A 7.5 meter wide panda’s head, a broken caravan and a lamp post stolen from a motorway up north loom ominously out of the shadows at me. They’re arranged on a disused platform in Gloucester Road Underground Station in a haphazard manner reminiscent of a bad car crash.
On the other side of town, a twenty ton, 30-foot bronze statue of an embracing couple is being erected in preparation of the opening of the new Eurostar terminal. Inspired by the ending of the film Love Actually where all the lovers meet each other in Heathrow airport and kiss, it’s meant to invoke the romance of train travel and cost public transport users one million pounds.
These are both, apparently, pieces of art, placed around stations in London at considerable expense to entertain the masses as we go about our daily business. London Underground, which is responsible for the lamppost, sponsors both the schemes Platform For Art, which commissions artists to create temporary exhibitions in stations and Poems on the Underground, which pastes snippets of Shakespeare around stations.
The question that begs to be asked is why. Perhaps the reason for this statue is to try to convince those of us who do not like standing on overcrowded trains with our heads in some gentleman’s armpit, that travel is actually romantic. Perhaps the Shakespeare is meant to indulge our foreign visitors with English culture. Or to impress them with our universal pretence of knowledge of the bard. The official justification for the panda’s disembodied head is that it is art and it is ‘entertaining’.
It is certainly entertaining. The fact that someone placed it on a station platform in all seriousness as art is entertaining. It’s also terrifying. The London public are expected to believe and indeed many even do, that random pieces of debris are art. And even if we were to give the artist the benefit of the doubt and class it as art, does it even amount to anything good? We are being forcefully indoctrinated that it is.
Is it the duty of the London Underground Service to ‘entertain’ us? Have we slipped so far into a mindless culture that for the minutes we stand on a platform we cannot be left to our own thoughts and devices but have to be constantly ‘entertained’? Who is it that decides what is ‘art’ and therefore what is entertainment and what then merits a place on a Gloucester Road platform?
With constant justification such as ‘entertainment’ the public are being forced to accept the ever-increasing presence of the ‘nanny state’. In yet another slip on the road to 1984 most Londoners now carry electronic cards called Oyster Cards. These are a form of plastic ticket on which you can place money and use as a pass on London Transport. Since you have to register to get one they carry your name and personal details. The justification for these cards is that they make travel quicker since the card does not have to be inserted in a reader. To encourage their use, with an oyster card fares are almost half price.
The Oyster Cards register your every movement and due to the technology they carry, (so the conspiracy theories run), it could even be possible to place monitors in streets to track users’ movements. Their success in this is so great, that movements recorded on Oyster Cards are being used in divorce cases.
Fare prices on the London Underground have risen 256% since 1999 and yet to have a tube or train arrive on time is still nothing short of a miracle. Or your watch has stopped. It can now work out cheaper to catch an airplane to Manchester than to take a long, overcrowded and delayed train.
Surely it would be more beneficial to spend the money being ploughed into endless pits of entertaining art and poetry on improved transport services, or at least lower fares. Does England’s ‘worst rail service’, First Great Western, with a delay record of 24.4% seriously believe that having a Poet on the Platform composing ad hoc poems about pieces of litter will really help bring down the stress levels of those spending their life savings commuting?
It is not the duty of the transport system to entertain, to subject us to underground encounters with modern art. With the fares being the highest in the World surely the first priority would be to bring down the costs, not flaunt money on pink-haired poets performing on platforms. Either someone has their information wrong on what commuters want, or they feel the need to impose their politically correct ideas onto the poor, stressed general public.
Emily Henderson, a former intern at The New Criterion, is a student at King’s College London.