There’s no need to take fright at night buses

MPs say they need homes near Westminster because they don’t like to travel around London on night buses. The wimps.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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In London after midnight, a skeletal but essential bus service operates into the early hours. Many Londoners who miss the last Tube train home opt for a night bus over an exorbitant black cab, especially if they live out in the suburbs.

Last week, it was announced that MPs justified claiming expenses for renting properties near Westminster on the basis that they don’t want to travel on night buses. Given that MPs’ expense claims are frequently scrutinised for austerity-busting excess, you would think the liberal press would have been up in arms over these anti-night-bus expenses. And at a time when ethical types are always encouraging us to use public transport more often, you would think MPs who refuse to board night buses would be hounded until they did a photo opportunity on the N73 at 3am. Not a bit of it. In fact, never before have MPs’ expense claims been greeted with such sympathetic support.

‘MPs don’t want to travel on night buses, and I don’t blame them’, wrote one broadsheet journalist. He continued: ‘Basically, night buses are a nightmarish distillation of the horrors of modern Britain, humming with the stench of chicken bones and spilled WKD and the possibility of sexual harassment, violence and urination.’ This sideways glance at a news item was a self-conscious attempt to do student-minded cynicism in the mould of those Modern Life is Shit books, in which snide digs at Peter Andre, The One Show and Chris Moyles are deemed bitingly risqué. The journalist, after reliving tales of top-deck disturbances and trawling Twitter for reports of ‘slags’ throwing up in their handbags, then gleefully invited his readers to share their ‘night bus nightmares’.

Some of the readers rebelled. They rightly pointed out that London’s night buses are a vital part of the nighttime landscape. They are surprisingly convenient (as regular as buses would be in a provincial town, which is not bad for 4am on a Thursday night), extremely cheap and, with barely any traffic on the roads, capable of getting you home quick sharp. It is rare that a policy initiative actually improves the quality of Londoners’ lives; night buses do, and should therefore be applauded rather than attacked. Also, given that taking public transport rather than driving a gas-guzzling car is now championed as eco-friendly, surely night buses should be seen as preferable to diesel-fumed black cabs?

It seems some left-leaning observers jettison those supposedly ethical considerations when they start thinking about the public in public transport – especially those boisterous and boozed-up members of the public heading back to Totteridge or Tottenham on a Saturday night. ‘A nightmarish distillation of the horrors of modern Britain’? I’d prefer to call such antics a bloody good night out. As someone who has used London night buses for the past 12 years, I can attest that the journey home is all part of the weekend magic. The groups of mates cheerfully lubricated, enjoying the last gasps of a proper night out; the lovestruck couples cuddling each other and dozing off. Compared with silent daytime journeys, on night buses revellers make an effort to talk to strangers. For the ‘hell is other people’ miserablists on some broadsheet newspapers, however, it seems such unplanned-for interaction is a terrifying prospect.

The slightly otherworldly character of the night-bus journey home – with its mixture of alcohol-soaked tiredness and early morning calm – often lends London a gloriously cinematic quality, especially if you have your iPod cranked up. The N20 journey from Mornington Crescent through Camden Town, Kentish Town, Tufnell Park and onwards to Archway provides a marvel of Edwardian and Victorian architecture. Even the much-maligned kebab shops and CostCutter stores have their own visual charms when viewed from a night bus, while the leafy suburban sprawl from Highgate to East and North Finchley – all tidy semis and immaculately tended lawns – suggests London isn’t actually a dystopian nightmare after all. The broadsheet journalists who think it is should get out more, though preferably nowhere near me.

Of course, it would be wrong to imply there’s never any trouble on night buses. The most frequently reported problem is difficult passengers refusing to pay the fare or ranting at a bus driver who doesn’t have any change. A depressing marker of the absence of class solidarities, verbally abusing bus drivers for being in a position of ‘authority’, for effectively being The Man, has become noticeable in recent years (on daytime buses as well as nighttime ones). The belief that bus rides should be free for the taking is a visible expression of today’s entitlement culture. Nevertheless, even such anti-social behaviour on night buses is frequently dealt with by other passengers in a commonsense and good-humoured way. A couple of years back, I was out with spiked’s football columnist, Duleep Allirajah, who managed to unify the top deck of the N159 after he had a go at a youth over his seat-blocking bag. Rather than alcohol inevitably leading to anti-social behaviour, as we’re so often told, booze’s emboldening qualities can strengthen adult solidarities during idiotic situations. On the whole, though, night buses are a hassle-free way of getting home. Melodramatic anecdotes about passengers urinating down the stairs or puking on seats are, thankfully, rare.

Expressing prejudice towards the rowdy antics of night-bus revellers may seem like a harmless way for hacks to get their kicks. But as with so much blather on the alleged nightmare that is modern Britain, a strongarmed piece of legislation is sometimes not far behind. Observers who spend years complaining about rowdy football fans, edgy pub life or ‘irresponsible parents’ sometimes see their wishes come true, in the shape of new rules to keep the plebs in order. Indeed, in the week that a journalist laid into nighttime revellers, UK prime minister David Cameron was busy working out further price rises for alcohol, as if booze wasn’t expensive enough already.

Buses are, of course, already monitored, through drinking and smoking bans and CCTV cameras. All of that, however, is not enough to prevent unpredictable behaviour or the joyful sound of hedonism from breaking out on a night bus home. It is this unpredictability, of course, that alarms both official and non-official miserablists. Don’t be too surprised if a future London mayor’s electoral pledges include a promise to police night-bus behaviour more closely. Us Londoners who fearlessly use them should adapt an old saying about the capital: those who are tired of London night buses are tired of life.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher based in London via the N20. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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Topics Politics


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