Book Review: Walk the Lines- The London Underground, Overground

Walk the Lines Cover

Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground by Mark Mason.

Mark Mason. Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground. London: Random House, 2011. RRP £8.99 paperback.

The London Underground is one of the most distinctive elements of the city, but it does result in a disjointed perception of the metropolis–I don’t feel like I really got to know how the various areas of London fit together until I moved there and started to walk or get the bus more. Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground is the ultimate exercise in getting to know London; author Mark Mason walked the route of every underground line from beginning to end, then wrote a book about it.

I think the concept for this book is excellent; but unfortunately I am not so keen on its execution. I think it would be really interesting to repeat this challenge in a decade or so, London changes so quickly that some of Mason’s observations already feel out of date. Part of me also wants to recreate the exercise in my home town of Brighton, based on a map of a fictional underground network created by illustrator John Sims (see below). Walk the Lines is a fascinating idea that got me thinking about my own relationship with London, and as well as other British cities

The Brighton Line version 2

If Brighton had an underground network, it might look something like this (Source: John Sims)

Sadly, I did not get on so well with Mark Mason’s writing. I did not like the tone of the book at all when I started reading it; it felt like Mason was trying too hard to be funny. This did become less noticeable as I progressed through the book, but I couldn’t say whether it’s because the tone improves or because I just got used to it. I also dislike Mason’s heavy use of footnotes. They interrupt the flow of the writing, and sometimes I missed the superscript, and found myself searching the page for the relevant point. I think they are unnecessary in Walk the Lines.

I also found Mason himself to be a bit arrogant–one of his reasons for undertaking the challenge was to own London, a desire which I think is conceited and a bit odd, quite frankly (p. 4-5). Nobody owns London. If anything, the opposite is true; there have been several occasions when I have felt that London’s influence over my life has been a bit too significant for comfort. In addition, Mason is snobbish about anything that is ‘not London.’ He seems to look down on other cities and London’s suburbs, and view them as automatically inferior. I understand that both of these attitudes come from a great love of London, I too am captivated by it. I am just not so keen on how this affection manifests itself in Mason’s writing.

The final significant issue with Walk the Lines is the lack of photographs. This is a book about the many different faces of London, but there is not a single image of Mason or the different aspects of London he encountered on his walks.

The concept of Walk the Lines is not the only element of the book that I liked however. I enjoyed Mason’s musings on the subjectivity and power of maps, although these are not new ideas to geographers. The book also contains some decent historical facts. For example, London cabbies call the junction on which the Royal Geographical Society sits ‘Hot and Cold Corner,’ because the building has statures of David Livingstone and Ernest Shackleton. Finally, I enjoyed the sections when Mason stops along his walks to talk to other people about their perceptions of London, such as: artist and ex-Popstar Bill Drummond; The Archers actor Tim Bentinck, who was the ‘Mind the Gap’ voice on the Piccadilly Line for 15 years; and John Pearson, the official biographer of the Kray twins.

I enjoy reading books about London, and I admire the inventive approach in Walk the Lines. I’ve always thought that the best way to get to know a city is to walk around it, and I like the idea of using a city’s transport network, effectively its circulatory system, to organise such exploration. However, I am not so keen on Mason’s writing style or attitude towards London. This is not a bad book, it just isn’t a great one either.

 

Art The Arms Fair Exhibition

dav

Poppies in a rocket (2017) by Anonymous. One of the pieces on display at the Art the Arms Fair exhibition (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Every two years, the Defence and Security International exhibition, known colloquially as the DSEI arms fair, takes place in the vast ExCel Centre in East London. People come from all over the world  to see and purchase the latest weapons and defence technology at one of the world’s largest arms fairs. Every year, there are protests attempting to stop, disrupt, and draw attention to the event. This year, at the same time, the 12th-15th of September, a very different kind of exhibition also took place in East London, with the aim of raising awareness of the DSEI, an event which most Londoners have no idea exists. The Art the Arms Fair exhibition took place at SET Studios in Capstan House in Poplar. It was preceded by an art event on the 9th of September at the ExCel Centre, where artists produced works in a variety of mediums. The exhibition displayed art that responded to the arms trade. Events, such as spoken word and comedy, were held in the space in the evenings. Works were sold to support the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), an organisation which aims to end the international arms trade. I have always been a little sceptical about the significance and power of art, so I went along to see if I could be convinced.

