A to B: Vikings of the N22

Night Buses are where you really find out what life means, writes Eleanor Margolis.

I clamber up the stairs on the N22 bus and, suddenly, I’m looking over a carpet of blonde heads. It’s around 4am and, having done a good few tequila shots, I easily convince myself that I’ve never seen this many blondes in one place. It’s like a Nuremberg Rally in colour. I collapse into the only seat not taken by a blonde. Then I notice it – the lilting, song-like sound emanating from the blondes. They’re Swedish. Every one of them is tall, liberal (probably) and merry. Where they came from, I’ll never know, but like me this boisterous crew of Vikings is heading towards Fulwell.

Fifteen minutes later, I’m certain that I’m starting to pick up Swedish. They’re saying something that sounds a bit like “jårg” quite a lot, so that must be Svensk for, uhh, bus? The jårg stops on the Kings Road and about fifteen more blondes come frolicking up the stairs. To my astonishment, the new blondes know my blondes. They’re Swedish too. Loud greetings are exchanged and I begin to wonder if I’m in the midst of an invasion. It makes sense. Sort of. While we’ve been busy pumping billions into wars in the Middle East, unassuming Sweden has been quietly building fleet of longboats set for British shores.

As I’m trying to work out how to get in touch with the MoD, the Swedes are getting rowdy. And weird. They break into an impassioned chorus of When You Say Nothing At All, by Ronan Keating. It may have something to do with the tequila, but I’m overcome with this warm, doughy feeling startlingly close to optimism. Right here, surrounded by beautiful Nordics singing a fourteen-year-old hit, I’m overwhelmed by how strange and wonderful this moment is. I’m present. Sweet Buddha, I’m present. Eat your mindful heart out, Eckhart Tolle.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had a moment of spiritual clarity on the N22 to Fulwell. There was the time a ginger man on acid (retro, I know) tried to convince me that there is a God. We called each other “man” a lot and he decided I was the rightful queen of Belgium. There was also the time I fell in love (for at least twenty minutes) with a girl dressed as Andy Warhol.  For most people, night bus journeys conjure up images of pure, Boschean nightmare; grotesque, misshapen figures vomiting strange liquids out of even stranger orifices. It’s no mystery to me why a busload of puking, singing, belligerent sots isn’t everybody’s cup of gin. But, for me, there’s something more to the post-booze up voyage home. Something bordering on transcendental.

The bus journey home is the anti-climax of a heavy night out. It’s where you begin to sober up and realise that you shouldn’t have put fourteen kisses at the end of that text to a girl you convinced yourself you were over. I even have a specific “wallowing in self-pity” night bus playlist on my phone. It contains more than one Leonard Cohen track. The night bus journey combines intense self-reflection with some of the most fascinating people watching you’ll ever do. It’s the playground of the tired and emotional; the arguing couple, the loner with a sandwich, the tragic figure that is the guy who’s finally realised his animal onesie makes him look stupid. For me, this period of concentrated internal and external evaluation usually culminates in an inner exclamation of something like, “HOLY HELL, I’M SO HUMAN.”

There’s something softly menacing about driving through London in the small hours of the morning. When I lived in South East London, my night bus back from the centre would take me past an empty, litter-strewn Trafalgar Square, under an electric blue sky. Everything seems more beautiful when you’re drunk, and deserted, vomit-slicked streets are no exception. But possibly the most sublime thing about the night bus journey is the promise of Home at the end of it. 

This piece is part of A to B, the New Statesman's week of posts on travel and transport.

A night bus. Photograph: Alastair Rae on Flickr, CC-BY-SA

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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