:: Article

To The World’s End

By Cathi Unsworth.

On the day Red Ken killed the Routemaster, they showed an old film on TV. To The World’s End it was called, a requiem for the people’s bus and the route that it took, through Camden Town and Chalk Farm, Swiss Cottage and Kilburn, Westbourne Park and Kensington High Street. It finished up in Chelsea, where some old boy and his old dear ran a sweet shop and were having a party on the King’s Road. Local kids came and he gave them sherbet dabs and lemonade and they laughed in the sun of a late summer afternoon. I know it was Chelsea, but it seemed like a different world.

All of it did, truth to be told. Camden Town looked shabby; boarded-up houses, dreary brickwork crumbling into browns and greys, the hump of Dingwalls Dance Hall across the lock and ripped flyposters of bands long forgotten. But the Greeks were having a wedding and inside their Orthodox Church it was a riot of colour and dancing; they were proud of their traditions, proud of their heritage. There was soul and stability, family and feasting behind those chipped bricks, dirty panes and neglected streets.

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Up in Swiss Cottage, an elderly Jewish emigré played his piano and dreamed of the Vienna where he’d spent his youth. No way back for him now, except through the key of memory. On Kilburn High Road, a strong-faced, red-haired Irish woman played bingo and drank half a stout, laughing that since her old man dropped dead she’d had a lot more fun.

On Westbourne Grove, earnest young men fasted for the poor at St Mary’s of the Angels. A couple of policewomen patrolled Kensington Market, looking for truants amid the punk clothes and slot machines. A little girl skipped home from school onto Ladbroke Grove, to help out at her Grandma’s hairdressers. In between, the film crew talked to the bus conductor, who looked like Arthur Scargill, only not an Arthur Scargill you’d recognise but a happy and relaxed one.

Bus conductors, yeah? Another thing we don’t need no more.

All of it got to me; I have to admit it. But what really did it was the allotments up on Adelaide Road. Hundreds of them there was, all the way up the hill, like we was suddenly in the countryside. Growing beans and raspberries, marrows and tomatoes, rhubarb and asparagus, right there on the road to Chalk Farm station. What there is there now is row upon row of brown, square, ugly flats, a couple of tower blocks taking out the view of Belsize Park behind, shielding the millionaires from what goes on on the 31 bus route these days.

Yeah, it was my bus route, as it was in 1986. Whoever would have thought that Thatcher’s Britain could look like halcyon days?

Whoever had never been on the 31 these days, I suppose.

Chelsea and Kensington, that’s still all right, well kept by the Tories for the toffs and tourists. Where it changes, and changes suddenly, is when you get down the end of Chepstow Road and turn left on to Westbourne Park Road, where the first, early-bird nutters of the day join you, throwing their fare down with red-rimmed eyes that strafe through you like a knife.

Then you do a right down Great Western Road, and that’s where all the fun begins, that’s where the nerve centre of our operation stands, a brown-brick megalith on the shore of the Grand Union Canal. A confusion of automobiles around the entrance, buses pulling in and out, the controllers in their yellow vests with their walkie-talkies, making up orders, changing shifts, stopping for a natter about last night’s footie while the passengers grow restless, packed already onto the single-decker that has replaced the mighty Routemaster. This is where the real nutters live, mate. The bus drivers.

You, the passenger, might feel uncomfortable enough already in your sticky green and purple upholstered seat, made to face the skinny bloke in front of you who’s twitching ’cos the Methadone is wearing off and you’ve got no newspaper to hide behind, trying to avoid his darting eyes. Or even worse, you could just be hanging from the bright yellow pole in the middle of the bus, your arm already coming away from its socket, swaying precariously and trying not to bang into the pram at your feet and the three generations of women staring back at you, willing you to fall into their little Kyle so they can have a proper row. But you have to wait here, at Westbourne Park, ’cos bus drivers don’t like to be rushed, and some of the newer ones might not even realise they’re supposed to swap over with your departing driver right now, they might still be in the works canteen drooling over today’s Stunna while blanking out what lies ahead. You have to wait until there’s an army of angry housewives waiting across the Harrow Road on Elgin Ave, wait for them to shove their way on, squalling and hollering, telling you to get your fat arse out of the way and stop taking up all that room.

