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…

Hitched – let them eat cake

Saturday, 25 April 2009

being part 1 of 2 on the whole getting married business. Astute readers, or twitter followers, will have spotted that I got married last Saturday. We’ve a great many thanks/shout-outs to give to the people whose work made the day go so ridiculously well. Part 2 will be all about the clothes…

Part 1 is about everything else.

I’d picked an outfit which dictated the broad style of the day, and seemed to end up accidentally dictating the food as well. I may, in short, have overdosed on Mad Men, Dior and classic Hitchcock during the preparations.


The stationery, including the graphic design on them, was by Reneé at R studio and was a version of her Type Block design.  We used the red of my outfit as a base colour, and then shades of charcoal and silver for the detail. She was a delight to deal with, and the invites were as fab as we wanted.  I did slip in a folded page with the day’s details on it behind the RSVP card, and used a free Hitchcock typeface for the heads and captions.

My friend Nicola arranged for Bobby Burden to do the official photography and he was excellent. I’d briefed him that I hate posing and that most of my family have a fear of cameras (possibly due to so many of us being keen photographers outselves), so he kept things relaxed. I’ll be getting the official snaps soon, but unofficial ones suggest we look happy to be in front of his camera.

For the music in the evening, more friends were roped in. Alistair and Dave spun the ipod and CDj controls to the extent that people were dancing that I’d never seen dance before.

For the favours, we were totally stuck. I hate sugared almonds, and have been to so many weddings where the alternative is champagne truffles. Struggling to think of anything, we finally hit on the brainwave of badges. We both wear them and they would be sweet without being sickening. Laurie Pink did us a cute little design (which I’m not going to reveal just yet as I’ve some to send in the post) and then big wow supplied us with the finished goods.


We tried a lot – a lot - of restaurants in the Bloomsbury area. As soon as we had agreed to marry, I’d wanted a wedding with no cars. Or horse-drawn carriages. Or hot air balloons. I wanted us to be able to walk from the registrar to the ‘breakfast’ venue. The downside was finding a venue we both loved. Just as we had nearly given up, I spotted that Savoir Faire – which we had previously discounted as being too small – had ‘more seating downstairs’. On our trial of it we agreed by the end of the starter that, unless the veggie main was disappointing, we’d found our restaurant. It was delicious and they worked hard to produce a good menu with cheese free options as well as veggie ones. I recommend the place very highly.

In the evening, we crossed New Oxford Street and headed upstairs at The Old Crown. We liked this partially for the great view of a Hawksmoor church, but also because they do lovely bar food and are pretty chilled people. I sadly saw very little of the canapes, foolishly rushing around checking people had got some instead. But everyone seemed to like them. They also took delivery and then revealed the cake.

The cake was from Patisserie Valerie and was one of my few indulgences. Everytime we walked past the Bloomsbury branch, I would gaze at their profiterole wedding cake displays in awe. I knew I’d not see much of it, and that the logistics of getting into it would be troubling, but I wanted it. Several guests demanded to know the supplier – and one was already trying to think of an excuse to order one.


On the Sunday, we got ourselves onto a Eurostar and back to Villa Royale in Paris. I love Pigalle and Montmartre over the Champs Elysseses: I prefer staying somewhere that comes alive at night (and has all-night boulangeries).  We went back to Le Dan Bau – a Vietnamese place that has become so popular since I first went there that you now need reservations – and also Le Fumoir which remains a perfect place for good cocktails and healthy veggie eating.

…go to part 2 for details of the clothes and accessories…

Mind the Reality Gap

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Back on Tuesday, I went along to an early evening talk by Nils Norman at the London Transport Museum on the Fantasy Piccadilly line. As a previous post indicates, I have a certain fascination with design and the Tube, and I’ve always had an interesting in mapping fantasy spaces onto real ones. The talk also covered a lot of ground around the idea of introducing deliberately anarchic play spaces into ordered and controlled public spaces. There’s a whole other topic there which, although interesting, was not my prime reason for going along.

