Walk the Lines, by Mark Mason

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Tube map is one of the greatest works of fiction in the world. It takes the messy reality of a scattered city and turns it into measured beats, clusters of connections and something that makes sense. Also, the map (technically a schematic) doesn’t actually show real distances between what’s above ground. I love it.
Walk the Lines cover

Mark Mason decided to follow the map above ground, walking every mile as closely as possible. Walk the Lines is the result, his travelogue of each suburb and interchange.

Initially I dove into this book with enthusiasm, much like Mason as he prepared his project and walked the first line. Then, as the lines progressed and common themes emerged (countryside, suburbia, industrial, inner city and reverse) I started to want something more than I was getting, and by the end I was dawdling along with decreasing energy.

Some stations were skipped over: perhaps something that makes sense in some of the Metroland areas but there was no Russell Square. There’s both recent and old history there. I’ve been incapable of going through it without thinking of the 2005 bomb, just as I always think of the 1987 fire when I see the stopped clock in Kings Cross tube. But go back further and walking as the pigeon flies from Russell Square to King’s Cross you go through Coram Fields and past the Foundling Hospital – one of the most heart-breaking museums in London and well worth a note in a book about London’s more obscure corners.

There’s also a couple of points where the tone shifts into a kind of moroseness, almost a “bah humbug, youth of today” element which changed Mason from the kind of person you’d like to walk the length of the Picc with and into a grumpy bloke you’d try to avoid chatting to on a bus. That may have been a consequence of his own tiredness, or my own threshold for “…and all this used to be fields” talk.

There are some wonderful sections within the book though: the chat with a cabbie-to-be on learning the knowledge includes some laugh out loud moments, and the interview with Bill Drummond about his cake circle is a joy.

There’s also some good musings on the personal maps we create of a city. I can rat run around Soho, Fitzrovia and the South Bank but even last week I was filled with a mild terror as I was going to the Barbican. I explained when I got there and found my friend that I had last visited as a sixteen year old, got lost and never dared venture back in until now.

Overall, I’d recommend this for people who like maps and That London, but do prepare yourself with some Kendal Mint Cake for some of the later sections.

Bonus recommendation: watch out for repeats of Metroland on BBC Four. The DVD goes for outrageous amounts these days…

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Moranthology, by Caitlin Moran

Sunday, 26 January 2014

It’s taken me a while to pin this one down: why did I enjoy Moranthology, a set of essays by Caitlin Moran?
image

Was it the fangirly glee about Sherlock, the righteous ire about politics, or the alarmingly plausible late night conversations with her husband. In the end, the best way to illuminate why this book is worth reading is that Caitlin Moran loves libraries.

On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate ‘need’ for ‘stuff’.

The whole essay resonates so strongly. The idea that, as a teenager, you might come to believe you’ve read every book on the shelves of your local library. That you can order up some dream of a book through inter-library loan. For free. Well, for a minor fee for the inter library loan but still…

Unlike Caitlin, on her Midlands estate, I grew up surrounded by books. I tried to mentally count the number of bookcases we had at home the other day, and failed because I’d keep remembering another one. But once a week, I’d head down to my local library and max out my card with books. Ones I wanted to read again, ones I wanted to take a risk on, ones we didn’t have in the house and I couldn’t afford to buy. You can imagine my delight at discovering my card actually let me take out eight books at once rather than the four I thought I was allowed.

As an art student in a freezing bedsit, the heaters you could sit on in Exeter Central Library were an added bonus, as were their huge collection of vinyl and plays and screenplays and heavy books on modernist art…

There are essays in this collection I disagree with, or that made me snort with laughter, or whatever. But I’d recommend reading it for the essay on libraries alone.

You can always borrow it from one…

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The Victorian Detective, by Alan Moss and Keith Skinner

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Another off the Christmas book pile, this time diving into non-fiction for a look at the Victorian Detective.

Sherlocks3

No, not that one.

Instead The Victorian Detective is a slim non-fiction volume looking at the rise of the police detective in Victorian Britain. There’s no doubt Alan Moss and Keith Skinner’s book is well-researched and fully sourced. The problem comes in if you’ve already read The Suspicion of Mr Whicher, which covers the same ground through the prism of a single case.

In attempting to avoid the grisly “true crime” style, this book skims over the cases themselves in favour of, well, HR updates on which station a detective is based in. Overall, it felt rather too dry.

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Longbourn, by Jo Baker

Thursday, 16 January 2014

My Christmas pile always brings much reading. Here it is:
Bookpile

First off the pile, so fast I’d read three chapters by Christmas lunchtime, was Longbourn by Jo Baker. This tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of Sarah, the head housemaid.

Except, wonderfully, it doesn’t. This tells the story of Sarah, and of her romances and follies, and the mistakes others make around her. That she happens to be a maid at Longbourn and subject to the whims and fancies of the Bennett girls is merely her lot in life.