To begin with, SET Studios is not your typical art gallery. SET is an initiative that provides artists with affordable studio and project space in buildings that would otherwise be empty. Capstan House is a stylish new office block, with an imposing foyer and fancy elevators. SET occupies the seventh floor, with beautiful views across the Thames to the O2 arena and the Emirates Airline Cable Car. You can see the artists’ studio space through the glass walls that are so fashionable in modern offices. The art, some of it attached haphazardly to plywood display boards, sits oddly in this environment. But none of that detracted from the effect the exhibition had on me. In fact, it might well have contributed to the disconcerted feeling with which I left the exhibition.

sdr

Capstan House in Poplar, the location of  the Art the Arms Fair exhibition (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

2017-09-12 13.06.52.jpg

The Art the Arms Fair was not housed in what I would describe as a typical art gallery space, but I think that only added to its impact (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

As I said at the beginning of this post, I am not a great believer in the power of art. I did not need to be convinced that the arms trade was a bad thing; I was already a strong believer in the futility and cruelty of war. But I left the exhibition feeling a lot more emotional than I expected to. Whilst I thought some of the artwork was good, I think what really affected me was the opportunity to ‘Make Your Own Art’ on blank postcards. Attempting to focus my response to the arms trade on one small rectangle of white card clarified and crystalised my feelings in a way that I was not expecting.

dav

The ‘Make Your Own Art Section’ of the exhibition. The piece suspended from the ceiling is Half scale Tomahawk missile by Joseph Steele (2017). I think this is what made me connect with the exhibition so much (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

dav

Some of the art produced by visitors to the exhibition (I’m not going to say which one is mine!) (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The Art the Arms Fair exhibition was powerful and emotive. It’s main stated goal was to make the DSEI arms fair visible, to make people aware of its existence. It would be hard to say how far that goal was achieved; the exhibition was nowhere near the ExCel Centre, and the area didn’t seem like the kind of place that people just pass through, so it was unlikely to attract many people who didn’t already intend to visit. I do wonder if an art exhibition in an out-of-the-way office block in East London is really the best way to raise the profile of the DSEI. Nevertheless, it hopefully raised some money for CAAT, and provided a space for creative opposition to the arms trade. At the end of the day, I am reluctant to criticise anyone who is attempting to make a positive difference in the world, as doing something is very often better than doing nothing.

On This Day: Occupation of the Savoy, 14th September 1940

When we think of London during the Second World War, we think of the Blitz. When we think of the Blitz, we think of the Blitz spirit epitomising the British stiff upper lip. There is a collective imaginary of Londoners banding stoically together, facing down the Nazis with a grim smile, a cup of tea, and maybe a sing song. But London was not always united in the face of the enemy. The occupation of the Savoy Hotel on the night of the 14th September 1940, the 8th night of the Blitz, was a manifestation of some of these divisions.

E and C during air raid

Londoners sheltering in Elephant and Castle Underground station during an air raid. At first, the government were reluctant to let people shelter in the underground (Source: IWM)

In the early days of the Blitz, there was a serious lack of deep shelters in the East End, which was particularly hard hit due to the high levels of industry in the area. Pre-war planning by the government had rejected deep shelters in London, afraid that a ‘shelter mentality’ would develop. They decided instead to issue gas masks and rely on surface level shelters, such as the Anderson shelter. It very quickly became obvious that this provision was insufficient. What shelters there were lacked facilities and were overcrowded.

The Communist Party immediately took up the cause. the London district printed 100,000 leaflets and 5,000 posters calling for better provision of shelters and the requisitioning of empty houses for the homeless. The East End Communists decided to march for better air raid shelters in the East End, and to highlight the fact that not all Londoners suffered the effects of the bombs equally.