Regular Piccadilly line users will be familiar with the Piccadilly Above Ground poster. This takes the form of an impossible perspective over London, showing various features the Picc runs beneath. Norman was commissioned by the then Platform for Art to look at doing something with the same space on the carriages. One interesting side note is that he was unable to find anything out about the original work: who commissioned it, why its choices of features is so odd and who actually produced it. Norman’s eventual response was to map a fantasy version of London over the same impossible perspective. This map contains utopian and dystopian ideas about the city (or about cities in general) and landmarks which might exist in these other versions of London. So there are 1930s floating stations at Arnos Grove, Ron Heron’s Walking Cities (an idea, co-incidentally, I used in Badblood Diaries), wind turbines out on the Thames Gateway and HG Wells’s aliens in Acton. There are skywalks, a branch of retro-futurist urban design with its own flickr group now.

There’s also the Mini-Tru (Ministry of Truth) from Nineteen-Eighty-Four which is one of Orwell’s ideas which sticks in your memory. Most Orwell fans will know that, although described as being on the edge of the river (where both the classic BBC adaptation and Norman place it), its external description was based on Senate House (a building replicated, bizarrely, on a building over in Henrietta Place).

In Islington, there are biodomes. A recurrent theme in cityscape utopias/dystopias and something we have started to treat as familiar since the building of Eden, Norman tied his to ones designed by Fuller in the 1930s and 1940s. Fuller’s largest dome was envisioned covering Mid-town Manhattan and providing an air-conditioned environment for those within it. Naturally, as Norman pointed out, you wonder what about the people excluded from the dome? Are they doomed to hot sweaty ugly lives?

Norman also created the Boho/Asbo artwork at Piccadilly Circus. He mentioned in passing that he was told Picc. Circus is the only Tube station entirely below ground, but I’m not sure how correct that is. Other stations, such as Tottenham Court Road, are entirely sub-surface but have their street exits emerging through buildings, and Picc. Circus has one exit (which I still call ‘the Tower Records exit’ through a shop’s basement.

Overall, the talk was interesting in that way that sparks off lots of little thoughts, and provides lots of things to start researching when you get back home. The Cubic theatre is also just the right size venue for this sort of talk, and has theatre seats covered with a Tube moquette. There’s to be talks on Tube poster designs over the coming months, which I hope to be in town for at least one of.

Monkey and money

Thursday, 7 August 2008

I’m so focussing on the novella that I forgot to write up what we did in London the other week. We went to the opera.
Monkey magic!Admittedly, we went to see Monkey: Journey to the West, which has music by Damon Albarn and design by Jamie Hewlett. It was only having seven performances in London, and we’d been trying to see it for a couple of years. We missed the Paris and Berlin runs by days or weeks, but there was no way we were missing the London run.

The chap, who had also never been inside an opera house before, pointed out that he never expected his first criticism of opera to be “there were too many fight scenes”. There were quite a few, and being a wuxia fan, I thought there were just the right amount of them. My main criticism is that there were issues with scene transistion. At the start, there are long animated sequences between scenes and by the end it’s more the traditional thing of stage hands rapidly moving the fake rocks about a bit. I’d have preferred short animated sequences for each transistion.

I think the chap was mainly interested in the music but I was there for the design, having been a fan of Hewlett since the Deadline days. And it was gorgeous. There were clever little things like Monkey’s outfit – a yellow tracksuit with a dark stripe down the side – being an echo of the infamous Bruce Lee one. Hewlett’s Monkey designs, are being used – in a somewhat toned down version – by the BBC for the Olympics. But all the costumes were superb. And the fight sequences were wonderfully choreographed. Princess Iron Fan’s head soldier, a swordswoman, got a massive round of applause at curtain call because she was so good (only Pigsy and Monkey got more). Monkey was superb, really playing the trickster element up for the audience.

Skimming the reviews afterwards, I noticed The Times’ reviewer remarked:

At the first night, the Covent Garden foyer heaved with crowds who hadn’t the faintest idea where they were going.

