BBC2's The Route Masters showed us the real London: not flat-out amazing, not all-the-way terrible

Who knows the city better than a night bus driver?

Growing up and watching telly, I wasn’t held in a kung-fu grip of fascination by the city I was born in. The London on television was not that far from the real thing back in the late 1980s and early 1990s and it was not pretty. Everything looked grey and manky to my child’s eyes. I grew up in deep, dark east London – a place as unlovely as anything a city planner has ever dreamed up. I could not understand what type of great art might be born of such an unrelentingly dour environment, when the colours in artists’ palettes are reduced to only slightly different shades of grey. For me, New York and all the other shiny cities in the US that were beamed to me via the bountiful four channels (!) at my disposal were it.

The US was the land of cheerleaders, of exciting politics and courtrooms, of crazy stunts and passionately raised voices. By contrast, the London on my screen was filled with gruff East End characters, men in heavy leather jackets, their faces like grim masks. All the cop shows were steeped in depressing “realism” and the car chases were small scale, the cars knocking over carefully dressed sets of fake, wooden boxes. Men were called Terry and Razor and Dave.

The US detective shows were a glimpse into another world, full of maverick cops with a sideline in quirky little “just one more thing” habits. The everyday world of London life on London telly was just not exciting. The main problem was that it was all I had access to. You never want what you consider to be workaday, do you?

Then something changed. By the mid-to-late 1990s, between plain, old teenagehood and the not-so-plain Cool Britannia, between Britpop and SMTV Live, the internet and yet another “British invasion” of Hollywood, London reopened itself to me. It became a place to see and explore, worthy of being the subject and location of every television programme on earth.

Money poured into what had seemed like the symbol of a broken city, the Docklands, and reupholstered away the rough edges until there were steel-and-glass towers and unaffordable homes.

The London on the screen made the Tube romantic, a magical portal to a city of endless possibility. Youth TV shows such as As If assured me that adventure was right around the corner because I was young and foolish and beautiful. Hollywood portrayed London as a sleek cosmopolis, where everyone spoke only one of three very different dialects: the plummy tones of the Home Counties, broad and common Cockney or cut-glass villain. This system lacked nuance, sure, but it did the job for a long time.

These days, the London on television has evolved again and is very different from the one of my childhood. Now, it’s a marvellous mix of grit and glamour, nowhere more beautifully portrayed than on BBC2’s The Route Masters: Running London’s Roads. This documentary covers all of London – from the wealthy neighbourhoods of west London to the commuter towns of Ilford and Croydon – and shows a normally quiet but all-seeing minority, transport workers, finally breaking their silence, telling Londoners who we really are.

One recent episode, about the night-bus network, was simply excellent. “You want the right one to come in and the wrong ones do,” said the flirty but also weary and wary bus driver Duane, who was driving a bus from Brixton to the West End, about his attractive passengers. “The ones that should come over don’t.”

We met Jeff, whose life was a reminder that the things we consider permanent have a nasty habit of turning out not to be: having lost his business, he was homeless, one of the many people who use London’s night buses as a moving shelter every night. “You’re one pay cheque away,” he said with a laugh. Another driver, Tommy, had his shift interrupted by some young men causing trouble and called it into the office; his description of “a group of black guys” over the radio rubbed some of the passengers up the wrong way. One woman rolled her eyes and asked how their race was relevant – a fare dodger is a fare dodger. Tommy looked a little hurt and told the camera he wasn’t racist –his wife is black. On top of that, he’s half-Asian.

This is London, I thought. Not flat-out amazing, not all-the-way terrible. Just another city of humans, trying to get home at the end of the day.

Westminster Bridge by night. Photograph: BBC.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism