Life on London buses

Introduction

The red bus dominates the London street scene. It is one of the great icons of London City, so much so, that it was used in London’s contribution to the handing-over ceremony at the end of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Whilst the bus in the ceremony was spruced up and spotless, in reality London buses are covered in dirt and surrounded by pollution. Dirty and smelly it maybe, but the London bus is like an ox, it’s a reliable beast. In fact the London bus might be compared to an Arctic icebreaker, shoving its way through a turgid sea of cars, motorbikes and cyclists, slowly, but with unchallenged momentum, from one stop to the next. Faithful servant with a smoker’s cough, it is a welcome friend to many, never sycophantic or ostentatious but hospitable and warm. Many are those that welcome the touch of a bus’ threaded cushion: travellers and tourists, the homeless and jaded, night revellers and early starters. Together London’s buses spin a web, which encompasses and squeezes the city, shrinking time and space, opening up possibilities for living, experiencing and knowing London. And for the imaginative minds of London, buses are so much more than transport: for some they are a retreat, others a way to see the city, for some a bed for the night, others a mobile youth club. There is so much life in and on the London bus.

Listen to BBC Radio 4: Top deck tales from the N36, July 2010

 

Shrinking Time and Space: Making Things Possible

In other cities around the UK you wait hours for a bus, but in London, perhaps due to the population density, perhaps due to the conscious decision of the Mayor to get things moving, the buses come frequently. They spin a web which encompasses and squeezes Greater London, shrinking time and space, bringing people together and increasing possibilities for living, work and leisure. In this way London buses underpin the social fabric of London, how we live, experience and know the city.

Aid to the Working Classes

The bus network is an aid to the working classes, middle as much as lower. It is a lifeline for those whose job is miles away; and who can’t afford to take the tube. London buses make life viable, saving people from further depravation and isolation. The routes of London buses are the tenuous diaphanous threads by which life is held together for many. Mind you for the poorest among us a single bus fare can be prohibitively expensive.

 

View on the City

There’s nothing I like more than knowing I’ve got plenty of time on my hands and so going up to the top deck of the bus, where I plonk my arse down on the front seat, and look forward to seeing the sights of London for the next forty minutes, as the bus winds its way into central London. You get to see everything that’s happening on the streets, and as the bus takes in and drops off people, the bus draws from London’s mix, and you get to see and hear so many people from all around the world dropping in for ten to twenty minutes. Being on a London bus can be as good as most TV.

 

Cradle

Faithful servant, never grumbling, the bus is a welcome friend to many, hospitable and warm. It was a London bus, the 394, which caught youngOlatidebe Agboola when he flew out of his mother’s womb in 2009. Olatidebe’s mother, Emiloju, was heading towards Homerton Hospital, with her waters broken, when she started to go into the final stages of labour. She stopped the bus, asked for help, but before an ambulance came, young Olatidebe was born. Olatidebe was given the middle name Dennis, the name of the bus company. A kind of godfather, Dennis handed a present and card to Olatidebe on his first birthday.

 

Shelter

Buses are transport to some, but shelter to others. An African, who has his own flat in London, sleeps on night buses because ‘there’s so many druggies, dealers coming in and out the building, I just don’t feel safe there.’ Homeless people use night buses to keep safe and warm, travelling the whole length of the bus route, getting off at the end and then getting on the next bus going in the opposite direction, all the while keeping an eye out for each other. Drivers running the N25 from Oxford Street to Ilford call theÓ emergency services to remove homeless people once they get to Ilford.

 

Mobile Youth Club

Since Ken Livingstone allowed under 18s to travel on London buses for free it has been argued thatgroups of young people, having nowhere to go, but wanting somewhere warm and safe to hang out, have annexed the top deck of some buses, turning them into what some have termed ‘mobile youth clubs’.

 

Escapism

Buses are a place to escape and reflect. I, myself, have taken a bus, when I have had an hour or two to kill, and haven’t fancied sitting in a café or wandering the cold streets. For the schizoid, the mentally ill, the shy, those who need some respite, buses offer the perfect combination of being with people without having to face up to people. Will Storr self-confessed loner says, “Having almost no social connections triggers strange symptoms. Like, I’m drawn to public transport. The top deck of the bus is the perfect party: enveloped in the comfort of the crowd, yet safe in the knowledge that no one will speak to me (and I’ll not be sorely judged for preferring not to speak to them).” Buses might also be used as a place of ecstasy, a passport into another world. One winter’s evening in early 2009 the CCTV cameras on an N36 night bus running through Queens Park, were picking up images of Pawel Modzelewski, a Polishman of no fixed address. Pawel got on the bus, went upstairs and found himself a seat. Pawel, who had consumed alcohol that night, got out a syringe and injected himself with heroin, laid back, and eased into what he most likely thought was going to be an ecstatic top deck experience. However within ten minutes he was reaching for the seat in front, most likely gripped by a severe agony caused by an overdose of drink and drugs. Throughout these torturous minutes and long after, the N36 trundled onwards, to the end of its route, and then slowly into the bus garage. The engines stopped and Pawel, who lent motionless against the seat, was either stone dead, or as the bus driver who was inspecting the top deck had thought, sleeping. The bus driver, with only the still of the night, the empty bus and what must have been a thousand and one things on his mind, went home ‘forgetting’ about the motionless Pawel. The next morning, the bus coughed up its guts in preparation for another day’s work, rolled out of the bus station and made its way back on to the roads. Pawel still seated was heading in the direction he had spent his final moments traveling from.

