Book Review: London Fog- The Biography

London fog cover

London Fog by Christine L. Corton.

Christine L. Corton. London Fog: The Biography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. RRP £13.95 paperback.

I like books about London, and I like books that take very specific objects or phenomena, such as a particular weather condition, and links them to wider political, social, economic, cultural, and historical contexts (Tear Gas by Anna Feigenbaum is a really good example of this). So when I found London Fog: The Biography, I was excited to read it.

Although London’s location in the Thames basin means it has always been susceptible to mist and damp, London Fog begins in the 1840s, when the city’s rapid expansion and industrialisation meant London began to suffer from fog in earnest. The book’s narrative ends in the 1960s; the last major period of fog London experienced was in December 1962. For more than a century the city suffered from dense, cloying fog during the winter months that was capable of shutting down the city by reducing visibility to almost zero, and caused breathing difficulties, respiratory illnesses, and even death.

Christine L. Corton uses the fog to tell a social, cultural, and political history of London between those two dates. She explores the way that fog was constructed and interpreted in various narratives, including political debates and identity. Over the course of the century in which fog was a defining characteristic of London life it was the subject of many arguments about what caused the fog, what was so dangerous about it, what could be done to prevent it, and whose responsibility it was. Corton traces these debates with skill and patience.

There is also a lot of literary and art criticism in London Fog; Corton devotes significant attention to how fog in London has been represented in various art forms including paintings, photography, novels, and films. In this way, London Fog reminds me of Nightwalking by Mathew Beaumont, which explores the literary history of London at night. Whereas Nightwalking suffers from a distinct lack of female writers, however, London Fog does discuss female artists.

London Fog is obviously the product of extensive and detailed research. It is full of wonderful images, often in colour. This is a big plus; it is quite unusual for books like this to have so many high-quality images. The narrative is incredibly detailed, which occasionally causes the pacing to suffer; readers with only a mild interest in the topic may struggle.

There are a huge number of books about London’s history, and it takes a lot to write one that stands out from the crowd. London Fog is about a subject that is quintessentially London, but also manages to be original. It is an excellent example about how something small and specific can be used to better understand the large and general.

Book Review: American Uprising- The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt

American Uprising Front cover straight

American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen.

Daniel Rasmussen. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt. New York: Harper Collins, 2011. RRP $15.99 paperback.

Earlier this year, I visited New Orleans. It is a wonderful city, but it’s history of race relations is troubled, to put it mildly. An area called the German Coast sits just a few miles north-west of the city, on the banks of the Mississippi River. In the nineteenth century, it was some of the richest and most fertile agricultural land in America. The most common crop was sugar, and the owners of the plantations along the river grew incredibly rich from it. But it was a system built on slavery. By 1810, 75% of the local population were slaves. Faced with a daily assault of cruel, dehumanising, and violent treatment, it is no surprise that slaves found subtle ways to resist the system. Occasionally, this resistance took the form of armed rebellion. In January 1811, between 200 and 500 enslaved men undertook an armed uprising on the German Coast. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt tells the story of this revolt, and makes a convincing argument for its significance in the development of the modern United States of America.

This is a story about slave revolutionaries: their lives, their politics, and their fight to the death against the planters and their militia. Above all, this is a story about America: who we are, where we came from, and how our ideals have at times been twisted and cast aside for the sake of greed and power.

Rasmussen, 2011, p. 3

As author Daniel Rasmussen himself argues, the German Coast Uprising has received limited attention from historians over the years. In addition, because the participants were slaves, archival documents relating to the uprising are scarce–accounts from the perspective of the slaves themselves are almost non-existent. Even the names of most of the participants are unknown to us. As a result, Rasmussen has to be creative in the way that he reconstructs the story of the revolt. For example, he uses the accounts of other enslaved people, such as Olaudah Equiano and Solomon Northup (who’s story of slavery formed the basis for the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave), to give the reader an idea of what life would have been like for the slaves who participated in the revolt.

American Uprising does a good job of  telling the story of the revolt in an engaging and accessible way. But Rasmussen also goes beyond this narrative, to explore how the uprising was represented and interpreted, both immediately afterwards, and later by historians. The uprising was quickly depoliticised by those in authority, its participants portrayed as animalistic and violent criminals in a narrative that is still frequently used in relation to riots and other violent protests.

