The literature of the subway

To celebrate 150 years of the London subway system, Penguin Lines releases an unusual and compelling collection of creative non-fiction—short, smart and thoroughly compelling, they’re perfect hot summer reads.

The 12 titles in the Penguin Underground Lines series. 

The subway is neither here nor there; it is a strange in-between realm experienced on the way to somewhere else. Penguin Underground Lines, a new series of 12 volumes by some of Britain’s best writers, celebrates this in-between quality of the subway.

Commemorating the 150th anniversary of the opening of the London Underground, these short books appropriately fall between the usual categories, mixing and matching family memoir with social history, political economics with humour and music journalism with social commentary. Hovering around 100 pages each, featuring large typefaces and handsome design, these idiosyncratic ruminations on urban space are all quick, funny and quirky.

John Lanchester’s What We Talk About When We Talk About the Tube (District Line) is the closest the series offers to an actual history of the Underground. Lanchester describes how the world’s first underground railroad was built by ambitious Victorians, emphasizing the massive influence that the Tube had on the city’s growth. Throughout, Lanchester—author of recent bestselling novel Capital—employs a charming tone that varies between nerdy and snarky. While noting that the paths of Tube tunnels were often altered during construction to avoid potentially damaging the posh houses above, Lanchester observes that today, every time a train does anything other than run straight, commuters are experiencing “the effect of rich people on the city.”

John O’Farrell’s volume in the Penguin Underground Lines series.

John O’Farrell’s A History of Capitalism According to the Jubilee Line describes every commuter’s nightmare. When the narrator’s train stops between stations, he is informed by an announcement over the PA system that the economy has imploded and, more importantly, the pumps that keep the river Thames out of the tunnels have failed. Suddenly he and his fellow passengers must debate the ideological quandary of the late 20th-century: to escape, they have to choose between two tunnels, one built by public works and the other constructed by private enterprise. Which system serves individuals better, the market or the welfare state? Which tunnel is most likely to collapse? O’Farrell, an award-winning British humourist, satirizes the conventions of a disaster movie while hilariously making light of politics as usual.

Heads and Straights (Circle Line) barely touches on London’s massive Tube system, but instead finds another way to go underground. Relating the story of her childhood in London’s tony Chelsea neighbourhood, crime novelist and memoirist Lucy Wadham tells how her older sister Fly became involved in the U.K. punk rock scene, Cockneyfied her posh accent and became a junkie. While examining these dark places, Wadham’s memoir is fast-paced and engrossing, especially when it features her grandmother, an octogenarian exponent of free love who worships the works of Virginia Woolf. Heads and Straights is an enthralling memoir about the cunning of youth and the realization that the gap the between libertine heads and the conservative straights is not as wide as it seems.

Music journalist Paul Morley’s Earthbound (Bakerloo Line) is one of the widest-ranging books in the series. Drawing on history, memoir and opinion, Morley describes the thrill of listening to post-punk cassettes on his Walkman in the early ’80s, discusses the peculiar non-place of the subway and enumerates the myriad strategies that riders have developed to ignore each other. Morley’s book is ramshackle, a series of digressions and chapters which are only scarcely connected, yet its rapid pace and enthusiasm somehow manage to keep it from falling apart—even during the rapturous rant about the genius of krautrock band Can, which spans the final two-dozen pages.

Morley’s volume demonstrates the unrestricted freedom that each writer was granted by taking something as abstract and quotidian as the subway system for their inspiration. Other books in the series include, among others, a study of how button-up shirts are worn in East London by the editors of Fantastic Man magazine, a consideration of how the rich interact with the city by a veteran society columnist and a non-textual volume featuring a collection of abstract black and white drawings representing one person’s travel through the Underground.

Original and at times eccentric, the virtue of these books is their brevity. In this quick and fun format, anything goes, and this series features many excellent writers who, like the subway itself, take us on short trips to unexpected places. ■

Penguin Underground Lines series by various authors, 2013, 100 pp. $9.99 paperback (Penguin)

Jeff Miller is the author of the award-winning short story collection Ghost Pine: All Stories True. He lives and drinks coffee in Little Italy.

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