Interestingly enough, when this Clash classic popped into my head as the title for my review of this book, I remembered the lyric "This is London calling, from the Underground" in the song--a phantom memory, as a Google search revealed. But phantoms are a common theme of the London underground, and "Underground London", Smith's walk through London below the surface.
Dickens is just the most famous miner of the London soil which has been worked and reworked both literally and figuratively for the last two millenia (see Dan Simmon's Drood for a fascinating recent take on both Dickens and his beloved London below-streets). Indeed, Smith's research and writing illuminates a bustling city below streets, with water mains and sewage drains, Underground tubes and power lines, air raid shelters and government bunkers, and wine cellars and ancient royal tennis courts.
Smith finds and spends the best parts of his book talking to those who work in the soil. These are mostly serious practical people who just happen to work in some fantastic subterranean landscapes. Smith also finds a group of people like himself (as much as he fights the identity) who find Subterranea Britannica--also the name of the group--a hobby and an endless source of obsessive debate and research (all in serious fun, of course).
But Smith veers from the group-think and keeps the romanticizing, mythologizing, and obsessing contained within the practical borders of his subject. The one thing missing from the paperback version that I read was any pictures or maps showing the sites and sights that Smith found, perhaps for good reason to avoid having these often out-of-bounds locations attracting copycats who might imperil themselves, and the city above them.
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