The tremendous upsurge in travel writing and in travel has led to a dangerous scarcity in interesting or gimmicky journeys for the travel writer or travel-programme-maker. This is why the BBC is launching a series of films of tremendously boring trips, under the generic title Great Bus Journeys of the World. In this series Paul Theroux takes the London Transport Number 19 from his house down to the shops. Michael Frayn goes on a sight-seeing tour round Sheffield, and Michael Palin pays five quid to go to India on an old Leeds Corporation double-decker. And I, in a bus-ride down memory motorway, take the number 006 National Coach from Liverpool to London. This extract from the journal of my journey is taken from a BBC merchandising pack which accompanies the series – it includes a book, video, tee-shirt, a soap dish and a bus (£17,000 from BBC Enterprises).
The scene. Skelhorne Street Bus Station. Liverpool dateline: September 1984. ALEXEI SAYLE is standing by a modern coach.
ALEXEI: Now in these modern times intercity coaches are luxurious affairs, fitted with big powerful engines, reclining seats, videos, dinner served complete with international-style cabaret direct from Le Crazy Horse Saloon, Paris. But back in 1971 ...
Cut to ALEXEI standing by an old Bristol coach. ALEXEI now has long hair and Zapata moustache, purple crushed velvet jacket and flared trousers.
ALEXEI: Coaches were much more spartan and under-powered. It wasn’t so much a greyhound bus – more an elderly labrador with its hair falling out that slobbers on the carpet. This bus here was equipped with a two-stroke lawnmower engine – the trip to London took six days. The reason I was taking that lonesome bus back in 1971 was that I had been accepted as a student at Chelsea Art School. I thought I’d been accepted on the strength of my oil paintings of Wild Horses at Sunset and Fireworks Night, but in fact my mother had secretly put a Jewish packed lunch and a clean set of underwear into my portfolio when I went for the interview for a place as a student, and the panel of major artists had mistaken 16 pickled schrogwurst sandwiches on glaglich bread for a semi-allegorical work which raised serious questions about the relationship of painting to sculpture and of art to reality. So I got into college on the strength of my lunch.
A coach takes on the character of the city it leaves from, so the New York to Boston Greyhound is full of powerful people selling things to each other; the Paris to Limoges bus is packed with chefs whipping up delightful cuisine minceur pea-pod omelettes on Camping Gaz stoves. On this Liverpool bus a fight broke out before we left, and as soon as we cleared the bus station three idiot families switched on radios tuned to three different stations.
Many people have speculated on why Liverpool has been the home of so many comedians, and some have ascribed it to a warmth in the Liverpudlian’s character. This is bollocks. The truth is that Liverpool people are incredibly sarcastic and love being verbally hurtful to those who step out of line. If Einstein had been living in Liverpool he would have come running out of his house shouting: ‘I’ve discovered it. Space is curved! Space and Time are relative! E = mc2!’ And all the people would have told him to stop showing off and then have taken the piss out of his clothes.
As the coach coughed its way down the East Lancs Road I studied my reflection in the window: the Zapata moustache, the psychedelic kipper tie (made out of a real kipper) – I felt like a million dollars and looked like a right cunt. It’s odd really how people end up – Latin revolutionaries Che Guevara and Emiliano Zapata ended up as a boutique and a soppy moustache, while Garibaldi ended up as a kind of biscuit and Leon Trotsky had a kind of face flannel named after him.
I wondered what London was going to be like. Of course I had been there before but mainly on political demonstrations. To this day if I want to walk anywhere in London I always have to start from Speakers’ Corner and I can only ever walk to the American Embassy, the Houses of Parliament or South Africa House. Also I tend to walk down the middle of the road shouting, and waving a bit of cardboard on a stick.
Suddenly the coach gave a particularly violent cough and began to spurt black smoke. Fortunately the driver managed to get us to a motorway service area. The driver said he could probably fix the engine by cannibalising a hair-dryer but it would take many hours. All we could do was wait. For a while I wandered round the service area. I played the video games, like Motorway Madness in which you are a salesman in a 1.3 Cavalier with ten minutes to get to a sales conference in Nottingham. Then I got bored and made a big mistake. Motorway service stations are little islands of urban civilisation surrounded by that wild and unfriendly place we call THE COUNTRY. As a city boy I had never been to the country but now I hopped over the fence and found myself in a narrow country lane. It was late afternoon; I walked along staring at green growing things that I could not put a name to but were probably Witch-o’-me-wife’s-elbow bay root. After a while I came to a village. What I didn’t know was that this village was near an American airbase. Now the US forces are not the benefactors to country areas they pretend to be. If any local is rude to them in the village shop they shoot one in ten of the population. I came round the corner just as some of the local village resistance were blowing up a US half-track using a homemade rocket launcher constructed from old copies of the Radio Times. The explosions sent me running into the woods.
As night fell I became helplessly lost. The village also happened to be near a nuclear-power station and any locals that went past glowed like Ready Brek adverts. From time to time I was attacked by giant five-legged chickens. The country is supposed to be peaceful and quiet – all I could hear as I tried to get some sleep was the sound of cute, furry, iggly-wiggly little animals ripping the throats out of other cute, furry, iggly-wiggly little animals. Further away I heard the crump of rockets as our American allies called down air support to flatten the village because a sergeant couldn’t get Budweiser beer in the pub.
In the morning I managed to stumble back to the service area just as the bus was leaving. As we crawled through a lunchtime London traffic jam, I stared out of the window. I saw hundreds of nutters for whom London is a magnet, screaming and shouting in the streets and everybody else acting as if they weren’t there. In Park Lane I saw row after row of Rollers and Porsches and BMWs and Jags. Any car that cost less than 15 grand, had an engine less than two litres and no power steering, wasn’t allowed to drive in Mayfair. I saw famous people – I saw the bloke from the Lem-Sip advert, the woman who plays the scatty wife in the sit-com about the four firemen with epilepsy that’s on ITV and the man with the funny hat who commentates on the Rugby.
As the bus rolled into Victoria Coach Station I thought ‘fuck it’ and got the next coach back to Liverpool.
Unfortunately the bus I got on wasn’t going to Liverpool – it was an old Leeds Corporation double-decker going overland to India. I didn’t notice there was anything wrong until we were half-way across Tunisia. That was when we were all captured by wild Tandoori tribesmen and sold into slavery, had to eat each other, drink our own piss and go mad. And to cap it all when we were finally rescued the plane taking us home had run out of duty-free Bailey’s Irish Cream.