London, from the Overground

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ So begins L.P. Hartley’s magnificent The Go-Between … and probably several hundred GCSE English essay titles, followed by the word ‘Discuss.’

But yesterday, as I entered Haggerston Station, excitedly about to embark on one of the new London Overground’s virgin journeys, I also felt like I was in a foreign country. And I was stepping into the future, not the past.

Balloons arched over the station entrance to celebrate the line’s official opening. The ticket man was giving out free one-day travelcards, complete with a small chit of card stating: ‘Issued to mark the opening of the new London Overground line between Dalston Junction and West Croydon on 23rd May 2010’. Cool train-geek memorabilia.

The station itself was spacious, clean, other-worldly. Perhaps it did feel slightly brutal, slightly communist, but then perhaps that’s appropriate – bringing transport to the masses seems like quite a utopian, communist idea.

And then, instead of getting escalators down into the smelly netherworld of London, we walked up the stairs, out into brilliant sunlight above. The platform is the perfect spot for a bit of voyeuristic snooping. While waiting for the train – which was remarkably unBritishly punctual – we had a brief chance to peek at nearby residents’ balconies, and peer through huge glass windows into a few snazzy flats.

The trains themselves are beautiful. Instead of being spliced into carriages, they are single long vessels, wonderfully wide, and air-conditioned. It’s the first time I’ve ever put on an extra layer of clothes on the tube. It was clean, spacious, and the doors beeped rather dramatically when closing.

The whole experience was so foreign, so new, so much better than the rest of the tube. I knew we weren’t in Tokyo, however, because of the familiar tube maps glued on to the edges, the robotic voice announcing (in English) that the next station is Hoxton and the seats, which look markedly similar to the ones that were on the old District Line.

And then the train took off – it really feels like flying. It hurtles through the skyline, charging across the Regent’s Canal, bending, curving gracefully between tall converted warehouses and new-build apartment blocks. And this is the true piece of disorientating magic. Here is London, laid out at one’s feet, here are the landmarks that one knows and loves, here are the crowds of people swarming along Brick Lane, and buses, and cars, and trees. The train flies through the city showing one all these things, these places that are absolutely, resolutely, fundamentally London. And yet this new view, this new route is almost enough to make it somewhere else entirely.

It is eye-opening, fascinating, thrilling, to fly through East London on this new trajectory, linking places together in ways that can’t be done by road. In fact, I was so intrigued as to where the railway actually went, which roads it crossed over, where exactly it curved, that when I got back to my laptop I looked on Google and Bing maps to trace the precise route.

And that’s when I really felt I’d been in the future, or a foreign country. The internet maps, of course, are photographic. But they’re not particularly up-to-date. The new trainline isn’t yet on them.

I looked for Haggerston Station in vain. The new bridges, dropped in over the Regent’s Canal and Great Eastern Street, are missing. Instead there is a long thin green scar running parallel to Kingsland Road – the ghost of an old trainline, the shadow of what is to come. (Iain Sinclair has a somewhat more cynical view.)

According to these maps, the London Overground doesn’t yet exist. So I can only conclude that yesterday I really was in the future, in a foreign country. And, mulling over L.P Hartley’s words as I went between Haggerston and Canada Water, I was proud and impressed and happy to find that yes, they do things differently there.


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