London’s Night Bus — a Eulogy

Why the city’s striking.

The most awesome thing about New York City is that the subway runs through the night. And, riding it that one time, I experienced all the emotions during the three hours it took to travel from whatever hip-cat pop-up craft repurposed corner of Brooklyn that the blogger fucks had sent me back to my ‘budget’ Manhattan hotel. All the emotions. For instance, I was scared by the sobbing (eyes like tiny waterfalls) woman who wouldn’t stop screaming that I looked like Jesus (I don’t) and I initially liked, later resented, a couple of friendly fellows who asked to record my British accent saying unpleasant things. They wanted to use my voice on a track they were composing. It was in Grand Central, or one of the big stations anyhow, that I waited for transit to the JFK at four in the morning — the full platform was a binary of tourists or drunks. Reality had ripped and two dimensions briefly existed as one. I preferred the tourist reality. Marginally.

London, where I live, has much in common with New York — drunks, tourists, Pret a Manger (I refuse to add the accents — it’s a British firm), overpriced real estate — but it doesn’t have a 24-hour underground train system. Not yet. From 12th September, there will exist five ‘night tube’ lines. A limited service of six trains an hour will operate on the Jubilee, Victoria, and most of the Northern, Central, and Piccadilly lines. We Londoners may not (yet) have all-day services, but at least our tube lines have names rather than letters.

The big loser (aside from the employees of Transport for London, according to the transport unions representing the employees of Transport for London, the public body that runs … wait for it … London transport) is the night bus. To party in London past one in the morning is to rely on the bus network, a vast fisherman’s net that snags the 611 square miles of the capital. It’s a rite of passage, a training mission to be completed before access proper to the game is granted. Every night bus is crowded, hot, smells of vomit and bleeds with drunken sing-alongs. Fact — the reason that London buses are coloured red (cf that Friends episode and James Bond and Paddington) is to better conceal the blood of drunken midnight revellers and the chili sauce of their kebabs.

Channel 4 recently ran a TV show called The Night Bus: ‘An ordinary night bus has been kitted out with cameras for this series, witnessing the funny, surprising and sometimes moving interaction between passengers after dark.’ There was footage of vomiting and fighting and kissing and shouting. It wasn’t recommissioned for a second season.

You might begin to understand why the the trade unions are striking. At least on a bus, the driver can pull the handbrake and throw troublemakers off. Such a tactic would be more dramatic/fatal on an underground train. Thursday 9th July saw the biggest disruption of the tube network in thirteen years as drivers staged a 24-hour (LOL) walk-out. If you’re unfortunate enough to follow Londoners on Twitter, you’ll have muted the repeated complaints of marathons to work and windows busting on overcrowded buses. You’ll have noticed too that the unions are striking again today (Thursday, 6th August). Specifically, their beef, as everyone’s, is pay and roster. It’s within this context that David Cameron’s newly birthed right-wing government, following announcements of intent to prune social security and desire to fuck over the BBC, have proposed rules to limit workers’ rights to strike. Their arbitrary figure of 40% eligible to vote as a minimum for strikes to be called is a higher number than the Conservative’s share of the electoral vote. Wild haired Tory Boris Johnson, now balancing his London mayoral duties with those of his newly gained parliamentary seat, will want to see the 24-hours plan pushed through. It will provide him with ‘legacy’ — that most important of words to the modern politician, especially one with vaulting political ambition.

An inevitable consequence of the night-time tube is a reduction of the night bus provision. A friend was once helped home by the president of the European fan-club of Boston. There’s something to the iron and glass fashioning of the Jubilee line that suggests the meeting could never have happen there. Travellers will revert to their inner commuter. One of Boris’ earliest interventions as mayor was to ban alcohol on the tube. Consequently, there were bacchanalian Circle line parties on the weekend before the rule went live. These, needless to say, ended around midnight with the last tube.

Cheers — I hold up my vodka and lemonade, decanted into a 1.5 litre Coca Cola bottle, to you, treasured night bus. The beauty of the Circle line is that it’s impossible to ever travel too far from your destination. One of the attractions of travelling, however, is the unpredictability, that enlivening feeling that anything might happen, even Gatsby, that Fitzgerald describes as Nick Carraway is carried away over the Queensboro Bridge. With the introduction of a 24-hour tube service, greater convenience comes with a little less danger, a little less life.

That said, never again will I be shaken awake by the dull hands of a weary bus driver.

‘Orpington,’ he says. ‘End of the line.’

Orpington — a suburban neighbourhood so far from central London that there’s not even a Pret a Manger (I refuse to add the accents — it’s a British firm).

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