Baker doesn’t attempt to copy Austen’s style, which made me instantly delighted. Her protagonists are different people, with a different way of speaking and thinking, so Sarah’s voice is – as it should be – totally different. The novel reminded me of both Wide Sargasso Sea, with its inversion of authorial focus, and the work of Sarah Waters, in the voice the author takes.

Of course, it helps if you know Pride and Prejudice. Unlike Death Comes to Pemberley, none of Austen’s characters are twisted to fit the narrative. Instead we get a different side to them. Mr Bennett loses some of the sympathy he normally gets, and Mrs Bennett gains some. Darcy becomes a force of nature and Wickham, well, none of the servants trust him.

Structurally, it’s split into three volumes, echoing the structure of early novels. I did feel the third volume, which goes into flashbacks by multiple characters, started rather more weakly than the other two but the narrative drive returns when we return to Sarah’s perspective.

This is a novel about choices, or lack of them. About making the best of your lot in life, or of throwing aside the rules. Of risking everything for romantic ideas rather or securing your future. It’s the perfect reflection of Austen’s novel and I recommend it.

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Let’s all meet up in the year 2000

Sunday, 5 January 2014

At the turn of the century, I used to make – and make was the word – a Tav’zine. Gratuitous Torso Moments (GTM) was billed as “for the fangrrl on the run” and contained many things that would only make sense to other regulars at the Fitzroy Tavern. I just found the originals for the Autumn 2000 edition. Here’s a photo of it.

GTM - autumn 2000

The I-Spy DW numberswiki.com

Authors on TV (a cut-out-and-keep guide) just made me laugh. Look at the inner pages in detail.

I-Spy

My suggestions include:

  • Russell T Davies… Doctor Who producer credit
  • Mark Gatiss…acting in other telefantasy/Bond
  • Stephen Moffat (sic)… any writer credit

I also rather mysteriously credit Matt Jones as a future Doctor Who producer. Given my RTD prediction (and Mark Gatiss’s Mycroft surely counts as both telefantasy and Bond?), maybe I should get down the bookies?

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Kitchener isn’t just a kitsch image

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Lord Kitchener, the soldier not the calypso star, is on the new £2 coin to mark the start of five years commemorating the First World War. You’ll recognise the image: a well-moustachioed man pointing out at you with the exhortation “Britain needs YOU”.

I do not want to use coins with Kitchener on, so I’ll be donating any I get to the Royal British Legion which is a charity set up to support the people whose lives were ruined by Kitchener’s call to action. Other people I know plan to give them to the Peace Union.

Why am I complaining about the use of Kitchener?
When war was declared in 1914, Kitchener was made Secretary of State for War and tasked with recruiting a volunteer army. In August and September 1914, 750,000 men volunteered. Eventually, over 8 million people fought for Britain from across the Empire, and over 995,000 of them died, in the First World War. Only 53 English villages, out of over 10,000 parishes, didn’t lose young men. Every village in Wales or Scotland lost at least one person. Over 1,663,000 people were wounded: maimed, gassed, or traumatised so badly the new term “shell shock” was created for them.

The image of Kitchener, now on our coins, first appeared on a magazine cover at the start of September 1914, in the peak of that initial recruitment. Kitchener supported the formation of “pals” units, where all the recruits from a village, factory or social organisation, were kept together. This led to horrors such as the fate of the Accrington Pals. Around 700 men from the Accrington (or neighbouring parishes) went into action act the first day of the Somme. Within half an hour 235 were killed and 350 were wounded.

Kitchener’s recruitment drive, as symbolised by that iconic image, fed over a million people into the killing machines.

Except the coin, when it rattles into your change at the supermarket or at the pub, won’t be in context. It’ll just be an image, divorced of meaning. Unless you read up on him, he’ll just be winner of the best ‘tashe contest. Unless your family’s more info

oral history includes not only the trauma people went through on the front but the consequences when they came home, he’s just a bloke in a hat. So you may not see how utterly inappropriate it is to put that image – the image that beckoned a million men to vile deaths – on a coin to commemorate the dead.

Kitchener isn’t just a kitschy image. The campaign he led was what Wilfred Own called “the old lie”:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Kitchener also continued the use of concentration camps during the Boer War. He led the Battle of Omdurman where 10,000 Sudanese were killed compared to 47 British. He was, at least, a realist in that he predicted a long war in 1914. But he is not someone we should be celebrating.

Why donate to charity?

Initially, I planned to refuse the coins. Then I thought about the practicalities of that. Aside from holding up queues by demanding only £1 coins in my change, what would I do if an automatic till gave me one? I like £2 coins, too, because they are reassuringly chunky. So how could I rid myself of any Kitchener ones I get without spending them?

As a teen, I knew someone who had served in the Falklands. I saw the impact of shell shock on him, and on his family. The Legion was there to support them, as they have been there to support so many others over the decades. So this, then, is my response: to donate every Kitchener coin I get to them so they can provide support for current veterans of current wars.

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