Monday, 10 June 2013

Why T.S. Eliot didn't write poems about buses

‘A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.’ Margaret Thatcher was quoted in a parliamentary debate as having said this, but she probably never did. It’s an old line, more convincingly attributed to Loelia Ponsonby, who married the second Duke of Westminster in 1930 with Winston Churchill as best man, who may have borrowed it from the Old Etonian poet Brian Howard, pal of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell. Toffs, all of them, who didn’t travel on buses much and so missed out on one of life’s great pleasures. Margaret Thatcher had many faults, but that kind of snobbery wasn’t one of them.

For getting about in London the tube is attractive because of its speed, because of the clarity of the diagrammatic map (for which we have to thank Harry Beck, the London Underground employee who designed it in 1931) and because you never have to wait for a train in a downpour. The bus, in contrast, is an acquired taste. The open platforms that until recent years let passengers jump on and off wherever they liked, dodging through traffic to and from the pavement if they were brave enough, have largely disappeared. Now we have what some call prison buses, because you’re trapped between stops even if the bus is stuck in gridlock. But catching buses remains an active sport and, at times, a health-and-safety nightmare. As for the route maps, they look like nasty accidents with spaghetti.

On the other hand, buses are half the price and reach those less favoured regions that are off the underground network. And the internet has made it easy to research the routes. Once you’ve found one going your way, the bus has two huge advantages over the tube. The stop is where it says it is – no traipsing through subterranean passages – and you can enjoy the view. At their best, buses can be magic.

Coming back from Norfolk last week, we found a magic bus, with the help of a smartphone, that took us from right outside Liverpool Street Station to the end of our road. Among other interesting sights, we passed the church of St Mary Woolnoth, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor in the early eighteenth century. I knew of it, but wasn’t aware of having seen it before, though I must have ridden under these streets hundreds of times on the Northern Line. As we turned along King William Street it wasn’t just the church that began ringing bells. I realised we were about to cross the Thames on London Bridge, and I remembered where I’d first come across this route, though in the other direction:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

By chance, I was travelling with a book by John Carey called The Intellectuals and the Masses, which had just put those lines from Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land in a fresh context for me. The argument of Carey’s book is that intellectuals in the 1920s and 30s were disdainful – and, deep down, terrified – of the encroaching 'masses', particularly the kind of ‘semi-educated’ clerical workers who had been taught to read and write but were incapable, it was assumed, of a true appreciation of literature or art, and were meanwhile destroying the English countryside with their demand for suburban housing. The crowd of dead people observed by Eliot would have been crossing the Thames from South London to work in the City.

‘Largely through Eliot’s influence,’ Carey writes, ‘the assumption that most people are dead became, by the 1930s, a standard item in the repertoire of any self-respecting intellectual.’ They were mainly toffs, of course – Eliot himself, a middle-class American who was reinventing himself as an English gent, Virginia Woolf, who envisaged ‘the Man in the street’ as ‘a vast, featureless, almost shapeless jelly of human stuff’, and E.M. Forster, who, in Howard’s End, is sympathetic to the struggles of the clerk Leonard Bast to better himself by reading and trying to listen to Beethoven, but describes him, even so, as having a ‘cramped little mind’, says that he plays the piano ‘badly and vulgarly’, and has him finally crushed to death under a bookcase.

Not bus enthusiasts, most of those early twentieth century intellectuals, though an attentive reading of this passage from The Four Quartets suggests that Eliot may have lowered himself as far as the tube. He seems not to have enjoyed the experience:

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight…
Nor darkness to purify the soul…
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained, time-ridden faces…
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time…


  1. Joe: This is fascinating, on many levels. There's a whole literature of 1920s and 1930s commentary about the encroaching suburbs (and accompanying factories, billboards, shacks, and other mass-architecture), and how all this building was threatening cities, civilization, and all that entails. I can't remember how much of this material (produced mainly by country writers, architectural commentators, social critics et al) Carey refers to in his book - whether he sticks mainly to the more canonical works of poets and novelists. It forms part of several oppositions (urban/suburban, intellectuals/others, modernists/traditionalists). And the way in which planners and architects responded to the need for mass housing, mass employment, and so on, was diverse, and too complex to get into here.

