Posts Tagged ‘commuting’

Going Underground: Travel Beneath the Metropolis 1863-2013

Chancery Lane

Chancery Lane

Ximena Alarcón

Listening and Sounding in the London Underground: sonic memories as embodiments of technological infrastructure

ABSTRACT: From 2004 to 2005, I undertook ethnographic research with twenty-four London Underground commuters regarding memories left by this sound environment during their routine journeys (Alarcón, 2007). I was interested in their memories as remnants of subjective experience, and also, in the commonality of these memories as a reflection of a collective aural memory. I understood the commuters’ process of remembering as a “mediated action” (Werstch, 2002), mediated, in this case, by the technological infrastructure in the underground. The concept of soundscape (Schafer 1984; Truax 2001) was used to describe certain aspects of the experience; however, I found it insufficient to encompass the varied dimensions of subjective listening experience and its cultural significance. In this paper, I am revisiting these commuters’ accounts, from the perspective of remembering and listening processes, in a wider, holistic manner. Nourished by railway and subterranean environments interdisciplinary studies (Schivelbusch 1986; Pike 2007; Williams 2008), and approaches to both outer and inner listening (Augoyard 2005; Oliveros 2005), I suggest that commuters’ sonic memories are embodiments of the technological infrastructure, which is reflected in their remembered sounds, in their perception of space and time while travelling, and in social, symbolic and political connotations that shape their auralization. Derived from further comparative studies with commuters’ memories from Mexico and Paris metros, the internet-based interface “Sounding Underground” acts as a disembodied technological environment to allow one to listen to everyday narratives from a distance, acknowledging their contrasts, and commonalities, while opening a path for transcendence of our technological condition.


Ximena Alarcón biography

Ximena Alarcón is a new media artist who focuses on listening to social context related sound, connecting it to individual and collective memories. She completed a PhD in Music, Technology and Innovation at De Montfort University and was awarded with The Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship 2007-2009 to develop “Sounding Underground” at the Institute of Creative Technologies. There, in 2010, she worked as a Programme Leader for the Masters in Creative Technologies. Deep Listening practice and telematic musical performance are current interests that expand both the connections to other territories and the social and aesthetic possibilities of working with the migratory experience. Since October 2011, she works in Creative Research into Sound Arts Practice – CRiSAP, at the University of the Arts London, as a Research Fellow, developing her project “Networked Migrations – listening to and performing the in-between space”.

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Jubilee Line - just before the rush hour (wikipedia)

Jubilee Line – just before the rush hour (wikipedia)

Going Underground: Travel Beneath the Metropolis, 1863-2013

Simon Abernethy (University of Cambridge)
Class and commuting on the Underground, 1863 – 1939



In the 21st Century London’s Underground is effectively “classless”. Builders and clerks, managers and secretaries, all travel in the same coaches and share the same free newspapers. But a century ago this mixing of classes was almost revolutionary, and an occurrence that incurred the wrath of the management of the early companies, fearful of the impact of working class passengers. In 1905 the Chairman of the Metropolitan District Railway decried the presence of ‘dusty’ and ‘filthy’ workmen sat alongside his middle class travellers. The Underground Group tried to abolish workmen’s fares, early morning concessions for the working classes, in the early 1920s. At each stage the companies faced the opposition of the London County Council (LCC), a champion of cheap travel for the working classes, and fierce political battles were often the result. This paper examines the relationship between the underground companies and the class of their passengers between the 1860s and the Second World War. It shows how before 1914 class was a key issue that the companies engaged with, how they often acted to restrict working class travellers, and how the LCC fought them on this. But it also shows how the Great War represents a watershed. The inter-war period saw class issues largely fade away due to the Underground Group’s drive for efficiency and expansion. In fact, one might consider the period as laying the foundation for the classless Underground we know today. This paper examines how and why this happened.


Simon Abernethy is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. He has a BA in history and an M.Phil. in Economic and Social History from Cambridge. His Ph.D. examines the relationship between London’s transport providers and the impact this had on class development in the capital between 1881 and 1939. Simon is currently digitising the New Survey of London Life and Labour in the London School of Economics, which gives fare data on thousands of Londoners between 1928 and 1932. He intends to match this data with workmen’s fare data collected by the Underground Group between 1914 and 1933.


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