As I observed in another review recently, to be successful, your London book must have an angle. Mark Mason’s was to walk every London tube line overground and to share his observations and experiences. He undertook this mighty odyssey late last year and Walk the Lines – The London Underground, Overground is the result.
The idea was not simply to tick off each station, but to walk the lines properly, even if it meant encountering the same station up to six times, King’s Cross for example. No cheating. Hence he covered some 403 miles in 175 hours of walking. Each of the 10 chapters is dedicated to a particular line. This forms the framework for a narrative that simply describes the areas passed through, very much with a journalistic eye and ear. I particularly enjoyed the reportage of overheard conversations: man to wife on mobile, “It’ll be and hour and a half until I’m in Romford, Matilda. If you’re going to have a bath, have a bath now.” Mason describes the houses, shops, parks and residents, peppering his story all the while with interesting facts and trivia. The bulk of the book is dedicated to suburbia, and if you glance at the Tube map (or diagram if you’re a purist), this makes perfect sense. If an area is unappealing in any way, the author does not stint in saying so. So cover your eyes, good denizens of Chesham.
Some have called this book “Brysonesque”. Well, it is up to a point, insofar as it’s an observant travelogue which is thorough, witty and occasionally self-effacing. But Mason here is far more philosophical and nuanced than Bryson. For me as a Londoner, this is the main appeal of the book. The writer throws down challenging questions throughout, which boil down to: what is London, exactly? In the end he even asks if London really exists.
An aspect of the book I particularly enjoyed is about maps. Stamfords of Covent Garden rightly gets a very good press and there is much discussion about maps and their nature, what they represent, be they A-Z, Ordnance Survey, Google, the Harry Beck Underground or one’s own hand-made ones. Maps are “works of art, not of science”, observes Piotr, a staffer at Stamfords. Is it okay to personalise – that is to say, deface – a map? Absolutely, concludes Mason, but it was an idea he struggled to come to terms with. A wonderful description of the Tube map is that it is “a passport to the past”. I shall remember that next time I’m feeling a little too lazy to venture out.
Walk the Lines is inevitably a very personal book. Its author has taken care to make sure that the reader doesn’t get bored with his company alone and adds spice by including pre-arranged interviews with interesting interlocutors along the way. So we meet Rachel, the biker chick who is studying for the Knowledge; John Pearson, biographer of the Krays; Welshman Peter Rees, Planning Officer for the City of London (I dread the day this thoroughly enlightened man retires); Tim Bentinck, radio actor off The Archers and the voice of “mind the gap”; the conceptual artist and frankly slightly mad Bill Drummond. Like every single one of us, each has his or her own London. In addition there are the dramatis personae of Mason’s support network, in particular his partner Jo, Underground nerd Richard, the source of myriad obscure Tube facts; and Matt, under-prepared partner in crime on the Circle Line pub crawl.
My only niggle with this thoughtful and entertaining book is its use of footnotes. There are rather a lot for a non-academic work but the thing is that almost all of them would fit perfectly comfortably in the main text.
Walk the Lines. The London Underground, Overground by Mark Mason (376pp) is published by Random House. RRP £12.99 but can be obtained for around £7.50.