Taking the format of a dream-scape, apparently experienced while riding the Jubilee Line, this is a somewhat surrealist tale, in which the trains are halted due to a collapse in Western civilisation, never to move again. Not great news for the passengers stuck on the now impotent train.
By setting it in the realm of dreams O’Farrell is able to deftly sidestep pesky questions by having his own characters ask them: “In retrospect it was a little strange that they had recorded messages specifically for this bizarre and complex set of circumstances.”
The messages themselves are all part of the fun, retaining the somewhat ‘this is far from being our fault’ tone of all train station tannoy announcements (surely it’s no coincidence that if you remove the ‘t’ from ‘tannoy’ you end up with ‘annoy’), while advising customers that they may need to reconstruct 21st century society along “nomadic, hunter-gatherer principles.”
John sneaks in plenty of facts too, mainly about the history of this latecomer to the London Underground line system (did you know it’s the only line to intersect with ever other line? And that it opened in the week Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister? Me neither). But soon the trapped passengers are presented with a life and death choice – they are trapped between two bridges, both undergoing repair works. Which is most like to collapse: the one being repaired used private money or the one being repaired using public funds? “Nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of immediately drowning in some dark tunnel deep underground.”
Of the Penguin Line books I’ve read so far, this is the one with the cliff-hangers – I whizzed through most of it in an afternoon, and it’s lucky I wasn’t commuting that day or I might well have missed my stop. Look out for brawling philosophers, opinion-twisting media and an unexpected appearance from a certain, now ghoulish, former Prime Minister. It’s a roller-coaster ride through the underground tunnels of the Jubilee Lines, its history and assorted viewpoints. Before the end you will have switched allegiance a dizzying number of times.
A History of Capitalism According to the Jubilee Line by John O’Farrell is one of the 12 Penguin Line books inspired by London Underground Lines. Available at £4.99 each.