Night bus

I haven’t yet got any photographs for this piece. There’s a reason. Allotments, fungus forays, natural history field trips all lend themselves to the portable memory of the mobile phone. Parties, bridges, seaside views and tractors do too, because they don’t show any signs of invaded privacy. However city streets at night or dodgy bars full of strangers – and night buses – demand a lot of street wisdom, and consequently floor the photographic brakes most of the time.

We used to love travelling and rarely felt intimidated when we wandered into the kind of places that gave us prickly feelings. “What are the chances?” we’d say to ourselves. On the station at Barcelonetta we were surrounded by a gang of muggers and once I’d made it clear that we’d fight for our cameras they decided not to take the risk. I was once advised that moving back from a threat was the wrong thing to do. “Lean into it and get in their faces”, I was told, “and although you might still get hammered they’ll more likely be intimidated themselves.” I’m sharing this information because my days of love, peace and let’s be reasonable have taught me that bullies and thugs rarely welcome a sensible discussion. As long as I get to walk away in one piece I’m content to let appearances give the false impression of fearlessness.

Anyway, last night we made one of our expeditions to Bristol which Cobbett would have recognised as a suburb of the Great Wen. We were off to an old friend’s birthday celebration in the same restaurant as we’d met in for a similar event 38 years ago. I’m not sure why Bristol enjoys such a high reputation – we both find it pretty sordid in many areas in spite of having lived and worked there for years. It’s noisy, perpetually jammed with traffic and the average age in the central areas during the day is about 25. At night, for those of a nervous disposition it’s best to keep your eyes peeled. Walking past the student hostels near the bus station the smell of weed lingers in the air, and a young woman coming back to the main door of her tower block looked anxiously around before scuttling in like a scared mouse. Nonetheless, once the initial negative impression has worn off I find it tremendously exciting. I’ve always had a thing about arriving at railway stations in places I’ve never been to and where languages are spoken that I don’t understand. Every sense is turned up to ten and it becomes a Brahmsian symphony of sounds, smells, noises, lights and unfamiliar tongues. Every kind, every nationality of food is available. Stokes Croft must have the highest variety of takeaways in the city. It’s not pretty but there’s a sense of community there

We always catch the bus into Bristol because parking is either impossibly expensive or just impossible; and we nearly didn’t make it this time because just as the bus was going down Union street, a young skateboarder slalomed into the bus at speed and the driver made an emergency stop which slammed us all into the seats in front of us. The skateboarder (with one of his lives expended) picked himself up and peered through the windscreen at the driver with a completely non judgemental look, more curiosity than WTF?!

We’d arrived at the bus station with an hour to spare, so we wandered up through the Independent Republic of Stokes Croft inspecting the graffiti which are very good and very dense – intelligent tagging. For such a diverse and alternative feeling area it had more obscurely named churches than a Welsh mining village. Getting saved would be a doddle here; far easier than in the wealthy highlands of Clifton, or the lush pastures of Southville. With time to spare we inspected the bars as we walked on, and settled on one with a big window so we could see what we were letting ourselves in for. At the bar I asked for a couple of lagers and the barman asked if I wanted glasses for them – it was that kind of bar. “Oh yes please,” I said, “I’m old you know …..I like a glass”. Next to me a young man with pinprick pupils asked me if I’d like to go mad? proffering something small and round. I said that I’d been there already and had no desire to go back and he laughed, along with the barman who could see the funny side of dealing to a man with not that much time left to abuse. This is where it all gets confusing because in spite of the slightly feral vibe, it was a very safe feeling. I often find it hard to read young people, but don’t see why they should even try to be understood. It’s their world and god knows we’ve all but ruined it for them. But the dealer was lovely with Madame and showed her where the toilets were and steered her away from the stinkiest areas – see what I mean?

So then to Picton Street which has a lifetime of memories for me because I used to buy all my radio parts from Pitts at the top, opposite the restaurant we were making for which was called Bell’s Diner at the time and is now an Italian called Bianchi’s – and very good it is too; great arancini. Among the guests was someone who spent his childhood in the street and whose family owned two shops there and he also bought bits from Pitts. We had such an animated conversation that Phil, our host, said we looked as if we’d known one another for years. Oh I do love a good party and this one was in honour of our old friend – a bit of an angel – called Ruth who once said something to me that changed the course of my life. It was so good a party, in fact, that we delayed leaving until much later than we’d intended and so, very slightly drunk, we wandered back down Picton Street just as as an imposing looking sound system was being set up. A queue had formed outside a hole in the wall fast food servery and we walked on down Jamaica Street to an almost empty bus station. There was the usual cleaner with a brush and pan sweeping up the day’s rubbish in a desultory manner. It was all quiet,

So only ten minutes later we set off in the 39 bus, but sadly the driver had not been briefed about a road closure so we waited in the canyon also known as Fairfax Street while he made a phone call to someone whose terrible stammer became something of an obstacle to planning the way out. An astoundingly drunk man got on and ricocheted from side to side up the bus to the back. Eventually we returned to the bus station but took a different route at Haymarket roundabout which must have left at least a few people waiting hopelessly in the cold at Wine Street. A few more got on, mostly tired and grey. At Temple Meads another drunk clambered into the front seat as if he were climbing Annapurna and then waved animatedly at his own reflection in the window. He was tidy and well spoken (in a more or less inebriate way) and looked as if he might have sprung unchanged from a 1930’s lodge meeting. At night the bus takes a longer route through Keynsham and the drunk man at the front asked if the bus stopped at Saltford (it does) and the driver declined to take the conversation any further.

