on 28 April 2013
Leanne Shapton, one of the twelve authors in Penguin's collection of short books on the London Underground, introduces herself by means of a self-designed score-card - her height is 5 foot 8 inches, her time lived in London is two years - in which she discloses her "Self-Rated Tube Geekiness" as "2 out of 10". For a reader embarking on the journey of reading all of the twelve books, as I did, scoring as high as possible on that scale might contribute to enjoying the experience (I am maybe a 4), but Shapton's lowly score will be fully sufficient to have a lot of fun along the way. The ebook edition is an inexpensive solution if you want to go for the whole deal rather than cherry-picking two or three authors. You see, a main strength of this collection is the mind-blowing diversity of both the authors and their approaches, even as each book is superficially about one of the twelve lines of the London Underground. Not all authors have treated their topic in a narrow sense, and the styles range from the literary to the nerdishly statistic, via the intermediate stops of subcultural fashion history, visual storytelling or metropolitan ecology. John Lanchester's contribution maybe takes the most cerebral approach, and he describes the challenge beautifully: "What do all these different experiences of the Underground have to do with each other? What's the story told by this version of the soft city? I would argue that there isn't one - there is no master-narrative here, no overarching plot line connecting all the different meanings that the Underground has across a user's lifetime. You can't sum it up, and you can't make a story out of it either: it's a series of fragments." One wonders whether Lanchester was involved early in the preparations for this Penguin project on the occasion of some Tube anniversary - no matter which -, since the quote nicely defines the spirit that wafts through the whole collection. The danger with disconnected fragments of course is boredom (as some reviewers remarked about Lanchester's bestselling metropolitan novel "Capital"), but the shortness of all of these 12 books helps. There were only a few pages of repetitive statistics or weak narrative concepts that I skipped.
Now, at the risk of exhausting your patience (sets of twelve don't fit into short-time memory), here is a quick run-down of the whole dozen: (1) Camila Batmanghelidjh and Kids Company describe the work of this charity for disconnected and socially disadvantaged children in London. She tells a sad tale with glimmers of hope, and the title "Mind the Child" will hopefully ring in the minds of readers in the future whenever they hear that mystical Tube-warning "Mind the Gap". (2) Danny Dorling provides a full walk-through of demographic and economic statistics along the 32 stops of the Central Line, from west London through the financial district to the eastern periphery. (3) Fantastic Man, editors of a fashion journal for men, tell the history of buttoned-up shirts in pop culture, along with plenty of photographs. This is not what I would go for normally, but there are many interesting cultural asides on the Mod movement and successive youth fads. (4) John Lanchester's "What we Talk About When We Talk About The Tube" is half history of the London Underground and half cultural analysis. If you are not a reader of Underground-fanzines, his essay will be full of new information and insights. Maybe being from overseas like myself gives this part additional appeal. (5) William Leith's horror-stricken "Northern Line Minute" finally, finally (if you read the books in sequence) takes the merciful dive into the irrational (and also the humoristic). (6) Lucy Wadham's "Heads and Straights" is a gem that has almost nothing to do with the Underground. Instead it tells the author's colourful family story from the 70s onwards in Chelsea. Entertaining and evocatively told, a house full of curious girls passes through turbulent times. (7) Leanne Shapton works as an illustrator by day (as her score-card tells us). Her sketchbook presents little underground portraits by means of images and words. I liked the diagrams of Tube cars with little dots at the positions where passengers are sitting or standing. (8) Paul Morley's "Earthbound" is a pop-journalism-style personal history of the Underground, ranging from intriguing discussions of individual songs and composers to the revolution that was the Sony Walkman. On the one hand it is rich and rewarding, on the other it suffers from occasional fuzziness. (9) "Drift" manages to do entirely without words. Philippe Parreno tells an abstract but lyrical visual story of moving underground. On the Kindle, it provides an unusual click-through experience. (10) "A History of Capitalism According to the Jubilee Line" by John O'Farrell is much less serious than its title. O'Farrell is a comedian and this is light-hearted political satire serving everything from good old Noam Chomsky having a fist-fight to falling in love with Margaret Thatcher. (11) Richard Mabey's "A Good Parcel of English Soil" provides a fascinating historical perspective on the socio-economic and at the same time ecological history of suburban Metroland, told along the author's youth there. This surely is another highlight of the collection. (12) Peter York's "The Blue Riband" offers cultural criticism with an emphasis on modern architecture, tracing the stops of the Piccadilly Line. While being uneven in parts, this includes an incisive account of the overdose of big money that is now drowning central London - the "moronic inferno", as York quotes Martin Amis.
Well I warned you, twelve is a tall number. But do not despair, you will not read the whole collection in the space of fifteen minutes, and at the more leisurely speed of reading each book the diversity of the material is no longer overwhelming. Personally I don't care much about "Underground Monthly" fanzines or technical details of signalling systems, but I am fascinated by the cultural significance of the underground experience, whether in London or elsewhere. Among other things, the Penguin collection has taught me to appreciate the historical dimension of the differing present-day experiences of underground railways in various cities. Finally, to chicken my way out of this review, let me follow John Lanchester's oversize footsteps with another lengthy quote from the end of his essay. The quote starts with another quote, from science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson: " `He descended the Metro escalator into the ground. A weird action for a hominid to take - a religious experience. Following the shaman into the cave. We've never lost any of that.' And that, perhaps, is why people go quiet in the Underground. It's the only time we experience a combination of twenty-first-century technology (the trains), nineteenth-century technology and vision (the tunnels, the network) and our paleolithic deep self. A person on the Underground is experiencing the rare chance to be a twenty-first-century Victorian caveman."