The 32 Stops: The Central Line (Penguin Underground Lines) Paperback – 7 Mar 2013
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Geographer royal by appointment to the left (Simon Jenkins)
About the Author
Danny Dorling is Professor for the Public Understanding of Social Science at Sheffield University. He is the honorary president of the Society of Cartographers. In 2009 he was awarded the Gold Award of the Geographical Association and the Back Award of the Royal Geographical Society. He has advised government and the Office for National Statistics on matters relating to the census. His previous books include So You Think You Know About Britain? and Fair Play.
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32 Stops is fairly accessible and tries to make the stats cool. The stats are the best things about the book. The scale ofdifferentiation along the line is noticeable. For those who have spent decades on the Central Line the trajectory of the data largely bears out expectations. Dorling's skill is in presenting nuance of statistics on things like voting patterns to help build an analytical picture of the different communities spread out across the line. It is fascinating stuff and well presented.
However, there are a number of disappointments about 32 Stops. It is clearly written from a leftist populist perspective. Use of the word 'bankers' as code for the rich already feels dated just a couple of years later. The crude terminology does not fit with Dorling's clearly much deeper understanding of social strata which includes people living along the line many times wealthier than a banker. Dorling's analysis is also quite thin. It does not really break down the communities along the line into constituent parts. The profile of who lives where is not really captured in his narrative snapshots. Each station has a story but that story does not particularly tell the tale from the perspective of people who live there. Dorling is not a Londoner. Frankly it shows. The Central Line is a vibrant mix of peoples but there's no real feel for that in any of his stories. Those stories are overly self-referential and clog up the data points Dorling makes much more interestingly.
It doesn't help that Dorling hasn't bothered to include much of the Central Line. Forget it if you live on the Ealing Broadway or Hainault branches. Don't bother if you live east of Woodford. Dorling recognises the cultural boundary in Leytonstone between London and Essex. How much more interesting it would be to keep the story going through Loughton to Epping. The people who live east of Wanstead do not really have their stories told here at all. Let alone what story those who live in North Weald or Ongar might be able to tell after their part of this glorious red line was taken away.
The title is not a great start. The cultural reference to The 39 Steps is so subtle as to be non-existent. It might be funny but 32 Stops is not a number really associated with the Central Line. It is the worst klnd of humour - intellectually smug without being either funny or clever.
To Dorling's credit there is an extensive set of references at the back detailing what was clearly a fascinating set of research to put the work together. The data and anecotal stats are really interesting. The heart of the book and the tale it tells is the analytical story of different and non-equal groups of people living at the various points along the line. The snapshots of life are generally inaccurate caricatures but the underlying numbers are fascinating. Dorling's work is really good when in his voice outlining the implications of the data.
Dorling looks at a wide range of comparators such as GCSE results, lie expectancy and average income as well as a selection of health-based statistics. My description of this is probably doing the book a dreadful disservice as it probably sounds very dry, but the book is actually completely engrossing. I would welcome the same sort of analysis across some of the other lines, and maybe of the wards and boroughs that the M25 passes through I accept that I am a bit of a geek!
This is a rail line that runs in an arc from West to East through London. Taken as a (presumably mythical) journey over a single day, the aspects of life that vary along the line – and often between stops are looked at in two ways!
Firstly they are illustrated by dialogues between people who live in the area of the relevant tube station and secondly by brief reference to actual statistics.
I had a small problem with both of these – in the dialogues I did loose track a couple of times (no pun intended!) and felt like I was just ploughing on to find out what was going on.
The issue with the statistics is that the author admits that a few random events can alter the average of some of these values significantly for one year – in other words the stark differences between one place and another could actually be due to chance – but then never seems to tell us what time periods the statistics represent. If the statistics are long-term averages, they probably represent real difference – but the way they are presented leaves this open to question.
Now, I am not some form of stats geek – but I do know my way around a graph and I have to say I found this element of the book disappointing.
Equally, this is not to say that I did not enjoy reading the book – but I just kept having a little nagging question popping up at the back of my mind!
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