12 Walk the line
by Malcolm Redfellow
Not Johnny Cash, on this occasion.
This one is about a marathon slog. For some unfathomable reason (except it’s going to sell a lot of bog books —they’re the ones that hang around in the downstairs toilet of Redfellow Hovel), Mark Mason walked 403 miles, 912,384 paces, along the routes of every one of the London underground lines. The result is a rather tasty effort: Walk the Lines, the Underground Overground.
It would be easy to dismiss this as an exercise in trivia, and Mason has a track record in that line of work. This is something more. For a London resident (as Malcolm remains) it is a rewarding learning experience. For examples of Malcolm’s now repaired ignorance, he did not know that:
- Tim Bentinck (“David Archer” from the BBC Radio soap) was the hectoring voice telling us to Mind the Gap!
- Mark Twain, no less, was a passenger on the Central Line’s first outing to Shepherd’s Bush.
- The Russian word for “railway” was based on misunderstanding that Vauxhall was a station, rather than a whole system.
There’s also a lot of stuff which is incidental, throw-away lines, frequently only a footnote:
- Albert Speer, while incarcerated in Spandau prison, walked from Berlin to Heidelberg. He achieved this by completing 2,000-odd (very odd) laps of the prison garden. After this he sought a new destination. Fellow prisoner Rudolf Hess suggested Asia, but Speer rejected this as it would mean walking through several Communist countries.
- Harrods went apostrophe-less a full nineteen years before Selfridges followed.
- The “Square Mile” of the City of London is actually 1.16 square miles.
- Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four were commissioned at the same dinner party. There was an astute publisher.
- St James’s Park was where James I parked his elephants. Their central heating in the severe winters of the onset of the Little Ice Age came from a gallon of wine a day.
- Lenin first met Stalin in the Crown Tavern on Clerkenwell Green (better known in later years as the joint where Judi Dench picked up Cate Blanchett).
What this book does very well is to amuse: it could be an exemplar of the best kind of “info-entertainment”.
Beyond that is the purpose of the London Underground system. Its primary function to to deliver commuters to and from their places of work. In the central core its is less efficacious: it is generally believed that Leicester Square to Covent Garden (over-used by tourists misled by Harry Beck‘s magic map) is the shortest distance between stations: it’s not — think Charing Cross to Embankment.
Above all Mason imposes humanity on the abstraction and device that is a public transport system. The contrast between the strict schematics of the tinplate map and the “drunkard’s walk” that is its transcription onto the real geography of our city is the whole matter here.
So, let’s start with Baker Street: cue Gerry Rafferty.