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updated 06/04/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/04/2001 01:00AM

There's no shortage of things to buy in the London Underground For a few coins, subway riders hungry for diversion can consume candy, soda, tabloid newspapers and pulp novels—all of which simply appalls Alexander Waugh, writer, gadfly and grandson of novelist Evelyn Waugh (Brides-head Revisited). "They're watching junk, eating junk, reading junk," says Waugh, 37, an admitted elitist. While he's resigned to letting the chips (and fish) fall where they may, at least in matters culinary, he has come up with a plan to raise the bar culturally: vending machines offering commuters topflight short stories.

Since January the first three of Waugh's Travelman dispensers have discreetly sprouted at the Tube station in London's affluent South Kensington. For a one-pound (about $1.50) coin, riders can purchase the selection of the week, chosen from the works of literary masters such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Muriel Spark, F. Scott Fitzgerald and, naturally, Evelyn Waugh. Each story is printed on a single sheet of paper, folded accordion-style to the size of a checkbook. Though Underground officials like the concept, "I can't see this turning people into Mensa members," cautions station assistant Malcolm Taylor. "Reading ingredients on the chocolate wrappers is about as far as most people go."

Despite having turned not a penny of profit, Waugh and his partners have applied for an additional 47 Underground sites. "It is part of a much bigger mission in life," proclaims Waugh, who won't allow a TV in the home in southwest England that he shares with wife Eliza, 36, and their three young children. "I like the idea that we stand proud next to all that rubbish."

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