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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

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