Books are my Bag – An impromtu trip to London!


As any reader of book blogs has probably picked up, Saturday was designated as “Books are my Bag” day, to promote the buying of real books in real bookshops. Alas, it appeared that nowhere in my locality was celebrating this fact, so I wasn’t too sad when I found out I had to pay a flying visit to London that day!

Unfortunately, I was on quite a tight schedule which meant I ended up with two hours to get round any shops I wanted to visit before ending up dealing with the errand I went on. So I had to plan carefully, and in the end plumped for Foyles, and a few locations round Charing Cross Road.

So I hit Foyles first thing, and was pleased to see balloons and displays celebrating the event. The new modernised shop is a lovely thing to behold, and I could have spent a lot longer browsing than I actually did. In the end, I decided to treat myself to a couple of *brand new* books – not something I often do as I tend to go for second-hand owing to cost and availability. But after a lot of brain bashing and changing my mind, I eventually chose these two books:

foyles“Hotel Savoy” by Joseph Roth is a lovely Hesperus volume I’ve been eyeing up for a while and I finally succumbed. Since I love European literature so much, this should be right up my street. “After Midnight” is written by Irmgard Keun, who was Roth’s lover, and the book is set during the rise of Hitler. This is a lovely Neversink book from Melville Press about whom I know absolutely nothing – but it was translated by Anthea Bell who’s done such lovely work on Stefan Zweig, so that bodes well!

My next port of call was at the bottom of Charing Cross Road – first to Any Amount of Books where the amount I found was none! This is most odd, but I did better at Henry Pordes where I discovered these three treasures:

PordesThe Meredith is an early Virago and one I’ve been after for some time; the Turgenev is from NYRB and it’s always nice to find them second-hand; and the Nabokov is a lovely Penguin short story collection with a Tamara de Lempicka on the cover – ’nuff said! Lovely finds all, and I’m particularly pleased with the Turgenev, as this is a Constance Garnett translation. She’s very much maligned by later translators, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever read one of her versions, so I’m interested to see how it compares.

Finally, I trotted off to the Oxfam bookshop near the British Museum and scored a couple of lovely Viragos:

oxfamI’ve been on a little bit of a Rebecca West kick recently, so “Harriet Hume” was a delightful find as it seems to be hard to track down online in the green version (I’ve seen several black cover American ones). And the Ivy Compton-Burnett cover alone makes it worth buying (I indulged in a Virginia Woolf bookmark too).

So all in all, it was a lovely book buying interlude. I always love to visit Charing Cross Road, though nowadays this does bring a certain melancholy. Currently the top end is being torn apart for the Tottenham Court Road tube upgrade, and so many of the little old buildings and shops that gave the place character have disappeared. In the 1980s I would meet friends for book shopping trips and we’d pop into strange little cafes in side streets for lunch, explore the many bookshops the street had to offer and have a wonderful time. Alas, now there are a handful of shops and I found it depressing to see that Borders has now become a TK Maxx and that the Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street is now a Primark. At least there are still some bookshops to fight the cause and I’m glad I supported them at the weekend.

Another potential point of melancholy is the Underground itself. I’ve always loved travelling by Tube and feel it’s kind of a link with the past. So many of the stations are old, with tiling going back decades, mid-century design and the feeling that you are walking where Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot did! Tottenham Court Road station itself is a mess, and I imagine the old, quirky charming parts will be thoroughly modernised soon. I snapped a lovely mosaic halfway up the Oxford Street exit:

Who knows how long it will stay there? But the Tube still holds delights  – while travelling through West Acton overground section, I spotted this lovely 1930s style curvy waiting room – gorgeous!

west acton tubeLet’s hope lots of the older style bits of the Tube are allowed to survive!

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!


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…


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)

Recent Reads: Underground Overground by Andrew Martin


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!

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