As the map at the beginning of the book demonstrates, the United States of America was still very much a work-in-progress in 1811; Louisiana had only been part of the Union since 1803, and it didn’t obtain statehood until 1812. Rasmussen explains how the uprising played an important role in justifying the necessity of statehood for Louisiana, and helped pave the way for further American expansionism over the next few decades. This is one of the key points in Rasmussen’s argument that the uprising deserves much more attention than it currently gets.

I bought American Uprising whilst I was in Louisiana in order to learn more about the state’s history of dissent. I got much more than that; the book explores the significance of the uprising far beyond the local area, putting it in the context of the development of a nation. American Uprising is well-written and enjoyable, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of protest, slavery, race relations, or imperial expansionism.

Book Review: Hearts and Minds- The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote

Hearts and Minds Front Cover

Hearts and Minds by Jane Robinson.

Jane Robinson. Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote. London: Doubleday, 2018. RRP £20 hardback.

When I first heard about Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote, I was determined to wait until it came out in paperback. Both my purse and my bookshelves would thank me for it. However, a few months ago I went to see author Jane Robinson give a talk about the book at the Lancashire Archives, and she was so good that I bought the hardback copy there and then. It was a good purchase.

Hearts and Minds tells the story of the Great Pilgrimage, a six-week epic organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), representing the non-militant arm of the women’s suffrage movement. Over 6 weeks in the summer of 1913, hundreds of women marched to London from all over the country in an attempt to prove how many respectable, law-abiding women wanted the vote. In some places they were welcomed, in others they faced fierce and even violent opposition from opponents and people who mistook them for suffragettes. Overall, however, the pilgrimage was an overwhelming success, building bonds within the NUWSS, attracting media attention, and developing the confidence and skill sets of women around the country.

Jane Robinson has written an engaging account of a fascinating and lesser-known event in the history of the women’s suffrage campaign. There are two big things, and several little things, that combine to make Hearts and Minds a very good book. The first big thing is that the book is thoroughly researched; Robinson makes extensive use of diaries, letters, and other personal sources that give us a real insight into how the women participating in the Pilgrimage felt about their experiences. This effect is enhanced by Robinson’s occasional use of creative writing. The description of Marjory Lees and other pilgrims huddling terrified in their caravan as a group of angry locals attempt to set fire to it in Thame, Oxfordshire, is a particularly effective example.

The second big thing I like about Hearts and Minds is its coverage of events after the Great Pilgrimage. A lot of accounts of the campaign for women’s suffrage stop when the First World War starts. Many activists put their desire for the vote on hold and threw themselves into the war effort. But that is by no means the end of the story. Robinson recounts what many pilgrims  and other suffrage campaigners did during the war. Some, such as Florence Lockwood and Sylvia Pankhurst, vocally opposed the war, which was a very lonely and dangerous position to take. Others, such as Vera Chute Collum, Dr. Elsie Inglis, and Katherine Harley undertook dangerous and exhausting work treating injured soldiers in field hospitals across Europe run by the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Katherine Harley was killed by a shell whilst looking after refugees in modern-day Macedonia on the 7th of March 1917.

As well as telling the stories of these remarkable women, Hearts and Minds also describes what happens after some women were given the vote in 1918. The Pankhursts may not have continued the fight, but others campaigned for women to be given the vote on equal terms as men, led by the Six Points Group and the NUWSS (rebranded as the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship). These few chapters at the end of the book helped contextualise the women’s suffrage campaign in a way that I haven’t seen before, and I found it really interesting.

There are lots of little things I like about Hearts and Minds too, such as the helpful lists of important pro- and anti-suffrage organisations, key people featured in the book, and important dates in the campaign for women’s suffrage. Pictures are dispersed throughout the book, not just in the middle (although there is a section of coloured images in the middle of the book too), and there is a map of the 6 Pilgrimage routes (Stuart Maconie’s Long Road from Jarrow is one recent book that would have been  improved by more and better maps).

The campaign for women’s suffrage was much broader and more varied than the popular imagination suggests. This year, the centenary of some women gaining the right to vote, is an opportunity to make more people aware of organisations and individuals beyond the WSPU. Hearts and Minds is an entertaining and informing way of doing just that.

Book Review: A Radical History of Britain by Edward Vallance

A Radical History of Britain front cover

A Radical History of Britain by Edward Vallance.

Edward Vallance. A Radical History of Britain. London: Abacus, 2010. RRP £13.99 paperback.

