The art of (bus) travel

The no. 21 bus, already two thirds through its journey from Dalston, suddenly appears over the hump of the bridge and pulls in to the kerb.  Amidst the melange of drunken Scottish tourists, serious East Asian students, and late-night local workers she pushes her way on and manages to find a seat near the back with enough room to put her suitcase between her knees.

The first 10 minutes they make little progress, stopping along Borough High Street, picking up the young and the beautiful, British, Italians, South Americans spilling out from the pubs and the bars.   After that the bus picks up more speed, towards the Bricklayers arms and finally onto the long artery of the Old Kent Road.  From childhood: Joint cheapest space on the Monopoly Board, the only card from South London.  Now a 20 minute diagonal corridor across Google Maps, between her home and the centre of the city.  Parts are familiar, echoed across South London on Sunday drives past the Elephant and Castle to Grandad’s.  The tower blocks, the cheap mini-marts; though these have been overshadowed by the hangar-like superstructures of Asda and Lidl.  Burgess Park in the daylight provides some relief, but it is twenty past midnight and she misses its arched entrance on her left hand side.  On the right, The Holy Ghost Zone, as usual fluorescent lights blazing, has never given itself up to a good photo, surreptitiously taken, on the night bus home –  though she has tried several times.

There is banter on the bus.  There is always banter.  Sometimes good, sometimes bad.  Tonight there has been a big match, in the Football Tournament far away.  People are dressed in team colours and laugh, and shout and drink – both winners and losers.  The driver is shouting, it’s impossible to tell whether in anger or in friendship.  He beeps the horn manically.  She braces herself with the instinct all those who live in big cities have – things can kick off at any time.  But the driver is laughing, he beeps once more to a woman screeching on the other side of the busy road, and pulls out and away from the bus stop.


Last night, I arrived back in London later than expected.  Back from a big meeting in Europe, the type of thing my family might call ‘high-powered’.  Rather than wait 25 minutes for the last train (the 12.25 from London Bridge), I decided to get on the bus.

I’ve always loved buses.  As a non-driver, all public transport represents freedom to me.  But the bus more than anything – not tied to the straight confines of the District or Central lines of my youth.  The bus wanders off into the gaps between the Tube lines.  It is always an adventure.

My family have worked on and off for public transport in the UK since arriving.  My Irish granddad looked after train reservations at Waterloo station.  My mum worked for London Transport, later for the Docklands Light Railway.  And because of her, I also worked for the Underground and later for the DLR.  If you bought your train tickets from a bored 16-18 year old at Canary Wharf or Island Gardens in the late 90s chances are it was me, up at 6am to serve commuters and running the tourist offices in both locations to save money for University.

And I still love the design, the artwork that surrounds the Tube and the London buses.  It speaks of a familiar but slightly unattainable egalitarianism – imported, no doubt from a Scandinavian country imposing their clean lines and sparse utilitarian checks on the seat covers.  Only the random colour schemes hint at British eccentricity.


In other countries where I’ve lived, public transport is equally, if not more essential in the cities.  Though of course still not always affordable for all.  And travel was dominated by buses – the Daladalas and Matatus of the towns and cities, and the ‘big buses’ that travelled long distance, between towns.  Of the latter, each company had its own brand and USP – not unique to this industry of course, but the ways in which people weighed up the marketed pros and cons of speed, security, and safety – for those that had the choice – was always pretty baffling to me.  In God We Trust, or variations on that theme, were common slogans.  Some just decided to to trust more in God than in seatbelts, or systematic road safety checks.

Similarly in the cities, people had their own superstitions about the small minibuses tearing through the streets, treble parking at bus stops and vying to crush another few bodies into their tiny interiors.  Loyalties were based, not only on the demeanor of the conductor, the speed and safety of the driver, but also the pictures and slogans used in decorating the bus.  As a friend once remarked, this was a subject rife for PhD research.

