Writing ‘The Underground Storyteller’

NOTE: The following is a bonus chapter originally written for my book, The Underground Storyteller. I explain why I wrote it in the chapter itself, but it serves as a kind-of ‘making of’ behind the scenes thing. It’s sitting in iCloud doing nothing so I thought I’d send it to you guys for you to hopefully enjoy.

I know I’ve said this before, but I’m so knocked out that so many of you liked and enjoyed my book. It’s very easy to listen to a three-minute song and instantly have an opinion on it but it’s far more work to commit to reading a three-hundred page book, and then actually read all of the hundred-thousand words I wrote about trains, and then actually like it as well. I’m very grateful =)

Love and best wishes

It is the winter of 2013, and I am sitting in a Starbucks writing this. The nearest tube station is Piccadilly Circus. I am in the heart of Soho, London’s gay district – known as Soho because, with all the gay people here, it is ‘So Homo’. That was a joke. That’s not why it’s called that. I don’t know why it’s called that.

Anyway, I’m sitting in Starbucks. I’m aware of a few people sitting around me; two of them are reading. The third – a large, dark-skinned woman with a wicked smile – just muttered to herself, “Some people are so rude.”

I looked up to see if she was on the phone, or perhaps talking to me, and found she was clearing up her seat from the last occupant, who had left their empty coffee cup on the arm of the chair. When she noticed me looking, she involved me in her objection.

“Can you believe this?” she protested. “If I was leaving and my cup was empty, I’d clear it up ready for the next person!”

“So would I,” I nodded in agreement.

“It’s awful. Some people have no manners. The other day – ” she leaned in conspiratorially – “I was on the Tube…”

I grinned. The woman was about to tell an anecdote about the London Underground to the guy who was, at that moment, sitting next to her quite literally writing the book on it.

Everyone in London has their Tube story. It bonds us together as a city. Everyone has an outrageous incident that happened to them on the Tube and everyone knows one piece of Tube trivia. This is what I’ve learned since I started telling people I was writing a book about the Underground. I assumed I’d have to explain what it was I saw in it, why I thought the pursuit worthwhile – I’d say “it’s about the Underground” and almost flinch in anticipation of their disappointment that it wasn’t about YouTube or music or Twilight or something – but almost unanimously, the reaction I received was one of curiosity. “I’ve always been fascinated by the Tube!” my friends would usually begin, before they told me their story.

Over the course of this book, I was fortunate enough to find some stories of my own.

I wanted to write this chapter for two reasons. First, I like the idea of ‘bonus features’ like you get on DVDs. Buying a DVD is clearly a strictly better version of downloading the film. The film is just the film; the DVD has deleted scenes and director’s commentary and interviews with the cast. With books, there is currently no content incentive to get the physical version of a book instead of the digital, and I don’t like that. I want the physical to be the best version, the book plus more, like how a DVD is the film plus more.

I tried to use footnotes throughout the text to form a kind of director’s commentary as you’re reading, and there are a few deleted scenes at the back of the book*, so that leaves this, a brief behind the scenes into why I wrote this thing you just read, which, thank you, by the way, for doing that.

*The deleted scenes didn’t make it into the back of the book either.

The other reason I wanted to write this chapter so it would help my friends to see what I was doing all day when I wasn’t returning their calls.

The idea for this book started when I went to Leicester Square. Leicester Square station (as I pointed out in the book) is the closest tube station to the home of London’s many film premieres, and the train platform is thus adorned with film sprockets. This made me think, ‘I bet there are loads of cool things like that, little unique quirks at every station’, which then made me think, ‘it’d be a really cool project if someone went and saw them all and documented them somehow’, which then made me think, ‘I’m someone!’.

This is how all my ideas begin; because I am in some way unsatisfied with other people’s work, or because I have an idea that I haven’t seen anyone else do (“Harry Potter music? Why don’t we try Doctor Who?”). I’ve heard of many people who have visited every station, but they always do boring things like take a picture of themselves at each one, or rush through all of them as quickly as they can. I wanted to know the station’s trivia, the quirks, the odd little things that make each place unique. Rather than make it a very long and probably boring YouTube series, the best medium for a project like that – I reasoned – was a book.

In 2008, my friend and author John Green – who knew of my ambition to one day release a book – signed my copy of his own book “An Abundance Of Katherines” with the words: ‘To Alex – a fellow writer’. It meant the world to me to have that acknowledgement from him, and it meant I basically had to become an author at that point, as I didn’t want John to be wrong. I’ve tried writing novels, but non-fiction appealed to me in an entirely different way. I’ve had years of practice at sharing my real-life stories with the world, constructing narratives to make them more interesting, and I read a lot more non-fiction than fiction. I learn from non-fiction because I apply it to my own life. For me, reading fiction is a way of bringing myself into the author’s world, whereas reading non-fiction is a way of bringing the author into my world.

