Friday, 6 May 2011

Bus travel broadens the mind

Misquotations are by definition incorrect, but they’re not always wrong.

A wonderful example is the severe statement attributed to Maggie Thatcher, ‘a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure.’ Though it now looks as though she never spoke those words, it perfectly sums up the arrogance she often showed, her tendency to mistake prejudice for judgement, and her conviction of the superiority of ‘her people’ – even though those people never accepted her as one of their own and they turned on her ruthlessly as soon as they decided that she no longer served their purposes.

It's a judgement that makes me a total failure, of course. To confess the full extent of my ignominy, not only do I frequently use buses, I actually like them.

In the first place, I’d always choose a bus if the alternative is London Underground, which as well as being overcrowded and short of seats, inevitably suffers from all the unpleasantness that goes with the word ‘underground’ itself.

Buses also have actual positive merits to recommend them. For instance, the number 10 which carries me so often between my railway station and my office has recently taken on surprising value as a symbol of international relations. It is operated by the RATP – the Paris transport network. That’s has significance I can only describe as millenarian – I can’t think of a similar French invasion of English daily life since William of Normandy landed at Hastings in 1066.

Ah, ça alors! Zese French, zey are debarking
chez nous again. And on my bus too

You can also meet interesting people on buses. I recently found myself sitting at the front of the upper deck of my number 10, across the aisle from a father travelling with his eight-year old daughter. They were talking what to my ear sounded like Dutch but not in any accent that I associate with Holland. Danielle tells me that Dutch is just ‘homity-homity-homity’ and they didn’t sound remotely like that. And I was impressed by the daughter who was reading adverts off other buses or roadside hoardings and translating them to her father. When I asked where they were from, they gave me what I suppose was the obvious answer: Belgium.

Extraordinary place, Belgium. They haven’t had a government for months, but I was there in March and everything’s running just fine: the trains, the restaurants, the shops. That reminded me of the previous occasion I’d had that kind of experience, in Italy, in 1979. When I arrived, the country had been without a government for four months; when I left, it had been without a government for six months. That didn’t prevent my enjoying some magical times in the glorious Alpine town of Aosta, where I spent many an evening listening to a Mexican friend describing in a Spanish I only half understood the mythical background of his country, while we sipped pink wine in the pink central square filled with the pink light of the setting sun.

You see? You can even get quite lyrical without a government. Perhaps, given where Italy is today in its Berlusconi-fied state, it’s positively easier without a government.

Curiously, Danielle and I had a not dissimilar experience in the last few days, in Madrid. Spain provides the ‘S’ of that dismal acronym PIIGS, the nations including Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Greece, whose financial difficulties are most threatening the financial stability of Europe. And in Spain the sun still shines, the olives are as succulent, the beer is as cold and the churros as delicious and calorific as ever. Which makes me think that the country hasn’t really lurched from doing fabulously well, generating over-optimistic exuberance among commentators, to doing catastrophically badly, inspiring their doom-laden horror – it has gone from doing well to doing less well.

The problem is the commentators. A small change is enough to plunge them from excessive hopes to unjustified gloom. The sad thing is that governments listen to the commentators, so some day if one of the credit agencies decides to downgrade Spain’s credit rating, there might be real problems. But will the rating reflect the financial difficulties, or will the rating cause them?

But back to Belgium. Another frequently repeated saying, again with a lot of truth in it, is that the King of the Belgians is actually the only Belgian. The others are all Flemish or Walloon, with a handful of Germans thrown in for good measure.

As the father on the bus explained to me, at school he found himself obliged to learn Flemish – Dutch without the homity-homity – French and German, to cover the official languages of the Belgian state (it’s not a nation).

‘But then,’ he told me, ‘I discovered that as an IT specialist, I wasn’t going to get anywhere without English, so I had to learn that too. And then I worked in South America, so I learned Spanish. And of course, I’ve also had to master computer languages.’

I wanted to ask him to say something in C++ or T-SQL, but I was nearly at my stop. So I wished them well and left, full of admiration at their linguistic abilities – particularly the daughter’s. I wonder how many of our eight-year olds would be able to translate advertising out of a foreign language?

The experience also confirmed my view that bus travel is a wonderful way to set in motion all sorts of interesting trains of thought . As I hope I’ve shown.

That makes it a pretty remarkable mode of transport, whatever Mrs T. might have said on the subject.

Or, alternatively, never said.


Robert Patterson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Patterson said...

The American on the Truro train, the father-daughter pair on the bus--you haven't met many strangers, have you?

David Beeson said...

Some are stranger than others. These were the amusing ones.

Anonymous said...

When like me, you get a Free Pass (I know you're still young), you will enjoy buses even more. I do.