Saturday, 27 June 2009

The number 11 bus route

Talking of buses, as yesterday I was, I set off in search of the number 11 in Elizabeth Bowen. I was sure it was in The Death of the Heart – but no, although there ‘a 153 bus did come lurching round the corner, but showed every sign of ignoring them, till Lilian, like a young offended goddess, stepped into its path, holding up a scarlet glove’, and Major Brutt ‘found that an excellent bus, the 74, took him from Cromwell Road the whole way to Regent’s Park’, it was the wrong book. I found it in To the North (1932), another Bowen novel in which an adolescent girl is placed temporarily in the care of bemused adults who have no idea what they’ve taken on (a Bowen staple).

Mrs Patrick advises the 14-year-old Pauline on bus routes, bearing in mind that ‘a young girl cannot be too careful’. ‘She would not, she said, have countenanced a No. 24, which goes down Charing Cross Road. Pauline blushed, she had heard about Charing Cross Road.’ However, ‘The number 11 is an entirely moral bus. Springing from Shepherd’s Bush, against which one has seldom heard anything, it enjoys some innocent bohemianism in Chelsea, pick up the shoppers at Peter Jones, swerves down the Pimlico Road – too busy to be lascivious – passes not too far from the royal stables, nods to Victoria Station, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, whirrs reverently up Whitehall, and from its only brush with vice, in the Strand, plunges to Liverpool Street through the noble and serious architecture of the City. Except for the Strand, the No. 11 route, Mrs Patrick considered, had the quality of Sunday afternoon literature; from it Pauline could derive nothing but edification.’

Though it no longer springs from Shepherd’s Bush, the number 11 still follows much of the same route. Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (1944) has an instructive example of ‘innocent bohemianism in Chelsea’ along the number 11 route. I can’t find my copy, but Gulley Jimson’s lesson, as I remember it, is this. You’re heading for Liverpool Street, you get on the bus and go to the back of the top deck, and by the time the conductor (remember them?) reaches you you’ve travelled a fair distance. You ask for a ticket to Fulham; the conductor says right bus but wrong direction, you need to get off and catch a bus on the opposite side of the road. You get off; you repeat the same procedure; after an hour you’ve reached Liverpool Street without paying the fare.

I’m applying to London Transport for a grant to complete my thesis: The Journey of Life: Morality and Subterfuge on London Buses.


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