posted on 27 Mar 2018
( This review was first published on The Letterpress Project website)
As a university lecturer I seem to spend a lot of time thinking how best to bring the issues of social and economic inequality to life for students. Although the majority of them have lived all their lives with the realities of inequality, it sometimes feels that the subject is such an integral part of their lives that it somehow becomes invisible to them and that what they experience is ‘just the way things are’.
Even the most compelling guest speakers struggle to make the battery of statistics that provide overwhelming evidence for the iniquities of inequality mean something – the numbers are just too big and too abstract to get your head around. As a result I’ve been turning increasingly to fiction to help me because the nature of creative writing can often mean there are emotional hooks and human stories that people can hold on to and identify with.
So when I picked up Danny Dorling’s 2013 publication, The 32 Stops, the other day I was intrigued to find that the author, an academic geographer and sociologist by profession, had tried to produce something that took its lead from both academic evidence and imaginative, fictionalised recreation. And it’s all based around a simple geographical metaphor that is both intriguing and ingenious.
What Dorling has imagined is a journey on the London Central Line underground from west to east:
Like the trace of a heartbeat on a cardiac monitor, the Central Line slowly falls south through west London, rises gently through the centre and then flicks up north through the east end of the capital.
Using his skills as a number cruncher and data analyst, Dorling has been able to establish that this journey on the Central Line is effectively a proxy for the way in which the decreasing affluence and social status of the people living on this west to east journey impacts on their lives:
At the start of the journey life expectancy falls by two months a minute. Between the first four stations every second spent moving on the train is exactly a day off their lives in terms of how long people living beside the tracks can expect to live.
But he doesn’t simply note these startling statistics, he tries to describe and profile the way this impacts on people’s lives by imagining their daily routines at different stopping points along the journey. Considering that he’s not primarily a writer of fiction, Dorling does a surprisingly good job in bringing his characters to life – although by the end it’s impossible to not be aware of a certainly sameness or two-dimensionality to some his characterisation.
But it would be unfair to judge the book on that basis. It is in fact an extended conceit to get across his key message about how inequality works and its impact on real people. It’s also about the essentially illogical nature of inequality – something that persists even though we understand its destructive impact on the lives of people and the wider community and social fabric.
Ultimately Dorling strikes what seems to me to a note of real anger in his analysis. How could such a city as London, such a vastly wealthy city, allow these levels of inequality across its ‘most striking line, the red one, the one that looks like a heartbeat’. He doesn’t try and answer his own question but leaves it there for us to pick up. It’s our challenge as much as it is the author’s.