We have commemorated a number of significant and poignant events over the past few weeks, but one anniversary has slipped past un-recorded by the media. On the 18th November 1987, a horrific fire broke out in King’s Cross Underground station, London. Tragically, 31 people were killed and dozens seriously injured. The event led to several crucial changes in the law relating to tube travel.
The fire itself had begun on a wooden escalator leading out of the station and up to the ticket barriers and concourse above. Although smoking had been banned on the London Underground since 1984, it was believed that many commuters still lit up on the escalators in preparation for leaving the station. A discarded butt from one of these cigarettes was thought to have ignited the layers of litter which had built up underneath the escalator, along with the wooden structure itself. The ensuing inferno engulfed the lower levels of the station and was excaberbated by the jets of air created by trains exiting the platforms to escape the blaze.
It was a terrible event and one that those of us around to have heard the details have never forgotten. My Dad commuted on the underground during those years as I was to do a decade later. The King’s Cross fire was one of those tragic events that bring forward progressive safety-legislation. Wooden escalators were banned from stations and anti-smoking rules more rigorously enforced. It also became entirely socially unacceptable to litter on the tube. During my years travelling the Central Line to work, in the decades that followed, the tube felt a much cleaner, safer and more modern place to be.
A new fad, encouraged by actress Emma Watson, who admitted to ‘secretly’ leaving books with messages in them on the underground for people to find, has led many fans to leave books on trains in various parts of the world – from China to America. The trend deeply worries me.
Yes, books are special, more than just sheets of paper with ink printed on them. But in material reality, that’s all they are. In fact, more flammable than an empty crisp packet or chocolate wrapper. Yet to discard one of those on an underground train would be completely unacceptable.
I can see Emma Watson’s point, but I think it’s ill-conceived. Please donate your books to charity shops and libraries, or your local school. But to begin to witness dog-eared paperbacks on benches in stations and on the padded seats of trains will only prove to be a symbol to people that it’s now okay to leave your discarded goods behind you when you leave a public place. It isn’t. We’ve moved beyond that stage as we became more socially responsible and aware of the results of our actions.
Yes, I love books. I’m an author and a publisher. But I love progress and the preservation of human life more. Most commuters now read novels and newspapers through their phones and iPads. This is progress. It means less litter on our public transport system and the wider dissemination of literacy to the masseses. Emma Watson’s idea is sweet, but it’s misguided and out of step with the ways that literacy will be promoted in future.
So if you’re tempted to leave your paperback on the train when you’ve finished it, please don’t. The change in attitude towards litter on the underground was not achieved easily. It took a desperately tragic event to shift popular attitudes. Let’s not allow them to shift back again, over at best, an ill-thought out idea and at worst, a cynical publicity stunt.