Mark Mason loves London. He’s a converso, mind you, as are many of London’s loudest lovers, and as he now lives in Suffolk, he’s in the curious position of being from one place, living in another, and identifying with a third. They say that geographic identity is complicated in conditions of post-modernity, and they’re not kidding, but London has been having this effect for centuries; it is, after all, the site at which modernity first congealed, and if you’ve read Tristram Shandy or looked at a Manet, you’ll know that the features of the post-modern are present at the very inception of the modern. Perhaps it’s because of this complex status as an adoptive Londoner-in-exile that Mason felt the need to encompass the city, to know it in the way that we provincials know our villages and market squares; whatever his reasons, he struck upon the idea of walking it all, north to south, east to west, vice versa, diagonally and in circles, following the lines that define and delineate London in the imaginations of most of the people that use the place. He walked every single mile of the Tube network and then some, above ground, visiting every station in the order they are served by the rails; and being a writer, he wrote it down.
He’s a pretty unassuming bloke, this Mason geezer, so although he thinks about things deeply, and with commendable clarity, he discusses his most complex thoughts as though he were discussing the care with which his local cellars its ale. The same down-to-earth tone is applied to the most prosaic Tube-nerd details, as to the most nuanced musing on London’s cultural identity. As he walks, Mason observes, and between noticing things and writing them down, he does a bit of digging around: the resulting stream of trivia is the book’s greatest strength. I found myself continually reading things out loud, in what must have been a very irritating manner; the book is a geek’s delight, and even a hard-core culture nerd like myself found plenty of mistaken assumptions dispelled, as well as fascinating, and often hilarious revelations. That there is a long tradition of seriously lairy behaviour from heavy literary figures is a great comfort to me; I was particularly taken with the account of Marx, out with his pals on a pub crawl that took in every boozer on the Tottenham Court Road, and culminated in a drunken rant, the destruction of street furniture and a hasty flight from the police.
Much as this book shines as a collection of anecdotes and thoughts, it was most interesting to me as an attempt to grapple with the mass psychology and cultural ontology of a metropolis. Since I’m in the throes of writing about a city of my own invention, and want to give it as convincing a facsimile of a layered inner life as possible, it was fascinating to read a thoughtful writer’s account of a metropolitan city that I know very well, building from an accumulation of tiny details to sweeping generalisations of the finest, most joyous sort, in precisely the way I will need to in my fiction. What gives a city life, or rather, as Mason points out, what determines the ways in which its inhabitants ascribe reality to it, is a challenging issue to get into the ring with, but a very exciting one; it could be argued that this was just an amusing conceit to hang some rambling off, but the underground is such a powerful, metaphorically polyvalent symbol, that the deeper themes almost write themselves. In the hands of a writer as self-effacingly reflective as Mark Mason, they’re the stars of the show.