The idea festered in my head for a while. I ummed and ahhed and did various other things like trying to be a pop star. Then, when my last album ‘Epigrams And Interludes’ came out in March 2013, I finally knuckled down and made what at the time was called simply ‘The Tube Book’ my main project, dedicating the rest of the year to finishing it. This is something else I do a lot; if an idea festers in my head for long enough, it becomes my main project simply out of respect for how long I’ve made it wait in the queue*.

*Another example of this: five years ago I had an idea for an album called Legacy, originally intended to be Sons Of Admirals’ first album. As you read this, I am currently in the studio recording the first track for it as a solo project, five years later.

I sent this text to my friend Ben as I set off on my journey: “Sat on a train to Wales. All kinds of doubts. Is this book gonna be too much about me? Does it matter that it doesn’t have a clear goal? How do I make it all interesting? Am I writing too much or too little? … I think I’m officially a writer.” Ben had been instrumental in the book’s creation, perhaps without realising it; he once spent an evening at mine, when I’d given up writing having concluded I wasn’t good enough, where I pulled up old documents of half-started stories and novels and scripts and book ideas and read them aloud to him and his eyes widened slightly and I heard someone tell me I was good and should keep going. That evening gave me the determination to continue, and is the reason Ben is one of three people deserving of a spot in the book’s front-page dedication.

My initial worry was that it would be too boring. Too much about trains. I was very firm in my belief that I didn’t want to make it at all about me, since nobody in the real world knows or cares who I am (I was always aiming – as with all my projects – to reach beyond my existing audience and be exposed mainly to new people, who number in the billions). Besides, the idea was to showcase the world of the Underground, not the world of Alex Day, some guy you’ve never heard of and don’t need to read about.

This only changed when I read Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson and found that, on his tour around the UK, Bryson wrote many anecdotes about his personal life, his past, his thoughts and his observations. He offered a guide to the quirks and traditions of the various parts of our country, as I wanted to do with the Tube, but he made it fun and engaging. We saw it through his world. So I allowed myself to open up more – particularly on the District line, my home ground.

All of the chapters had their own themes – the Jubilee focusing on the monarchy, for example, the Victoria on isolation and community – and the District was about my own past. The Waterloo & City line was about work and distraction. I’m not gonna list them all, you’ve read it, you probably got all that already. The point is that, as time went on, I started worrying about the book, now called The Underground Storyteller after I told my friend Jonathan the story of the two teenagers who held up the train at Highbury & Islington and he said I was using the Tube as a vehicle to tell human stories, giving me the idea for the title. I worried it was now not going to have enough train content in it, the opposite of my original concern. I remember vividly sending the first chapter to a friend of mine, Michael, who said that there were points where he wanted me to “shut up about myself and get back to the trains”.

The problem is, us lot, the train ones – I repeatedly refer to us throughout the book as ‘train enthusiasts’ – care about things that nobody else cares about. Or even should care about, really. As an example: I find it really interesting that the Bakerloo line nearly went to Camberwell. To the average muggle, this is not interesting. It is boring. If your friend says, “Eugh, murder on the Bakerloo today,” and you reply, “Actually, something interesting about the Bakerloo line is it actually nearly went to Camberwell! Yeah, they got permission and everything but it was never built,” within about ten minutes you’ve become train boy for the rest of your life.

But, as I said before, every single person I told I was writing a book about the Underground – and this is a list that includes students, accountants, musicians, actresses, celebrities, models, and my nan – they all responded with, “That sounds so interesting! I’ve always been fascinated by the Tube.” It turns out everyone loves the Tube. Regular people are just as excited as we are to have brand new air-conditioned trains on the Metropolitan line; they just don’t need to know they’re called S Stock trains and they replaced the A Stock trains and all that technical malarkey.

So that was my pitch: I wanted to write the book about the Tube for people who don’t think the Tube is interesting. I wanted to bring the Underground to life. I didn’t want to share the facts, as loads of books do that; I wanted to unearth the stories behind them. Where I could find stories, I shared them, and where I couldn’t, I imagined the stories that might or must have happened behind the scenes. After all, nobody on the Mumbles line spoke to me about its speed, its reliability or its engineering. Ckatherine told me how it felt, so she set the precedent, and my hope is that my account, however self-involved and subjective, is better than not providing any account at all.

I was careful to pick my terms, so as not to alienate. Tube trains were city trains. Anything else was a country train. The Jubilee Line Extension was called ‘the new half’. I left out the stuff about the various companies that ran the underground and the former railways that made up its composition, except in cases where they could be interestingly personified (by, for example, comparing them to the Avengers). I left out stuff about architectural designers, financiers and engineers. Maida Vale station has a red terracotta exterior, or sang-de-boeuf faience facade, which differs in detail from earlier Leslie Green stations as the pilasters are carried the full height, with decorative lamps attached. See how boring that is? It’s far too niche. Like with the Camberwell extension, where I made it about this imaginary staff worker who worked at Warwick Avenue and cared for this sign that he’d kept there for years, unable to take it down, it became about the humanity behind the fact. As such, I thought it would end up being a book that train enthusiasts would hate, being a dumbed-down and probably-less-than-accurate version of the facts. I hope you can understand why I ended up with something that was more about the story than the fact. I said during my chapter on the Bakerloo line that the Underground has an enduring willingness to choose optimism over accuracy; that’s something I celebrated throughout the book and tried to imitate in tribute to it.

