a world beneath our world


When we describe ourselves as products of our environment, we usually think of class, money and parenting. Only rarely do we reflect on how our identities are shaped by space, and specifically by the random spaces of the modern city, what the historian Leif Jerram calls “the myriad nooks and crannies, backstreets and thoroughfares, clubs and bars, living rooms and factories”. We forget, for example, that the London Underground, now merely another element of our mundane daily lives, was once novel and exciting, forcing people to behave in entirely new ways. Travelling by Tube is both an intensely solitary experience, each of us cocooned in our thoughts, and an eminently collective one: inside the carriage, all distinctions of class and status are forgotten. No wonder, then, that in the early 1930s, the Soviet authorities saw the building of the Moscow Metro as the ideal way to create a new communist man. As hundreds of thousands of rural peasants flooded into the capital, taking up new identities as technicians and engineers, it seemed that a new proletariat was being born. “How many people,” asked a Pravda headline, “recreated themselves making the Metro?”

more from Dominic Sandbrook at the FT here.