Book Review: Mind the Gap by Simon James


James, S. (2001) Mind the Gap HarperCollins ISBN 0 00 711447 8

‘Mind The Gap’ is not just an announcement you’ll hear on London’s Underground when a train arrives at certain stations – much more than just a warning about the ‘gap’ between a carriage and the platform – it’s entered popular culture and become synonymous with London.


The phrase seemingly originated on the Northern Line, where the gaps between the curved train platforms at Embankment Station and the train itself were particularly wide. And when it comes to ‘Mind the Gap’ size matters, it’s a matter of perverse pride that the award for widest gaps goes Bank Station on the Central line or Waterloo Station on the Bakerloo line it just depends where your allegiances lie!


Basically, Mind the Gap is a particularly English way of celebrating, and making the best of compromises and really poor design.


In the early history of Tube-line development the companies had to build their railways beneath public roads enabling them to do ‘cut and fill’ excavations, and inevitably that meant the occasional sharp turn being required to save money on expensive tunnelling. Allegedly, the gap at Bank is so large because the tunnel diggers had to swerve a lot to miss the Bank of England’s vaults.


Mind the Gap – the book – Simon James’ quirky photographic take on failed design that somehow continues to work. It’s a wry picturing of the edgelands of the Underground.


Michael Palin – campaigner for better public transport (oh, and well known traveller) – writes in the foreword:

Mind the Gap, perhaps the most famous phrase associated with the London Underground, must surely have the creators of the system spinning in their graves. It’s an acknowledgement that the thing doesn’t quite work. That however fast and frequent the service, however comprehensive the network, the trains don’t always fit the platforms. There’s not much in it – but enough to warrant painted signs and recorded warnings.


Palin continues:

It is very much a book about gaps, not just gaps between the train and the platform, but between the designer and user, staff and passenger. And between dreams and reality. Mind the Gap in capturing the elusive appeal of the stations at the ends of the lines, gives gentle but perceptive insights into the way we live now.


Simon James has captured London’s suburban hinterland, the no-man’s-land that is not quite city or countryside; the overgrown railway cuttings, litter-free stations, time-warp parades of shops, indistinguishable Acacia Avenues, pipe-and-slippers ’30s architecture, and occasional, bizarre, even menacing incongruities – such as James’ photograph of the ‘Secret Nuclear Bunker’ near Chipping Ongar.


The images, combined with numerous tube facts, figures and fantasies accumulated by the author on his travels, makes Mind the Gap a book that celebrates the unknown adventures that await us at our doorstep.


An Amazon review states:

James obviously has an eye for English quirkiness. Even though it says on the cover that it deals with ending stations, there’s a lot covered in between. There are pictures of things travellers never see, like the insides of secret tunnels, control rooms, etc. Most pictures have something funny about them, many are simply findings of beauty in the most unexpected places, but they are all interesting. Anyone who’s ever been to London will be entertained and enlightened by this book. As you leaf through it, you get the sense that it captures a world that you still can see glimpses of on your Tube travels every day, but that will be gone forever very soon. It’s no wonder that Michael Palin, a savvy traveler himself, wrote the foreword – his witty remarks place the pictures in the right context.

Mind the Gap is a beautifully sophisticated and simple book, a delight to look at and full of fascinating ‘I didn’t know that!’ nuggets of information. It’s a delight.



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