The British have a reputation for being a bit passive when it comes to protest, rebellion, and revolution. The Glorious Revolution in 1688 is celebrated for being ‘bloodless,’ and when the rest of Europe was wracked with revolutions in the mid-nineteenth century we had the largely peaceful Chartist movement. Books such as A Radical History of Britain, however, demonstrate that us Brits can rebel with the best of them.

A Radical History of Britain pretty much does what it says on the tin, although Vallance does admit in the introduction that it is largely about England rather then Britain. The book is split into seven parts, each with several chapters, that focus on particularly contentious periods in English history, including: the English Civil Wars; British radicalism around the time of the French Revolution; Chartism; and the Women’s Suffrage movement. In each case, Vallance focuses on two elements that make A Radical History of Britain more than just a straightforward narrative. The first is a concern with ideas as well as events; Vallances devotes significant attention to the theories and writings that inspired and drove radicalism, from those of the Levellers, to Thomas Paine, Feargus O’Connor, and the Pankhursts. The second element that makes the book stand out is discussion of how protests and periods of radicalism were used by later activists and campaigners as sources of inspiration, justification, and legitimisation. Social movements often draw on the history of radicalism in lots of ways, and A Radical History of Britain traces that process.

Our freedom lies in our power. Pessimists may point to demonstrations against the war in Iraq as evidence of modern government’s capacity to ignore the will of the people. However, the millions who marched against that illegal war also remind us of the readiness of the British people once again, in the words of Shelley, to rise ‘like lions after slumber.’ This is the lesson of Britain’s radical history: the struggle for our freedom goes on.

Vallance, 2010; p 552.

Last year, I reviewed The English Rebel by David Horspool. It too tells the story of English radicalism, although Horspool is more explicit about the English focus. On the surface, the two books are quite similar; they are telling the same story, and feature many of the same events. They also both indulge in my  pet hate of collecting images together rather than dispersing them throughout the text. However, there are differences. The English Rebel is more of a straightforward narrative, whilst A Radical History of Britain explores radical ideas and legacies, as I have mentioned. David Horspool’s overall message is that the English have always been more radical than our reputation implies. Edward Vallance’s key message is that rights are something that the English fought long and hard for, and they can be lost if they are not defended. The narrative in The English Rebel is more complete than in A Radical History of Britain; Vallance sacrifices breadth for depth in some places, so skips over some time periods, and finishes in the mid-twentieth century, whilst Horspool goes right through to the nineteen-nineties. I personally found The English Rebel easier to read, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a better book, it depends what the reader is looking for. I understand that not everyone enjoys reading about the history of protest as much as I do, so if you only want to read one, I can offer some advice. If you’re after a more general overview of protest in England throughout history, I would recommend The English Rebel. If you would prefer something with more analysis, then I would suggest A Radical History of Britain.

A Radical History of Britain presents some interesting arguments about how legacies of protests and radicalism are shaped and used by radicals that come after, and it also provides a thorough introduction to the history of radical ideas in Britain. It is not the easiest book to read, but I think it is worth the effort.

 

Book Review: Vanishing for the Vote- Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census

Jill Liddington Vanishing for the Vote

Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census by Jill Liddington.

Jill Liddington. Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014. RRP £16.99 Paperback.

The centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 is being marked in a number of ways, including the publication of a number of books on various aspects of the campaign for women’s suffrage. There are already a significant amount of excellent studies on the campaign for women’s suffrage however, including Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census by Jill Liddington, published in 2014.

Vanishing for the Vote focuses on one particular tactic in the campaign to gain women the right to vote, the 1911 census boycott. On the night of Sunday the 2nd of April, women from across the suffrage spectrum evaded, boycotted, or refused to complete the most comprehensive census survey ever attempted. The argument was that if women did not count as full citizens, then they should should not allow the government to count them. Not every suffrage campaigner agreed with the tactic however; some believed that it was more important that social policy be informed by accurate data about the population.

This census rebellion would not be a violent confrontation, like forcible feeding in prison or street battles with the police. Rather, it would be peaceful civil disobedience to challenge the very meaning of citizenship. What did it mean, in an otherwise supposedly mature democracy like Edwardian Britain, to be a grown women, yet to be treated politically like a child, a criminal or a lunatic?

