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FT 194

Electronic Voice Phenomena

The Land of Giraffe-necked Women

Fortean Traveller: Phuket Vegetarian festival

Michael Goss dons his waders and descends into the subterranean tunnels of London in search of lost tribes of cannibals and sewer pigs.

I have been trying to catch up with the London subterraneans for the past ten years, on and off - it might be closer to 12; they are a race of people - human, but barely human, by all accounts - who inhabit the vast and fabulous kingdom that lies beneath the streets of London. You must understand that they are not representatives of the desperate, homeless poor, nor are they thrill-seeking interlopers indulging in the frisson that comes from being where they aren't supposed to be and where most of us sanitarily-minded folk wouldn't want to go. They are distinct from those well publicised Parisian punks who hold parties and paint murals in the catacombs all night and are back with mama et papa by day, for instance. The London subterraneans are real troglodytes, born and bred down below and seldom if ever coming to the surface. They are an evolved or perhaps devolved species: foul, secretive, stunted, ruinous. They've probably forgotten how to speak English; it's even likely that they've developed their own gutteral and ghastly language by now - if they have been under London for as long as popular lore avers.

I have never seen one of these subterraneans, nor so much as met a person who has seen one. These troglodytes exist in that nebulous quasi-material form that is part-rumour, part-legend (or, as some folklorists say, "rumour legend"). Much the same is true for all the things that live down below in subterranean London beside them. There are rats, needless to say; in the popular imagination these are not common Rattus rattus known from all the alarming rat-plague reports, but "monstrous" or "killer" rats of phenomenal size, intelligence and ferocity. They are planning a James Herbert-style blitzkrieg and the victims of it will be you and me.

Then again there are the sewer-pigs, if the rats haven't eaten them; I believe that some Londoners still talk of them, even if they can't entirely believe in them. There are other strange sights, too: walled-up trains with cargoes of skeletons still wearing what remains of their by-now antique clothing; deserted stations with chocolate machines vending Fry's Five Boys bars; secret bunkers; lines that divert to avoid plague pits; lost trains and lines that go nowhere due to blasphemously terrible events the truth of which will never be found in official records.

There are, however, no alligators. The troglodytes and the rest are London legends; to find sewer-alligators you would have to go elsewhere, for they seem to be a peculiarly American urban legend. Perhaps even the temperature-stable sewers of London would be too cold for alligators to survive a winter, factual or legendary, to survive (the same might well apply to the US, but we'll let that pass). Besides, who needs sewer-alligators when you have sewer-pigs? Legends are a kind of imagined history. They take actual historical events (the Great Plague, the Blitz), historical characters (Guy Fawkes, Winston Churchill) and historical locations (the Tower, Tyburn, Berkeley Square) and graft onto them adventures which the historians either doubt ever happened or deny outright.

And so to the London Subterraneans. I can't recall when or where I first heard about them and that's bad form for somebody who's supposed to make notes on place and provenance as a matter of routine. All I know is that I seem to have been aware of the troglodytes for a very long time and that everyone else I've found who is aware of the same legend is equally vague about where they came by it.

The Subterraneans seems a deceptively playful kind of London legend: the sort which narrators repeat with disparaging amusement, but which cries out to be believed. It is fairly consistent, as such legends go. The underground race evolved from a small group of humans who fled below out of desperation - outcasts from society, perhaps, who had nowhere else to go. Feeding on unspeakable pabulum, they adapted and survived down there, the adaptations including a reversion to near-bestial form and a gradual loss of English speech. They prowl the sewers and railway tunnels showing themselves as little as possible. They might be pitied, except that (tacitly or explicitly) the legends make them ferociously antagonistic towards us. They probably eat the sandwiches and burgers we discard and it is "widely believed" that they also eat tramps, drunks and other isolated late-night commuters. Now you have another good reason for avoiding the Northern Line after rush hour.

Article Info

December 1997

FT 105

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