Book review – A Northern Line Minute by William Leith

A Northern Line Minute coverFrom the very first sentence of this Penguin Lines tale by William Leith, I found myself utterly vested in the outcome. A smell of smoke on an Underground train? Few things can be more frightening.

And our narrator, a self-confessed tunnel-phobe, who hates to drive, fly and, above all, take Underground trains, carries us through a journey that verges on becoming terrifying, as he becomes more convinced of the smell of smoke, yet more determined to tell himself that can’t be true – he must be imagining it, or it’s normal, or… all the things we tell ourselves when our lives could be in mortal peril, but might not be. Continue reading

Book review – A History of Capitalism According to the Jubilee Line by John O’Farrell

A History of Capitalism book coverI began reading this book on the day before Magaret Thatcher’s death, which made the cover image particularly poignant (and yes, that bearded chappie beside Maggie would appear to be Karl Marx).

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.” Continue reading

Book review – Penguin Lines times 2

penguin-lines-the-blue-ribandThis 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. Continue reading

Book review – Waterloo-City, City-Waterloo by Leanne Shapton

Waterloo-City, City-Waterloo by Leanne ShaptonOne of the 12 Penguin Lines books released to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, Waterloo-City, City-Waterloo: The Waterloo and City Line is something like how I imagine a trainspotter’s notebook to be, only collecting the passengers rather than the trains.

Feeding my voyeuristic tendencies, the narrative flits from person to person, offering a thumbnail sketch of each, before settling without warning on one or another to offer an insight into their rambling thoughts.

Pages of artwork supplement some of the thought processes – a montage of photos of babies; several pages presumably of water in the mind of a man contemplating his next swim. The pattern of thoughts is disconcertingly familiar – inner dialogues of power play and plotting intersected by observations such as “At least these boots make me look tall.” It’s a reassuring reminder of the banality of our most of our minor obsessions, coupled with the endless fascination of peoplewatching and overheard snippets of conversation, only these are interior monologues, so even more intriguing.

As an added quirk, midway through the volume, the Outgoing journey finishes, and you have to turn to the back of the book, turn it the other way up and continue on the Return journey, meeting new character as well as reconnecting with some of those you met on the way out, such as Yellow tie, and Houndstooth jacket, dyed red hair. It’s an utterly one-sided reunion, and the continuation of their tale is unexpectedly satisfying.

It’s incredibly addictive, and, if you’re reading it on any form of public transport, a touch surreal as you dip into the pages then glance around wondering what the people around you are thinking.

Waterloo-City, City-Waterloo: The Waterloo and City Line by Leanne Shapton is one of the 12 Penguin Line books inspired by London Underground Lines. Available at £4.99 each.