diamond geezer

 Tuesday, March 26, 2013

London's tube map is generally agreed to be one of the finest design icons in the known universe. Yesterday was the map's 80th anniversary, or at least yesterday was 80 years since the first non-geographical version was first released to an unsuspecting public. The man behind the new map was Harry Beck, a draughtsman whose unconventional ideas were taken on board by London Transport on a trial basis and proved unexpectedly successful. From a rough sketch to a best selling range of tea towels, Beck's ideas have imprinted themselves so deeply that for millions of us his tube map is London.

Yesterday was therefore a very good day to unveil a blue plaque to Harry Beck, and here it is. English Heritage are still installing their last tranche of blue plaques before they run out of money, and Harry got in before the hammer fell. It's a very special blue plaque because the font used is New Johnston, the official TfL font... and doesn't the effect work well? A handful of other blue plaques are similarly adorned, these for more elevated London Transport types, including Edward Johnston who designed the font in the first place. And look, Beck's plaque even has a mini tube map at the bottom! Some may argue that the stations are too close together, others that this is in fact English Heritage's logo, but I like to imagine it's a topological Hainault loop, and all the more appropriate for it.

It is perhaps no surprise that the man who designed London's tube map grew up in a house with a station at the bottom of the road. Walk out of the front of number 14 Wesley Road, Leyton, and Leyton Midland Road station is less than ten doors down on the left. This is a very ordinary street, indeed I'd say it's the sort of street you'd never normally walk down... except that there's a station at the bottom of the road so you actually might. Wesley Road is a double terrace of variegated brick, with bay windows intruding into minor front gardens. One house is stoneclad, another is pebbledashed, but otherwise there's a pleasing almost-uniformity about the angular frontage. This is relatively affordable London (though a step too far up the ladder for some), where folk can buy a house of their own not just the top floor plus kitchenette. Indeed the street looks like much of the rest of the Leyton/Leytonstone area, respectable but not upmarket, afloat in a sea of residential Victoriana.

The new blue plaque sends a strong message that Harry came from very ordinary surroundings, propelled by talent rather than wealth, and it's good to see that celebrated. You get further evidence of his humble-ish beginnings by trotting up the steps at Leyton Midland Road station and looking down from the southbound platform, then staring down into his back garden. It's not wide, and it's not long, but there is room for a non-PVC conservatory leaning out from the back wall, probably where the outside toilet used to be. Perhaps Harry stood in this garden to watch the trains, perhaps this inspired him as a child to nip up to his bedroom and draw coloured lines...

...except stop right there, absolutely not. Because our mapmaker-to-be lived at 14 Wesley Road for only the first two years of his life, before his parents upped sticks and moved to Highgate. The family left Leyton 40 years before Harry drew an orange line to mark the nearby passage of the Central line, and a century before the station at the bottom of the street made it onto the tube map as part of the Overground. However excellent today's new plaque might be, the house it's attached to had absolutely no influence on his grand design whatsoever.

English Heritage have erected a plaque here because they can, because nobody else has snuck in to slap a plaque on Beck's birthplace before. The Finchley Society got in much earlier with one of Harry's other London homes at 60 Court House Gardens, West Finchley. That pristine semi was his home for 24 years, and therefore we can assume that proper design work went on within, rather than just a lot of night-time teething and bawling. Up until today Finchley has always been Beck's Tube Map Heritage Hotspot, with yet another plaque and an informative poster bolted to the wall at Finchley Central station. Leyton has come late to the game, earning E10's very first blue plaque to honour a man who could never have remembered living here.

TfL held their unveiling ceremony yesterday morning, attended by the great and the good and a phalanx of photographers. Ian was there, and has some splendid photos of the event, so you should obviously go and read his report now. By the time I arrived the officials were long gone, English Heritage had taken their red curtains away, and the street was dead ordinary again. It was a delight to see recognition of Harry's work placed in a location that was otherwise entirely incidental. But to save you the bother of visiting, rest assured, the finest memorial to Harry Beck is the little paper map dished out in hundreds of thousands each year with his name in the corner. That and the tea towels, still going strong 80 years on.

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