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Recent Reads: A Pair of Books about the Underground

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As regular readers will know, I had a bit of a ramble here about one of my favourite authors, Paul Morley, and his little Penguin book about the underground “Earthbound”. As I’d enjoyed this so much, I thought I might have a look at another one or two of these little volumes – they’re nicely produced and also bite-size length so ideal for a quick read. I had been attracted by “Blue Riband” by Peter York, as I used to find his programmes on style and design quite entertaining back in the 1980s. However, when researching the various titles, I spotted another one that sounded amusing by John O’Farrell – “A History of Capitalism According to the Jubilee Line”. I decided it could be interesting to read both, and I was right – what a contrast between two books, ostensibly on the same subject!

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Peter York’s tome covers the Piccadilly Line, hence the punning title referring to the colour of the line and also the prize awarded to ships for the fastest crossing of an ocean. York’s focus is firmly on the posher part of the line, relating the history of various buildings, occupants, past and current uses, and the stations themselves.

“In 1928 Piccadilly Circus Station stood for Things to Come. The drum concourse and the original escalators will have said The Future as clearly as the vast Jubilee Line extension steel-and-glass cathedrals of 1999 do now.” (York)

He is very much a born-again Tube fan, having only recently started travelling on them again, and his enthusiasm transmits itself to the reader. He’s also very funny in places, with witty little asides, much like I remember from his TV experiences – like this footnote:

“In his “London: The Biography”, Peter Ackroyd gives Piccadilly about a page, and then it’s only about the Circus and the sex; boys and girls having adventures and selling their bodies. And he’s only got a line each for Jermyn Street and Mayfair – more whores – and nothing at all for St. James’s. He is a funny one.” (York)

By contrast, I know nothing about John O’Farrell, who covers the Jubilee Line in a slightly longer and more involved fantasy in which he has a real nightmare  journey on the train (rather than the *nightmare* of a difficult commute so often quoted). In his fantasy, the world systems collapse owing to the financial crisis, and O’Farrell is trapped underground between stations with a motley collection of fellow passengers, ranging from an ageing professor to a couple from Yorkshire. There is much debate about the causes of the failure, the political systems that allowed this to happen, and a fist-fight between Noam Chomsky and Roger Scruton who have mysteriously materialised in the carriage. Even Margaret Thatcher makes a strange appearance…

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If this sounds odd, it’s actually surprisingly light and easy to read, very witty and not too dogmatic – O’Farrell is a left-winger who actually challenges his own assumptions and preconceptions here, in a funny book with characters that you actually start to like; and even care about whether they escape from drowning underground or not! There are plenty of potted quotes about political issues, so many good ones that I found myself jotting down loads:

“Like the venomous snake that sedates its prey before swallowing it, the dull complexity of twenty-first-century capitalism numbed its victims into confused submission before swallowing it whole.” (O’Farrell)

“Because people don’t actually need “Hot Babes in Bikinis”. They need housing and hospitals and schools, and a public transport system that doesn’t seize up because the bankers have crippled the economy.” (O’Farrell)

“Is that genuine freedom, though? If you are being lied to and don’t know it? Isn’t the ignorance and prejudice that is cultivated within our system its own form of imprisonment? Was it Goethe who said, ‘None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe themselves to be free’?” (O’Farrell)

“How could I have lost sight of that simple inescapable truth that my personal interests and the needs of society as a whole would ultimately be the same thing?” (O’Farrell)

“It seemed that the world wasn’t just divided by ideologies; it was also divided by those who tried to make a difference and those who couldn’t be bothered.” (O’Farrell)

And reading these two books together actually provided quite an intriguing contrast. I found myself a little uncomfortable with the celebration of wealth and power in York’s book: I wasn’t actually clear where his opinions were, if he disapproved of the huge amounts some people possessed or whether he celebrated it. Certainly he is not happy about the commodification of certain shopping areas, which end up identical to those all around the world, and one paragraph lists the designer shops that can be found in every major luxury shopping street in the world – yes, we are in the Global Village! However, I found myself wishing that, as he was touching on what could be a controversial subject (extreme wealth, while there is such extreme poverty in the world), he would actually state his own views.

O’Farrell, however, certainly states his views but is prepared to be challenged on them, and actually provides what is an interesting, never dull discussion within the format of a short, humorous book.

“I wandered out of the station and followed the crowd into Stratford City Westfield. The enormous shopping mall looked different seen through the eyes of a man who has just had the capitalist system explained to him by his subconscious. It seemed to be a monument to the gods of unnecessarily spending money. Branded shop after branded shop selling you things you didn’t actually need but had been persuaded that you really ought to have.” (O’Farrell)

He certainly provoked a lot of thought in my mind and in the end I found this to be the better book of the two: funnier, more entertaining, and with a lot of hidden depth. These were enjoyable books to read and the O’Farrell I would definitely recommend for those who like something quirky and involving!

“The Jubilee Line had showed me the way. I had seen how our political and financial system had evolved to keep exploiting the majority while enriching those at the very top. I had learned that politics is about the choices you make, not about the things that you say. I had seen that violence solves nothing and been shown that there is good and bad in everyone, even my greatest enemies.” (O’Farrell)

….in which we visit Waterstones….

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…and buy a brand new book from a high street bookshop! Yes really! For the second time this year!

I rather blame Youngest Child as she had seen a book the previous weekend and decided it was no cheaper on Amazon, so she would buy it in town. Well, it wasn’t cheaper (no surprise there) but as I had been eyeing up the book below, we combined to get the “buy one, get one half price” offer and the prices ending up being the same!

I actually really enjoyed the browsing experience – new books are not a thing I often indulge in for a number of reasons. The main one, of course, is cost – if I bought all the books I wanted new I would probably be bankrupt by now. The second one, though, is that many of the books I want just aren’t available on the high street, so online clicky sources are the only option.

But with the failure of HMV and the disintegration of high streets, it was nice to feel the need to visit a real bookshop, pick up and look at covers and titles that attracted my attention, check out what editions were available of my favourites and so on. Plus I came home with a lovely, shiny new book with that freshly printed smell!

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The volume in question is Andrew Martin’s “Underground Overground” which is subtitled “A Passenger’s History of The Tube”. I really fancied some non-fiction and so far it’s a cracking read!

Alex in Leeds did a very good post here which discussed how the Waterstones retail model is so much better than HMV and I have to agree – the staff I encountered were helpful and knowledgeable, and the atmosphere in the shop was so much friendlier. So, although I don’t think I’ll abandon my tendency for second-hand or online shopping, I may well find myself popping in to Waterstones for ideas a bit more frequently!

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