Book Review : London’s Underground

The cover artwork for the hardcover book “London’s Underground”.

Many of us – particularly men – are fascinated by transportation technology and enjoy some of the backstory to the travel and transportation services that otherwise can be taken for granted, and to glimpse the original glamor and excitement that surrounds things that have become, through familiarity and overuse, drab and mundane.

Here’s a book that is sure to delight such people (myself included).  It is a beautifully designed and printed “coffee table” style large hardcover book, with lovely heavy weight glossy pages.  It is abundantly illustrated with lovely color pictures, but unlike some “coffee table” type books, it actually has a comprehensive narrative.  It is a lot more than just a collection of pictures and their captions, although the pictures themselves are excellent and great visual candy.

The book measures 11.6″ x 10.4″, and is 1.1″ thick, with almost 270 pages of content, including contents, index, bibliography and a timeline of significant events in the Underground’s 156 year history.  Unsurprisingly, it is heavy, weighing 3 lbs 12 oz.

We should give the book its full title – “London’s Underground The Story of the Tube”.  It is written by Oliver Green, and the contemporary photos are by Benjamin Graham (there are plenty of older photos, posters and maps included too).  It was published in September 2019 by White Lion Publishing.  It lists for $45, and is available on Amazon for $34.12.  Amazon also offer it in Kindle format for the curious price of $10.01 – a price that screams out “why not $9.99”.  We guess it is another case of an eBook hating publisher dictating “must be sold for more than $10”.

Although the Kindle price is very much less than the hardcover price, this is not a title we’d recommend be purchased in eBook form.  It is a book that needs to be visually enjoyed and handled – and yes, indeed, also displayed on one’s coffee table :).

The author, Oliver Green, is a transport historian and a research fellow at London’s wonderful Transport Museum (a must see attraction conveniently located close to Covent Garden), and had formerly been its head curator.  The contemporary photos are by an award winning photographer, Benjamin Graham, and were apparently mainly taken in 2016.  Clearly the book has been long in the making.

As well as the lovely present-day pictures, the book is generously filled with old pictorial content too.  We are always drawn to old posters, whether for the Underground or trains or anything else, and love to muse on the changes in society that they point to.  Some of the nicest photos though are ones of “indeterminate age” – pictures that might have been taken yesterday, or 50+ years ago (for example, see p.74 or 84).

There are plenty of pictures of old trains, but there are also some other inspired choices of unusual items seldom considered or seen, for example, the “industrial” type pictures of such things as the controller circuitry of an Otis elevator or an experimental spiral escalator that never made it to public use.  Or of electric control panels to power the lines, or the signaling and switching apparatus – parts of the infrastructure one never pauses to even consider when riding the trains every day.

The book is an encyclopedic record, not just narrowly of the development of London’s Underground, but also more broadly on the bi-directional influences of the Underground on London and its people, and vice versa.  It is fair to say that while of course the needs of the city shaped the development of the tube network (albeit haphazardly in its early days with a number of competing companies all developing services with no coordination or broader plan), the liberation from the twin tyrannies of time and distance in turn shaped the development of London and its suburbs.  Much of the most interesting parts of the book cover the social impacts of the underground network on the above ground communities.

We found it fascinating to discover the stories behind some of the things we’d not even paused to puzzle about, such as some of the designs and signage within the stations.  We also loved the diagrams of some of the stations showing their three dimensional maze of tunnels and lines and connections – things that one really never appreciates when hurrying between the surface and the subterranean platform and train.

There are eight chapters that flow largely in a time sequence from “Steam Underground” as its first chapter, and concluding with, predictably, some thought about the recent past (“Towards a New Tube”) and the present (“Renewal”).  Curiously, there was very little about the future, and the author seems to have also been careful to avoid much in the way of criticism, of which a massive amount could be generously shoveled around and deposited at the doorsteps of every possible constituency – unions, management, and funding sources/shortsighted politicians.

That was probably a wise decision, however.  A chronicle of the past is better when it is as dispassionate as possible.

Overall, this is a delightful book, wide-ranging in content, while consistently interesting and engaging.  It is easy to read and abundantly illustrated with excellent photos and other art.  It can be read semi-randomly, by allowing the book to open anywhere and reading forwards, or sequentially from the start.  However you enjoy it, you’ll find yourself rewarded by additional information about something you’d never paused to fully consider.  You’ll not only learn, but you’ll be encouraged to think about the implications of the interaction between transport and the communities it serves – an entire new universe of considerations that are seldom as well covered as here.

Of course, this book has most immediate interest for the Londoners and secondarily the English/British as a whole, but many of us have been to London, experienced their Tube system, and of course, London’s development of its Underground is not entirely unlike similar projects elsewhere in the world, too, so it is generally of interest to most people in most places.

Buy it as a treat for yourself (no matter where in the world you live), or as a gift for anyone with even a passing interest in transportation.

Recommended.

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