Wednesday 7 September 2016

District Line

District Line is a waggish reflection of a recent post Central Line about a serious iatrogenic problem in US hospitals. Colour coding as per the iconic London Underground Map [see below]. In 2013, Penguin Books published a series of short books in conjunction with (subsidised by?) Transport for London, the body which maintains the arteries of the largest city in Western Europe. 100 years ago, London was the biggest city in the World at 7.5 million, but has hardly grown since: now 8.7 million in Greater London, which is dwarfed by Moscow 12.3 million and Istanbul 14.7 million. Indeed, on the global scale, London has slumped to position 25 in the city-size league tables. But I bet you couldn't in 2 minutes name half the conurbations that are larger.

The 2013 Penguin series was launched to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the London Underground aka The Tube. Penguin have chose authors to write to / about / on /inspired by / each of the lines in the current network. John Lanchester has written 90 pages on the District Line: What We Talk About When We Talk About The Tube. It was brought into the house by Dau.I who was visiting from England, and I knocked it off in a few hours over the weekend. The title is un hommage to the writer's short-story writer Raymond Carver's 1981 collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. You probably haven't read that book but you can can a flavor of Lanchester's writing in Short Cuts an essay in the LRB, which echoes the title of another Raymond Carver collection - the one made into the famous 1993 film by Robert Altman.

Lanchester's Penguin 150 book is nostalgic and analytical and personal. Much is made of the fact that, even after 25 years of living in London and commuting daily on the Tube, he still gets all claustrophobic, especially when the trains stop between stations. He also asserts that most people suffer in the same way - without the least shred of evidence for this statement. Not me, I spent my teenage years living near Ongar when it was the end of the Central Line and would regularly go into town to hang out or find films with subtitles. Another interesting observation he makes is that, for all the use that's made of the Tube, it features very little in literature or film. Which is extraordinary considering that at peak morning rush hour there are 600,000 people on a London Underground train going somewhere. The District Line alone carries 600,000 people a day. That's more people than live in, say, Glasgow and lots has been written about Clydeside. He seems to argue that this absence is due to the fact that commuters treat their journey as a sort of limbo - not really being there, they derive no inspiration from the process.

The London Underground is a triumph of Victorian engineering and vision which was instrumental, maybe essential, to making London the centre of the known world in the second half of the 19thC. Perhaps the only comparable infrastructural engineering project is Sir Joseph Bazalgette's sewer system which is still working because its capacity was over-engineered. You could imagine London doubling in size with the existing transport system but the sewers probably couldn't hack it. I've written about local failures in the sewers. The Tube, however, continues to work bringing the plain people of London, rich and poor, where they need to go.

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