John Lanchester – What we Talk About When WE Talk About the Tube

Penguin have released a series of books to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the London Underground. A number of the books are related to the social geography of London. The books are quick reads and thought provoking while maintaining accessible.

Information about the twelve books can be found on the Penguin website here. I blogged about Danny Dorling’s book about the Central Line here.

John Lanchester, an author I have not come across before has written about the District Line, focusing on looking at different aspects of the line. It is a similar book to Dorling’s book although with a slightly different slant.


Some of the key points I noted down from this book were:

  • This is one of the realities of the District line: the immense social and geographical and demographic range of its network, from far out in the poor East of the city to far out in the ricc West.
  • According to the department of Work and Pensions, Richmond, at one western end of the line is the most affluent borough in London.
  • The East is visibly poorer, poorer in ways you can see out of the train window: blocks of flats instead of houses, and the train rather than riding above them as it often does out in the leafy West, is mostly at their level or slightly below.
  • The effect of the rises in property prices in London … The people who used to live in the middle – in places like Knightsbridge, or Fitzrovia or Chelsea – now live some distance from it in places like Clapham, or Islington or Notting Hill. The people who used to live there now live further out, I places like Tooting or Hackney or Willesdon; and the people who used to live there now live at almost unimaginable distances from the centre.
  • There is a little known law on the statute books that requires every single thing written about the Underground to mention Harry Beck’s map of the network.
  • London as it exists today would not be the same place without the Underground. The Underground is what gave the city it’s geographical spread, it’s population growth, it’s clusters of spaces and places. The new underground stations became the places around which the city grew.
  • In 1850 London was the biggest city in the world. It had a population of two and a half million.
  • On a hot day the temperatures [on the trains] can get over 35 degrees c. I mention this figure because it is the legal limit for transporting livestock.
  • More people use the underground than for any single purpose.

I purchased this book from Foyles; which cost £4.99 but was part of their 3 for 2 promotion; so I was able to purchase 3 of the titles in then London Underground Series for less than £10! On Foyles website it is available for £3.24 (14/04/2013).

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