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Survival of the Fittest in the London Underground

The name Tony McKenna might ring a bell with CounterPunch readers since he has written a number of very informative articles here over the years, the most recent being one on “Trump, Obama and the Nature of Fascism”. When I learned that he had written a novel titled “The Dying Light”, I requested a review copy since I was curious to see if his fiction chops were as strong as his nonfiction’s.

Speaking for myself, I entertained hopes of writing fiction after I left the Trotskyist movement in 1978. It was only after reading the chapter in Saul Bellow’s “Herzog”, where he describes the bathroom toiletries of Herzog’s former lover in intimate detail as a way of casting light on her psychologically, that I decided to stick to politics. If I lived to a thousand, I could not write as brilliantly as Bellow. By the same token, if he could have lived to a thousand, he would not be able to write anything but trash when it came to politics.

On one level, “The Dying Light” might be described as a historical novel since it is based on a little-known aspect of life in London in 1940, when many of its citizens began living in abandoned subway stations, or what they call the Tube, to protect themselves from German bombs. In a nod to the “Newsreels” of John Dos Passos’s great U.S.A. trilogy, McKenna includes an editorial from a faux newspaper called the Birchington Gazette:

During the Blitz, when the bombing was at its most intense, hundreds of thousands of Londoners took shelter in the Underground. First realised as a temporary spontaneous measure, it was initially opposed by government who used the police to lock down tube stations. Nevertheless, large crowds pushed their w through, winning the right to occupy London subterranean levels.

The occupation, however, swiftly grew something more than a temporary means of escaping bombs. Rather, it became a way of life. People set up home in the spaces beneath the city. The social research organisation Mass Observation describes how “for the first time in many hundreds of years…civilized families conducted the whole of their leisure and domestic lives in full view of each other. Most of these people were not merely sheltering in the tubes; they were living there.

Using this premise, McKenna tells the story of children who have taken over an abandoned station that a child named Georgie calls Ruritania. He has a very active imagination just like the author.

Georgie becomes the best friend and tent-mate of a slightly older boy named Daniel who has spotted him from the train that is about to leave London’s Kings Cross station for the countryside where he will become the charge of a host family and safe from the Blitz. Spotting Georgie from the train and mesmerized by the boy’s “pale white face…shimmering in the black”, he is drawn to him like a moth to a flame and follows him into the abandoned station. There he finds a tribe of children ruled by the mysterious Azriel who commands their allegiance and tries to maintain order.

Before very long, Daniel and Georgie are confronted by Reggie, the tribe’s bully who operates the same way as bullies always do whether in school or in juvenile prisons. Besides being a place where the Blitz could be avoided, Ruritania is also a haven from oppressive parents, including Daniel’s father whose breathing through his nose created a “slight whistling sound that seemed more hateful and more repellent than anything he had ever known.” Were adults so repugnant that you’d trade living with them in for a dank, dark, rat-infested subway station? At the outset, Daniel decided that the rats were a lesser evil.

Besides his friendship with Georgie, Daniel soon finds companionship with the fetching Cleopatra who is street-wise and self-assured, so much so that his affection for her is tinged with awe. For children who have been living underground for an extended period, it becomes survival of the fittest and Cleopatra was “fitter” in many different ways, including a knack for getting money from older men in exchange for sexual favors.

While “The Dying Light” is by no stretch of the imagination a derivative novel, I could not help but think of two very different British classics while reading it: “Oliver Twist” and “Lord of the Flies”. As with Dickens’s tale of boys being trained as pickpockets, the children of Ruritania put all new residents through a training program on picking pockets. This, as well as begging, creates the funds they need for food and other necessities such as cigarettes. (Cleopatra teaches Daniel how to smoke.) None of this involves an evil father-figure like Fagin. There is a collectivist spirit that they live by even as it exists side-by-side with bullying from alpha males like Reggie.

Both Reggie and Azriel are the sorts of authority figures that Golding wrote about in “Lord of the Flies”, a deeply pessimistic novel about human nature written in 1954 that reflected the dark mood of the period. Like the boys in “Lord of the Flies”, those in “The Dying Light” eventually square off against each other. While not on a desert island, they are denizens of an underground world that relies on force to keep order, a form of social control that can easily turn into ritualized violence.

I was also reminded of Stephen King’s novels that frequently describe children up against supernatural forces that requires fearlessness and heroism to defeat. Georgie has become the prophet of impending doom from a monster that has been killing the children of Ruritania for no apparent reason except its own unfathomable evil. Given that the novel is set in 1940, the children’s fears are in keeping with the times.

On an ancillary note, I would say that New Yorkers would get additional pleasure from this dark tale since our subway system has the same history of mysterious abandoned stations, all of which have been paved over for years. I recommend a look at “NYC’s Most Insane Abandoned Subway Stations” to get an idea of what our own Ruritania might have looked like. I also recommend a documentary titled “Dark Days” about the encampment of homeless people in the Amtrak tunnels that I reviewed in 2000:

Against insurmountable odds, a 21 year old Englishman named Marc Singer descended into the cavernous train tunnels beneath the Amtrak station in midtown Manhattan five years ago with a 16 mm camera. His goal: to make a documentary about the homeless people who had taken shelter in these lower depths. He is a Maxim Gorky for our era. Trying to avoid the inhumane city-sponsored shelters that had become a scandal in the press, they constructed “homes” made of scavenged building materials and filled them with the amenities of middle-class life, including pets and television sets (electrical power was tapped from lines in the tunnel.)

Not only did these fearsome people living in fearsome conditions open their lives up to the novice film-maker, they provided the crew, learning as they went along, much as he did. A profile on Singer in the NY Times reveals the kind of creativity that went into the production. “When they needed a dolly, they built one using an old grocery cart and an abandoned stretch of rail. They ran cable underground, hooked up to whatever power source they could find, and for lighting used hand-held floodlights mounted on metal crosses. He gave a dozen of the homeless — three of whom died before the film could be released — part ownership in the film, so they stand to profit if it makes money.”

Despite the fact that most of these people survived by panhandling on the street, not a single piece of equipment was stolen. Furthermore, since Singer–not knowing any better–utilized an old-fashioned 16 mm camera rather than the modern digital video camera, the documentary has a more burnished and professional quality than one would expect. It succeeds not only as social commentary but as art.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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