Liddington, 2014; p. 2

In Vanishing for the Vote, Jill Liddington explores the boycott in depth, including: the census itself; the Women’s Freedom League, which spearheaded the boycott; some of the key personalities involved; the events of census night itself; and the protests’ significance and implications. In 2009 the original 1911 census schedules were made public by The National Archives, providing researchers with a wealth of new resources. Liddington and another historian, Elizabeth Crawford, tracked down 500 census schedules of women involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage, in order to conduct the first in-depth analysis of what happened during the boycott. The book looks big, but around half of it is actually a Gazetteer of these census schedules, a fantastic resource for anyone interested in suffrage campaigners.

The book is clear and well-written, and although the structure appears unusual at first, it makes sense as the book unfolds. In the Introduction, Jill argues that Vanishing for the Vote is suitable for  academic and popular audiences. Whilst the writing is accessible, I think some of the content would alienate readers that are just interested in history; Liddington explains the methodology of collecting the census details and explores the relevant literature in quite some detail, so it feels more like an academic history book than a popular one. Liddington takes a balanced approach to the debate about the boycott, taking the time to explain the history of, and logic behind, the census itself as well as the campaign to boycott it. As a result, Vanishing for the Vote is not just about how suffrage campaigners asserted their rights as British citizens, but also about how the Edwardian state was attempting to improve the lives of its citizens. As Liddington often argues, it was government by the people versus government for the people. Supporters of women’s suffrage had to decide what was more important to them–the right to vote, or accurate data to inform social reform.

Most people are familiar with the suffragette tactics of smashing windows, arson, and hunger strikes. Vanishing for the Vote is a thorough, engaging, and balanced exploration of one of the lesser known tactics employed by campaigners for women’s suffrage. If your curiosity has been piqued by the centenary celebrations, then it is definitely worth a read.

 

Book Review: Flaneuse-Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London

Flaneuse

Flaneuse by Lauren Elkin.

Lauren Elkin. Flaneuse: Women walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. London: Vintage, 2017. RRP £9.99 paperback.

As a Geographer, the flaneur is a familiar figure. It refers to some one who walks through cities, normally with no specific destination in mind, observing the city, it’s people, and it’s character. Flaneurs are mostly wealthy, and overwhelmingly male. But that has never quite sat right with me. After all, I love wandering around cities seeing what I can see, and I am not wealthy. Or male. So when I first heard Lauren Elkin speak, at an event at the Museum of London, I was intrigued by what she had to say about the female flaneur; the flaneuse.

But surely there have always been plenty of women in cities, and plenty of women writing about cities, chronicling their lives, telling stories, taking pictures, making films, engaging with the city in any way they can…The joy of walking in the cities belongs to men and women alike.

Elkin, 2017; p.11

Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London is hard to categorise. It’s publisher defines it as memoir/social and cultural history and whilst this sounds like an odd mix, it is quite accurate. I think at its heart, it is an argument to redefine the concept of the flaneur to include women. Elkin offers up her new definition, and then spends the rest of the book providing us with examples; attempting to persuade us of the existence of the flaneuse. As evidence, Elkins tells us about women whose walking in cities is in some way central to who they are, such as their identity or livelihood. Some of the examples are well known; Virginia Woolf in London and George Sand in Paris. Others are perhaps less so: French filmmaker Agnes Cards in Paris and Elkin herself in Tokyo and Paris. I would say Elkin makes a very convincing argument, but she was pushing against an open door with me; others may be harder to convince.

If you are expecting a straight social history of women walking in cities, then you will be disappointed. It is more a series of snapshots into this history. Some of these snapshots contain quite detailed descriptions of the cultural outputs of the women featured, such as the novels of Jean Rhys and the art of Sophie Calle. Elkin is an English Lecturer, and at these points in the book this background comes through the clearly. In this way, Flaneuse is similar to Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London by Matthew Beaumont, about the writings of the (overwhelmingly male) people who walked the streets of London after dark. Nightwalking feels like a more coherent history than Flaneuse, but that is largely because it focuses on one city rather than five. To be fair to Elkin, I don’t think she set out to narrate a history, and what she has done is done well.

I read Flaneuse over two days, mainly on two long journeys. Even if I am enjoying a book, I sometimes lose focus after an hour or two of reading. This wasn’t the case with Flaneuse; chapter after chapter kept me hooked. Elkin is a good writer, her work is engaging and thoughtful. The book is a nice balance of Elkin’s own story and the stories of the women and cities who have shaped her.