At least you don’t know what happened on that seat you’ve managed to grab for yourself last Wednesday lunchtime with Smiffy and Earl and that tart they picked up on the Five Corners. You are blissfully ignorant that this bus is a love machine when it’s out of service and it’s a small mercy really you don’t know what they done with her, inspired by what they’d been watching earlier in the common room. Only a heavy dose of pornography can get your bus driver through the action adventure of the rest of his day.

Wankers, eh?

With the screaming, bickering housewives aboard, you turn left onto Chippenham Road, a little stretch of Queen’s Park that’s started to go upmarket, before you veer away quickly onto Kilburn Park Road and the first of many vast vistas of 1960s town planning hell that pockmark the rest of the route. Two distinct types of bastard tend to board the bus here. Firstly the rowing, alcoholic couple, dirty bags of clothes, grey battered faces and chainsaw voices cultivated by a million Rothmans and a dark brown sea of Special Brew.

“Don’t you fackin’ touch me you dirty cunt!” she’ll say as she tries to push him over, oblivious to the onboard audience who suddenly prick up their ears, perceiving the presence of somebody madder than themselves.

“I’ll fackin’ stab you you dried-up old bitch!” will be his quaint reply.

Well you’ll be lucky to get Richard and Liz, as it goes, because the second type is infinitely worse. These are the ones who start the mutinies and riots. The teenage rebels, the baggy-arsed outriders of the Kilburn apocalypse, wearing their hoods over their eyes, one trouser leg rolled up, reeking of hydroponic skunk weed and telling you:

“Don’t have to pay, I’m 15 innit?”

The driver has three clear choices at this juncture. Does he:

A. Drive on, wearily resigned to his fate of being mocked and scorned by the general public?
B. Demand some proof, stop the bus and provoke the rest of the passengers into a frenzy of screaming and recrimination, schoolgirls shrilly proclaiming they know he’s 15, cos he’s in their class, yeah? Fed up commuters already late for work offering to pay the fare themselves if you’ll only get a bloody move on?
C. Offer him outside and punch his fucking lights out?

’Cos he won’t have no Arthur Scargill to help him, now will he?

The answer, my friends, is clearly A, if you have a whole day ahead of you and just want to make it as quiet a one as possible. Option B is tempting if you have a sadistic streak, as some of my kind do, and actively enjoy the acute discomfort of your trapped audience. But personally, there’s only so many thrills I can take. Option C is, of course, the preferred one, but only if it really is the Alamo and you don’t mind losing what little you have left.

Anyway, you’re only on Kilburn Park Road, there is still all of Rudolph Road, Cambridge Avenue and the swing over the High Road to go, and here, as the traffic piles up around the endless roadworks, you will have more than enough fresh challenges to face.

By the time you descend down Belsize Road, at least six angry men will have threatened your life and a further ten, maybe 12, schoolchildren spat at your feet in disgust. At least the housewives have disgorged themselves in Kilburn, to be replaced by a frailer type of pensioner, the thin shadow of the strong-faced Irishwoman, perhaps, no more laughs to be found since they closed down the bingo and changed it into an Alpha Course Centre.

And on you’ll roll through more planners dream homes, stacked up the whole way along Belsize Road. Did the architects seek to punish those that were exiled from St John’s Wood and Hampstead by purposefully designing the most humiliating blocks of unloved concrete that they could possibly imagine to dump here? Did they light a fat cigar and laugh that they were really gonna get paid for this, then turn to pore over the map, putting more red dots down across the allotments of Adelaide Road?

But such thoughts disappear under more pressing considerations as you point your steel steed towards the junction of Swiss Cottage. You’ve already let on more than you should, and by the way, how is that seat smelling up at the back now? But here’s another danger spot, another flashpoint where it could all go horribly wrong. As you pull up on the end of Hillgrove Road, your radio may crackle to life with the unwelcome news that you’re running so late the controller wants you to stop here and go back to the garage. A bonus for any Sadian driver, granted. But to face the wrath of the punters, some of whom are by now half an hour late, as you force them to pile off onto the pavement with still two miles between them and their final destination, you need a countenance of stone and ears that can go selectively deaf. Then what do you do if they all stage a mutiny, which has happened in the past, and refuse to budge unless you drive on?

