~ Posted by Charles Nevin, March 14th 2013
Romance, generally, is not something London does well. Paris, Rome and New York, yes: the boulevards, the ruins, the fountains, the cafés, the autumn leaves: even, for heaven's sake, rude waiters and the steam from the manhole covers. But, London: the river's too wide, the parks uninspired, the weather too grey: where is there in London to weep and linger over, memory pricked? Oh, it has a certain grandeur, and, even sometimes, a rough charm, a brusque wink in the bustle; but where is the love?
Or so it seemed until the recent revelations about one of the announcements at Embankment underground station. In the unfathomable ways of transport authorities, the northbound Northern Line platform at Embankment had become the last place on the entire system where the spoken version of the famous warning—"Mind the Gap"—could be heard. And so it was that the widow of the man who made the recording began to make special journeys to listen to it, and remember; until, inevitably, it was replaced by a digitised announcement, leaving the widow to write and ask for a recording.
Well, London might not be big on romance, but it has always been very good at sentiment. London Underground not only sent her a recording for Christmas; they decided to reinstate the announcement at the station. The newspapers have sought out and introduced us to the widow, Dr Margaret McCollum, whose husband, the late actor and voice artist Oswald Laurence (pictured), had died in 2007. Theirs had been a late blooming love, latterly shaded by Oswald's illness. "Knowing he was going to die gave a kind of intensity to our last years together," she said. "But I always knew that even when he was gone, I could go and listen to him whenever I wanted...I would go and sit on the platform, and sometimes miss a couple of trains just so I could hear it."
Who could not be moved by such a story? Who would have the imagination to conceive it as a work of fiction? Another tip of the hat to Fate or whomever or whatever is working the levers, I should have said. All the same, it still seems closer to Maupassant or O. Henry than to London. But perhaps this is the tired, battered, austere, recessed old city's chance at romance. Why shouldn't Oswald now go viral across the network? And more: "Embankment" is a dull name, the latest of several that have been attached to the station. Why not, instead, "Oswald & Margaret"?