London Underground intercom waxes philosophical

On a sweltering summer’s day, packed in with sweaty passengers indifferent to the merits of deodorant, does anyone on the London Underground really need reminding that “Hell is other people,” as Jean-Paul Sartre wrote?

Apparently so, according to a quirky new campaign to show that commuting and contemplation on the Tube don’t have to be mutually exclusive activities.

Drivers and other staffers on the subway system’s well-traveled Piccadilly Line have been given manuals of quotations from famous authors and philosophers that they can intone over their crackly intercoms whenever the mood strikes.

Instead of being instructed to “have a nice day” like their American counterparts, passengers here in the British capital may now hear gems like, “A throne is only a bench covered in velvet” (said Napoleon Bonaparte, who never had to fight for a seat on the Tube) and, “There is more to life than increasing its speed” (said Mohandas Gandhi, who was never stuck on a stalled train while trying to rush to a job interview).

The punchy proverbs aren’t just food for thought, says Transport for London, the body that operates the Underground. They’re also art.


For years, the transit agency has tried to broaden passengers’ horizons on the Tube, which logs, on average, about 3 million customer journeys a day. The agency’s Art on the Underground program installs artwork at various stations and commissions new drawings for the cover of its pocket subway map, which has a print run of 5 million every time the map is updated.

The idea of sprinkling people’s journeys with pearls of wisdom sprang from the mind of Jeremy Deller, a prize-winning artist who generally avoids taking the Tube but felt it worth trying to enliven the experience of those who do. Londoners have an ardent love-hate relationship with the Underground, with the emphasis usually on the latter.

Deller despises the incessant stream of admonitions to “let passengers off the train first” and “please take your belongings with you.”

“It’s soul-destroying,” he said. He initially proposed what might be called a piece of nonperformance art: a day of no Tube announcements at all.

Transport officials quickly shot down that suggestion, so Deller switched gears. “I thought it would be nice to hear something with a higher meaning or a resonance with the traveler,” he said, and this time the bureaucrats agreed.

The artist combed through books and trolled the Internet for suitable sayings. William Shakespeare scores a nod; so does Karl Marx. Both ancient and modern philosophers are represented, though Deller is doubtful that Sartre’s famously misanthropic maxim, which is included in the handbook, will get an airing.

Some of the quotes are witty (“An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory,” said Friedrich Engels). Others are more ruminative (“The afternoon knows what the morning never expected,” according to a Swedish saw). All are designed to complement the Tube’s famed safety maxim “Mind the gap” with something a little more interesting, an inspirational thought to fill the gap in minds caused by the monotony of the daily commute.

“It’s about making that experience tolerable and much more invigorating,” said Sally Shaw, curator for Art on the Underground. “When you get that little change of situation, that change of tone . . . in an announcement, literally you see people get cheered up instantly.”

While some passengers have indeed welcomed the idea, others have reacted in classic British fashion, which is to say with a dollop of skepticism and an acid irony.

“Let’s hold off on the philosophy,” said Sally O’Sullivan, 40, a stylist from the fashionable Notting Hill neighborhood. “Given the reality of London transport, we need Valium, not quotations.”

In some ways, the new project taps into an already rich tradition of Underground train drivers and station staffers who lace the standard announcement fare with their own acerbic observations and ad-libbed commentary.

Some of these remarks have been collected in a book of Tube trivia called “One Stop Short of Barking.” (“Barking” is a place, but is also shorthand for the British phrase “barking mad.”) Examples:

“This train is all stations to Upminster, with the exception of Cannon Street. [The train] does not stop there on Saturdays due to total lack of interest.”

And: “I do apologize for the delay to your service. I know you’re all dying to get home, unless, of course, you happen to be married to my ex-wife, in which case you’ll want to cross over to the westbound platform and go in the opposite direction.”

Deller’s booklet of quotations was issued in March to all 1,500 operational staff members of the Piccadilly Line. About 150 showed up at two launch events, where they received tips on timing and delivery from a comedian.

Whether to recite any of the collected sayings is entirely up to the workers.

For now, the project is restricted to the Piccadilly Line, the Underground network’s second-busiest. Well-known stops include Knightsbridge, where Harrods department store is situated; Hyde Park Corner; Piccadilly Circus; and Leicester Square, the heart of the theater district.

“It’s a really good line. It goes through the heart of London, and it goes to Heathrow Airport,” Deller said.

It also stops close to his home in North London, but don’t look for him on it. He prefers to bicycle.


Times staff writer Janet Stobart contributed to this report.