Combined with the pre-review sneers about the RSC stunt casting Tennant as Hamlet (the reviews have taken it all back – see the Independent, the Times and the Guardian), there’s just the faintest idea that theatre critics don’t like the idea of the masses attending what still gets called ‘high culture’. Or perhaps it’s railing against the idea that ‘high culture’ is inviting the masses in (desipte that being a stated aim of the RSC). Given it costs much the same to see a West End musical as it does for a seat in the gods at the Royal Opera House, such hints of sneering at the masses are a bit hypocritical. The RSC and the ROH both get Arts Council England and/or National Lottery money in order to survive, money primarily raised via income tax or cheap gambling. A 2005 report by the Lottery operators, Camelot, indicates that there is higher participation in the lottery by people in the C2,D and E social demographic (percentage participation being higher than percentage of population) with higher average weekly spends by the same groups than those in the ABC1 demographic. So these places of ‘high culture’ survive thanks to the gambling habits of the very people the critics don’t like in their shiny citadels.

Don’t. Blink.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Stone Angel It is Stephen Moffat’s fault that I have taken to scouting out cemeteries when travelling. Or, indeed, when at home. Not directly, obviously. But someone on flickr started a group called Don’t Blink, with the remit that the photos had to be scary human sculptures. This is a fine flickr tradition: I already belong to Dalek!, Battersea Power Station[1] and Dalek Cakes and other (Doctor Who) monsters. That’s before we get onto the many, many London groups[2], or the many, stupid, cat groups[3]. Geeks, social networking and Doctor Who: truly, these things are made for each other.

The result of joining Don’t Blink is a new interest in wandering about graveyards, the spookier the better. I got told off by the chap for cheerfully nipping into my local churchyard at 2am in order to get a night shot of an angel which is never sufficiently spooky by day. Today, with a few hours spare, I decided the afternoon walk would be around Highgate East cememtery (official site / unofficial site), which was indeed wonderfully spooky even on a bright summer’s day with many other people wandering around. We’re now planning to go back for the tour of the West cemetery.

Despite this new urge, I may not have suggested the trip if I’d not recently read Falling Angels, by Tracy Chevalier. It’s the first of her novels I’ve read which does not include, in some way, a romantic love element, but it does revolve around the inner lives of women and is rather good. She plays with the use of voice very well, and creates a natural framework around the notion of death. It opens with the death of Queen Victoria, closes with the death of Edward and is centred upon two households in Dartmouth Park and their relationships with each other (symbolised in the closeness of their familial plots in Highgate cemetery). As with Girl With a Pearl Earring, it was a novel I had to finish. And, just like Girl with a Pearl…, I found myself rereading it within weeks. Recommended.

Over the last fortnight I have also read Wetworld, by floral shirt wearer Mark Michalowski. It has hand-holding otters and the tenth Doctor in spectacles.

[1] “There’s Battersea Power Station! But three of its chimneys are missing…” (Ian Chesterton, Dalek Invasion of Earth)

[2]Guess Where London, London Lettering, A London Beastiary, Finisterre (and Geoffrey Fletcher’s London) and London After Midnight to name a few.

[3] Cats in Bags/Boxes, Your Cat Nose, Somebody Else’s Cat and Solar Powered Cats are just a fraction of the cat fun to be had on flickr.

Ooh, new toys

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Last.fm have introduced a new widget which produces a playable playlist. It’s down there on the left. I am listening to the new Lucky Soul album, which the chap bought last week. It’s fabulous: shiny pop with smarts. I’m glad we decided to get tickets to the gig next week (sorry, Alistair) as it sounds like it might be one of the hottest tickets of the indie pop summer. Try out the widget to play their stuff: if you don’t like My Darling, Anything, try Get Outta Town!. Two very different tracks but clearly the same band.

Meanwhile, I am now a fully paid up commuter on the Misery Line, having spent a week shimmying my way into busy carriages in order to blearily stare at a space just beyond my nose. Back on Tube Night on BBC4 there was a good documentary about how the Tube is a microcosm of British society: faced with such conditions, we resort to unwritten rules and become silently stoic. I also noticed that the Friday morning rush contained more travellers with larger bags, as people plan to go from their desks to Some Other Life. As I did, racing back here to Devon for a couple of nights. I took some photos for the Guess Where London? flickr group, but left my connecting cable at the chap’s, so will have to upload them tonight.

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