Regulation of buses and passenger safety standards have come into force in recent years, but bus travel remains a precarious enterprise in many parts of East Africa.   My ex-boyfriend lost a brother when his bus drove off a bridge near Mbeya, into the ravine.  His sister died of a heart attack, many years before, after learning that her husband had been killed in a bus crash.  Early morning, the ditch in the central reservation on Waiyaiki Way in Nairobi all too often cradled a bus that had overturned as it hurtled into the city, passengers after 12-hour journeys less than a mile from their destination, now forever beyond reach.  I’ve been in my own minor bus-related scrapes: a glass window shattered in my face on a bus in Northern Tanzania; years of semi-careful orthodontic work carried out at the Royal London in Whitechapel under the trainees, undone when a colourful former school bus in Guatemala city crashed into another coming out of the main terminal.  But I’ve also glided across borders and explored regions in a way that never would have been possible without a functioning bus network.


At a dinner party recently, a well-meaning, but protected individual was complaining about her siblings who ‘lived in a different world’ i.e. did not appreciate the value of the London that she saw.  Her beautiful London was eating Falafel in Camden at midnight, or biking along the canals of Hackney and Tower Hamlets on a sunny Sunday morning, rather than the possibly more traditional, country pursuits of her tribe.  She worked for the Labour party,  and in the course of the evening extolled the  virtues of the state school system – in the capital, at least.  So in many ways we were politically aligned.  But then I happened to catch the delightful lady saying ‘and what I think is that it’s really good sometimes to get on a bus, and see what life is really like in London.  I mean, I think that’s the problem with some people because they aren’t exposed to real life’.

She meant well, she really did.  But I realised that she had the luxury of thinking that buses were something that other people did.  For her, the no. 21 from Newington Green would give a view into another world, one that she didn’t inhabit, despite living in London.  Despite, in theory at least, translating and conveying the needs and wants of at least some of this teeming populace into neat policy.  This, I felt, set us apart significantly.

Of course, like my own friends, she wasn’t riding limosines around – these are lovely people who prefer to bike to work, both for their own health and for the sake of the environment.  So what makes me think that there is a problem with this divide?  Shouldn’t we all be riding bikes (yes, if it was safer, I would say).

It reminded me that in a direct sense, biking was quite an individualistic exercise (pun intended) without that that shared sense of travel with your neighbours, your colleagues, people like you and unlike you – which has always been one of the important characteristics of living and travelling around London for me.  But for the first time I realised that more than a few people were missing from this picture,  something which naively I had never really considered before (except, maybe for multi-millionaires or celebrities).  It reminded me that two women of the same age, the same salary bracket and the same friends might live two very different lives in this city, depending on their perspectives.  And as I grow older it is important to unmask that.  We are The Same, but we are Not The Same.  You are not me, and you cannot speak for me, when we are  travelling down (literally, sometimes) different roads.


In my writing, I realise that buses feature heavily.  My half-finished novel starts with a legend, heard during my time in Tanzania, about a fateful bus journey, some of which I’ll post below.

Among the four main characters, one of the siblings works his way up through the bus industry – which has its own fascinating political economy, laws, and customs and I am still trying to learn more about that to inform my work.

The story ends at the dusty square where the main TanZam Highway intersects with the Iringa escarpment, where hawkers sell sugar cane and biscuits through the windows to the passengers as the buses take some respite before their climb.  In the commotion, two siblings, each grieving their own loss,  pass each other without noticing.  But in the future, they will meet again – though the story leaves them at that point, I am confident that the buses that criss-cross the Southern highlands are bound to bring them together, someday.



Tell us again, Big Uncle, tell us about the bus and the crazy people

In the near-darkness, we hear Uncle pull his feet in under, poke the last of the coals in the small jiko to provide that last bit of warmth, lean back on the lip of the doorway where the earth is coming away at the bottom.  Dad away in town, working as a night guard.  Mum as always in the back, dozing under a maize sack with sister on a straw mattress in the corner.  The hut thick with smoke and shadows and the faint laughter carried in from the other side of the village.

Well, it happened once –

An employee from the big hospital here in town was tasked with picking up the mentally ill patients from some other smaller hospitals and clinics aroundabouts.  He set off down the old factory track, going West, and travelled from village to village to collect his charges.  They would be brought to the main hospital and kept in the ward, well the ward that everyone knows that the crazy people are in, and never come out of.