The Underground ended up being a metaphor for my expression of the belief that one should always be looking at the world with open eyes. It’s for this reason that I decided not to include photographs, which I suppose might have been an obvious inclusion in another writer’s hands. My reasoning was that I want people to see what I’m describing for themselves. Describing something to a person makes them want to see it; show it to them and they no longer have to. I want people to explore, like I did, and find all the cool bits that interest them.

Some people would also assume photos are vital simply to prove I actually went to these places, but in this day and age, is that proof? People are cynical enough that, if they choose to doubt me, they could think I got the photos from Flickr or photoshopped them to my liking. Besides, I’m not here to convince you this all happened the way I say it did. The doubters will continue to doubt and the believers will continue to believe; I feel no desire to sway people either way.

For me, everything clicked into place for this book when I rode the Central line. After the ‘trials’, as I put it, around what I called the ‘testicle of the Underground’, when I got to the end and heard ‘all change please’ and imagined it as a rally cry, that’s when I knew those would be the last words of my book and I suddenly felt like I’d found the heart of the whole thing. I didn’t even know, before then, if it had a heart at all. I wrote the very last ‘million stories’ paragraph pretty soon after that and stuck the call-to-arms afterward to close the whole thing off. That was when I realised this wasn’t really a book about trains, but a book about people, set on trains. There’s lots of train stuff in there, but pretty much all the train facts begin with the interesting people who made them happen. So, that’s what happens when I sit down and write 120,000 words about trains; I discover I wasn’t really writing about trains at all.

When I started writing this book, I didn’t have an agent, but by the time I finished, I did. His name is Ivan and he says I write well and, like all visitors or residents of London, he has a story about the Tube. I originally included it in the book but my editor cut it for space, so I’ll tell it here:

His story takes place shortly after the death of Princess Diana, when the nation was stricken by grief. Ivan was heading from Paddington to Bristol, and by the time he’d reached Paddington, he was running late; racing up the escalators, he headed straight for the information board and scanned it for any sign of a train running to Bristol to see what platform it would be departing from, but he couldn’t find the information he was looking for anywhere. In a panic, he caught sight of a member of staff, bounded over to him and gasped, “Excuse me, on what platform is the Bristol train?” only to find the staff member gawking back at him in a vacant stupor.

Another member of staff was sitting behind a desk, and again Ivan ran over and said “Where’s the Bristol train?” now even more frantic, but still he was met with nothing but the blank response of someone unable to comprehend the situation before them.

Ivan looked around, confused and worried he was about to miss his train, and a few seconds later the announcement rung out through the station:

“This concludes our two minute silence in honour of Princess Diana.”

For a while, this book had a publisher, and having the book professionally edited by a professional editor – her name was Sara - was an interesting experience, mainly as I kept having sections highlighted to be checked by a legal team to make sure I was allowed to say them. Suspiciously, this included my suggestion that the Queen is secretly a superhero. I was amused, though, to find that, although we had to clarify what I could say about the Queen, nobody questioned my use of the phrase ‘knackered’ to describe the Spice Girls.

In the end, though, I ended up doing what I always ended up doing and taking charge of the whole bloody thing myself. This book has taken me over three years to write and, all-in-all, getting it in front of your eyes has been the most stressful process I have ever undertaken. The fact that you’re sitting here, now, reading this, is nothing short of a miracle to me. I’m so relieved to have finally finished this project, and I know it makes me sound like a wanker to say this, but I’m so grateful for you to have taken the time out of your silly life to revel for a while in mine.

My ideal scenario for someone reading the book is that they use it like a guidebook, hopefully inspiring you to visit some stations of your own, though I must warn you to be prepared for the odd looks from members of staff who watch you leave the station and then re-enter it moments later. I did most of the Tube lines in a day, and even the ones I didn’t, I could have if I’d got up earlier. The London Underground is fantastic; its reputation among Londoners is that it’s constantly broken and will never get fixed, but we all know, beneath that cynical veneer, that we love it. As well as providing its setting, the Tube served as my working office for a lot of this book, where I would write as I went to meetings in and out of town.

But even if you don’t enjoy that place, don’t explore it and don’t ever visit it, just, please, make an effort to enjoy whatever your place is, wherever you end up spending time when you’re getting from one place to the next, be that your town, an airport, the motorway, anything. The journey is just as important as the destination and the stories are waiting to be told.

I hope you find some stories to tell.