Erikka Askeland: London’s habits leave a little to be desired

A researcher tested the air quality in the London Underground and found that the ultrafine dust there was laden with metal particles. Picture: PA
A researcher tested the air quality in the London Underground and found that the ultrafine dust there was laden with metal particles. Picture: PA
Share this article
Have your say

IT’S a bit disgusting to mention but the first time I visited London, I was appalled by what the tissue looked like after I blew my nose.

I don’t mean to be gratuitously offensive. It’s just that after a few days of taking the Tube to see all the various sights I had heard of but never seen in real life – Dali’s Lobster Phone, Highgate Cemetery, Trafalgar Square – I realised I had been breathing in all sorts of muck.

So, I was unsurprised to read a report that the gritty stuff in my nostrils might actually be dangerous.

A researcher decided to test the quality of the air in the London Underground and found that the ultrafine dust there was laden with metal particles – mainly iron and copper. Matt Loxham, from the University of Southampton, reckoned that breathing them in could be a risk to health, mainly because they could be absorbed through the lungs into the blood stream.

London Underground folk denied it. Chief operating officer Howard Collins said that it had been “monitoring dust levels on the Tube for many years to reassure our passengers and staff”. Which means that the company is probably consistently bombarded with letters and comments from worriers, like me, who don’t like what they see on the snot rag.

The Tube is a wonder of engineering brilliance, but there is something about it that I sometimes find a bit freaky. It is easy to forget how deep you are going underground when you are on a particularly steep escalator and distracted by the posters advertising what is going on in Theatreland.

Then, as you wait for the train to arrive, there’s that strange, hot wind. It often makes me start thinking of Gandalf in the first Lord of the Rings movie, who’s nervous about what the dwarves might have unearthed by digging too deep in the mines of Moria. Eventually, he gets caught by a fire-breathing Balrog.

I don’t seriously think an ancient beast shrouded in fire and shadow actually lives under London, but I do find myself staring hard when I glimpse the dark mystery of the tunnels that veer away into the deep.

If there is a case for living anywhere in the UK other than London, the toxic dust has to be a good one. I’ve lived in a few British cities in my time, but I have always managed to resist the force of the capital’s gravitational pull. Many of my friends haven’t. This is mainly a good thing, for me, as their flats serve as marvellously inexpensive hotels – and all I have to do is make sure I take some Scottish tablet down with me.

The UK is peculiar in that it is so dominated by just one city. When I lived in Manchester, there was a sense that its citizens had a chip on the shoulder about the great sucking maw of capital and talent that is the metropolis. There is the same feeling here in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Yet in the US, Canada, Germany, and India, just for starters, there are healthy city rivalries but you don’t get the same sense of simmering injustice. Bostonians are as smug as Manhattanites. Delhiites and Mumbaikars – residents of Delhi and Mumbai – love a good spat, but neither can lay claim to superiority outright.

The tourists may all head for Berlin, but Frankfurt and 
Munich are confident of their own attractions and economic drivers.

And while Toronto might think itself the centre of the universe, Vancouver is too cool and laid back to care.

Back in Manchester, burghers there instead fall to scrapping with Birmingham over who gets to be second place.

The difference between the UK and so many other countries is mostly to do with its heavy reliance on London-centric government policy and investment. It’s likely that we have all met that type of person who gets a nosebleed outside of the M25 – and many of them are media types and civil servants.

The trouble, however, is evident – overcrowding, house price bubbles, congestion charging, and dozens of Australian bar staff being forced to share tiny flats in Southwark. London is, literally, too big for its britches.

I agree with Samuel Johnson’s comment to his Scottish friend James Boswell that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”. But while I am always happy to visit, I am often just as happy to no longer have to queue just to walk along the pavement, and come back home.