An alternative to beating the bounds is walking lines. I’ve just finished my second book of the year, a record compared with the last few years which I’ll try to maintain. Anyway, Mark Mason’s Walk the lines: the London Underground, overground (2011), is a sort of urban Simon Armitage with a twist of Geoff Nicholson. While it started out a bit slowly, or maybe that’s just my difficulty with reading, by the last third I was galloping through it, turning down corners as I couldn’t bear to get up to get a pencil or paper to take notes.
See reviews on Amazon | Goodreads. Mark offers walks on the Piccadilly, Central and District lines on his website, The importance of being trivial, and his follow up, Move along, please: Land’s End to John O’Groats by local bus, looks tempting.
In terms of lines to walk hereabouts, the obvious one is Hvidovrevej, which runs from the fleshpots of Damhusøen to the sea, but it’s not exactly Oxford Street. Back when we had an only beagle him and me did a decent section of our local S tog line, but with two you can’t just hop on a train to get back, and sniffing time is doubled (if not trebled) anyway. In Copenhagen proper there are several possibilities – more S tog lines plus the metro lines, and round The Lakes, which surely must have been done.
Back to the book…my mother was brought up in London, she and my father spent a couple of years there and I lived in south London for several years myself, so it was a bit of a nostalgia fest. I probably know the Northern Line best, which at chapter 6, or around halfway, is where things really started to resonate. Subtitled Nobody sees you, nobody hears you, on the first page Mark asks:
Does London drive you towards loneliness, make you more solitary than you might otherwise be?
He acknowledges “it’s menus for venues…I’d no more want people blanking me in a country lane than every passer-by on Piccadilly saying a cheery hello”, but after a factoid swapping session with mate Richard (“the conversation mirrors the Tube system itself, effortlessly linking up the entire city, tangents and connections getting you anywhere you want to go”) in the name of socialised pedestrianism Mark decides to try walking in company all the same. His chosen companion: Geoff Nicholson.
Geoff’s novel Bleeding London includes a character who walks every street in London, and in The lost art of walking he relates Albert Speer’s virtual walk from Berlin to Heidelberg via 2000 odd laps of Spandau prison garden. He and Mark get on fine – eye contact is minimised when walking, meaning that people talk freely, and they have the stimuli of Mark’s research notes and Stuart’s sightings from Bleeding London, as well as a brief Routemaster conversation:
My story about hearing one drive past our cottage in Suffolk one night, and looking out to see that it was a 159, the route I used to take to Jo’s in Brixton, is matched – no let’s be honest, trumped – by Geoff seeing a number 6, his local bus when he lived in Maida Vale, at Huntington Beach in Los Angeles.
In a spirit of joyful melancholy Mark mentions Stuart’s plan: when he’s finished walking London he’s going to kill himself. This plan embodies the theory that we walk as a celebration of death, but also the opposite (citing Dane Niels Bohr: the opposite of a great truth is also true). If there are two contradictory urges within us – to live and to die – then does London satisfy the latter as well as the former?
Great cities are like great art, they’re basically indifferent to the visitor…they don’t try to please us or to ingratiate themselves. So you don’t like London? Big fucking deal…You don’t judge great works or great cities – they judge you.
The real test is to stay in the little place, to see how big a fish we could be in the little pond, rather than contenting ourselves with being minnows on the basis that everyone is a minnow.
Next up the Circle Line, at the heart of a great challenge beloved of Australians – the Circle Line Pub Crawl. Mark embarks on this with Matt, the latter in suede lace-ups. About half way in they start walking (and drinking) separately – Matt drinks faster but walks more slowly. It’s hard work, and all that for the line which goes nowhere.
Mark concludes his challenge walking the Metropolitan Line at Xmas in the snow. Things begin to get difficult: “I’m not looking around so much, concentrating on my feet…it really does start to feel like my senses are closing down, insulating me from discomfort…Walking brings a heightened awareness not just of your surroundings but of yourself. It just so happens in this case it’s a heightened awareness of how awareness can be lowered.”
One of the reviewers on Amazon castigates Mark for lack of Iain Sinclair, but with an extended section walking with Bill Drummond, musing on his cake circle and soup line projects as well as his circular urban work, Surround, plus taking on Richard Long (Bill says he walked into a gallery showing a Richard Long after following a map on which he had written ‘Bill’ – the gallery was at the bottom of the second L) I think this can be excused.
Earlier on Mark comments that the people he knows in London aren’t Londoners, they moved there. Bill echoes this:
If you’re growing up in some far-flung corner of the British Isles you’ve got more time to dream and make plans and develop ideas. If you’re in London there’s too much on offer, too much to take up your time just consuming rather than dreaming. There’s something deadening about it.
Mark concludes that London isn’t a city but an idea:
It’s just a collection of buildings and roads and parks and Tube stations linked by colourful lines which aren’t really there, just as the dreams and ambitions of all the people who come to London only amount to anything if you imagine them as a unified whole.
London is in our mind. But then our minds are all we have, and all we need.
For more Tube goodness see #underground on the A/drift Tumblr and the Tube category on Mapping London, an unending source of fascination. More London walking challenges aplenty on Walk London, plus a final nod to A series of tubes, who set out to walk London’s Tube lines for charity in 2011 and seems to have done five so far. Updates: found another – London buses, one bus at a time is the record of three ‘ladies who bus’, travelling every London bus route from end to end since 2009…here’s Diamond Geezer on the All Lines Challenge.
Postscript, 16 Feb: just finished Geoff’s Bleeding London. While not the sort of thing I normally read, if anyone ever asks me for a list of walking novels it can go on the list next to Harold Fry. The section on guided walks is great fun.
Post-postscript, 24 July: someone’s only gone and walked all the streets of central London – see Noelle Poulson’s Congestion Zone and Londonist interview. That’s dedication. I find I tend to drift, and not just because of the beagles.