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oneiric overground

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The London Overground is a very strange thing indeed. If you’ve only ever visited London, it’s likely that you’ve never used it. While the Underground generally plunges straight from the fringes into the center – the exception being the Circle line and those that share its tracks – the Overground remains content to wander around the northern and western extentions of the city. When it actually makes contact with the center, say at Euston, it almost seems accidental, the result of a wrong turn somewhere along the line.

The stations are the best part of the whole thing. Unlike on the one hand the Underground’s claustrophobic narrowness, constant busy-ness, and iconic look, or on the other hand, the National Rail stations with their trunkline hugeness, the Overground stations are uncannily quaint and often very quiet. Trains are rare on weekends, twice an hour at best.  And the stations are rural looking!  They have the look of some sort of regional rail system built for a not-too-densely populated place. (Another post to be written – what better topic for a proud New Jerseyan like me – about urban woods, roadside woods, the things that you imagine go on there and the things that really do…)

In fact, there is something about the Overground stations that makes me what to call them the sort of station that appears in one’s dreams. (Do I really mean my dreams or one’s dreams?) They look like scene settings for the softer sort of nightmare, the ones that feature maddening repetition and anxiety-inducing confusions, rather than the threat of violence, the threat of real injury. The sort of station where disturbing cinematic effects should be staged – the train with no driver or the train with faceless passengers, the passenger who is always there waiting for a train that never comes, the experience of waiting for a train but having them each one skip your stop, miss your platform, over and over and over and over and over.

It bears mentioning, too, that the Overground can have a disorienting effect on your psychogeographical gestalt. Since it cuts across rather than down, it bridges distances swiftly that ordinarily seem quite vast. Crouch Hill to West Hampstead seems like an impossible distance to travel by bus or underground, but passes in minutes on the train. As if the layout of the city has been compressed, folded – or even that the Hampstead Tunnel itself has opened a rent in the continuity of the city.

It is a bit like dreamwork, the work that the Overground does. Displacement, condensation – the spatialization of time (or is it the other way around?) And it is no wonder, given the contours of its route, its avoidance of the terminals. After all, Freud long ago spelled out the deal when it came to trains that never quite make it to the center city.

Perversions are sexual activities which either (a) extend, in an anatomical sense, beyond the regions of the body that are designed for sexual union, or (b) linger over the intermediate relations to the sexual object which should normally be traversed rapidly on the path towards the final sexual aim.

Both the dream and the perversion smear and blur fetishism, temporalize it, prolong it away from teleology and thus propriety. Wayward mass transit systems like the London Overground, weed-choked and slow, take us places but never anywhere near the goal. In doing so, they re-think for us the city, the psychological directionality that it dictates, the desires it desires us to hold and those we hold that it normally resists.

Written by adswithoutproducts

December 1, 2008 at 4:32 pm

Posted in design, uncanny

5 Responses

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  1. Couldn’t resist…

    One of the reasons why the Overground is so overgrown and cranky is that, unlike the tubes and the buses, it has never quite been under the reformist control of London Transport (or TFL as is now), so especially after privatisation it went to seed. It’s also quite astonishingly old – my former local station in Deptford was built in 1836. The lines called ‘Overground’ are only so-called because these are the tiny proportion of the suburban rail network in London that TFL managed to renationalise a few years ago, and hence you can use Oystercards on them and whatnot.

    It is a proper city’s ripped backside view, isn’t it. In the South it can be amazingly sylvan (Honor Oak Park) and ten minutes later like a vision of hell (South Bermondsey). An even better equivalent of the same thing is the Berlin S-Bahn, which is the most thrilling thing you can get for 3 Euros, and where, unlike the U-Bahn, you can vividly see how brutally scarred a city it is. Still, my main allegiance is to the ruthless efficiency of the Jubilee line extension…


    December 2, 2008 at 1:48 am

  2. …made me think of all those old Agatha Christie novels I read back in high school … the ABC Murders and Murder on a Train and whatnot…


    December 2, 2008 at 4:05 am

  3. Owen,

    Very helpful as always. I know everyone else calls things that aren’t TFL lines “overground,” but due to I suppose the ad campaign that coincided with my arrival in town when I hear “overground” I think only of those specific lines.

    There’s a playground at the foot of parliament hill in the heath where I sometimes take my daughter and where just beyond a fence the overground trains shuffle slowly by at regular intervals and it always makes me feel like I’m in real europe, not england.


    Oh man, do you think it’s too late for me to put up our little visit to pallas athena’s house? Not too late – I’ll put it up soon. that visit was the diametric opposite of feeling like you’re in “real europe,” however immersive the experience.


    December 2, 2008 at 12:26 pm

  4. this made me think of the 70s adaptation of the Signalman by Dickens, which was shown again recently –

    some of the best moments in Charlie Brooker’s disappointing zombie-flick-meets-big-brother thing for channel 4 played on your empty overground station as nightmare setting idea too


    December 2, 2008 at 9:29 pm

  5. CR, later is better! Just tell everyone you went on a trip this weekend and they’ll never connect all the dots. (Or, be too lazy to do all the connecting.)

    I forgot to email about how crappy that Sunday was. People stared at me for walking on the sidewalk. And I think that place had blue laws, as _nothing_ was open that day. Dull and depressing.


    December 6, 2008 at 7:58 pm

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