Some sections of Flaneuse were published elsewhere first, but there was only one point that I guessed the book wasn’t written as a coherent whole. The chapter on Tokyo revolves around Elkin’s relationship with a French banker–she moves to Japan to be with him when he is transferred. In a later chapter, she mentions this relationship as if she is telling the reader about him for the first time. It is a minor detail however, perhaps made so noticeable because it is the only such slip-up in the whole book. Each chapter is named after the city in which it is set. I think this is slightly misleading as, although the cities are very important, it is the women who wander them that are the book’s driving force.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. I would recommend it to anyone interested in women’s or urban history, anyone who fancies something a bit different, or anyone who just appreciates a good book.

Book Review: A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray

A History of Britain in 21 Women Front Cover

A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray

Jenni Murray. A History of Britain in 21 Women. London: Oneworld, 2016. RRP £9.99 paperback.

A few weeks before Christmas, I was browsing a bookshop when I noticed the vibrant cover of A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray. I was sorely tempted, but, remembering my overflowing bookshelves and the growing piles of books at the bottom of my bed, I restrained myself. I put the book on my Christmas list instead, so I at least didn’t have myself to blame when my piles of books grew a little bit taller. I am very glad that I was given the book; it is a thoroughly enjoyable read that has left me more determined than ever not to allow misogyny to hold me back.

The twenty-one women in this book rose above the low expectations of their gender and defied anyone who insisted ‘a girl can’t do that.’ Slowly, slowly, over the centuries, they changed the gender landscape for those of us who came after.

Murray, 2016; p.4

As the name implies, A History of Britain in 21 Women profiles 21 women from British history. Each chapter is about 15 pages long, and details the women’s biography, their achievements, and their impact on society, politics, and culture. The selection is historically comprehensive, beginning in the first century with Boadicea, and ending in the modern day with Nicola Sturgeon. Inevitably, many women are left out, but Murray is careful to justify her choices, explaining why the 21 she chose resonate with her personally.

The book is more personal than I was expecting. It does have the subtitle A Personal Selection, but this is only mentioned in the front matter, not on the title. After initially being unsure about this, I came to enjoy Murray’s short personal reflections and anecdotes. I was particularly charmed by a conversation she describes having with one of her sons when John Major took over from Margaret Thatcher as prime minister.

Beyond being thrown at first by the tone of the book, I can find very little to criticise in A History of Britain in 21 Women. Each chapter is self-contained, so it feels almost like a collection of short stories, but I wasn’t put off if I read several chapters in one sitting, as I often am with similarly structured books. Each chapter is accompanied by a portrait by Peter Locke, the style of which suits the book’s message really well. Locke’s sketches don’t feel idealised or ‘touched up,’ the women in the sketches feel…real; they look like they’ve lived. It’s quite hard to put my finger on it, but I like them.

It is the women themselves, their lives, actions, experiences, and attitudes that are the real stars of this book. Some of them are familiar–such as Elizabeth I, Jane Austen, and Margaret Thatcher–whilst others are less well-known–like Aphra Behn, Mary Somerville, Gwen John. But they are all remarkable. Every one exelled in the field they chose, whether it be medicine, art, politics, or science, often despite massive obstacles and prejudice. They are inspirational.

I was given A History of Britain in 21 Women as a Christmas present, and I do think it makes a wonderful gift, even for those who aren’t avid readers. It’s especially good for those who need a reminder of just how much it can be possible to achieve.

Book Review: Long Road from Jarrow-A Journey through Britain then and Now

Long Road from Jarrow Front Cover

Long Road from Jarrow by Stuart Maconie

Stuart Maconie. Long Road from Jarrow: A Journey through Britain Then and Now. London: Ebury Press, 2017. RRP £16.99 hardback.

Before I read of Long Road from Jarrow: A Journey Through Britain Then and Now, I kind of knew who Stuart Maconie was, mainly through his radio-presenting double act with Mark Radcliffe. I was drawn to the book because of my interest in the Jarrow Crusade; a protest march by a group of unemployed men from Jarrow in Newcastle to London in late 1936. To mark the 80th anniversary of the Crusade, Maconie recreated it, following the exact route and timetable that the marchers took almost a century ago. Along the way he talks to the people he meets about the Crusade, their knowledge and opinions of it, and their perspective on modern politics (Brexit looms large throughout). As a result, the book is a lot of things: a travelogue, a history book, a memoir, a snapshot of two particularly turbulent moments in British politics, and a reflection on the way society remembers and commemorates its history. I can’t remember ever having come upon a protest-based travelogue before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

‘Jarrow’ (the whole matrix of events reducible to one word like ‘Aberfan’, ‘Hillsborough’ or ‘Orgreave’) has become mythic, storied; a thing of lore and romance as much as hard fact, one whose details and legacy are still debated today.

