Preaching at the poor in Middle England

In the UK for a week on family business I make the mistake of travelling by public transport in a country that is configured for the private car. The journey from my sister’s house outside Ipswich to my brother’s in Northampton, a distance of around 80 miles, takes 7 hours (on three buses, one train and one taxi) and costs a total of GBP 28.30. But I’m not in a hurry, and enjoy looking out the window. January’s cold snap is over. Snowmen dissolve into the bruised grass of town parks. Where there are still fields, water lies flat upon them.

The pleasant little city of Cambridge pops up half way through. Such a nice and tidy place. If only life were like that for everyone.

What strikes me most about the journey, though, is how the three-quarters-empty buses no longer carry commercial advertising. I guess they figure, reasonably enough, that those who don’t own a car are not a market much worth capturing. Instead the space is given over to health propaganda. Chlamydia seems to be the latest thing: you might not know you’ve got it, so go for a check. There’s smoking, of course, and drugs and alcohol: “One in six adults in Suffolk binge drink” apparently. (Good job I’m leaving or they might have to revise that figure upwards.) And there’s even advice on how to deal with sneezing: a paper tissue is the method recommended, with the exhortation: “Catch it! Bin it! Kill it!” (“Catch it” is odd here since the point, surely, is to prevent others from catching it.)

I don’t exactly disagree with any of this stuff but in this context I can’t help resenting it; sensing, even, an underlying message that there’s something dangerous and shameful about being in a public sphere: isolate the human and you isolate the germ.

The only relief from healthier lifestyles is a Reminder to Recycle; and then Bedfordshire Constabulary’s announcement that “Burglaries are down by 10 per cent” so “Let’s keep it that way.” Yes, let’s. Not exciting enough to make you want to read the small print, though, especially when it’s a safe bet that it includes a lecture on how to behave.

My mum, who died a year ago, travelled on country buses all her life and must have got sick of it towards the end.

I suppose all these agencies have their budgets for “social marketing” but the emphasis seems wrong to me. Couldn’t they instead put up notices saying “Congratulations on your lower-carbon travel choice! Collect ten journey tokens and claim a free bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé!” (Nice to let the lower orders know there’s more to wine than three pound fifty Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon.) Or why not replicate Poems on the Underground, “red” Mayor of London Ken Livingstone’s eminently civilised 1980s solution to avoiding eye contact on the tube. One needs, in the text message age, sometimes to ponder text with more density than a “message.”

Ah well. There is a middle aged couple several seats up from me on the Bedford-Northampton bus. The man’s head keeps twitching like a sparrow’s, left right, up down, forward back. At first I think he is worried about missing his stop in the gathering gloom, but it soon becomes apparent that he has some form of mildly deranged hyperactivity. I crane around to get a proper look and note that he is smiling affably; all apparently well in his world. He bears a passing resemblance to the playwright Alan Bennett, which pleases me because Bennett included such people in the worlds he wrought.

You don’t get that kind of human scenery in a BMW.

Back in Kampala, I bless the weather we have here, for the time being at least, and read Going, Going by the curmudgeonly old Philip Larkin, with that little shock of recognition which is the gift of poetry.

Kampala, January 24, 2010