Little England

Patrick Wright

  • Great British Bus Journeys: Travels through Unfamous Places by David McKie
    Atlantic, 359 pp, £16.99, March 2006, ISBN 1 84354 132 7

In 2000 the Royal Institute of British Architects hosted a public meeting at which various contenders for the new office of London mayor were invited to argue their case for election. If the event remains memorable, it’s thanks largely to the Conservative candidate, Lord Archer, who betrayed no inkling of the perjury charges that would soon ditch his campaign and carry him off to jail. Instead, the irrepressible huckster proposed to take advantage of London’s recently introduced system of ‘red routes’ by establishing a new super-fast bus service tailored to the needs of his busy friends in the City. He envisioned a fleet of sleek new vehicles, equipped with modem-ports and work stations, which would enable the nation’s champions to sail back and forth without being fouled by the lesser movements of their fellow citizens.

Though it sounded implausible at the time, Archer’s proposal was in line with the more baroque – perhaps pre-Cameronian – tradition of Tory thinking about public transport. It was in the same genre as the rumour – even David McKie has been unable to turn up a precise source – that Margaret Thatcher once remarked that anyone who rode a bus after reaching the age of 26 was a failure. It also reminded me of a story Ken Livingstone liked to recite when he was leader of the GLC. One day, he had found himself taking the Underground in the company of a Tory MP. The arriving train was heavily congested and the unaccustomed Tory – who may or may not have been Alan Clark – recoiled from the throng revealed by the opening doors, suggesting that they might do better to walk along the platform to the restaurant car.

Jeffrey Archer may have dreamed of routes as straight as an executive jet’s runway, but McKie knows that a true bus journey is a wandering, much interrupted affair that takes for ever to arrive at anything resembling a destination. Characterised by diversions, digressions and unlikely encounters, it’s also liable to breakdowns: moments of mental as well as mechanical failure in which all momentum is lost. For him, the bus is undoubtedly the way to go: slow, indirect and, in its own grinding and unreliable manner, as conducive to the stream of consciousness as the train was in Turgenev’s novel Smoke.

In postwar Leeds, the city in which McKie grew up, the corporation buses were green – a colour chosen, he recalls, because the Conservatives objected to the implicit socialism of the city’s red trams. The buses helped to define the town: ‘Their corporate presence spoke of continuity, civic pride and a sense of place, where the liveries of their successors speak simply of money.’ The more recent privatised bus service may have ‘zest and variety’, but McKie finds its vehicles too diverse to project an idea of Leeds as a ‘proud and distinctive entity’.

After drinking a cappuccino at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, built on the site of the demolished but once brave new Quarry Hill Flats (into which his mother had refused to move as a war-widowed evacuee from London), he boards an Arriva bus and quits Leeds via Hunslet, which also appears more or less obliterated since Richard Hoggart, who described its working-class culture so memorably in The Uses of Literacy, grew up there. Next comes Woodlesford, where McKie gazes round for any trace of the rhubarb for which the place was once well known, and we chug onwards to Wakefield, where George Gissing is not commemorated as fully as he might be – too ‘grim’, perhaps, and too heavily challenged, like many formerly industrial towns and all socialist novelists, for a happy ending.

McKie’s purpose is not so much to deny that present-day Britain is full of ‘crap towns’ and rebranded ‘non-places’ as to demonstrate that even the most depleted stretches of the British scene can still be thickened up, particularised and made interesting – at least for as long as it takes Arriva, First or Stagecoach to haul him on to the next location. He is generally not inclined to discover his stories by canvassing public opinion as he goes. Instead, he relies on a curious process of historical subsidence, sinking down through the road into a vaulted underworld filled with spectral presences from a largely forgotten past. His bag is bulging with ancient guidebooks – among his favourites are Betjeman’s Shell county guides – and his technique is comparable to that used in Adam Thorpe’s short story ‘In the Author’s Footsteps’, in his new collection, Is This the Way You Said?[*] Here an obstinately backward-looking rambler uses old maps and guidebooks acquired from second-hand bookshops to plan his assaults on present-day England. Guided by a volume from 1949 entitled Buckinghamshire Footpaths, he decides to hike to Milton Keynes: ‘a homely place. Fields encroach upon the dusty by-lane, and brim over the scattered cottages.’ He is soon clambering over the M1, through a vast Tesco storage depot, and into the Gyosei Japanese boarding-school in Willen, where he is apprehended as a trespasser. Undeterred by such difficulties, he turns up a copy of Rambles through Middlesex (1929), and sets his sights on a ‘slumbering hamlet’ named ‘Heath Row’.

Like Thorpe’s radically anachronistic English rambler, McKie sets about his task in a spirit of heroic virtuosity. He relishes famously despised places such as Slough, where he sympathises with the concerned residents who, in 1870, already suspected that their new town might fare better if named Upton Royal. Thomas Hardy is hoisted aboard and driven past Weymouth to the Isle of Portland, a rocky place where Marie Stopes was once to be found retired among stoneworkers still accustomed to testing the fertility of potential brides before finally consenting to marry them. In Lichfield, the geographical centre of Middle England, a statue of Captain Edward John Smith of the Titanic stands in a park bestowing dangerous blessings on newly-wed couples emerging from the nearby register office.

In McKie’s version of England the past is generally not allowed to assert itself as a moral yardstick, a measure of decline or a spur to progress. It appears, more characteristically, as a collection of disconnected bits and pieces, which can be used to cast a light-hearted sense of discrepancy over the contemporary scene. England turns out to be an old curiosity shop disintegrating among the gleaming hangars of a brand new retail park. McKie is the grizzled proprietor, momentarily bringing past and present together to produce ironical effects, and smiling as he lets them spring apart again.

Despite his tactical disavowal of earnestness, McKie knows his Defoe, Cobbett and Priestley, and his book is littered with indications that the ‘state of the nation’ is a matter of some concern to him. Following his habit of recovering forgotten precedents, I decided to continue the inquiry with the help of a writer who started using buses to investigate the condition of England seventy years before McKie embarked on his travels. Entitled Pot Luck in England and published in the spring of 1936, Douglas Goldring’s first ‘haphazard tour’ of England entailed no preliminary ‘staff-work’ and no list of recommended inns: ‘I never knew in the morning where I should sleep at night. I jumped off one bus when I was sick of it, or when it stopped. I jumped on another when the spirit moved me to proceed, sometimes without enquiring where it went.’ His improvised route was the bus-traveller’s equivalent of the zigzag walk (first left, first right ad infinitum) that Stephen Graham had earlier recommended, in The Gentle Art of Tramping (1926), as a way of manoeuvring the modern city into new patterns of disclosure.

Starting at Victoria Coach Station, Goldring boards a bus that is about to depart for Essex, a county he has scarcely seen since his days as a severely flogged yet still uncompliant boy at Felsted School in Great Dunmow. Finding Chelmsford buried in industrial muddle, he mounts a green double-decker and is relieved when London’s sprawl finally seems to end at Great Baddow, where he is pleased to discover the silvery gleam of the Thames no longer confined by factories and warehouses as at Wapping.

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[*] Cape, 288 pp., £14.99, June, 0 224 07497 0.