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Walk The Lines

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A great premise – walk every London Underground line in its entirety, on the surface, and report all the weird and wonderful sights you see and people you meet. Throw in a bit of map trivia and Tube trivia and what could go wrong?

Well, for a start, you could find that most of what you saw was not very interesting. Just endless housing estates and main roads threading through industrial estates – interspersed by visits to the same central London locations you have visited on your previous three lines. You might fail to meet interesting people and instead have to pad out an entire line’s narrative with the planning guy from the City of London. Or you might find the top of the NatWest Tower a bit disappointing.

You see, these types of travelogue books depend so much on the geniality of the company. I would trek every mile of the Andes with Michael Palin because he is an all round entertaining guy who observes without judging. Or I might walk along the River with Iain Sinclair whose depth of knowledge of local historic arcana is unparalleled. Or I could walk along the Irish Border with Colm Toibin, whose flawless use of language is used to show, not tell.

But Mark Mason is no Palin, Sinclair or Toibin. He is prissy and judgemental; his trivia is superficial and probably came out of Schott’s Miscellany; and his writing is clunky. He tries so hard to be wry but it falls flat. He finds irony where there is no irony; he finds meaning where there is no meaning. And most of all, it is so repetitive. Each walk starts out with earnest but dull observation of the tiniest details of his surroundings. No shop is too small to mention; no station too bland to describe.

After taking half the chapter to travel the first four stations, then a long conversation, the remaining stations are barely mentioned. Whitechapel to Upminster in half a page. This is a big failing since most readers will be Londoners looking for some kind of namecheck for their own station. And after reading pages of loving description of Wimbledon or Morden, it’s a bit galling to find your own Bromley-By-Bow or Totteridge & Whetstone dismissed as a passing mention, sharing a sentence with other stations. It’s as though Mark Mason has bored himself with the walk. And as line after line is paraded, Mason feels the need to inject novelty for its own sake. The Circle Line is done as a pub crawl – in which he is abandoned by his travelling companion. The Jubilee Line is done at night, thereby guaranteeing that nothing of interest will be seen and nobody of interest will be met. The final line – the Metropolitan – was done at Christmas, in the snow.

Mark Mason keeps namechecking Geoff Nicholson’s novel, Bleeding London, which was about a man who wanted to walk every street in London. Indeed, Nicholson flies in from Los Angeles to meet Mason on one of the walks. It is clear that the Underground project was inspired by Bleeding London, but the frequent name checks just make Mason’s book look two dimensional. Nicholson’s novel may have mentioned maps and walking, but it was about people, not buildings. It was the story that mattered, and Walk The Lines has no story.

The high point of the book, such as it is, is the appearance of Bill Drummond, erstwhile member of the KLF. Drummond is a conceptual artist who has more ideas in his little finger than Mason packs into a book – and his concept of a Cake Circle is really quite wonderful. If Cake Circles appeal, then this is your book. Otherwise, try Bleeding London. Or Pole to Pole. Or Lights Out For The Territory.

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Thanks for this review MrHG,  I was given this last summer and it has been sitting on my shelf ever since, maybe I'll pass on it :wonder:

Edited by Cassie

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