Highly entertaining tour of British civilization, viewed from below ground level.
Smith (The Land of Miracles, 1998) traces British history via London’s subterranean passages, tunnels, sewers, wartime bunkers and, of course, the celebrated Underground. His erudite and eccentric odyssey mixes well-documented history with rather fanciful lore. Admittedly, the lore is more fun, such as the notion that Queen Boudicca is entombed beneath Platform 10 at the King’s Cross tube station. But much of the history is remarkably engaging because it is all too human: Henry VIII farcically shuttling lovers through his underground passages at Hampton Court; soggy gunpowder foiling poor Guy Fawkes’s disastrous attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament; grumpy Samuel Pepys clomping into his cellar to discover it’s flooded once again; underground air-raid shelters being turned into post-WWII housing for Jamaican immigrants, etc. Smith has a knack for finding the most interesting and entertaining people below street level, ranging from a legendary sewer worker who killed rats with a swat of his hardhat to a group of naive Lancashire teenagers unable to disguise their giddiness while riding the Underground for the first time. Occasionally, the below-ground treasures have a bizarre way of unexpectedly surfacing; the Nazi strikes of 1941, for example, unearthed the ruins of a Roman temple dedicated to Mithras. Sometimes Smith is a bit too generous in sharing information, as with his in-depth descriptions of the woefully fetid conditions that forced Henry III to install a drainage system at Westminster Palace in the 1380s. The future of London is also very much below street level, with long-planned rail tunnels finally getting off the drawing board as a means of attracting the 2012 Olympic Games. Not unlike the city above it, underground London remains in constant flux.
A treat for rabid Anglophiles with a taste for the offbeat and off-the-beaten-path.