"The Central line draws an invisible line across London", says Sarah Butler, "connecting east to west, rising up like the edges of a smile". Well, you certainly couldn't tell by riding the thing through rush-hour London, where faces burrowed into newspapers and white cords trailing from ears are the norm. Yet Sarah, a writer and founder of UrbanWords, has managed to humanise this vital artery in TfL's latest Art On The Underground project, Central line stories, by teasing out stories from the hundreds of TfL staff who make the journey possible.
During her six month commission, Sarah travelled to all 45 stations on the Central line, meeting staff from all levels, from station managers to drivers to cleaners, and encouraging them to tell their story. The results are split into four distinct texts: What's in a name?, a collection of anecdotes about the stories behind staff members' names; Central line whispers, in which Butler travelled from station to station, with staff at each stop contributing to an ongoing story, like a travelling exquisite corpse; Meetings with drivers, fictional pieces inspired by conversations with those near-invisible beings at the front of the train; and Across: 3. To search for (4) which, in a Borgesian twist, is inspired by the shape of the Central line and has a puzzle built into it.
Speaking at the project's launch event last night at the Photographer's Gallery, Sarah praised the staff who made this happen, and reading through the stories one gets a sense of the enthusiasm that many Central line workers felt about the project. Usually ignored by commuters, and too often the subject of abuse, this was an opportunity to impart something of their own experience, and they've contributed to an important milestone in the life of the network's longest (not to mention sweatiest) line.
A pamphlet featuring a selection of the stories is available at every Central line station from now. You can also download (PDF) the complete collection, or even listen to them in MP3 format — the perfect soundtrack for the next time you're perspiring through the morning commute into work, and maybe something that will bring a smile to the edges of your mouth.