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.
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…