Feb 262012

Number 100

Elephant & Castle to Shadwell

as heard by Matt Haynes

Number 100 to… Shadwell. The next stop is… Pocock Street – oh, look, I really can’t be doing with all this. If you didn’t know what route I was or where I was going, why would you have got on me? I mean, I’m contractually obliged to spout all this guff, but – frankly, it just insults us both. Thank God I don’t also have to tell you when the doors are opening, like some of my colleagues do. But – oh, there’s so many other things we could be talking about. Us buses have minds of our own, you know.

A butterfly mind in my case, apparently – well, that’s what everyone at the depot says: that I’m not focussed enough. But it’s not true. I get easily distracted, sure, but that’s just because I’m just naturally curious. I mean, I know I told you I was going to Shadwell, and it’s very sweet that you trusted me – and we will get there eventually, I promise – but… I just fancied Blackfriars Road. Yes, I know it’s not the obvious route, what with Blackfriars Road running due north and Shadwell being – well, sort of over there, somewhere (sorry, I’m flicking my right indicator to indicate east, here – not sure if you can see or not?) – but… I wanted to see how the new Blackfriars station was coming on – you know, the one they’re building out across the river. I suppose it’s quite exciting, having platforms above the waves, but I’m upset; because, as far as I can gather, they’re going to be putting it on top of the headless columns of the original London, Chatham and Dover bridge – you know, those big, blood-red, abandoned stumps you see marching out into the water? – and… I love those, I think they’re so atmospheric. Ozymandias always comes to mind: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone…”

Ah yes. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. That’s what it says at the top of TfL’s headed notepaper, you know, when they’re sending out little jobsworth missives instructing us to inform you lot that the doors are opening, just in case you haven’t grasped the concept of buses and don’t notice the sudden draught. Not quite sure what these new open-back Routemasters Boris wants are supposed to do. Just keep screaming at you non-stop to get back inside, I guess.

Where was I? Yeah, we shouldn’t get all hung up on there being a proper way to do things, that was my point – we need to let a bit more poetry into our lives. I don’t mean literally – no more bloody Shelley, don’t worry – but… well, look: now we’re across the river, I could just carry on down Cannon Street in what some would say was the right direction, but – it actually looks much more interesting up there (says he, flicking left indicator), so – yes, let’s hang a louie up New Change, then if we go right at the top, we can – oh, can’t turn right. Bugger.

I wasn’t expecting that but, hey, no problemo, it’s a chance for some serendipity. I’d have voted for Boris if he’d promised us a bit more serendipity instead of chuntering on about bloody Routemasters. Buffoon. Anyway, I could never vote Tory. I’m green, not blue. I don’t mean green green, like some of these new young buses – they’re very sweet, very impassioned, but… oh dear, they do tend to whiff a bit, you really don’t want to park up against one, if you catch my drift (I certainly catch theirs) – but… oh, you know what I mean. Anyway – serendipity. Now, you see, because of that no-right-turn, we can head up past Postman’s Park – yes, I know that’s even further west but BEAR WITH ME – and then, if we cut down Montague Street, we’ll come out by that big brick drum outside the Museum of London. And d’you know what that is? What’s inside it? BONES. All the bones they’ve dug up and don’t know what to do with. A big brick drum full of medieval bones, sitting in the middle of a roundabout – cool, huh?

God, I can’t believe I just said “cool”. That’s the sort of thing a bendy would say. Anyway, enough self-flagellation, because – look, you see up there? That’s St Alphage Highwalk, part of the so-called London Pedway. Streets in the sky – thirty miles of elevated pavement to keep you lot out of our way, that was the plan. Shops, bars, muggers – running all the way from Holborn to the Tower. Ah, The Sixties – dontcha just luv ’em?

Right. Straight across Bishopsgate and – ooh, what’s that up there? Is that Liverpool Street station? Do you mind if we…? Sorry – I’m a bit of a railway buff. Odd for a bus, I know, some might say perverted, but – there you go. Ah. Now I’m stuck. OK, that was a mistake. This really is a very stupid bus station. I think I’ll need to go all the way round, and then squeeze back out the way I came in. It’s at times like this I wish I was a taxi. What’s that? What do you mean, so do I? Do you want me to terminate here? Because I can do that, you know. Flash my lights, tell you to make sure you’ve got all your personal belongings with you. Is that what you want? No? Well then. Behave. And, look, we’re already back on London Wall. And, yes, I know we’ve passed that Caffè Nero once already, but – you got to see Liverpool Street station, didn’t you?

