The London Underground is 150 years old this year. In commemoration of this, Penguin have issued a series of books, one for each of the Underground Lines (the East London although not now in existence, has its own book, Buttoned Up, by the oddly named Fantastic Man, and the Docklands Light Railway is ignored), each by a different author. I’ve acquired three:
John Lanchester’s What We Talk About When We Talk About The Tube, about the District Line; John O’Farrell’s A History of Capitalism According to the Jubilee Line; and Danny Dorling’s The 32 Stops, about the Central Line.
Each book is a not inexpensive £4.99, which means a considerable outlay if one buys all twelve in the series. However, they’re well-designed and have simple, common aspects. Each has a trim of the colour which represents it on the Underground map (itself an iconic design): green for the District Line, light grey for the Jubilee and red for the Central. Each writer takes a different aspect, a personal take on what’s important or interesting about each line, as well as giving some history about it, too.
The writer John O’Farrell takes the Jubilee Line and imagines a dream on a train; in a situation of potential danger, there’s a debate about the strengths and disadvantages of capitalism as to how it relates to construction of the Jubilee Line, so that the passengers can determine which way to escape. It’s quirky and sometimes amusing – though I found it a lot less funny than I think the author intended.
Geographer Danny Dorling takes a different tack in his book about the Central Line. As we travel with him from West Ruislip to Woodford, west to east, we call in at typical households at each of the thirty-two stops, and see the drastic and not so drastic changes in circumstances – average GSCE pass scores, the numbers of children living in poverty, the percentage of people working in banking, and so on – between stops. It illustrates sharply the inequalities and oddnesses of life in London, such that using the underground line seems like an excellent starting point for this demonstration. Dorling provides a lot of references for his examples, from the families worried about schools in west London to the very rich of central London, to the elderly people of east London who see families in flight from the city. Thought-provoking and entertaining.
John Lanchester, a journalist and writer, writes perhaps the most overtly historical summary of the Underground lines by taking the District Line as an example. The book is full of facts about the Underground in general and about the District Line in particular, and is nerdishly entertaining.
“The first District Line train out of Upminster in the morning is the first train anywhere on the Underground network. It leaves the depot at 4.53, the only train anywhere in the system to set out from its base before 5 a.m. That’s a kind of record: if you catch that train, you might be tempted to say, Ta-dah! – except you probably wouldn’t, because nobody is thinking Ta-dah! At seven minutes to five in the morning, certainly nobody on this train. People look barely awake, barely even alive. They feel the same way they look; I know because, this morning, I’m one of them.”
(p1, What We Talk About When We Talk About The Tube)
Lanchester also makes the distinction between the Underground and the Tube – terms often taken to be synonymous, even to regular users – but the Tube is the deep-tunnelled part of the Underground, and the District Line, although a large part of it does run underground, is not deep tunnelled and is fairly shallow.
The series is an interesting conceit, and I shall probably try to collect them all: next one up will probably be Camila Batmanghelidjh and Kids Company’s Mind the Child, on the Victoria Line.
Published by: Penguin (2013)