Standpoint Magazine: Tunnel Vision

Winston Churchill’s half-smoked cigar sold for $12,000 at a US auction in October. A hand-written note by Albert Einstein on the topic of happiness (“a quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest,” he wrote) went for $1.5 million in Jerusalem. In London, Audrey Hepburn’s iconic blue satin sleep mask was bought for £6,250, some 50 times its pre-sale estimate. And in November, the original designs of the Thames Tunnel, built by French-born engineer Marc Isambard Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel, were auctioned at Bonhams in London for £200,000.

Some people like the idea of owning a slice of history, perhaps feeling they are connected to Churchill through time and space, by owning a cigar he once forgot to fully smoke. And some buy “collectibles” — rare objects you can touch and move — as a hedge against inflation, which as we know is on the rise again, despite the best efforts of economists. Indeed, a photograph album of the first meeting of the classical liberal Mont Pelerin Society in 1947, with pictures of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Karl Popper, Ludwig von Mises and George Stigler, among others, went under the hammer for £8,125  in the same Bonhams sale as the Brunel designs.

It’s an old phenomenon. Stamp collections were banned in China under Mao for being a “hobby of the bourgeoisie”; now Chinese investors make up a third of the $3 billion global stamp-collecting market. Friedrich Engels liked to drink not only pilsner beer but fine wines too; his investments included 924 bottles of claret and 156 bottles of champagne, only fitting for the original champagne socialist.

The best use for collectibles is as a conversation starter. Although they were sold to the Brunel Museum in London, one can imagine the tunnel designs displayed in a living-room. Walking past them casually, the owner might tell you that 200 years ago the Thames and its bridges were so congested that it was said you could walk across the river, from boat to boat, without getting your feet wet. To solve a problem that had defeated several others, the city invited Marc Isambard Brunel to build the world’s first tunnel under a navigable river. After making his name in America, the elder Brunel had lost his fortune in London and languished in a debtor’s prison, but his debts were paid by the government to stop the Tsar from bringing him to Russia.

The Thames Tunnel, connecting Rotherhithe and Wapping, took 18 years to complete, from 1825. The Brunels’ team dug it with a method inspired by shipworms, which use a hard shell on their heads to bore through ships’ timbers. In the process, the younger Brunel almost drowned, but survived to become the most celebrated of Victorian engineers, building the Great Western Railway, the Clifton suspension bridge and the iron steamships Great Britain and Great Eastern, then the largest ever built.

Once completed, the tunnel was intended for horse-drawn freight carriages but the project ran out of money and its platforms were never built. Instead, it was turned into an entertainment venue, the “eighth wonder of the world”, in 1843, and Queen Victoria came to its opening. But before long, it became a haunt for prostitutes and “tunnel thieves”, who tiptoed around it in padded shoes, and it was closed down. Later in the 19th century, the tunnel became part of the underground railway system.

Today, London’s Overground railway runs partly underground, through Brunel’s tunnel. Last year, its unfinished platform was converted into an arts venue. Above it there’s a small romantic garden bar, where hipsters toast marshmallows over a campfire and drink cocktails made out of ingredients grown in the garden. So being sold at an auction is not the oddest thing this relic has experienced.

This article was originally published in Standpoint Magazine’s January/ December 2017/18 issue:

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