings on spatial stories to the London Underground texts In Defence of the Underground and The Red Line. Moreover, I will discuss the different representation of London within the two texts. Finally, I want to examine to what degree London Underground maps can be considered a way of organizing the space of the city.

2. Spatial Theory and Spatial Stories

Having its start in the middle of the 20th century, it was most notably in the last two decades that various academic disciplines have come together to discuss the space of ‘the city’. Influential spatial thinkers as Walter Benjamin, Michel de Certeau and Edward Soja reformulated the ways in which space is understood and practiced.[1]

2.1. Michel de Certeau on Spatial Theory

In The Practices of Everyday Life[2], Michel de Certeau, a French philosopher and sociologist, tried to define the terms ‘space’ and ‘place’. Space, on the one hand, exists “when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities and time variables. Thus space is composed of intersections of mobile elements.”[3] It involves action and operation. Place, on the other hand, is “an instantaneous configuration of positions”[4] that implies the aspect of something ‘being there’, stability. To de Certeau space represents a practiced place. He concludes, that a laid out street is transformed into a certain space by people walking them.

Moreover, he tries to outline the unconscious navigation of the city stroller starting with the city streets to literary texts. To him, walking – just as speaking or writing – is a space of enunciation. Moreover, when walking the streets of a city, the flaneur reorganizes spatial possibilities as there is crossing and drifting involved. In fact, strollers might even “increase the number of possibilities, for example, by creating shortcuts and detours.”[5] Therefore, they can not be limited to a certain graphic trail. Indeed, every walk continuously skips places which Certeau refers to as ‘the practice of the ellipsis of conjunctive loci.’[6]

2.2. Spatial Stories

Jane Rendell, an architectural designer, historian and theorist, states that the contemporary urban and architectural discourse is increasingly concerned with “figures which traverse space.”[7] Whether it is the rambler, skateboarder, biker or someone riding the Underground, numerous writers have been fascinated by individuals moving through urban space. The city stroller maps the space of the city and at the same time offers us a single urban experience.

Relating to narratives, the story teller or character therefore often creates a new cityscape since it is only certain elements of the city that are included in the spatial stories.

Before looking at two spatial stories about the London Tube – Lessing’s In Defence of the Underground and Higson’s The Red Line – it is necessary to understand the concept of a spatial story.

According to de Certeau, a spatial story is a story that offers many links between places and people. These links are created through walking, as a city stroller, for example, explores time and space. Moreover, a spatial story can possibly include public concerns and private fantasies as well as past events or future imaginings. This ‘extra information’ can be inserted sequentially and/or simultaneously. A spatial story about a walk through the city might explore the city itself and yet at the same time creates a new (or subjective or unrealistic) one: it includes only a limited number of city features but adds various private perceptions.

Above, de Certeau points out that every travel story is a spatial stories saying that the spatial element of story-telling is: “stories take place.”[8]

3. Contemporary Spatial Stories about the London Underground

There are various ways of representing spaces and places of London. Either through pictures or movies, texts or oral statements. The following narrative texts display a small section of London: its Underground.

3.1. In Defence of the Underground – Travelling the Jubilee Line

3.1.1. A Brief Summary

Doris Lessing’s essay In Defence of the Underground is a travel story of an I-narrator, who travels on the London Underground Jubilee Line that runs from ‘Stanmore’ to ‘Charing Cross’[9].

It begins with the I-narrator standing outside of an Underground station near Mill Lane, looking at different shops, thinking about the way it used to look around there. Then he or she enters the Underground station and gets on a train. It is the Jubilee Line. While travelling she remembers things that people once mentioned about places and life in London, sometimes arguing whether they were right about them or not. Then all of a sudden, ‘West Hampstead’ and ‘Kilburn’, two subway stations along the Jubilee Line, are mentioned; maybe because the narrator is just passing through these stations. After having thought about classes and foreigners in London the trains stops at ‘Finchley Road’. Only a few moments later an American lady as well as a few youngsters get off at ‘St John’s Wood’. As the train sits waiting the narrator remembers having been to a hotel in St John’s Wood and notices that the train is not far from Abbey Road. When the underground arrives in ‘St James Park’ memories of the former beauty of that area come back to the narrator’s mind. The train goes through ‘Baker Street’ and ‘Bond Street’; at ‘Green Park’ it fills up with tourists. Then the underground tunnels under old London before it reaches ‘Charing Cross’, its final station. Everyone gets out. Wanting to visit one gallery, or both, the narrator walks to Trafalgar Square. Having spent the day in downtown London the narrator takes the underground back to Mill Lane and walks home.

3.1.2. In Defence of the Underground as a Spatial Story

Since Lessing’s essay In Defence of the Underground is a travel story it can also be referred to as a spatial story[10]. Now the question arises by what means this essay is a spatial story.

First of all, it is a text that lives on the I-narrator’s movement through London. Moving about the metropolis, he or she “walk[s]”[11] the streets, “enter[s] a station”[12], rides the Underground and is “going out to Trafalgar Square.”[13] While on the train mentions nine out of seventeen stations of the Jubilee Line are mentioned (in the direction of Stanmore to Charing Cross): West Hampstead, Kilburn, Finchley Road, St John’s Wood, St James’s Park, Baker Street, Bond Street, Green Park and Charing Cross.


[1] cf. Rendell, Jane. “A Place in Between. Art, Architecture and Critical Theory” in Public Art Journal, no. 2, October 1999, p. 222.

[2] de Certeau, Michel. Practices of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, p. 387.

[3] Ibid, p. 117.

[4] Ibid, p. 117.

[5] Bridge, Gary, Sophie Watson, The Blackwell City Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 387-388.

[6] Ibid., p. 389.

[7] Rendell, Jane. The Pursuit of Pleasure (London: The Athlone Press, 2002), p. 1.

[8] Rendell, A Place Between, p. 231.

[9] Since 1999 an extension of another few station has been completed. Now there are 27 stations altogether; the final stop is no longer Charing Cross but Stratford.

[10] cf. p.4. According to de Certeau, every travel story is a spatial story.

[11] Lessing, Doris. “In Defence of the Underground” In: Tobias Döring (ed.) London Underground: Poems and Prose about the Tube. Stuttgard: Philipp Reclam jun., 2003, p. 144.

[12] Ibid., p. 124.

[13] Ibid., p. 141.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


The representation of space: Prose and maps about the London Underground
University of Paderborn
Narratives of London
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Prose, London, Underground, Narratives, London
Quote paper
Ulrike Miske (Author), 2007, The representation of space: Prose and maps about the London Underground , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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