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She became, in short, like a woman trapped on a bus, whose mind is everywhere but on her own journey.’ — Gregory Dart

BeckyJaneEyre illo

In 1986, the 168 bus route in London ran from Hampstead Heath to Waterloo, Monday to Saturday. In 1994, a Sunday service was introduced and the route was extended from Waterloo to Elephant and Castle, and in 2005 it was extended further along Old Kent Road. Today, at its southern point, it departs from the WN bus stop, opposite the Old Kent Road Tesco. The stop is also used by the 21, 53, 63, 172, 363 and 453 buses, as well as the two night buses, N21 and N63. The 168 is distinguishable on the route plan at the bus stop by a brown line, along which reads: ‘Waterloo 11 mins; Aldwych 16mins; Holborn 19 mins; Russell Square 23 mins; Euston 29 mins; Camden Town 34 mins; Chalk Farm 30 mins; Belsize Park 42 mins; Hampstead Heath 46 mins. End of Route.’

I used to live in Peckham, close to where the 168 bus leaves from the Tesco on Old Kent Road. Hampstead Heath always seemed a place very far away, but for the price of one journey on a London bus, it turned out to be possible to get there in an average time of between 35 to 46 minutes, depending on the traffic. The route is classified by Transport for London as ‘high frequency’—meaning that the controllers provide an, ‘even service’, rather than adhering to a precise timetable. One consequence of this practice is an inability to predict the location of a particular bus at the end of the driver’s shift. In order to avoid the drivers working overtime, therefore, passengers on the 168 are sometimes advised mid-journey that ‘the destination of this bus has changed’, prompting all passengers to disembark and to wait for another bus that will carry them the rest of their way home.

When using the bus, the movements of passengers are predetermined and managed by Transport for London, but the systematic processes enforced by this authority, even as they structure everyday movements such as the daily commute, inadvertently set a precedent for their opposite — for daydreams and fantasies — where real encounters are less relevant, immediate actions are unnecessary and details become ornamental baubles for alternative meanings. Here lies the ground of possibility for journeys within journeys.

In an essay on ‘Daydreaming’ in the city, Gregory Dart reflected upon the effects of the daily experience of travelling to work by bus:

‘Sitting on the top deck of the bus in the early morning we see our route to work mapped out before us. So to steal a glimpse of other people getting on or off at various stops, crossing the street, or simply on the pavement, is to imagine for ourselves (everyday) many different ways of being, alternative rhythms as well as alternative directions.’

But daydreams alone have their limits: they can be indulgent, extroverted veneers; despite their subversive potential, they have a formulaic formlessness to them, and today I am seeking to engage with the city, rather than escape from it. Walter Benjamin sought an intimate connection between the imaginative aspects and material realities of urban life by way of a topographical imagination. He aimed at seizing sights, smells and other sensual experiences of urban environments, in order to make current economic and social conditions more apparent. Before I set off I take some additional advice from Georges Perec’s book Species of Space (1974):

‘Set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is not of interest, what is more obvious, most common, most colourless. Make an effort to exhaust the subject, even if it seems grotesque or pointless or stupid.’

Perec’s method is not about resisting imaginative forms of space. His philosophical overview of the spaces we inhabit and engage with in our lives begins with the obvious, but then progresses beyond the physical, from where unthinkable things seem possible:

‘Carry on . . . until the scene becomes improbable, until you have the impression, for the briefest of moments, that you are in a strange town, or, better still, until you can no longer understand what is happening or is not happening, until the whole place becomes strange, and you no longer even know that this is what is called a town, a street, buildings, a pavement. . . Make torrential rain fall, smash everything, make grass grow, replace the people with cows.’

* * *

On the monopoly board, Old Kent Road is known for being the only property south of the river Thames, and also for being the cheapest property on the board. In the real world, it is a road in south London. Throughout England’s industrial period sections of the surrounding area were loaned by the Crown to local industrialists who built factories and housing as well as community facilities such as libraries. Much of it was left unchanged until the 1960s when London County Council demolished a large section of the area to make way for public parks, which remain today, alongside additional clusters of retail parks. Along with the Tesco, there is Asda, Argos, Halfords, Comet, Currys/PC World, B&Q, Toys R Us, Aldi and Lidl, many of which sustained damage during the riots and looting in August 2011.

A man sits on the street outside the Tesco and asks passers-by if they can ‘spare any change? Anything?’

9:11am: the bus arrives at the WN stop. I step on and place my blue credit-card-sized Oyster card on the yellow reader, which validates my journey and deducts £1.30 from my card. There are 26 seats on the ground floor, which are soon filled. I am sat in front of a TV monitor that flickers with various images of oblivious fellow passengers caught by the CCTV cameras installed in different parts of the bus. A young boy chats to his mum in a language I cannot understand. Other people are looking at their mobile phones. The bus sets off towards Bricklayers Arms and past a phone shop with police tape in front of it; an officer spills a bucket of soapsuds onto the pavement under the watch of two colleagues. Nobody else around seems to notice.

