Tag Archives: London books

253 A mathematical novel

Anyone who regularly reads CabbieBlog probably has realised that I like symmetry: subjects are always published on the same day of the week, posted at the same time of day, using the same typefaces and formats each relating to the matter in hand.

So a recently re-published novel, about 253 people travelling on the Bakerloo Line between Embankment and Elephant and Castle on 11th January 1995 in 7 carriages each with 36 seats, plus the driver, with each person described in exactly 253 words is my kind of book, the work, nearly 30-years-old now, by Geoff Ryman also showed incredible prescience: one of Ryman’s characters has developed an automated system for taxis that would make ‘The Knowledge’ redundant.

Editor Rob Hinchcliffe who oversees London in Bits which is published on Substack has written about the recent return of the ‘hypertext novel’ – 253, and how this early example of networked fiction not only helped him get to grips with London but also showed him the Web’s potential to bring people together.

I first encountered Geoff Ryman’s novel 253 in its hardcopy form.

The ‘print remix’ of 253 was published in 1998, shortly after I moved to London and I read it straight away because I was hungry for anything which might give me some kind of insight into the city. I wanted something – other than the A-Z – that would make me feel more connected and less adrift in this unfamiliar landscape of ‘zones’ and ‘lines’ (and it didn’t hurt that one of the characters in the book worked on the same street I did).

Another reason I sought out the book was that, even though broadsheet reviewers had been a little bit sniffy about the novel, the internet seemed to love 253. While I was busy finding my way around this new city, I was also stumbling around the nascent ‘blogosphere’ (the term “weblog” having been coined just a year earlier), and I’d become increasingly impressed and influenced by what these pioneering LiveJournal reviewers had to say.

So, imagine how embarrassed I was to discover that 253 had existed in a completely different format, two whole years before I came across it.

In 1996, Ryman had taken his story of 253 people (252 Tube passengers and their driver) making the seven-and-a-half-minute journey from Embankment to Elephant & Castle and published it as a series of linked pages, each one telling the story of a different character in exactly 253 words.

27 years ago he did this! Plus, even more amazingly, he’d managed to turn the website into a book; one that you could buy in an actual shop.

I loved the print incarnation of 253, but I soon realised that the online version was even better. What had been rendered as a boring old index in the book, became shocking blue hyperlinks online; and, to me, hyperlinks were the things that made the Web feel boundlessly connected and ripe with potential.

As well as using links as navigation (‘next passenger’) or highlighting how one person might be connected to another, Ryman also linked seemingly random words like ‘art’, ‘dyslexic’ and ‘minicab¹’ – adding a whole other layer of serendipity and multiplicity to the experience of reading his story.

To jump from the mind of an “old-fashioned East Ender” in their mid-fifties, straight into the head of a young “clandestine author of slash fiction” just by clicking on the words ‘Star Trek’ was like finding some new form of magical realism, (come to think of it, it was probably the first time I’d heard the phrase ‘slash fiction’ too). And that slightly giddy, unmoored feeling that developed after clicking through these narratives would follow me out into the real world, making me hyperaware of the inner worlds lurking behind the sea of faces around me.

As Ryman himself said in a 1997 interview, in the digital version of 253 “the links change the meaning of the novel… [it] is about what makes people the same… It’s about the subliminal ways we’re linked and alike.” While, the print version was inevitably read “passenger by passenger,” turning it into a story about “how different we all are.”

While I enjoyed the storytelling of 253, it was the HTML-facilitated sense of connection and kinship that I fell in love with. This early example of a well-executed piece of ‘networked art’ not only made my new home city feel less intimidating and labyrinthine, but it also seemed to point towards all the ways that the native language of the Web could be used to bring people together in new, exciting ways…

…Of course, it didn’t quite work out like that. But that’s a different article for another time (although I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, shortly after discovering 253, I started a communal blog that would go on to become Londonist).

At some point in the noughties, the online version of 253 vanished. According to Ryman, he gave some “well-meaning convention organisers access to the site” and then, shortly after, realised his work had been wiped from the face of the Web.

Then, earlier this month, 253 was suddenly restored to the internet, resplendent in its mid-90s tones of indigo and purple.

If you’ve never read 253 before then you could do worse than spend a few hours clicking through its cast of characters (and the pigeon). It may be primitive in its presentation, but it has aged remarkably well, and it’s easy to see why it remains the touchstone for ‘interactive fiction’, inevitably referenced every time Netflix throw millions of dollars at a new slice of ‘immersive television’.

What Ryman created with 253 is a purely human story. By stripping his narrative down to its purest, most personal elements he managed to make the whole much greater than the sum of its parts. At the same time, he subverted the cliche of the cynical, unfriendly and anonymous city, and brought London to life in a way that hadn’t been done before (and has rarely been achieved since).

And he did all that without leaving the confines of a single Tube train.

The date selected for the novel is also not a random number, on 11th January 1995 Geoff Ryman discovered a close friend was HIV positive.

The online 252 page can be found here.

You can sign up for the excellent London in Bits on Substack here.

Christmas books

It is almost Christmas, and inevitably you are still wondering what to give to the man in your life. So let me suggest some rather eccentric books about London full of useless trivia or curious tales.

Mr Foote’s Other Leg: Comedy, tragedy and murder in Georgian London by Ian Kelly

Samuel Foote was a friend and colleague of David Garrick, but while Garrick became the most famous London actor of his generation, Foote who specialised in satirical mimicry has largely been forgotten. The book reveals a multitude of historical facts, gay life in Georgian London, its theatres and their owners, and Foote’s leg amputation which was lost partaking in a bet. It is the story surrounding the death of the actor who became the most famous Drury Lane ghost.

Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground by Mark Mason

From visiting every postcode to walking every Underground route, Mason specialises in the trivial. To prove the adage that the only way to truly discover a city is on foot, taking this to extremes, he sets out to walk the entire length of the London Underground – overground – passing every station on the way. He discovers why the Bank of England won’t let you join the M11 northbound at Junction 5; what cabbies mean by ‘on the cotton’; and meets the Archers star who was the voice of ‘Mind the Gap’.

M25: A Circular Tour of the London Orbital by Ray Hamilton

Anyone who has followed me @cabbieblog knows I love a bit of trivia. This small book is jam (or should that be traffic jam?) packed with titbits about the M25’s 33 junctions and the 11,000 lights to help you find your way. Sage advice on how to save £35,040 a year on Dartford Crossing tolls, counting how many assassins were buried in concrete within its environs, and why North Ockendon must declare itself independent from Greater London at the earliest opportunity.

Curiocity: In Pursuit of London by Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose

This huge tome is a must for the nerdy Londoner, resembling a cross between an encyclopaedia and an artwork. Each chapter within its 464 pages has an original hand-drawn map, charting everything from the city’s international communities, underground spaces and children’s dreams, to its unrealised plans, erogenous zones and dystopian futures, its street cries to earthstars. An object of beauty in itself.

When did Big Ben first bong? 101 Questions Answered About the Greatest City on Earth by David Long

Which top Nazi was locked up in the Tower? Or what runs through the more than 50 miles of train-size tunnels which ring the city, stretch further than the Channel Tunnel and lie deeper than the Tube. The world’s first celebrity chef, its oldest club, the worst ever mockney accent, a chapel full of prizefighters and the last Prime Minister to challenge a rival to a duel with pistols. From the truth about Handel’s ears to hippos living in Trafalgar Square, and just When Did Big Ben First Bong?

Ghost Signs: An essential reference

Dotted around our cities are ephemeral signs, a reminder of advertising before commercial broadcasting with its blanket coverage urging one to buy.

This beautifully produced volume is a reminder of those early days when the most effective way of promoting your product was to have it painted on the side of a wall.

This work, the result of over 15 years’ research by Sam Roberts, who is the recognised authority on London’s Ghost Signs, accompanied by Roy Reed’s photos who has a lifetime’s experience photographing the urban landscape, gives us a fascinating reminder of our past way of life.

Nichè publisher, Išola Press, should be congratulated on allowing Eve Izaak to break traditional conventions of book design, its use of Moderat typeface, small folios and running headings, with expanded sub-heads, was a brave decision which was the perfect choice for this publication.

The book has numerous cross-references, clearly highlighted and key symbols giving the illustration’s their historical background. While confusing at first, once mastered, makes for a much clearer understanding of the book’s subject.

Sam was running a successful website and Twitter @GhostSigns filled with ghost sign sightings, and even gave tours of his well-researched subject. Using Kickstarter for seed finance coupled with Sam’s enthusiasm gives us a never bettered London book on the subject.

Edwardian London must have been a colourful time, with brightly painted adverts adorning so many walls, Sam Roberts explains in plenty of detail how this came about.

Many books containing 150 photos of London fall into the trap of becoming ‘coffee table’ publications, beautiful to peruse, but rarely of any use to the London aficionado having too little detail.

Ghost Signs has great illustrations: Peterkin custard, Gillette razors, Hovis bread, but the information contained within its covers will have you reaching up to your bookshelf time and again as a source of reference.

Thank you Išola Press for the opportunity to review Ghost Signs.

CabbieBlog-cabThis is not a sponsored post. The publication reviewed has been kindly donated by the author or publisher. CabbieBlog has not received any payment for writing this review and the opinions stated above are solely his own. All links here conform with guidelines set out in Write a Post.

Capturing a moment in time

Thank you Netgalley and Amber Books for the opportunity to review this beautifully illustrated tome.

Written by one of London’s most innovative Blue Badge Guides, Katie Wignall’s Abandoned London takes you on a journey around forgotten, or unknown (at least to this cabbie) buildings and sights in the capital.

Each chapter covers a single theme, from transport to shops and retail.

Accompanying the images are descriptions by the author disclosing little known facts about the subject. Who knew that the decrepit Asylum Chapel in Peckham was, rather than a hospital for the mentally ill, a retirement home for pub landlords that is now a licensed wedding venue.

London is forever a city that reinvents itself and some of the buildings I discovered on the knowledge are, like the Hungarian Gay Hussar Restaurant in Soho, in business since 1953, are now featured here as derelict, awaiting reinvention.

As the Londonist website acknowledges, the title also holds a slight irony, given that the book was written during the lockdown, when much of central London was all-but-abandoned.

This lavishly illustrated book with over 200 photos of abandoned places capturing a moment in time is sure to appeal to anyone who has a passing interest in London.

Featured image from the book: Grade II Listed Savoy Cinema, Burnt Oak by Ewan Monro (CC BY-SA 2.0).


Before we pull away from the curb . . .

During this lockdown, I’ve taken to shouting at the television. The set is turned on you understand, and tuned to our National Broadcaster, the one that I am paying their salaries.

The other day they were interviewing a man whose young wife, a nurse working in intensive care, had lost her life. In his hour of grief, he was trying to articulate his thoughts, and the BBC had obviously persuaded him to sign a consent form.

In the ‘woke world’ of the Beeb, there must have been a box to tick on the form to register how you view your gender, and this distressed man had ticked ‘woman’ for below his name displayed on the television screen was that he was a widow and not a widower.

In today’s digital environment having up-to-the-minute stories is vital to keep ahead of the competition. But the pressure to get content online creates its own problems – the faster you rush something into ‘print’ the less time there is to proofread and the more chances of mistakes getting through – more of which later.

In this recent piece, with its missing ‘has’, the journalist at the BBC appears rather conversant in Pidgin English.

Now Leicester University has recently announced they are dropping Middle English from their English curriculum, so out goes Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Beowulf. So presumably we can expect more of the likes of this on our television screens.

Which brings me neatly back to my ‘curb’ on misspellings. Having run numerous spellchecker passes over my book, and having recently completed a line edit (the result of being dropped by Penguin Random House), I glanced down at a chapter title and found ‘Before we pull away from the Curb…’

No spellcheck or the Grammarly app would pick that up, only a measured, and more diligent approach to the written word, which seems to be missing, both in my book and at the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Now if you’ll excuse me I must go and proofread what I’ve just written – about 15 times.