Literary Excerpt: David Mitchell and the Character of the London Underground Lines

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book cover for Ghostwritten, by David MitchellWhat follows is a brief excerpt from Ghostwritten, David Mitchell's debut novel. I've been reading a lot of this guy lately. I really like him. 

As the fine denizens of London Town know, each tube line has a distinct personality and range of mood swings. The Victoria Line, for example, breezy and reliable. The Jubilee Line, the young disappointment of the family, branching out to the suburbs, eternally having extensions planned, twisting round to Greenwich, and back under the river out east somewhere. The District and Circle Line, well, even Death would rather fork out for a taxi if he's in a hurry. Crammed with commuters for King's Cross or Paddington, and crammed with museum-bound tourists who don't know the craftier short cuts, it's as bad as how I imagine Tokyo. I had a professor once who asked us to prove that the Circle Line really does go around in a circle. Nobody could. I was dead impressed at the time. Now what impresses me is that he'd persuaded somebody to pay him to come up with that sort of tosh. Docklands Light Railway, the nouveau riche neighbour, with its Prince Regent, its West India Quay, and its Gallions Reach and its Royal Albert. Stentorian Piccadilly wouldn't approve of such artyfaryness, and neither would his twin uncle, Bakerloo. Central, the middle-aged cousin, matter-of-fact, direct, no forking off or going the long way round. That's about it for the main lines, except the Metropolitan, which is too boring to mention, except that it's a nice fuchsia colour and you take it to visit the dying.


Then you have the oddball lines, like Shakespeare's oddball plays. Pericles, Hammersmith and City, East Verona Line, Titus of Waterloo.


map of the London Underground linesThe Northern Line is black on the maps. It's the deepest. It has the most suicides, you're most likely to be mugged on it, and its art students are most likely to be future Bond Girls. There's something doom-laden about the Northern Line. Its station names: Morden, Brent Cross, Goodge Street, Archway, Elephant and Castle, the resurrected Mornington Crescent. It was closed for years: I remember imagining I was on a probe peering into the Titanic as the train passed through. Yep, the Northern Line is the psycho of the family. Those bare-walled stations south of the Thames that can't attract advertisers. Not even stair-lift manufacturers will advertise in Kennington tube station. I've never been to Kennington but if I did I bet there'd be nothing but run-down fifties housing blocks, closed-down bingo halls, and a used-car place where tatty plastic banners fuppetty-flup in the homeless wind. The sort of place where best-forgotten films starring British rock stars as working-class antiheroes are set. There but for the grace of my credit cards go I.


London is a language. I guess all places are.

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