London buses are one of the city’s most recognisable icons. As well as a vital component of the Capital’s infrastructure, they are equally embedded into its culture. They have been written about, sung about, joked about, filmed, painted (and painted on), and celebrated in myriad ways.
In the book Bus Fare – Collected Writings on the London Bus, social historians Travis Elborough and Joe Kerr have curated a collection of newspaper reports, technical and transport journals, guide books, diaries, letters, poems, novels and non-fiction pieces, combined with freshly commissioned articles and interviews with leading Londoners of today. This anthology aims to capture the unique relationship Londoners have with their most important mode of transport – the bus!
On 21 March 2019, Travis and Joe will discuss the book at the talk Bus Fare: Stories of the London Bus. Here is an excerpt from the introduction to whet your appetite.
To the best of our knowledge, there has never been a comparable attempt to draw together the diversity of writing on the London omnibus between the covers of a single book. This is not altogether surprising, as buses have been justly described as the Cinderella service of London’s various transport systems; despite carrying nearly twice as many passengers as the Underground, the bus network features far less prominently in public consciousness. Buses are just there, carrying their 2 billion passengers a year, generating little attention or fuss.
The surprising revelation of this project, however, has been the realisation of quite how many writers, including those with considerable literary reputations, have been drawn to write about the humble bus. Who would have thought an anthology that embraces such exalted figures as Dickens, Woolf, Morton, Hardy, Kipling, Bennett, Self and Sinclair could possibly be directed at such a workaday subject? Indeed, these writers display such an expert knowledge of buses and their operation that they sometimes even play a significant role in narrative and plot, rather than merely featuring as background colour.
What is equally revealing about collecting together this material is how richly and vividly it portrays the daily experiences and discomforts of bus passengers and bus crew alike, creating a seamless unity of experience across nearly two centuries of London life. For although buses have undergone so much change over their long history – from horse drawn to motorised; from open to roofed top decks and staircases; and from private operation through public ownership and back to private again – nonetheless to read these accounts is to be constantly surprised and delighted at how recognisable and familiar so many of the details are of a journey on a Victorian omnibus compared to today’s version of the same.
It is also delightful to learn that the personal knowledge of bus routes and destinations and times that Dickens and Woolf and Bennett possessed a century and more ago were just as precious and hard-won an acquisition for the dedicated Londoner as they are for contemporary metropolitans.
Join Travis Elborough and Joe Kerr at the talk Bus Fare: Stories of the London Bus, on Thursday 21 March 2019. There will also be readings by special guests John Grindrod, author of ‘Concretopia’; Patrice Lawrence, award-winning YA novelist, and novelist Rowena Macdonald. And we will be screening Joe Bloom’s short film ‘Ahmed Serhani, A Portrait: London’s Friendliest bus driver’.
The event is part of the series In Their Own Words, celebrating our latest exhibition, Poster Prize for Illustration 2019: London Stories.