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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Underground Overground : A Passenger's History of the Tube - Book Review

I get sent a lot of press releases of books about the London Underground or railways to review.  Most of the time they're variations of "Fun Facts you never knew about the Tube (version 50)" or "A Little Book of Tube Etiquette (version 10)", in other words books that do little more than re-work what's already been published.  However, it was with more than some interest when I was sent an email by Andrew Martin's, publishers, asking if I'd be interested in a review copy of his new book "
Underground Overground - A Passenger's History of the Tube".

Underground Overground by Andrew Martin

I was a very big fan of Andrew Martin's weekly "Tube Talk" column in ES magazine back in the early noughties.  In fact a lot of his observations were the inspiration for features in Going Underground (my static Tube site before I began blogging).  To my shame I never knew that since then he'd gone on to write seven  historical thrillers about Jim Stringer, a railway detective of the early 20th century.

When I got a copy of the book, it was one of those books where I thought, "I wish I'd written that".  Andrew has produced an informative, well researched and yet extremely engaging story of the London Underground.  A book that will have you nodding in empathy.  A book that truly understands that any history of the Tube must involve a thorough look at the people who made the London Underground.  That's not just the engineers, designers, inventors ("seldom entirely normal"), politicians and staff, but in equal measure the people who actually travel on it every day.    

The blurb on his publisher's site - Profile Books - gives a good intro "Underground, Overground is a highly enjoyable, witty and informative history of everything you need to know about the Tube .... The London Underground is the oldest, most sprawling and illogical metropolitan transport system in the world, the result of a series of botch and improvisations. Yet it transports over one billion passengers every year and this figure is rising. It is iconic, recognised the world over, and loved and despised by Londoners in equal measure"

 Excerpt Underground Overground by Andrew Martin

They go on to say that  Andrew "attempts to untangle the mess that is the Northern Line, visit every station in a single day - and find out which gaps to be especially mindful of. "  You'll also find the "definitive" account of the Mind The Gap announcement - I discovered that it involves Michael Winner!

Inside, Underground Overground by Andrew Martin

The book follows a chronological social history of the Tube.  Beginning with the perpertually busy Charles Pearson, the "gadfly" solicitor who ardent campaigning in the 1840's and 1850's led to the early development of the London Underground.  Moving onto the expansion of  The Metropolitan Railway and the various political & engineering wranglings for deeper level lines and a whole chapter on Texan Charles Yerkes who was responsible for electrictrifying the Underground.

"Yerkes introduces a welcome note of loucheness to our story, and the only mentions of sex you'll find in most Underground histories are associatated with his name. He was twice married and had many affairs.... Yerkes, was an American, and that ought not to surprise us.  American tourists on the Tube seem rather gauche sorts, delightedly photographing each other in front of any old station roundel, but really it's their Tube.  We have seen that Americans were the pioneers of electric traction, and most of the unfortunate investors in Yerkes schemes would be American."

Andrew commends & sums up the principles that Yerkes laid down for those "who would escape a life of drudgery" which are quoted in a book on Yerkes called Robber Baron, written by John Franch

1. The worst-fooled man is the man who fools himself.
2. Have one great object in life. Follow it persistently and determinedly.  If you divide your engergies you will not succeed.
3. Do not look for what you do not wish to find.
4. Have no regrets. Look to the future. The past is gone and cannot be brought back.

Wise words from an Edwardian time and something you might recognise amongst today's radical thinkers and mavericks - it sounds like it could have come from Steve Jobs moving Stanford speech, quoted many times after his death last year.

But I digress, although if anything, that's the one "problem" with this book, it makes you think so much about the people behind the Tube, that those looking for a straightforward history (I wasn't) may find it not to their taste.

Frank Pick and Albert Stanley (better known as Lord Ashfield)  are also given a chapter for their work in "making London what it is today", note that Andrew says "London" what it is today & not the Tube, as it shows the main point that most good London Underground historians & writers recognise - London would be nothing without the Tube. This sprawling pervasive system that is equally the bane and the boon of our lives has shaped London like no other transport service introduced to the capital.

Tube fans and people who are generally interested in the social history of London will find this book a delight.  There's also enough Tube trivia in it to keep those who like odd stories very happy too.  You'll find answers to essential questions such as "What inspired the famous Underground roundel logo?" and "Would you die if you urinated on the power rail in the centre of the Tube tracks?"

"Underground Overground - A Passenger's History of the Tube" is published on 3rd May 2012 at £14.99.  You can pre-order discounted copies as a hardback or eBook on Amazon now.

You might also like
London Underground: Architecture, Design & History Book Review
Walking the London Underground, Overground
Photos & Review of Christian Wolmar Talk - "How the Tube Created London"

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