TfL is pulling out its party poppers to celebrate the Year of the Bus, and hoping to get Londoners to ‘reconnect with their bus network’. We sent Johnny Sharp to do just that…by spending 24 hours on the city’s trusty red icon.
‘Time Out? Oh, thank God,’ says the commuter in the red fleece. ‘I thought you were a druggy.’ It’s a fair assumption, since a stranger has just approached her on a bus in the early hours of the morning. It’s just after 5am, and I’m on the kind of early shift that is the domain of snoozing post-partiers, as well as the receptionists, cleaners and coffee shop workers who make the city function smoothly for dawn-rising Londoners – and journalists on unenviable feature jobs like this.
I settle into the seat next to the lady in the fleece and begin what is sure to be a gruelling 24-hour journey that will see me go repeatedly up and down the number 38 bus route as it meanders its way from Clapton Pond via Angel and Piccadilly to Victoria. By the more respectable hour of 6am, me and the fleece-wearing Jane (I find out her name, and that she’s on her ‘way back from a friend’s house’) are joined by a few punters, though theydon’t seem animated enough to chat as we join the start of the capital’s rush hour at Holborn.
As the bus route starts to clog up, I have to wonder how anyone ‘rushes’ anywhere on the bus. And wouldn’t this trip take half the time in the tube? ‘Cheaper’ and ‘I get a seat’ are the explanations I hear, and having thus far paid £1.40 for a seat with a view to travel from one end of London to the other, I’m starting to come round to that point of view.
But there’s more to the London bus than keeping costs down. It’s fascinating about seeing the city from the top deck. Ever bother looking at the buildings above the shops? I’m not talking about nosing into offices and flats (though you wouldn’t believe how many people walk around naked with the curtains open) – it’s the centuries-old architecture pocked with the scars of history, with Victorian inscriptions and scraps of pre-war adverts. Glimpses of London’s former lives.
There’s also still a residual thrill about riding on high that makes you regress to age five. And these charms have endured for the current generation of wide-eyed toddlers who start to colonise the bus after 10am. ‘I! WANT! TO GO! UPSTAIRS!’ shouts one young madam at Piccadilly, engaging in a battle of wills that has been played out on doubledeckers for the last hundred years.
As I jump off an old-style 38 and on to one of the Routemaster-like ‘New Bus For London’ beauties, I realise the top deck on this vehicle is even more exciting.
There seems to be a sense of old-fashioned friendliness about the new buses. There’s something about the seating plan and decor that’s a little more convivial – like taking a trip inside a mobile members’ club from 1962. But one with LED displays.
‘I used to work in a leisure centre,’ says Sid, the dreadlocked, twentysomething conductor. ‘This is better. People like talking to you.’ His job is to stand by the back door ensuring people touch in (‘and makingsure tourists don’t touch in and out, cos they’ll pay twice’) and that passengers don’t leap on and off while it’s moving. So do many dice with death? ‘Not now – the novelty’s worn off.’
Sid’s probably glad he’s downstairs, as a schoolboy food fight breaks out on the top deck. As a chip skids past my foot, I decide I’ll stay out of the fray by standing downstairs. Maybe it’s that bad-tempered time of day, but not long afterwards, our previously mute driver also breaks his silence. ‘I’ve got a lesson for you,’ he shouts as a moped swerves ahead. ‘Don’t pull out in front of buses!’ ‘Why didn’t you honk your horn at them?’ I ask. ‘No, they get the right hump. I’ve had people chasing after the bus.’
But every city must play host to the occasional oddball. As the evening draws on, I hear a man singing, his loud serenade seemingly directed at an uncomfortable-looking blonde woman behind him. ‘Is that an original song?’ I ask him. ‘Yeah, kind of. I just like singing about things like flowers and clouds and stuff. Takes my mind off things. I used to sing when I was in prison.’ He tells me he’s from Croydon and asks if I can ‘lend’ him 50p. I oblige, for the singing if nothing else. He gets off at the next stop. ‘He seemed harmless,’ says the object of his affections. And he surely is. But as we slow down in traffic on Shaftesbury Avenue, there’s a knock at her window. The singing man is walking alongside the bus blowing kisses. She smiles and turns away. That’s the last we see of him, but for a few moments I worry he’ll be back, armed and bent on revenge for my sabotage of his seduction routine. That’s urban paranoia for you – and maybe it’s that bit more pronounced on a bus, which somehow seems a more anarchic arena than a train.
Of course, booze is noted for fuelling that rogue element, but come kicking-out time, the atmosphere is, if anything, more friendly. ‘It’s Lara’s birthday,’ announces a bearded man in a flat cap who got on near Soho, raising a can of Carlsberg. ‘Can we get everyone to sing “Happy Birthday”?’
Within minutes, my fellow passengers and I are being taught Irish drinking songs and accepting swigs of supermarket lager. The party has died down by 2am, except for a middle-aged African lady singing on the back seats about the joy of our Lord’s love, drunk on nothing more than faith. I wonder what it must be like for the drivers to deal with such challenging clientele.
‘I’m laid back,’ says one custodian as his shift ends at Clapton Pond at 4am. ‘If the passengers wanna pay, they pay. If not, I don’t care.’ ‘Guess that’s not your battle to fight,’ I reason. ‘Is not battle. I am from Bosnia. That was battle. This? Easy job.’ At this point, I did that thing where you nod off and wake up at the terminal. We’ve all been there. And it could have been worse.
‘Once I woke up on a night bus,’ recalls Finnish teaching assistant Nina, who is also disembarking, ‘and I was covered in sick. I thought, Who the hell has thrown up on me? Then I realised I had thrown up on me.’
Crawling day and night at an average of 11mph through our streets, the London bus is a moving microcosm of the capital. As a cheap and scenic transport option it’s grand – and my 24-hour odyssey has also seen me ‘reconnect’ with the bus network, just as TfL hoped. But it’s also seen me connect with Londoners from every walk, so to speak, of life – if you want to see this old city in a new light, I can heartily recommend a holiday on the buses.
For more moving tales of London’s tubes, trains and buses go to timeout.com/transport.