New book… First, a shameless note to say that I have a new collection due from Carcanet in March 2016. So if you would like a cheap and cheerful reader for 2016, have a microphone, and can be reached from Cheltenham by public transport, I would be delighted to come. I don’t do workshops, but do rehearse readings very thoroughly, keep to time religiously, and am always glad to talk to audiences afterwards. Do feel free to contact me, without obligation, via the Contact Page on this website, which sends messages straight to my current email.
Blog post: On the Bus
This year, Blog and I have meandered through Beckett, and Brecht. So now, of course, we are considering Buses.
Did Beckett use buses? He would certainly have made much better use than I do, in plays or poems, of the people who arrive at bus stops. Sometimes, though not always, they leave on a bus. (The people who talk to invisible people tend not to.) Beckett certainly did not board a bus on the occasion when he gave away all his cash to a stranger and walked home, for miles.
Brecht probably would not have used buses either, but that was because he was trying to keep his cash. When persuaded to take a tram, he moaned ‘These tram rides will end in the bankruptcy court’. I don’t think this was a joke. I also think it is a shame that Brecht was not in charge of our credit policy in the years leading up to 2008. Fewer people used the buses after that.
Why do I use them? I have the use of a car. Although wildly grey, I still have to pay for my bus tickets, as I am not grey enough for a state pension. Most of the passengers stare at me in amazed interest. They have bus passes – and without the subsidy for this, young mothers with push chairs, yawning commuters and I would only have a fraction of the buses that now purr and sway along the roads of our small town.
Buses aren’t perfect, but a packed bus must be better for the planet than if we all sat in our separate, fuming, and hard-to-park cars. You meet new people and old neighbours at draughty bus stops, then in the draughty but warmer bus. And I have started to use them now, while I have most of my teeth and faculties. For have seen people, suddenly deprived of a car, freeze like a hedgehog in the headlights when a relative suggests they should ‘use the buses’. Believe me, this takes years of study!
In our quiet suburb, a GCSE in Buses will take you on to the 97. (Or the 98. Don’t panic. They go the same way.) They are the Rolls Royce of our local service, but they don’t spoil us by frequency. They sweep round the corner to my nearest stop every half hour (or so). They come from Gloucester, by the scenic route (old army camps, sprawling villages). But once the 97 (or the 98) has swept you up, you will be in town in five minutes, and can speed home, after half an hour, on a different 97. Or a 98…
The Bus A level is the D. Why? It, too, is going into town. How can that be difficult? First, as a kind lady pointed out to a hopeful relative of mine, you must cross the road, and flag down the D which is heading OUT of town. (Other kind residents used to stick handwritten notes of instruction on bus shelters, ending ‘I hope this helps’…)
Once helped on to a D, you sit, bemused, as the little single decker hurtles round a series of unfathomable loops, past the green where you’ve always meant to go carol singing, down the road where your friend campaigned to keep the poplars, past the road where twenty years ago you rushed a reluctant child to ballet… and how did we get to the railway station? After half an hour of this, shell-shocked by memories, you dismount unsteadily in Lower High Street. Don’t despair. The route back only takes twenty minutes, although it does include the railway station…
And the PhD? Ah. Bus-swopping! Come back from Morrisons on one D bus, but avoid the Bermuda Triangle of the railway station by jumping out in Alma Road, then darting around a corner to the first stop in Windermere Road. (This stunt is regularly performed by pensioners carrying stones of shopping.) Then you catch another D – the one going into town, which is, of course, heading OUT of town…
The Council, after some delay, has passed its Bus A-level and has promised to build a bus shelter especially for these stalwart, often rain-soaked shoppers. It may not have graduated to the advanced swoppers, who start off on the 94, but jump out just before Shelburne Road, where you can catch up with the D. (At certain times of day, you might even meet a little flotilla of Ds, flocking together, like sheep.) This is a high risk manoeuvre. Doze off, and you will find yourself in Gloucester. But you can always come back on the 97. Or the 98…
I was sitting in the hairdressers recently when a low red bus flew past, marked ‘J’. The shop’s proprietor has worked in Cheltenham for decades. The customers, I’d guess, including me, have lived there for at least a century in total. ‘Where does that bus go?’ asked the hairdresser (who drives from Gloucester). None of us had the faintest idea.
Next time, I’ll tell you about the 51 to Swindon, the 853 to Oxford, and the 61 to Stroud, which I must board for the first time soon, and of which I’m terrified, because I believe that, sometimes, it goes to Dursley – But that’s another story.
Here is a poem, about a creature which I have seen, with astonished delight amongst the suburban trees or the Gothic school towers of this town. Never, I must admit, at a bus stop…
So in my dream the birds were bats.
There is that chill which shocks the spine
as daylight thickens, as the line
which flashes over lane or street
is not a bird, which drops to eat
on tables at your garden’s end,
which may have names, familiar, friend.
It is a bat, with needled teeth,
which lets the last blue tilt beneath
at dizzy speed, not needing light
as badger, hedgehog tunnel night
without their eyes, see sound, hear scents,
but bats are speed. A bat has leant
on windless air, flicked body clean,
before eye slows all it has seen,
poised in the gap from warmth to words.
But when I woke, the bats were birds.
Published in PN Review