We travel down New Kent Road and pass Driscoll House, a pre-world war I, Baroque-style, grade-II listed building, which opened in 1913 as one of the first and few buildings reserved as accommodation for working women in London. It was funded by Ada Lewis, a wealthy Jewish philanthropist concerned about the lack of decent housing for single low-waged working women in the city. Trevor Driscoll later bought the building, renaming it and running it as a hostel providing affordable accommodation for foreign students. The building remains a hostel.

Further along, approaching the Elephant and Castle roundabout, the bus passes the Strata Tower, which is visible from most of south and east London. It has the appearance of a Philishave razor because it has wind turbines on the top. This ‘Razor’ consists of 408 luxury, high-rent apartments. It cost £113m to build and is part of the latest government-led regeneration project in the area, costing £1.5 billion.

‘Elephant and Castle/ London Road. Alight here for the Bakerloo Line.’ Two Asian ladies—a mother and her daughter—wait at the middle doors to get off, but the driver has not opened them yet. The older woman calls for him to do so, ‘please’, but the driver’s response is muffled behind his Perspex partition. A man in a green jacket, sitting towards the back, lifts his hand from his phone and, without raising his eyes from its screen, pushes the red ‘stop’ button in front of him, 1–2–3 times. The doors open with a ‘whoosh’ and the two ladies step out onto the pavement.

‘St George’s Circus.’ A modern stone obelisk, designed and erected in the 1700s, is the location for people who have gathered to drink cans of beer, topless in the sun.

Inside the bus there are adverts that run along the top of the lower floor. One, featuring two smiley-faced cartoons, reads, ‘I’ll keep my feet off the seat’ and, ‘and I won’t use a seat for my bag.’ Another advises me to ‘keep a close eye’ on my belongings because ‘unattended items cause delays.’

‘Waterloo Station/ Tennison Way.’ A man with denim jacket and sunglasses sits next to me with his arms folded. We drive over Waterloo Bridge—another grade II listed structure—with the river Thames flowing eastwards below. The positioning of the bridge on a bend of the river causes an optical illusion, giving a compressed view of the city’s riverside landmarks from Canary Wharf in the east to Westminster in the west. At the north side of the bridge, three people get off the bus through the middle doors and the man with the denim jacket moves to a vacant seat by the window.

‘Aldwych.’ Bush House was originally commissioned as a symbol of Anglo-American trade and was considered the most expensive building in the world when it opened in 1925 at an estimated cost of £2m. Considered a ‘quintessentially British building’ by the BBC, who up until July of this year broadcast their World Service from there, the building itself is Japanese-owned. There are a number of Japanese cafes and restaurants scattered along the adjoining Kingsway, which are mostly populated by young people in smart clothes.

* * *

A young woman is talking with a friend: it’s so dark in the winter where she is from, she says, especially without the snow, which at least reflects the dim light and makes things brighter. She encourages her travel companion to arrange a time to come and visit—ideally when the Christmas markets are open in December—but he has a thesis to write. It turns out she is from Sweden and recently quit her job to study film. Her mum and dad only speak through a lawyer these days.

The inter-personal bearings of urban subjects has been deeply affected since the nineteenth century by the constricted experience of time experienced while on public transport, wrote Georg Simmel in The Metropolis and Mental Life in 1903. Before this, ‘people had never been in a position of having to look at one another for long minutes or even hours without speaking to one another.’

A lady sitting next to me is speaking in French into her phone (weirdly, accordion music is also playing from a speaker somewhere out of site). She suddenly stops, looks at me and apologises in English. I look at her, smile and say that it’s okay, but I don’t know what is okay, and I don’t know what she is sorry for.

* * *

‘Holborn Station.’ I can smell alcohol, but I can’t see any.

Along Kingsway is the opening to the old Holborn Station that formed part of the Kingsway tramway. Despite following the same route, plans for the Cross River Tram line did not use this former tramway. The Cross River Tram was a Transport for London proposalfor a 10-mile tram system, proposed to follow a similar route to the current 168 bus: from Camden Town in the north, through Euston and King’s Cross, to Peckham and Brixton in the south. It was due to begin operation by 2016, but the project was cancelled in 2008 due to funding problems.

In 2010, the London council representative Caroline Pidgeon asked Mayor Boris Johnson whether, given that the Cross River Tram project was scrapped, the 168 route could be redirected down Southampton Way in North Peckham, in order to improve the transport options for local residents currently restricted to using the 343 bus. However it was estimated, according to Mayor Boris Johnson, that ‘Extending route 168 would cost around £850,000 a year [and] does not create enough new trips to justify the extra expenditure.[1]

In 2009 the artist Conrad Shawcross installed two identical machines back to back in the centre of the Kingsway tramway tunnel. The movement of the machines was preprogrammed—a bit like my own on this bus journey. They gradually moved away from each other, following the old tram tracks and stretching out coloured strings behind them as they went. These were bound together to form one thick hawser along the dark tunnel, representing a rational experience of time as an unbroken concept constructed from artificial processes.