Maconie, 2017; p.7

Maconie is a likeable narrator, striking a nice balance between the serious and the humourous, the personal and the general. His reflections on modern society feel considered and genuine. I really like the chance meetings and discussions he has with people he meets along the way, highlights of which include: the dogwalker on the A41; Julia, the Russian waitress in Leeds; the well-known author and graphic novelist Alan Moore; Lynn, a guide at the John  Bunyan museum in Bedford; and Labour MP for Luton North Kevin Hopkins. Some of these encounters are only brief, but they are nonetheless brilliant insights into the wonderful variety of people living in modern Britain. The spontaneity of these meetings demonstrates how open and welcoming strangers can be.

The book is very time specific; for example Maconie often discusses Twitter exchanges he had on his journey, including one with then Education Secretary Michael Gove over the scrapping of the Art History A Level. Whilst these details make the narrative rich, the book may age quickly as a result– it runs the risk of rapidly feeling out-of-date. The book is also much more about the cities, towns, and villages Maconie passes through than the journey itself. Again, this is not necessarily a criticism, but if you’re expecting a book about walking, you’ll be disappointed. One issue that definitely is a criticism is the distinct lack of pictures and maps– there is only a basic map of the route on the back cover. Maconie describes the places he visits well, but I still would have liked some pictures to document his journey. And what self-respecting Geographer wouldn’t be disappointed with a lack of maps?

Long Road from Jarrow is a curious hybrid of travelogue, history book, and memoir, framed by the Jarrow March. It is a comparison between two distinct moments in British history, 1936 and 2016. It is well written and engaging, and I would happily read anything else Maconie  has written. The book provides a competent day-by-day account of the Jarrow March. It is also a thoughtful reflection on the way that historical events are remembered, mythologised, and commemorated. I would highly recommend it.

 

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.

 

Book Review: Buda’s Wagon- A Brief History of the Car Bomb

Buda's Wagon Front cover

The front cover of the 2017 edition of Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb by Mike Davis.

Mike Davis. Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb. London: Verso, 2017. RRP £9.99 paperback.

Among geographers, Mike Davis is particularly well-known for his writing on cities. Books like Planet of the Slums and City of Quartz are staples of undergraduate Geography reading lists. Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb is not one I was familiar with, until Verso released new editions of some of his works at the start of 2017. My family can always tell when I’m enjoying what I’m reading because I bombard them with facts and stories from the book. My family have had to listen to a lot of facts about car bombs.

It is the car bombers’ incessant blasting-away at the moral and physical shell of the city, not the more apocalyptic threats of nuclear or bioterrorism, that is producing the most significant mutations in city form and urban lifestyle.

Davies, 2017: p. 7

Buda’s Wagon doesn’t have an introduction as such, instead launching into the story of Mario Buda, an Italian anarchist living in New York who packed his horse-drawn wagon with explosives and iron slugs, drove it to Wall Street, and left it there. At midday, the wagon exploded, killing 40 and injuring more than 200. Mario Buda has the dubious distinction of being the world’s first car bomber-sort of. From there, Buda’s Wagon ricochets around the world and through a century of conflict, finishing up in the Middle East in the early 2000s. Davis makes a convincing case for the car bomb as a powerful leveller for terrorists and insurgent groups confronting powerful and well-resourced  governments. He also conveys the human cost of a weapon that is indiscriminate at best. At it’s worst, it is deliberately meant to cause further hatred and violence.

Davis does not explicitly state his opinion on the issues he’s writing about, he lets the statistics he uses and the stories he tells speak for themselves. I like this style, it feels like Davis is trusting the reader to form their own opinion. At some points, it highlights the strength of Davis’ feeling, as you can almost sense his opinion fighting its way out through his non-judgmental language.

There aren’t many pictures in Buda’s Wagon, which some readers might not like, but I think was a sensible decision. It would be difficult to include many pictures without becoming ghoulish. I did find the narrative a bit difficult to follow when it reached the Middle East, but I imagine simplifying the politics in a way that would make them comprehensible for most readers would be a very difficult task.

Buda’s Wagon is a poignant, engaging read, that thinks systematically about the car bomb in a way that is scholarly, but not insensitive. I would recommend it to anyone interested in contentious politics or geopolitics, or anyone who wants to try and understand what can seem like a senseless and inexplicable act.