His small van was starting to fill up, the patients were on the whole happy enough, they had been told they were going on a holiday, and those that could, talked to themselves and each other, or looked out of the window to see where they were going to.  As the afternoon grew hotter, the driver decided to stop for a drink.  Seeing a dusty kiosk he stopped and climbed out, and went and sat on the wooden stool, in the shade, to drink his soda.

Giggles here, from all of us.  What a stupid, lazy man!  Uncle pulls down his cap to imitate a smooth-talking waster, just the type of person who would end up with a cushy job like his and not do it properly.  When we’ve laughed enough, he continues.  We sit waiting for the best bit.  We know what’s coming next.

A short time later, he climbed back into the vehicle, started the engine, and looked into the rear view mirror before pulling out.  In the mirror he realised that the sliding passenger door was wide open.  And that the back rows were empty.  He jumped out and frantically hurried round, looking under bushes, behind maize plants and called out to those around, asking if they had seen several men and women walking about.

But the patients were nowhere to be seen.

The driver went and sat back in his vehicle and wanted to cry.  How would he explain that he had lost all of the patients?  Were any of them harmful?  He knew that he would lose his job.  His wife would be so angry.

We nod, his wife would be angry.  And to lose a job like that!  What a fool!  We lean in, wanting more.

After sitting there for what seemed like forever, he put the van into gear and started to crawl off, hoping that he might see them along the way and pick up the patients to get them back to the hospital.  But as he travelled along the track, there was still no sign of any of them.

After ten minutes he reached the main junction back into town.  Defeated, he decided he must go straight back to the hospital and tell them the truth.  There was nothing more to be done.

Turning on to the tarmac road that headed into town, a few times local people tried to wave the vehicle down, thinking it was a dalaldala, a public transport.  Moving past the first few flaggers, the desperate driver shook his head and trundled slowly on, looking for his patients.  Then more villagers, then more villagers still tried to cadge a lift.

Suddenly, an idea.

‘Town, 10 shillings’ he shouted as he approached the next bus stop which was across from the overnight truck park.  Four willing customers got on the bus, handing over the correct fare for the journey.

The driver picked up another five customers on the way into town, all wanting to reach the market square.

But as the vehicle finally reached the town, instead of following all the other little buses down to the market, he took a sharp left and headed straight for the drive of the hospital, despite the protests of the passengers.  The driver had already locked the door when the last required passenger had clambered in.


It was nearly a week before the doctors accepted the stories of those that were handed over –  that they had not been committed to the hospital.   Of course every time the people said that they were not mentally ill, it was only to be expected, staff thought that they were in denial.  The doctors thought that it was a sign that they had really lost the plot.

It was only when the police came looking for some of the detainees on behalf of their families, plus a number of the original patients were found wandering on the main road some kilometres away, tired and hungry, that the poor villagers were allowed to leave the hospital and go home.


It is meant to be a funny story: Uncle acting out the panic of the incompetent bus driver, exaggerating his despair and then his shiftiness as he lures innocent bystanders onto the bus, using the brusque banter of the daladala conductors.  It always starts out this way, out loud we laugh.  But like all good tales the recounting creates an undercurrent of fear that makes us draw closer to the fire.

In the soap operas, people always get what they deserve in the end.  Starving orphan adopted by a rich, kindly benefactor.  Abused child ends up a soap star or a movie star.  The moral is: your destiny is your destiny.  Your inner core will be discovered, and people will know you for who you are.  Just hold on.  Well, try telling that to the people that ended up on that bus, ended up trapped in the Asylum.    And to everyone else who feels that they have got the wrong life.  They say that a beautiful woman looks into a mirror and sees herself; an ugly woman sees a stranger.

 The priest says: Your God shall know you

Dad says: The people have dreams, but the rich have rights.

Teacher says: God’s pen doesn’t make any mistakes

Uncle says:  The world is fickle, today you may sleep in the middle, and tomorrow on the edge!

In those days at home we always slept in a circle. Petrus, Moses, Severina, Deo.