Once we got to Keynsham the man in the front demanded to get off – he’d clearly forgotten where he was going. He stepped down from the bus and then took a wonderful tumble; bouncing harmlessly as drunks often do. The driver leapt out of the bus and helped him to his feet and he wandered off into the darkness. The bus pulled away once again and there was a loud crash behind as the other drunk fell off his seat. We stopped. The driver came up the bus and said “Oh I love my job” and reassured himself that drunk number two hadn’t done himself any serious harm. The rest of the journey was uneventful and as we got off I said to the driver that he deserved a medal. He didn’t disagree.

Home then, a glass of wine and bed; very very late – and not a single photo to illustrate our adventure. Next time perhaps …. I love catching the night bus.

It was the human equivalent of a gannetry; stinking, filthy, violent and overwhelmingly noisy. 

IMG_20200109_122242IMG_20200109_123129A couple of days of intensive grandparenting have kept us pretty busy at the Potwell Inn, and yesterday we bussed over to Bristol to look after the two youngest during the day while their mum and dad were at an event.  We’d planned taking them to the Museum and Art Gallery – always a haven for wet days and access time for glum looking parents, but due to a mix-up with the buses into the city centre we spent most of our time on the bus. The museum turned out to be closed on Mondays anyway but – and this is the important point – the children were wonderfully philosophical and loved the buses which, I suspect, they don’t get to use much. We use them whenever we can because it keeps the car off the road and it’s free. This is no mean achievement  for the government, a social policy that older people love, use all the time, and must surely be good for the environment. It makes no distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor (a truly malignant calculus) and I can’t understand why politicians don’t stop waffling on with endless pious hopes about public transport and support it with hard cash. People will flock to it if it’s cheap (and clean), but when a single bus fare from Bath to Bristol in peak time costs £5 there’s very little incentive to leave the car behind. The poorest, of course, have no choice.

Yesterday we walked up to the museum through the centre of town and there’s no denying it was a miserable experience. Quality of life in Bristol has deteriorated on almost any measure you could name. The  walk uphill past the main hospital was so polluted by noise and car fumes we just stopped talking altogether and I could feel my chest tightening.  I’m a bit deaf these days, and such was the intensity and volume of the roar being bounced between the concrete buildings I had no idea where it was coming from. It was the human equivalent of a gannetry; stinking, filthy, violent and overwhelmingly noisy. Buildings were covered in graffiti – the old Bank of England building near Bristol Bridge was a particularly poignant example, and there were beggars everywhere.  Nobody, it seems, wants to help them find jobs or homes.

Meanwhile, the great British public, unable to raise ourselves above apathy in relation to the climate emergency have stripped the shelves in Sainsbury’s so that not a single toilet roll was on sale this morning. Our son saw someone in the street dressed in what looked like a hazmat suit carrying a load of them today. When I first heard him tell it I thought it must be one of those lovely stunts that the Natural Theatre Company used to get up to with Brian Popay.  It’s not our sanity as much as our sense of priorities I worry about. I’ve no doubt that blame will soon be assigned to the hapless people who brought coronavirus here and as soon as we know who to hate we’ll all be happy again, but it does seem odd that we have learned to tolerate public squalour and the devastation of the environment but are galvanised by fear of a virus. I don’t know how many children and old people will die of asthma related disease aggravated by traffic pollution in a so-called ‘normal’ year but as sure as hell it isn’t zero.  Neither do I know how many people will die from neglect and cold, even from starvation; but that won’t be zero either.

I suspect that the trick is to find a suitably disposable scapegoat and to pin the blame on them but – in a phrase I overuse – ‘we have seen the enemy, it is us’   And so for example the enemy could be the cow and the only way out is – apparently – more mass produced junk food but without any meat in it.  It seems we’re willing to contemplate eating processed seaweed and intensively grown soya until we turn green – anything except ending our dependence on burning fossil fuels. We love our cars so much we’d rather choke to death than catch a bus.

Is it just me being an old fogey?  Younger people seem to manage the noisy canyons by wearing headphones and walking holding their mobiles.  I suppose it’s a kind of insulation against the reality of the streets.  Am I hopelessly out of touch with the realities of life? am I just another  middle class, old white man too fastidious to want to deal with the way we do things round here? It’s always possible – I know enough about myself to know that I don’t know anything much about me, my fears and obsessions. But just sometimes we have to make the choice between more of the same and something much harder that demands commitment, resources and a lot of courage.

The rewards of walking hand in hand with my grandchildren and playing riotous games with a home made peashooter made out of a cardboard roll – well they take some beating, but the thought that they will never hear a nightingale or a nightjar, or see a wild hare in a field or be safe to play away from home is really scary. The thought that their lives will become precarious and stripped of the pleasures of eating together by food insecurity and industrial gloop; that their inner lives will be curated entirely by Google and Apple and shaped by the interests of the corporations – that’s a hellish vision.


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