Walk the Lines: The London Underground by Mark Mason

“A man once said “A bad day in London is still better than a good day anywhere else,” and I might have to agree. I guess it will come as no surprise that since I moved to London books that revolve around London have been cropping up on my radar a little more. I want to talk extensively about my move here at some point and how it’s honestly changed me but for now I want to talk a little about a book I’ve been dipping in and out of not, truly ‘reading’ in giant hunks, but one I’ve enjoyed all the same. Walk the Lines by Mark Mason.

The only way to truly discover a city, they say, is on foot. Taking this to extremes, Mark Mason sets out to walk the entire length of the London Underground – overground – passing every station on the way.

img_1963In a story packed with historical trivia, personal musings and eavesdropped conversations, Mark learns how to get the best gossip in the City, where to find a pint at 7am, and why the Bank of England won’t let you join the M11 northbound at Junction 5. He has an East End cup of tea with the Krays’ official biographer, discovers what cabbies mean by ‘on the cotton’, and meets the Archers star who was the voice of ‘Mind the Gap’.

Over the course of several hundred miles, Mark contemplates London’s contradictions as well as its charms. He gains insights into our fascination with maps and sees how walking changes our view of the world. Above all, in this love letter to a complicated friend, he celebrates the sights, sounds and soul of the greatest city on earth.

As the blurb suggests the book follows Mason who has lived in around London during is twenties and thirties and like many Londoner’s (I assume) has become interested in the ever changing and evolving map of the Underground. Wandering around where he lives, he travels up a side-street he hasn’t before and realizes if he continues he’ll create a triangle back to his house – a realization he hasn’t made before. Through this realization he decides to walk the entirety of each length of the line in a type of homage to the city. Line by line and with the help of his friend Richard he beings to walk these tube lines and learns and tells us a lot about the city I bloody adore.

I just want to put in a little aside here – Mason only walks 11 of the London Underground Lines refusing to walk the Overground Line and the DLR (which I find a little unfair – definitely still part of London.) Mason wanders the line giving snippets of local history, miscellaneous facts that might one day help on a pub quiz and changes in the line themselves. He is a really entertaining narrator (especially in the beginning of the book) and I found myself desperate to undertake the walks myself especially the Circle Line Pub Crawl.

I guess it’s important to explain I haven’t finished this book and it’s one of the reasons why I’mimg_1962 also yet to finish a Bill Bryson book (which this author certainly reminded me of.) The beginning of the book is really interesting, it’s new ground, it’s a non-fiction book written in a fiction style (in terms of the narration) but soon, as you can imagine we do end up walking through endless housing estates and then leading back into the same famous central locations that we all know and love. As the lines cross we do get quite a bit of repetition.

Due to this a lot of stations do end up being cut; the first couple of stations take up a couple of chapters but as we go further in stops between Whitechaple and Upminster take up a quarter of this. I think a big selling point to this (unless you live along the DLR or the Over Ground shrugs) is that you get to pick out your station and read about it, but many don’t get the coverage unless they’re big names (ie Wimbledon or Morden.) Finally, Mason appears to get a little bored with his own story; although the pub crawl is fun it does feel as though Mason realized that he’d lost a little passion and needed something to inject to make it fun. Following this certain walks are undertaken in the snow and done at night (which does stop the author seeing a lot of the highlights.)

I think a main problem is that it doesn’t really reference people, it references buildings and so it lacks a little passion. I’ve seen it described in context with Bleeding London by Geoff Nicholson but they have two very different ways of telling this story that don’t really overlap.

So, what did I think. I really enjoy dipping in and out of this book – read one tube line, put the book down for a bit, read another tube line, put it down for a bit. It’s not a book I think I could physically read in one go because for me it just lacks a little something. A little bit of a human touch. However – perfect gift for a new Londoner and even more perfect gift for a walker who might be tempted to walk the 11 (cough) lines. For me a great dip in and out but not quite there.

LIIIIINKS

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