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

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle