Short Cuts

Andrew O’Hagan

Harold Pinter once remarked that a writer who stops taking buses is likely to lose touch with the people’s speech. I can’t say whether this was true or not in Pinter’s case, though I was with him once in the Café Anglais when he took exception to the waiter’s way of speaking.

PINTER: I’ll have the fish toast with the parmesan custard.

WAITER: No problem.

PINTER: I wasn’t anticipating one.

But back to the buses. There’s been a change in the way people speak as they roll along, especially 14-year-old girls. They shout into their phones with what used to be called gay abandon. I am a regular passenger on the 168 from Hampstead to Waterloo Station. I tend to go upstairs on the bus, basically because I’m still subject to childish excitements, and at a certain time of day – all times of day in the holidays – the back half of the bus is full of English girls shouting into their phones. They are all saying the same things and are swearing like navvies.

GIRL ONE: Listen, riiiiiight. Fackin listen, riiiiiiiiiiight. It’s a queer cunt, innit. No! His mum’s a fackin slag and he can’t ’elp it.

GIRL TWO: No wayyyyyyyyyyyyyy. No wayyyy. Fackin givin it all that.

GIRL THREE: I’m not goin. I’m not goin.

GIRL FOUR: Fackin lippy, innit.

GIRL TWO: Like totally. A slag.

GIRL THREE: No way.

GIRL FOUR: Listen, riiiiiiight.

GIRL ONE: Givin it that.

The woman next to me winced every time one of them swore and she turned to me when they got off at Chalk Farm. ‘You’d want to wash their mouths out with soap. I don’t know where they even get language like that. Off the telly?’

‘Maybe.’

‘You don’t even know what them girls are saying. I mean, the only bit you can work out’s the swearing. The rest is just … what?’

‘Nonsense.’

‘That’s right. Nonsense. Can’t make out a word. Loud, though. And the laughing.’

‘They like to laugh, all right.’

‘Good God. People didn’t used to laugh like that. I mean, all loud and for nothing.’

At Mornington Crescent, I saw a bus coming the other way that said something a bit intriguing up the side: ‘If you’re not religious, for God’s sake say so.’ This was an ad paid for by the British Humanist Association and it was meant for people wondering which box to tick on their census form. According to the Humanists, the government justifies the funding of faith schools with statistics saying a giant proportion of British people are Christian. It’s only since 2001 that our census form has popped the religion question. It took me about three seconds to realise I wouldn’t be ticking the box marked ‘Roman Catholic’. This might sound like a no-brainer to some of you, but not to me: it was a long three seconds. Even 40 years after my baptism, 25 years after my confirmation, those three seconds of renunciation were a glimpse into the howling caverns of Hell.

Euston always makes me think of Glasgow. Just the notion of the train and the smell of vinegar it used to have. Life with your original family in most cases will only cover two censuses. The one I remember is 1981. We were living in the grounds of a borstal in a place called Stevenston and I can still see the green form sitting on the kitchen table. Although I was only 13, I was considered the family lawyer. I don’t think I actually filled in the form but I gave some legal advice. There was some debate over whether my father should be named ‘head of household’. There was also some debate about whether my eldest brother’s girlfriend would be staying the night and therefore, in the circumstances and under the aforementioned rules stated and prescribed, should be getting a mention on the form.

I’m not sure if the Humanists will get their way. I imagine people in Britain feel it’s a bit Continental to say on a form that you’re nothing at all. In 2001, only 14.7 per cent of the population chose to describe themselves as having no religion. On the other hand, nearly 400,000 people in England and Wales – including an impressive 2.6 per cent of those who live in Brighton – replied that they were ‘Jedi’ or ‘Jedi Knight’, which is not a religion in the strictest sense. But you have to admire the instinct. Britain might have become an altogether gentler place if the Monster Raving Loony Party had enjoyed a landslide in the general election of 1979.

Filling in the census, I realised there wasn’t much to report beyond the fact that I didn’t have a wife and ten children and I didn’t believe in the resurrected Christ. On both scores, as well as one or two others, I found myself outclassed by John Stanislaus Joyce, who was ‘head of family’ at the house in Royal Terrace, Clontarf, when the 1901 census was taken. I have a copy of his return framed in my loo, and it shows, rather boldly, that he, his wife Mary and their ten children were all Roman Catholic, could all ‘read and write’ and were aged between 51 (John) and eight (Mabel). James Joyce, son, is 19, and is one of only two in the family (along with his younger brother John) who are listed as speaking ‘Irish and English’.

We might assume that Joyce continued to take the bus. (At 11 a.m., doesn’t Stephen Dedalus travel by public transport on his way from the school in Dalkey?) Censuses may not give you the heart and soul of the country, that’s literature’s job, but they tell you the circumstances of the population on a given day, which might also be literature’s job, if you stick with Joyce. The census coming round is also cause for excitement because it marks the release, under the hundred-year rule, of census reports we have never seen before.

I filled this year’s in, and then stayed up all night to examine the newly released census of 1911. (You can do that sort of thing when you don’t have ten children.) And while questions are answered, mysteries abound, which is part of the joy of all this. About three o’clock in the morning, I found the return from my paternal grandmother’s house in 1911. She lived at 83 King Street in Glasgow and was nine. They lived up above the family fishmonger’s shop, but where was her mother? Dead, I knew. And where was her father? Remarried, I knew. Past research had told me she lived in a tenement in King Street with her grandmother, Mary Lavery. But Mary isn’t there. My grandmother is living with a woman nobody has ever heard of called Sarah Duffy who refers to her as her ‘grandchild’. That first census I remember seeing, the green form on the table in 1981, held my attention the year my grandmother died. I remember looking into her eyes and thinking they were full of untold stories.