Time for a little non-fiction and I think my first book of that type this year. I’ve been a regular nf reader over the years but in recent months I’ve found myself mainly involved in fiction. But after the intensity of Platonov, I was drawn to something very different and as I said here, actually bought this book new! from a bookshop! Luckily, it didn’t disappoint.
I’ve seen Andrew Martin on TV presenting documentaries on, you guessed it, trains! I have a weakness for this form of transport, anyway, as I spent years making a daily commute – firstly, from Andover to Salisbury, then from Ipswich to Colchester. I loved the Andover station and line a lot – an old, rustic building and a fairly quiet line on which they would sometimes run really old rolling stock, which made me feel rather as if I was in an Agatha Christie novel. I can still reel off the station list that used to be announced – “Grateley, Salisbury, Tisbury, Gillingham, Yeovil, Crewkerne, Axminster, Honiton, Feniton, Whimple, Exeter Central, Exeter St. Davids”. But I digress…
Given that I like trains, it kind of follows I like Tubes too. The fact that there is one in Sherlock Holmes is neither here nor there (ahem!), but a trip to London in the 1970s was very exciting simply because of the underground travel – I loved the concept that you could get on, go round and round all day on as many lines as you liked, as long as you got off at your stated destination! The escalators to the deep Tubes were particularly exciting, with their echoes of Agatha Christie’s “The Labour of Hercules”. So this book seemed irresistible.
And it starts off well – the first paragraph references everyone’s favourite Persephone author!
“In a novel by Dorothy Whipple called High Wages, which was published in 1930 but set in the Edwardian period, young Jane Carter arrives at Euston station from the fictional Lancastrian town of Tidsley. Iris her first visit to London. She steps onto the Euston Road and takes in the scene/ Not beautiful certainly, but how exciting! What cars, what buses, what bicycles, what horses — and what was that running with a roar under a grating?’
The roar under the grating was the Metropolitan Railway, currently trading — in somewhat reduced circumstances — as the Metropolitan Line of the London Underground.”
It’s obvious from the very start that Martin knows his stuff, and the book contains the history of how the underground came into being, grew and expanded randomly like some kind of organic being and ended up as it is today. I hadn’t thought about it coherently before, but this book really makes you understand how illogical the Tube really is – it wasn’t built in one go, planned out sensibly and then plonked down (like, say, the Moscow Underground) but instead was built piecemeal, by different consortia and groups, until the whole thing was finally taken under one wing in the 20th century.
But what lifts this book is the stuff aside from the facts. There have been lots of books telling the story of the underground, but this one is subtitled “A Passengers History of the Tube” and it’s full of anecdotes, stories and myths, as well as plenty of Martin’s opinions. And these are just fabulous – he’s not afraid to say what he thinks and his dry asides are a joy:
“I often think I would like to live in Marylebone station, which is equipped with a fairly good pub, a W.H. Smith and a Marks and Spencer’s food shop.”
What a wonderful sentence, which brings down the essence of what a Londoner might need to survive to alcohol, reading material and some nice food – life at its most basic!
There are ghost stories, lost Tube stations, floods, all the interesting personalities who helped build the network and plenty of memories from Tube workers. I really recommend this book if you have any interest in trains or the Underground at all – it’s a witty, informative and enjoyable read!