The Victoria Line of the London Underground. Let's see, that's 13 miles long, 16 tube stations--all but one of which connect with other Underground lines. It's walkable in one day, and author Mark Mason managed it in roughly seven and a half hours. It took me far less time to read about it but I spread my 'armchair' journey out over several sittings. I almost feel a little guilty that I sat relaxing and reading about it while he did all the work! So, one line down and nine more to go!
Reading Mark Mason's Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground is morphing into something of an enjoyable, and adventurous reading project for me. First it was a matter of just reading about his experiences, then I added to it the series of books Penguin issued last year celebrating the Underground's 150 year anniversary (you can see my pile of books here). What better reading pairing? Each author 'interprets' the Underground line in their own way, telling a story of the city of London with the Underground as their inspiration. It's a marvelous idea. And even if my own travels to London took place so very many years ago, the Tube is famous. I have vague recollections of traveling on it, and recall vividly some of my own adventures in the city.
I wasn't sure whether the stories he was going to tell, the places he would talk about and the situations that he found himself in would be so far outside my own world knowledge that it might be a little meaningless to me. I needn't have worried. Isn't this why we read anyway? You don't need to have traveled to Mars to appreciate a story set there. Reading is a way to broaden horizons and bring the faraway world closer to home. At least that is in part why I love reading so much. I let my imagination fill in as many blanks as possible and let the writer do his job. So even if I don't know all the references Mason makes, and if he is a good writer it won't matter, there is enough to appreciate in the telling to make the journey worthwhile. And I am always happy to learn new things. I think I am going to learn a lot with this read.
I really do have a good imagination, but a few extra visuals never go amiss. As I was reading and Mason was walking and talking about the route he was taking--the streets, the people, the places began filling in, but maybe there was a way to bring it even closer? He had mentioned using the London A-Z Atlas. Genius. Why not order a copy myself? It came a few days ago, so I was only able to use it for the tail end of the chapter, but what a difference it makes to read and follow along the map. (And I love maps in any case). And then I can always google the other references--the Wikipedia has photos of all the Tube stations and I can always search out other references as they pique my curiosity. Now I feel like I am almost there with him. I can see as many of the references as I like (handy now to have that iPad along with me as I make my way through the book).
And the Victoria Line (I fear I am going to scrimp on the actual chapter but will be better about them in the future)? All but one of the lines that make it up is literally underground. It starts at Brixton station and ends at Walthamstow Central. There are all sorts of interesting bits, but a few to share? His walk took him past "every architectural style of the last 150 years (Victorian, Edwardian, 1960s brutalist concrete). He calls London not just a city, but a "collection of villages" and notes that with the coming of the railway "nothing could put the brakes on suburban sprawl". I already mentioned Victoria station's most famous visitor. But Victoria station is nearby another famous Londoner. Any guesses who? I probably would have made a short detour to the Royal Mews Shop for a peek around. He walked by the outer wall of the Queen's bedroom and related the story of her unwanted visitor a few years back.
It's amazing to think of all the history that Mason just walked right by. He shares lots of bits of knowledge--things that make sense but I would not have thought of.
". . . we should remember that Mayfair got its name from an annual fair (guess which month it was held in) that had to be banned in 1764 for being too rowdy."
And imagine walking down the road (in this case Broad Lane) and seeing a small green where Henry VIII came to hunt deer. There is lots of history, but Mason reflects too on the social and economic aspects of the city--at least how it makes itself felt in this part of it.
* * * * *
It's the social aspect of London, social as in societal ills, that the author takes as her topic for Mind the Child: The Victoria Line by Camila Batmanghelidjh and Kids Company. It's tourist London that I remember so clearly, but what about the real London? Mind the Child was an eye-opening and sometimes harrowing read about a portion of society that should be cherished and cared for, but is all too often abused and neglected--children.
Batmanghelidjh begins her narrative with the story of her own sister who jumped in front of a train but fell between the rails and only injured her leg (she later subsequently had better luck in committing suicide).
"Since then, each time someone jumps on the tracks, bringing the station to a halt, I find myseld preoccupied with the discprepant journeys we all take in life: the parallel existences of the destination-driven crowd, who move rapidly to complete a task, and the destination-despondent, who decide life is no longer worth pursuing."
It wasn't the loss of her sister that prompted Batmanghelidjh to work with children. It was a love of helping others. And it was a family trait handed down from earlier generations--this desire to serve others. ". . . some of the richest cultures put care-giving at the forefront of their agenda, and see it as an expression of refinement rather than failure or weakness."
"We tend to look at the Tube map only when we have a destination in mind. Take the Victoria Line: its sky-blue snakes clearly through the tangle of other lines, from Brixton in south London all the way to Walthamstow in the northeast. In this book, I want us to take a less direct route. I want to introduce you to some of the extraordinary kids struggling daily with the dichotomy of living and dying, who I have met through my work at Kids Company and, prior to that, through a range of other settings."
Mind the children--much like mind the gap--these are the children we don't see or demonize if we do, the ones who fall between the cracks. Mind the Child is a combination of personal narrative by the children themselves, Batmanghelidjh's experiences working with them, and many statistics about crime and violence. The numbers however aren't empty and meaningless as numbers usually are. Hearing the voices of these children, who don't seem to ever be quite visible to politicians puts faces on the numbers. Each child speaks in their own voice, some pulling themselves out of poverty and bad situations and others mired in it no matter how hard they try and lift themselves out. The author also explains the neuroscience of battered children--how living in abusive households affects them and stunts them. I had no idea what to expect when I picked up this book. Victoria Line? It was her inspiration and it is certainly a journey. It's reading books like this that put life and the world into sharp perspective. It was not an easy read at times, but it was such a good read and I am happy that I was finally prompted to pick it up.
Next up I will be joining Mason on his walk of the Bakerloo Line and reading Paul Morely's Earthbound as an accompaniment. And, of course, mapping my progress in the London A-Z. I'll tell you all about my adventures when I finish.