Stephen Poliakoff also filmed part of his debut film Hidden City (1987) in this tunnel. The film portrays the city as, ‘so drowning in secrets that no-one knows which the important ones are anymore.’ It is a crime thriller, on a trajectory with no destination, set in a perpetually unknown world that exists amidst the metropolis. London is full of different histories that may be discarded but never completely lost. Our complex relationships with the city and its past become tangible in the ephemera of film, photographs, and the city’s assorted detritus, through which we have the capacity to consider multiple and varied narratives of the urban environment.

When the old slum housing around Old Kent Road was cleared away to make public parks, experimental housing projects like the Heygate Estate were also built. The architects on these projects believed that they could adapt the Modernist designs of the time, integrating them with the conceived potential of the Welfare State, while preserving the community-feel of the older buildings. At that time proximity of the tanneries and other factories meant this area was extremely smoky and dirty. The new buildings were designed to be light and airy in comparison, and the now-formidable walkways were intended to keep people away from the traffic that was soon to become a dominant feature of the area.

Today, the estate is perpetually under scheduled demolition as part of the same regeneration project responsible for the Strata Tower. However it is not just the architecture that remains as a legacy of this British social housing initiative. The trees and plants laid on the site at the time now contribute to a unique ecosystem in the heart of the area that is maintained by community guerrilla gardeners. Various buildings and beings jostle together like this, occupying the same territory, all around the city. ‘I could never live in London,’ my friend from home once remarked, ‘it’s all . . . higgledy piggeldy.’

***

While sat at the back,I notice that the top deck of the bus is in fact predominantly glass—not accounting for the roof—which allows for an almost 360-degree view of the city.

‘Euston Station/ Eversholt Street.’ An Asian lady with a walking stick; a black man with a black-and-white tie-dyed T-shirt holding unstamped letters addressed to Bromley; a lady with grey hair and emails on her phone; a lady with a black headscarf; a portly man with spectacles, jeans and a large, white music case made for a cello; a postman with a scrunched-up postbag; an old man with a red and blue trolley with red and blue clothes to match; a young Polish couple carrying a young girl by her hands; a teenage girl and boy with bohemian hair and clothes; a lady with a green headscarf and carrier bags; an older man with a full head of grey, wavy, gelled hair, sunglasses and a small terrier; an old lady, smartly dressed with grey hair tied up in a bun who is warning people of chewing gum on the seat in front of her. ‘Chalk Farm Station.’

London is a complex assemblage of individuals in an environment where paradoxes do not simply survive, but breed. Composed of and relying upon its human counterparts, there is, as Perec wrote, ‘nothing inhuman in its form, unless it’s our own humanity.’

A sudden, strange smell, like something a bit rotten—vomit?

‘Belsize Park Station.’ The inside of the bus is now a graveyard for torn and trodden Metro newspapers. I glance at the front cover of today’s edition, which reports on the mother who discovered via Facebook that her daughter had died less than a mile away from her house.

‘South End Green. . . this bus terminates here.’ The surrounding area smells of coffee and pastries. There are three cafes, a flooring company and an M&S Simply Food store, with a man selling the Big Issue outside. The open fields of Hampstead Heath are within walking distance. South End Green is a more modest, vaguely triangular shaped space with a road running round it. It has an old monument with worn-out, illegible writing on it, but there is another stone which reads that the rest of the Green was restored in 2006 and dedicated to the ‘community’ by Josh and Kirsten Wallis, Sean and Lucy Reardon: two couples that I cannot find any further details about on Google.

A man sits on a bench during his lunch break from the laboratory of the Royal Free Hospital. He came from Ethiopia to London ten years ago. There are three places with Ethiopian communities in London: one around Hammersmith in the west, one around Finchley Road in the north and one around Lambeth in the south-west, but Workneh tells me he lived for some time on Old Kent Road. A young woman on a bench is on the phone. The air, and then the ground, is full of pigeons. There are quotes written into the newly restored stone slabs on the floor from famous writers known to have lived in Hampstead under varying circumstances: among them George Orwell (‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others’), DH Lawrence (‘The living moment is everything’), Agatha Christie (‘If one sticks too rigidly to one’s principles, one would hardly see anybody’) and Robert Louis Stevenson (‘To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive’). I walk to bus stop ‘D’and get on the ‘168. . . to. . .Old Kent Road Tesco.’

[1]           http://www.london.gov.uk/mqt/public/question.do?id=32818

Illustration by Becky Jane Eyre

The article was commissioned by The New Wolf for New Cartography – an IdeasTap-sponsored magazine.