This week I’ve chosen to review two of the books in the Penguin Lines series: Richard Mabey’s A Good Parcel of English Soil and Peter York’s The Blue Riband. Each takes their line (the Piccadilly Line for York and the Metropolitan Line for Mabey) and explores it with a historian’s (and in Mabey’s case, a naturalist’s) eyes, packing their slim volumes with details and data as well as a layering of nostalgic romance.
York comments on Piccadilly Circus being the centre of the world: “It was the village green of the largest empire ever known”, before going on to note that despite this, “in a typically British way, it was never all that. Scale, planning and architectural quality all look completely pony and ramshackle compared with any triumphalist Euro-capital of the period.” His is a look at the tube line as a means of tracking Londoner’s aspirations and desire to enter ever inwards into the city.
Mabey, on the other hand, guides us out of the city into ‘Metroland’ – the surrounding suburbs created from fields in order to facilitate Londoners’ desire for a pastoral haven: “The company was perfectly positioned not just to physically transport workers between the city and the country, but to sell them an entire rural dream.”
For such narrow-shouldered books, they carry an awful lot of information within their pages, each focusing on their own particular preoccupations – York offering a guided tour through the concourse and surrounding areas of each of the line’s major stations – introducing them almost as one might an eccentric uncle with too much money and a partiality for prostitutes and brash architecture. It’s an entertaining journey, but you might feel as though you’d like a wash when you get home.
In contrast, Richard Mabey offers up the stretches of rough-and-ready wilderness that existed around the line linking them to the city, and the unfettered childhoods that unfurled there: “‘Nature’ was something we all took for granted, like an extra layer of skin.”
Yet, despite the promises of a “fairy-tale Avalon” of flowers and tree-fringed meadows, the reality was far from anything but so idyllic. He wryly comments on “a simple thrill in the repeated clashes between the supposed respectability of the place I lived and played in, and the feral forces of young imaginations and wild regeneration.”
In short, both Mobey’s vision and York’s point to a rough raggedness beneath the glossy veneer, and each is written from a deeply personal viewpoint with an intense fondness that makes these somewhat squalid truths all part of the appeal.