The Savoy

The entrance to the world famous Savoy hotel on the Strand (Source: The Daily Mail)

With the help of some sympathetic waiters, between 40 and 70 protesters occupied the Savoy’s luxurious air raid shelter. The shelter was divided into cubicles, with beds and armchairs. Nurses and waiters served the hotel’s guests during raids. When the air raid siren went off, the Savoy’s manager realised he could not chuck the occupiers out; they would have to stay the night. After some negotiation with the catering staff, the occupiers were provided with tea, bread, and butter. All in all, it was a pretty pleasant way of drawing attention to the disparity of deep shelter provision across the capital.

The contrast between the shelter conditions for the rich and the poor called for exposure. This was done…One Saturday evening we gathered some seventy people, among them a large sprinkling of children, and we took them to the Savoy Hotel. We had heard from building workers of the well-constructed and luxurious shelter which had been built for their guests. We decided that what was good enough for the Savoy Hotel parasites was reasonably good enough for Stepney workers and their families.

Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2006); p. 73. Phil Piratin was a prominent member of the Communist Party, and became one of the party’s first MPs in 1945. He was present during the occupation of the Savoy.

The Blitz was one of the darkest periods in London’s history. By the time it ended 43,000 British civilians had been killed, half of them in London. Protest and dissent was less common during the world wars than in peace time, but Londoners were willing to fight for decent air raid shelter provision. Thanks to actions such as the occupation of the Savoy Hotel, the situation greatly improved, making the lives of Londoners that much more bearable as the bombs fell.

Sources and Further Reading

German, Lindsey, and John Rees. A People’s History of London. London: Verso, 2012.

Piratin, Phil. Our Flag Stays Red. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2006.

Sweet, Matthew. “When Max Levitas Stormed the Savoy.” Spitalfields Life. Last modified 3 November, 2011. Accessed 23 August, 2017. Available at http://spitalfieldslife.com/2011/11/03/when-max-levitas-stormed-the-savoy/

RGS-IBG Annual Conference 2017: The Geographies of Everything

sdr

The RGS-IBG Annual Conference is held at the Society’s headquarters in South Kensington two years out of every three (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I spent most of last week at the Annual Conference of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of the British Geographers (RGS-IBG). It is one of the biggest events in British academic geography’s calendar; this year there were more than 1600 participants and 380 sessions. This was my third time at the conference (my previous trips were in 2016 and 2014), and as always, I had a brilliant time. One of the things that I love most about geography is that is such a broad and varied subject; you can study the geography of anything and everything. The conference really brought that home. I attended a wide variety of sessions, on topics from digital geography to the geographies of dissent to historical geography.

For the last year, I have been on the committee of the RGS-IBG’s Digital Geographies Working Group. As part of that, I looked after the Group’s Twitter account during the conference, so I went to several digital geography-themed sessions, including really interesting sessions on the role of the digital in commemoration, and the geography of video games. Digital geography relates to a whole range of different elements of academia; it can be a topic of research, a method of research, or a way of communicating research. My interest in digital geography comes from thinking about the ways that social media and the internet is used by protesters.

Because of the topic of my research, the geographies of dissent was also a big part of the conference for me. Conferences are a great way of keeping up to date with new research in your field, and they also allow you to meet the people doing that research. I presented my research in a session called Geographies of Activism and Protest, and a had a brilliant time meeting the other presenters and discussing our research. There was also quite a large audience as well, which was especially nice considering it was the final session on the last day. I also went to some really interesting sessions on the geographies of opposition, political geographies of the event, populism, and anti-colonialism.

When I’m at a conference, I also like to go to some sessions that have nothing to do with my research or any other commitments, but just sound interesting. I went to the second of three New and Emerging Research in Historical Geography, and heard some great papers on Scottish travelling fairgrounds, the property of eighteenth-century widows, and the practice of Victorian monarchy, amongst others. The  conference’s opening plenary, on decolonising geographical knowledge, was brilliant, and I went to a lecture on land titles that was much more interesting than it sounds!

Big international conferences like the RGS-IBG are exhausting, and sometimes a bit bewildering. But they are also great fun, and can be incredibly rewarding. At the RGS-IBG, you can find geographies of all kinds, and I personally think that embracing that variety is a great way to make the most out of the conference.