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Travelogue set in London (finding London’s soul?)

27th October 2015

Walk the Lines by Mark Mason, travelogue set in London.


There isn’t exactly a dearth of books about London. You don’t have to spend hours scouring bookshops or sitting in front of the computer if you want to find out about its history, its people, its rivers or its architecture – indeed I guess you could stock a small British town library (remember them?) solely with books about, or set in, England’s capital city.

So what inspired Mark Mason to add another one to the pile? Well, he tells us in the Introduction that he wanted to find London’s soul. Now, I’m all for having aims in life but this one struck me as a little ambitious – especially as the way he was going about it was by walking all of London’s Underground lines from end to end. Disappointingly, he didn’t actually patrol the tunnels like a down-market phantom of the opera, but walked overground to every station on each Tube line in order – and he didn’t cheat once. (His wife suggested it, which made me warm to her.)

Well, could such a pedestrian approach really reveal the essence of one of the world’s greatest cities? Of course not. However, what he did do was take a series of recognizable snapshots of many different parts of London and its suburbs – so many streets and stations that even the most dyed-in-the-wool Londoner would have problems finding all of them.

The names of some of these stations are well-know like King’s Cross, Marble Arch and Piccadilly Circus, and anyone who’s ever visited London will be familiar with them. The problem is that the glamorous, interesting parts of London which they serve are only a small part of the city as a whole, and most of his route it is made up of the same sorts of streets and parks, offices and shops that form part of every city in Britain.

I respect his wish not to cherry-pick. He wanted to experience the whole of London rather than just the bits we see in the background of action movies or news programmes. The trouble is that many areas of the metropolis are simply rather boring – at least to people who don’t live there. I’m happy to learn that, “Woodside Park is pleasant enough” and “notable” (is that really the right word?) “for being the Tube network’s last station alphabetically” but these facts do not enrich my life. On the other hand there were bits and pieces which appealed to my nerdish side. Did you know, for example, that the Maida Vale Tube station, opened during the First World War, was the first to be entirely staffed by women? Or that Arnos Grove station on the Piccadilly line was modelled on Stockholm City Library? Don’t say you did, as I won’t believe you.

If you’re a lover of trivia you’ll enjoy this book. If you’re looking for an insight into London’s soul you may be disappointed. It’s a book to dip into, but if you attempt to read it from cover to cover, as I did, it’s a bit of a challenge as it’s so bitty. However, the further you get into it the more rewarding it becomes. Many parts are interesting, you learn a lot about a part of England that’s unfamiliar to most of us, and you experience a real sense of satisfaction in finishing – and all without developing a single blister.

Gwyneth for the TripFiction Team

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