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Talking dirty: Will Wiles seeks a positive in the ghosts of the Underground

Will Wiles

The ghostly imprints of passengers leaning on Elizabeth Line station walls are intriguing, intimate – and disturbing, says Will Wiles

Spectral residues haunt the platforms of the Elizabeth Line.
Spectral residues haunt the platforms of the Elizabeth Line. Credit: Linda Byrne

Back when the paint was still drying on the Jubilee Line Extension of the London Underground, the scheme was widely celebrated for its quality of design and finish – a break from the network’s long-running, meaner way of doing things. That was summed by an unnamed old hand: ‘It doesn’t matter how much it costs, as long as it looks cheap.'

Cheap was never a word that could be applied to the Elizabeth Line. Far beyond any particular design detail, the first impression of its new, eye-wateringly expensive subterranean stations in central London was their generosity. Such long platforms, such wide concourses, so much air, so much headroom. It was a welcome change from the troglodyte experience elsewhere on the network. Almost utopian, in fact.

As with most utopias, it had an antiseptic quality that was a little at odds with the human element. But now that quality is under siege by something rather unexpected: ghosts. Shadowy forms have manifested on the walls behind benches all along the line. The lightweight curved panels of glass-fibre reinforced concrete that clad the interior spaces of Elizabeth Line stations might be miracles of modern materials engineering, but they have proved unfortunately susceptible to a particular kind of dirt. Passengers sit on the benches and lean against the wall, they leave a little grime and human grease from their clothes and hair which has grown to deposit a spectral head and shoulders above every seat.

Stuff gets dirty with time, of course, there’s no avoiding it. But these ghosts have proved quite a talking point, prompting revulsion, amusement and official embarrassment. TFL is scrambling to find a solution. Plastic backing may be applied behind the benches to protect the panels. I’m torn. The ghosts are a little gross, but there’s a renegade pleasure in grubby humanity stealthily exerting itself in such a monumental, pristine space. Why are the ghosts so disturbing – is it simply because they are unclean, or something more?

In her remarkable 1966 book Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas looked at ‘dirt’ without the sanitary considerations that have grown up around it since the development of germ theory – that is, in purely symbolic terms. Dirt and corruption are disorder, which provokes strong responses because it is not simply negative: ‘Granted that disorder spoils pattern; it also provides the materials of pattern. Order implies restriction; from all possible materials, a limited selection has been made and from all possible relations a limited set has been used. So disorder by implication is unlimited, no pattern has been realised in it, but its potential for patterning is indefinite. This is why, though we seek to create order, we do not simply condemn disorder. We recognise that it is destructive to existing patterns; also that it has potentiality. It symbolises both danger and power.’

What’s provocative about the ghosts isn’t that they’re a stain, it’s that they’re obviously a human stain. Their provenance is the faint squalor of every human body, which we are generally at pains to suppress. Faceless and silent, the ghosts sit in judgement of us, the public, and our fallibility. They introduce a new pattern into this heavily controlled space, wounding it on a deeper symbolic level than the simply janitorial. Could we embrace them instead? My first memories of the Tube were the products of its collective daily use by thousands of people: that strange bodily smell that wafted from the tunnels, the metal edges of steps worn to a golden shine by millions of feet, like something from a medieval cathedral. It is a strangely intimate communion with other Londoners, including those of the deeper past: real ghosts. These traces say you are not the first and will not be the last. 

Living in the shadows

TFL’s trial fix with sticky-back plastic is, I suspect, whistling into the wind. The ghosts were just the advance guard. A more pervasive haunting is slowly revealing itself: a continuous faint band all along the platform wall, from about waist to shoulder height. This tide mark may be less noticeably human, and so easier to ignore. Plastic covering might end up looking just as tatty in time – a dado rail might be the only lasting solution, or we could just live with it.