It's amazing how chock full of interesting information, engaging stories, and even reading suggestions these slim little Penguin Lines (which celebrate the 150th anniversary of the London Underground in 2013) are filled with. I am now embarking on the fourth book in a set of twelve (one for each Underground Line), so it is time to tell you about Richard Mabey's A Good Parcel of English Soil which I read a month or so ago before the Lines begin to get muddled in my mind.
Mabey, a nature writer who I've read and enjoyed before, takes as his subject the Metropolitan Line which was the first "urban railway to burrow underground". Mabey points out that the Metropolitan Line opened the same year as Jules Verne's novel Voyage to the Center of the Earth came out. Seems fitting, don't you think. London's Underground is "an expression of nineteenth-century futurism." The more I read about the London Underground the more I marvel at both the ingenuity of it (and more about that in my next post about the book I am reading right now) and the social history surrounding it. It is iconic in so many ways.
I was particularly happy to read about the Metropolitan Line (and Mabey whose writing I like very much) as its history of why and how it came about is so very interesting.
"The Metropolitan line does at least have a destination, and a mission. It exists to take people out of a working city to live in a greener place. The irony is that in doing so it has succeeded in wiping out, or at least dramatically changing, many of the green places that it used as bait for its customers. So it's also ironic, I guess, that as a boy naturalist and then would-be Romantic scribbler, I've been endlessly enthralled by the strange and not always pretty negotiations between human and natural life that it brought into being." [Mabey grew up in the shadow of the Metropolitan Line.]
And so we have the famous Metroland which has inspired books and stories and films. You have probably heard the term, just as I had, but I didn't realize the significance or meaning behind it. Back in its early days the Railway Company had bought up those vast stretches of land on which to build houses, which they hoped to sell to potential customers. Genius in its way really, even if it didn't quite work out in the way they hoped and intended. Mabey puts it so wonderfully descriptively--the Railway Company provided the "honeytrap" of land to lure Londoners out and then provided the beeline to the destination in the form of the Metropolitan Line.
We're talking classic suburbia here. Was it real or just faux-rural is the question.
"Metroland was a grandiose and sometimes cynical concept designed to encapsulate the urban worker's dream of a country retreat, wreathed by wild flowers and birdsong but not too far from the office."
Mabey calls it Arcadia for profit. What it ended up being is a margin between city and real open countryside. Here's an early pitch (from a 1927 brochure) by the Metropolitan company to draw people out from the city.
"There is a good parcel of English soil in which to build a home and strike root, inhabited from old, as witness the lines of camps on the hill tops and confused mounds amongst the woods, the great dyke which crossed it east and west, the British trackway, the Roman Road aslant the eastern border, the packhorse ways worn deep into the hillsides, the innumerable fieldpaths which mark the labourers' daily route from hamlet to farm. The new settlement of Metroland proceeds apace, the new settlers thrive amain."
I can imagine this Metroland, though I am not sure I am visualizing it quite as it is or was. Suburbia holds a different image in my own mind, more city and less rural and I get the idea that this British Metroland was far more rural, or at least had hoped to be. The creation of Metroland, which was meant to be a sort of rural destination in the end destroyed large sections of "ordinary farming countryside". While it might have offered relief from being cooped up and packed into the city it only ever became "sub-rural".
I think I could easily read this again and pull more information from it, but Mabey has provided me with further reading material. One book leads to another, or in this case one book leads to a novel, a short story and a film. In setting the tone and introducing his subject matter Mabey refers to a classic science fiction short story by A.J. Deutsch published in 1950 called "The Möbius Strip". The story premise is that a Boston Tube train vanishes with more than 400 passengers and rematerializes some ten weeks later as if nothing happened at all.
"A mathematician brought in to advise the tube company believes the subway has become a four-dimensional version of the Möbius strip, the mathematical device in which a length of material is given a single twist and its ends are then joined, so that it has only a single surface, leading to all kinds of mysterious space-time anomalies."
So of course I had to go out and find the story, which I photocopied and now must pull out to read. And to really visualize Metroland there is the novel by the same name by Julian Barnes, which I found a copy of to read.
"His first novel is a wryly funny and evocative account of what it felt like to be a self-styled existentialist teenager living in this suburban motherlode. He also gives an exact description of how the 1960s trains still echoed, in their ornamentation, the fixtures and fittings of the rural dreamland they were bound for."
I can't wait to read it. And for real visuals, there was "an eccentrically funny film" called Metro-land made in 1973. I have taken a peek and it does look eccentrically funny and it can be viewed online here. As you can see one small book (and I didn't even mention all the books he makes note of) is leading to a whole new (though related) reading path, which I do plan on undertaking. For now, though, I have moved on to John Lanchester's What We Talk About When We Talk About the Tube, which promises to be equally as interesting and informative.