    All of this is a world away from buses, except that I seem to remember that for the protesting country writers and preservationists, the charabanc was a symbol of the encroaching masses when they invaded the seaside. But the masses loom larger than their conveyance: a friend of mine edited a small anthology of railway poetry: I couldn't imagine the same thing being done for buses.

  2. Yes, bus poetry would probably be in short supply. Wendy Cope's 'Bloody men are like bloody buses' comes to mind, but there's not much romance there. I can imagine an essay on the Greyhound bus in American film. I'm sure you're familiar with Lawrence's wonderful story 'Tickets, Please!' that describes a Nottinghamshire tram ride as a wild adventure. But among buses, it's the London Routemaster that stirs the most nostalgia, because of the freedom symbolised by that open platform. The new Boris Bus, a neo-Routemaster, reflects that nostalgia, running a single route from the East End to Victoria, taking in the City, Bloomsbury and Hyde Park Corner. The conductors don't collect fares. Their only job is to see people safely on and off. I caught it once, by chance. I said to the conductor, 'You're a rare breed.' He said, 'I'm a driver normally. I love this, seeing all the sights. I feel like Charlie in the chocolate factory.'

  3. For a member of the masses this is a remarkably erudite and perceptive essay. There is a Doctorow novel which features the fact that one could take a series of trolleys from NY to Boston. Nothing like that is now possible.

  4. I remember the Routemaster buses fondly, and enjoyed jumping on and off number 9s in Barnes, number 159s in St John's Wood, and number 36Bs in Catford when I lived in these socially diverse places. The lovely fabrics of their seat covers (by Enid Marx, I think) are a kind of design counterpart to the tube map, Routemaster chic meets modernist graphics, but literature indeed seems mostly to ignore buses. Perhaps they order these matters better in France. Simenon's Maigret likes to ride on old-fashioned Parisian buses so that he can smoke his pipe and the incident told and retold umpteen times in Raymond Queneau's Exercises du Style takes place on a bus (route S, I seem to remember).

    The reassuring parallel between the name of a bus stop and where it is located is not always reliably upheld. There is a bus stop in Cheltenham called 'Calcutta'.

  5. Seeing the sights, by the way, can be done well from the top of a regular London bus - one doesn't need the purpose-built sightseeing variety - number 11 used to be my own favourite, but I don't know if the route is still the same. I've not been on a Boris bus yet. The health and safety conductors sound amusing.

  6. E.M. Forster's short story 'The Celestial Omnibus' is an interesting counterpoint to your excellent blog: the bus driver speaks Latin.

  7. I hesitate to say '...the route is immaterial' because certain journies will trigger my fondest memories of London. However, of equal importance is the opportunity to 'earwig' on the lives of others - the verbal equivalent of the uncurtained, lit basement window. Where would Alan Bennett be without the bus?

  8. Thanks, Phil, for pointing out the number 11, which still takes in the major tourist sites between Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s.

    I’m with you on earwigging, Richard. It helps that everyone faces the same way and there’s a passing scene to look at. People on the tube are usually too busy avoiding eye-contact to be quite so unguarded.

    I haven’t read Doctorow on trolleybuses, Dick. But on the subject of New York transport, I just heard from my brother Tom, who had arrived, car-less, on Long Island for a wedding. He was enthusing about the easy rail and ferry link from JFK.

    I’d forgotten ‘The Celestial Omnibus’, Adrian. Forster was the most socially inclusive of the Bloomsbury set. ‘Only connect’ could be painted on the side of the number 12, which connects Downing Street to Peckham.

  9. ...and now I've just found this, from an essay on Rebecca West in Geoff Dyer's collection Working the Room: 'The best ravel writers may be of only limited reliability when it comes to bus times but they express timeless truths about the buses of a given country - or at least about their relationship with those buses.'

  10. I really enjoyed this Joe. Oooh the 'dangerous classes'. I think it was Engels who said, the poor “robbed of all humanity are a race wholly apart.” Not a bus user himself.