Monday 21 October 2019

Underground, Overground

Here's a question for the next pub quiz: Which of these has been in existence longest – Germany, Italy, the London Underground?
Okay, it's a bit of a cheat: 'Germany' and 'Italy' here mean the unified nation states thereof (both of which finally came into existence in 1871 – only for Germany to divide again for 40 years and more after the Hitler War). The initial stretch of London's underground railway was up and running in 1863.
I came across this historical fact in London Under, Peter Ackroyd's fascinating little book on the richly various, often mysterious worlds that lie under London. It would serve (though this is of course not Ackroyd's intention) as another entry in my long-running occasional series on why the UK (the English part of it, at least) was never going to make a good fit with the EU. For us, thanks to our particular geography and history, the idea of nationhood seems as natural as breathing, and our sense of national identity has roots so deep that they are lost in the mists of time. Most countries of the EU have a history of fluid, ever changing boundaries, internal and external, and only achieved their current shape and identity in historically recent times. No wonder their grasp on the ideas of the nation state and national sovereignty is rather less firm than ours.

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