Review: Penguin Underground Lines – various authors

IMG_53162013 sees the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, “the tube”, and Penguin books have brought out twelve small books (available either singly or as a boxed set), one for each tube line, commemorating the wonderfully eccentric tube line which serves the Britain;s capital.

I found this to be a fascinating collection with a wide range of styles and themes.  The design qualities are excellent, as you might expect from Penguin with a consistent look and feel while allowing distinctive covers for each book.  This is a very pleasing set of books – I am not a book collector in any sense of the word but I can see this set’s appeal to almost anyone for whom the tube is a daily habit (or ordeal).

I’m not going to go through each book but will give a few “honourable mentions” plucked not quite at random from this set.  Firstly, John Lanchester’s What We Talk About When We Talk About The Tube, is a potted history of the tube system, describing how the tube in some ways defined London.  Where the tube went London followed, with suburbs extending along the tracks and villages appearing where stations were built.  John describes his personal history of the tube then writes about the experiences of being firstly a passenger and secondly being in the driver’s cab.  If ever you want a short book about the tube, it’s history and what it means today then this is it.

John O’Farrell’s contribution is a short story – A History of Capitalism According to the Jubilee Line.  A Tube train is stuck underground because the economy above has collapsed.  The announcement comes through the public address system,

We would like to apologise while we are held in a tunnel.  This is due to a crisis of capitalism. We’re just waiting for the green light and hope to be on our way again as soon as the owners of production, distribution and exchange have resolved the inherent contradictions in dialectical materialism.

John explores how this happened and wonders how the passengers will get out.  Will they break the unspoken rules of the tube and actually speak to each other?

IMG_5317Philippe Parreno’s book Drift, based on the Hammersmith and City Line, is a book of drawings which try to form “a psycho-geographical map of a subway line”.  In my view this one would have been better left in the authors notebooks and while as part of a boxed set it offers a small diversion it really wouldn’t stand on it’s own.

I liked Peter York’s The Blue Riband based on the Picadilly Line in which he writes about the well-heeled areas of Green Park, Mayfair, St James, Knightsbridge.  It’s unusual for a wealthy person to talk so unabashedly about areas he frequents regularly, trying to describe for we less affluent types the attractions of the rarified atmosphere of exclusive enclaves.  This makes for an interesting alternative view to John O’Farrells.

I liked Richard Mabey’s book, A Good Parcel of English Soil in which he writes of the London hinterland reachable by tube; the lower reaches of the Chiltern Hills, the gravel diggings along the River Colne, the banks of the River Chess at Chesham.  London is an amazing place with so much variety at easy reach via it’s metro system.

I’ve enjoyed this boxed set very much – it would make a fine gift for a special occasion (a retirement gift after years of commuting perhaps?).

I’ve not been able to read much over the last week or so due to the inevitable demands of a family Easter, with people staying, young chldren running around looking for eggs and various trips out.

Like everyone else in  Britain I’ve been looking for a touch of better weather, but have been disappointed. I went down to Birling Gap near Eastbourne on Saturday and took this photograph which sums it all up really.


I wish everyone a good week as they get back to work or whatever they have to do.

22 thoughts on “Review: Penguin Underground Lines – various authors

  1. Oh, I wish we could get this set here in Australia for a reasonable price, but with postage from the UK, it looks unlikely.
    I must say that there is a kind of rugged beauty in your photo, I know you are tired of your rain but we’ve been glad to have a wet Easter after such a long, long time without any decent rain…
    While I’m here, did you review Dominion by an author called Sansom at some stage? I’ve just been up to Qld to see my dear old dad, and he was very enthusiastic about Sovereign in Sansom’s Shardwell series. I’ve bought him the rest of the series and as I browsed the ‘shelves’ online I came across Dominion, which seemed familiar to me. I often use your recomendations to buy books for Daddy and they’ve always been a success. If you have read it, do you recommend it, or anything else by this author?


    • Lisa

      Sorry – I’ve been away and haven’t replied. I would think Dominion would be ideal for your father. Quite unlike the Shardlake series.


  2. this is very pretty set ,love cover art but like lisa although in the uk the cost is out my reach as I d prefer the set although will keep eye on the book people ,nice round up of this collection tom ,all the best stu


  3. A retirement gift after years of commuting! Love it Tom. Love the look of this set … Content wise and design wise. Good on Penguin for doing it. I don’t know many of the writers …


    • Parrish- yes, it’ s really good. Penguin have done this sort of thing before with collections of small books but never on a single theme as far as I know


  4. Thanks for this, Tom — I’d heard about this set but had been unable to find an evaluation I trusted. Mrs. KfC loves stories about the tube and her birthday is later this month — you have solved one of the year’s most pressing problems.

    (And I ordered from the Book Depository with its free shipping — total cost for me was $77 Cdn since they discount the price on the Penguin website.)


    • Kevin – I think it’s a very cleverly put together set of books. The range is very broad and it will make a very unique gift for your wife. The prices is good from BD isn’t it.


  5. And a belated thanks for re-introducing the rotating photos on your header — you live in a very special part of the world (and have a good photographic eye for it). As much as I love your reviews, I very much appreciate the photos that greet me when I drop in. :-)


  6. Thank you Kevin, of course, I should have thought of it too – the BD’s free postage makes it much more affordable. It’s $86 AUD and I too have ordered a set as a birthday present – for my father. I hope he gets the joke, he spent years commuting on the tube before we left England!


  7. I wish I could receive the whole lot for free! Buying it would be expensive but I would like to read it if there is a chance.

    Yes, the weather has been dreadful. I hope spring comes soon. I still haven’t given up hoping! lol


  8. For those interested in the subject, I can thoroughly recommend “Underground, overground: a passenger’s history of the Tube”, by Andrew Martin, now out in paperback. Fascinating snippets of railway and social history.


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