Networked Remembrance: Excavating Buried Memories in the Railways Beneath London and Berlin. By Samuel Merrill. Peter Lang Publishing Group. Paperback, 408 pp. ISBN 9781787073814.
Travel punctuates our lives: moments of passage, transience, in-between time. Things happen when we travel – good things (meeting someone), and bad things (racial abuse on trains is increasingly common, at least in the UK). We encounter other people we may not otherwise have met, and see things we might not otherwise see, or we see things from a new perspective. In recent projects I have been involved with, travel and movement have had unexpected significance. In studying the 1970s London punk scene, underground music became a metaphor both for the lifestyles of its proponents, living under the radar, in squats and borrowed floors, and for the means by which vital social networks were generated and then developed, travelling across the city typically by underground. The same is true of the Berlin techno scene, where joining instructions for pop-up parties included directions from the city’s U- and S-Bahn stations, recognising this as the likely mode of transport for partygoers. Travelling late at night through Berlin I once encountered a party in the concourse of the station at Kottbuser Tor, a place well known to Samuel Merrill, the author of Networked Remembrance. Finally, in a study of contemporary homelessness, two homeless men sit near a railway bridge in York and reflect on the journeys of those passing by, and on their own aspirations to travel.
Travel as quotidian experience, as necessity and for convenience. Travel as aspiration, and (perhaps) missed opportunity. Travel as inspiration. Ultimately, travel is about people. It is also about the infrastructure that allows these journeys to be made, and the way they are made. Travel is heritage through people’s experiences and through the memories made and those yet to come, as well as through that vital infrastructure – the places and things, and the transport-affected landscapes where those places and things are located. Once there was no railway. Now there is. The mark is made and will remain; part of the complex archaeology of the contemporary world, brought together and given meaning through human experience via rhythms of life played out on, by and through trains. Merrill’s excellent and thought-provoking book examines all of this, with many and diverse threads woven skilfully together into a closely argued and elegant critique: a cultural geography of the underground railways in London and Berlin, but with implications far beyond these networks and beyond the discipline from which they emerged. It also stands as history, as archaeology, and as a politics of travel, and specifically underground travel, amongst other things. This is multidisciplinary working of the highest order.
This deservedly prize-winning book (The 2014 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in Memory Studies) represents the author’s PhD research, conducted in Geography at University College London, following previous studies in Germany. But unlike some published PhDs, this doesn’t read like one. It stands as an outstanding and scholarly exploration of urban memory, and its spatial prescription through activities, events and documentation that occur every day underground. For Berlin, much of this accumulated memory is challenging, given the city’s complex political history. For London this can also be true, with shootings, fires and accidents of recent years, yet interwoven with heroic narratives of the Blitz, and popular culture: the late Keith Flint performing the Prodigy’s Firestarter video in the abandoned spaces of Aldwych station of the London Underground comes to mind, for example.
But I am reluctant to highlight specific sections of this book, partly because to do so is challenging given the overall excellence and insight that pervades the study – like being asked to name a favourite Berlin U-Bahn station! But it would also do this study a disservice, for its significance, breadth and intellectual depth are best appreciated in the round, taking in the combination of the author’s insightful and thought-provoking investigations of social memory, mnemonic cartographies, commemorative toponyms, traumas, ruins and vestiges, to name a few elements. From my own specific interest, the author helpfully explores places and nodes of memory, which – he argues – are not only spatially networked in the traditional physical sense, but also digitally connected, blurring real and virtual space. We read about urban exploration and – in the case of Aldwych – heritage management as “securitization”. But as stated, highlights and vox pops cannot begin to convey the significance of this work. It is a terrific study, and important for anyone with interests in how we use and think about space, how memory is formed, and the means by which heritage is constructed, conceived, used and created. I cannot argue with Matthew Gandy’s comment on the cover, that this is “rich and fascinating” work, or Karen Till’s impression of “moving accounts about everyday undergrounds” in London and Berlin. These are strong endorsements from leading scholars in Cultural Geography. From the perspectives of archaeology and critical heritage studies I can simply say: I agree!
We all travel, and as the author tells us in the first words of the preface: underground railways around the world carry almost 150 million passengers every day. That’s a lot of accumulated memory gathering beneath our feet. Many readers of this journal will spend hours on trains, including the undergrounds described here. Any many of us use this time to read. I strongly recommend Networked Remembrance for these journeys, as it has recently been read on some of mine. Read it. Tell your friends. And rethink these amazing and diverse landscapes as you next pass through them. Travelling underground will be a richer experience for having done so.
Department of Archaeology, University of York, UK