OK, Houndsditch. That, my friend, is where they used to throw the bones of dead dogs, hence the name – no big brick drums for them. I tried telling a 78 about the bone-drum when I was on my way back the other week, but he just looked at me like I was mad. Then he asked me why, if I was going to the Elephant – we were outside Aldgate station at the time – I wasn’t going across Tower Bridge like he was, on account of that being the right direction. “The right direction”. That’s all you ever hear from some buses. Sometimes, I can’t even believe we came out of the same factory. And then, when there’s some diversion on, some Victorian water main being dug up or whatever, they rattle around the side streets like rail replacement coaches (ooh, bitchy!) because they don’t know how to improvise. And how are we supposed to evolve if we’ve no curiosity? It’s not like someone’s going to come along and waste millions designing a whole new bus from scratch. Is it, Boris? Oooh, shall we go down there, East Smithfield? Two hundred bodies a day they buried there, during the Black Death – stacked ’em five deep in mass graves. Plenty still down there, I’ll warrant. Though some are in the bone-drum.

New Routemasters, eh? What a bloody joke. People have Oyster cards, Boris, and us buses announce the stops. If you, or any of the Zone 4 curtain-twitchers who voted for you, ever actually used us, you’d know that. So why waste God-knows-how-much bringing back conductors? And what about all the perfectly good buses, years of work left in them, that’ll end up flung onto scrap heaps? Have you seen all the decommissioned bendies, locked-up and rusting away in compounds? It’s not just sad, it’s wasteful. That’ll be me, one day. Stuck out in the rain on some desolate concrete lot, dreaming of the Elephant and wishing I’d asked the Saturday-morning God botherers outside the South American food shack for a bit of redemption. Maybe, if I’m lucky, some kids will torch me. Or maybe Boris will build a big brick drum, and chuck me in there. He could pretend it’s some sort of Olympic Monument.

OK, you can relax now, we’re nearly there. Straight down Ratcliffe Highway, and Shadwell station is just up on the left – we’ll be there in two ticks. Oh, wait a minute though, what’s that down there on the right? Does that lead to Wapping High Street? Yay, cobbles! I like cobbles. Come on, it won’t take long. We’ll just loop round. I called it Ratcliffe Highway, did you notice? Instead of just The Highway. It’s not been called that for years. Not since the Ratcliffe Highway murders. Shall I tell you about them? OK, just hold on while I… no, literally, hold on, there are some hairy old bends here, and… ah. So. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I’ve now got to turn left and go all the way back up Wapping Lane. Sorry, you were right – should just have carried on along The Highway. Oh, but then you wouldn’t have heard about the Ratcliffe Highway murders and I wouldn’t have got to go on the cobbles, so… swings and roundabouts. Oranges and lemons. Dagenham and Redbridge.

It’s 1811, the 7th of December – sorry, this is me doing my American movie-trailer voice, do you like it? – and Timothy Marr, a 24-year-old draper, is murdered in his shop at 29 Ratcliffe Highway. His wife, baby son and shop boy are also killed – skulls mashed in and throats slit. Two weeks later, the landlord of The Kings Arms in New Gravel Lane is bludgeoned to death along with his wife and housemaid. A seaman called John Williams is arrested, probably wrongly, but hangs himself in Coldbath Fields Prison before coming to trial. His corpse is then paraded through the streets of Shadwell in a cart – 10,000 gawkers line the route – and buried, kneeling, with a stake through the heart, at the junction of Cable Street and Cannon Street Road. Seventy-five years later, the skeleton is discovered during digging works for a gas main, still with the stake through it. The landlord of the Crown and Dolphin nicks the skull to display as a nicknack. East Enders, eh?

OK, we’re now back at The Highway, so it’s just left and then right and… although… if I went right instead of left, I could actually show you New Gravel Land, or Glamis Road as it’s called these days. And then we’ll just go round the block and back along Cable Street. Don’t let me forget to show you the mural, on the side of the town hall. I don’t usually like murals – I have saxophobia – but this one marks the Battle of Cable Street back in 1936, and I think it’s fine. No saxophones, just Hitler in his vest and pants. Jews, communists, trade unionists, Labour party members, Irish Catholic dockers and good old salt-of-the-earth Eastenders, all coming together to keep Mosley’s blackshirts out of the East End. No pasaran! they shouted, hurling flowerpots down onto the police. No pasaran – they got that from the Spanish Civil War. Speaking as an East End bus, it really makes my engine race. Sometimes, I get a few of those BNP boys on board, or this new lot – English Defence League, yeah? – mouthing off about Pakis and Poles, and… it makes me wonder what went wrong. And just what sort of English values they think they’re fighting for. There’s a plaque on the front of the town hall, commemorating all the East Enders who went out to Spain to fight for the Republic. No pasaran. Plenty of them poor buggers ended up under the ground too. Still digging ’em up. Imagine, going off to kill and be killed somewhere foreign because you’re actually clued up on history and politics and know what’s right, rather than because you’re a silly little boy who likes playing with guns and enjoys a bit of aggro. Brave? Maybe, but not brave enough to stand up to your own commanding officers or government when they tell you to do bad things and –

Whoa! – is that an inspector? Sod it. Um… OK. Put your pen away, would you mate? No need to write this bit down. Number 100 to… Shadwell. The next stop is… St George’s Town Hall, where this bus terminates. Please make sure you have all your personal belongings with you I HATE MYSELF…

[This piece originally appeared in Smoke 16.]