God bless the Elizabeth line – heaven for nerds of the built environment


Show caption A TfL worker in Woolwich on the day the line opened Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian Notebook God bless the Elizabeth line – heaven for nerds of the built environment Rachel Cooke What better way to celebrate the jubilee than the new underground route and stone pyramids in the Pennines @msrachelcooke Sat 28 May 2022 15.00 BST Share on Facebook

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Last week was a good one for built environment nerds like me. On Tuesday, I headed straight out to go absolutely nowhere that was very important on the new Elizabeth line, a trip that, however pointless, was unequivocally cheering.

By the time I hit the first escalator, the service was fully en fete, its staff directing with giant purple foam hands the commuters who were walking so very slowly towards their trains, mobile phones lifted reverentially above their heads.

Emerging into the light at Farringdon station a little later, the pleasing feeling of disorientation seemed only to add to the joy. (I’d chosen the exit close to the Barbican, to whose brutalist architecture the new ticket hall nods.)

When did I become the kind of person who gets excited by an underground line? How is it that I know that Farringdon’s platforms lie 30 metres below ground and why does it thrill me so to picture the beloved buildings that stand above them? I honestly don’t know. I’m more and more a stranger to myself.

But the action wasn’t all in London. Elsewhere, six historic sites were listed to mark the jubilee. I’m happy that both the ultra 1970s Queen’s theatre in Hornchurch and All Saints’ church in Shard End, Birmingham, which was consecrated in 1955, were among them (the sculpture of Christ above the latter’s entrance is by William Bloye, an artist worth looking up).

But in truth, my heart beat fastest at the news that the commemorative markers on the M62 across the Pennines are now listed at Grade II.

These stone pyramids, unveiled in 1971, stand either side of Britain’s highest motorway, the first decorated with the Red Rose of the House of Lancaster, the second with the White Rose of the House of York. It’s pleasing to think of cars whizzing by them now, unnoticed perhaps, but forever protected – though I do, of course, strongly favour one over the other.

When I married, my bouquet comprised rosemary for remembrance, forget-me-nots for respect and, yes, white roses for the county that is almost as beloved to me as my husband.

A literary trio

English novelist and author Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett (1892 – 1969). Photograph: Picture Post/Getty Images

I meet a new friend for dinner and he arrives, having read in this column of my taste for weird literary memoirs, with a lovely copy of Elizabeth and Ivy, a book by the now almost forgotten novelist Robert Liddell about his relationship with the writers Ivy Compton-Burnett and Elizabeth Taylor. On the bus home, I vow to save it for my holiday, but when I arrive, slightly tipsy, I can’t resist opening it.

My eyes wander sleepily across a random page… it seems to be the early 1960s, and Liddell is quoting from one of Taylor’s letters, in which she describes visiting Compton-Burnett. On the day in question, the latter was, apparently, completely silent “save for little violent outbursts about capital punishment and Iris Murdoch writing too much”. In case you’re wondering, I did not regard this as a disappointment. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The joy of design

Althea McNish, textile designer. Photograph: Rose Sinclair

At the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow is a happy-making show of work by Althea McNish, who arrived in the UK from Trinidad in 1950 and went on to become a celebrated fabric designer for Liberty, Heal’s and Dior. McNish’s exuberant patterns are so much to my taste – they bring G-Plan furniture and Françoise Sagan irresistibly to mind – and, as a result, I wandered the gallery more in the manner of someone visiting a shop than an exhibition. At moments, it was honestly almost more than I could do to stop myself.

• Rachel Cooke is an Observer columnist

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