 

Eavesdropping on London Buses

Bus culture is a socially rich environment, which affords a transient view into other people’s worlds. Buses have long been vehicles for social observation. 19th century journalist Walter Bagehot, who edited The Economist, was said to have coined the phrase “the bald-headed man at the back of the Clapham omnibus” to describe a normal Londoner.

If you are on your own on a bus and there are two people in front of you in animated conversation you can immerse yourself in their world and learn a little bit about their lives. On one occasion I found myself sitting in front of two people who seemed to have just met each other. I listened to the tentative conversational steps each party made, each one trying to introduce something of interest to the other. I felt like I learned something in the process.

Sometimes it’s not so much your own curiosity and nosiness that leads you into other lives. Instead it’s the sheer volume that people emit. In the past, when I travelled on buses a bit more than I do now I found young people tended to head to the back seats of the top deck, from where one would phone a friend, put them on loudspeaker and talk to them with a volume that turned their conversation into a kind of theatre. Because it tends to be the young who are given to inviting people into their world in this way, such moments are golden opportunities to brush up on the latest street slang. In 2008 I was introduced to the expression ‘chat shit’ by this small black guy, about 15, who shouted the phrase into his mobile phone thirty times in three minutes, to a girl whose number he seemed to have attained only recently. Afterwards I heard the phrase ‘chat shit’ on every top deck I got on to, for the next three months. Ian Marchant talked of the occasion he was on the top deck of a Greenford bus, making a radio programme about young people on buses. He invited a boy he had struck up a conversation with to sit next to him. Ian patted the empty seat next to him to which the boy replied ‘Man an’ man don’t combine, see what I’m saying, blood?’

 

The Morning Commute

November 2009, a young African girl with chubby cheeks, four or five years old, walks up the isle of the single deck 78. The bus is in Shoreditch and is travelling to Nunhead. She looks like a mini-space man, dressed in a big coat with a satchel on her back, which unbalances her, as she walks to the empty seat her mother is ushering her towards. Destination reached the girl bundles herself on to the window seat. Her mother sits next to her, first checking a map to the health clinic and then reading the London Metro. Her daughter, mirroring her mother, is also in a world of her own. Or so it seems. Actually, her nonchalance masks the fact that she is quietly monitoring everything and everyone, catching peoples’ eyes when theirs don’t catch hers. Like only a child does, she leans back on her satchel, and arches her body so that her head is facing the ceiling of the bus, ‘In, out, in, out, in, out, in, out’ she says, lazily, as if she’s reciting some school song she recently learned. She sings without melody and with the lethargy of someone who is not awake enough to be in full possession of her senses. Still looking at the ceiling she goes silent, arches her body further backwards and her eyes momentarily catch mine. This very young girl, travelling through the City of London so early in the morning looks so warm and comfy, mother on one side, the embrace of a London bus on the other. Her mind roams free.

 

King a de road: A Little Bit of Kingston in South London

I’m in deepest Lewisham, somewhere, a little lost in the suburbs, waiting for a bus to take me to Lewisham station. After a while my bus arrives, a single deck bus, packed. I get on. The bus driver is a Jamaican, late twenties, elegantly muscular in body and face, debonair, with braided hair stuck tight to his head, sporting a sleeveless blue jumper overlying a long sleeved shirt. As we wind through the streets of Lewisham, it’s as if he’s winding through the hills and country roads of Kingston Town. ‘Whaddya tink dis is? A smart car’ he says at every meeting with a car where there seems to be an intractable battle for space. ‘Get out ma way, am king a de road’ he says, and then aggressively battles his bus through the smallest of gaps left by the reluctantly retreating motorist. Two young black girls, around fourteen years of age, are walking across the street. The bus judders to a halt. The driver opens the window of the driver cabinet, and speaks to them, neither with great smiles or aggressively, but with confidence and nonchalance. Both girls smile sweetly back at the driver, one of them raises her hand to say hello; almost to gesture see you later. The bus moves on. Later, a BT repair van faces up to the bus. Both drivers wind down their windows. The driver shouts, ‘Whadya tink am driving? A bloody smart car. Na, get out a ma way, am king a de road’. Comes the exceedingly agitated reply, ‘Fack orf you facking cant’. The BT van driver starts to reverse.

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