Well you drive on, don’t you?

There’s only so much a bloke can take.

But if you’re lucky, now you’re on the final stretch and as you wing it past the Odeon, laughing to yourself at the banners that proclaim SWISS COTTAGE IS HAPPENING, you strain your ears for the ghost of a melody played on an old Baby Grand. Hear it in your head as you sail down Adelaide Road, where all that is left of those wonderful allotments is a line of Scots pines, swaying in the breeze to an unheard Viennese waltz.

Down into Camden, no longer all broken down and derelict, but done up like a dog’s dinner with garish papier-maché effigies of boots and guitars; Dingwalls Dance Hall now Jongleurs comedy club and the last Greek family you remember from the Olympic café now forced out by fucking Starbucks and the rest of the trade of overpriced nothing.

For a moment here, you are safe. For a moment you can shut the doors and read the paper, catch some moments for yourself before you head back through it all over again.

Only, that day, I didn’t. The day after they showed that film.

I mean, I made it through my shift, through the short winter’s day. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what it had been like. About all of them people then. The young ones with life in their eyes, the old ones who could still laugh at the world, the hopeful ones in between who had found something for themselves in London that they couldn’t get nowhere else.

And the rows of beans up on Adelaide Road.

As darkness fell, I had nearly made it. Chalk Farm Road was chocka, thanks to the roadworks by the tube, and there was already about two busloads pushed on there, laden down with their shopping and their woes. No one pitied the poor bus driver as the jabbering line of schoolchildren punched their way past everyone else, eyeing up who was stupid enough to use a mobile they could snatch, to bag the back seats and furtively pass packages of weed and fuck knows what else to each other. No one pitied me and I was past caring about them, so that even when some Hampstead matron, a little off course from her familiar environs, demanded to know what I was going to do about them, I found myself just giving her the finger and driving on.

“Did you see that?” she screeched. “He made an obscene gesture! What’s your number driver, I’m reporting you?”

I started to laugh then, that Viennese waltz playing louder in my head.

“Six six six,” I replied and blanked her out, all the way up Adelaide Road. Blanked everything else out and all. The sound of the bells, the calls of “Driver!” “Driver, what the fuck you doing man? You some kind of mad man?” “Stop the fucking bus now!” Blanked out the faces pressed against my bullet-proof glass screen all the way to Swiss Cottage, when I finally pulled up to a shuddering halt and flashed the internal lights.

“Right,” I informed them, “you can all get off here now. This bus is no longer in service.”

Oh how they screamed and yelled and cursed and banged their fists against my unbreakable shield. Oh how they plotted my demise, my lynching, my immediate dismissal. But they did all finally get off, and I could hardly stop myself from laughing as I drove away, unencumbered. Back through the concrete columns of Belsize Road, back across Kilburn High Road and down Kilburn Park Road, the NOT IN SERVICE banner on the front of my bus allowing me to pass with impunity, ignore the crowds of angry yet impotent passengers queued up at every stop in between. Until I found myself back on Chippenham Road.

There’s a nice old boozer on the corner there, The Chippenham it’s called. It wasn’t in the film about the Routemaster, but it is about the only thing I could think of what hasn’t changed since 1986. I left the stupid little bus there, abandoned it outside, and strode into the bar a free man. Ordered myself a pint and drank myself back through it, back to the allotments on Adelaide Road. Back to the World’s End.

This originally appeared in issue four of Succour magazine.

Cathi Unsworth is a former journalist for Sounds, Melody Maker and Bizarre and recently wrote the novels The Not Knowing and The Singer, as well as editing the London Noir crime writing anthology, all on Serpent’s Tail. Read her 2008 interview at 3:AM. Photo: Allison McGourty.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 6th, 2009.