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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Why Philip Green's fall should bring down the honours system – but won't

Sir Shifty may fall in disgrace, but our ridiculous system will endure. No matter what's happening in the rest of politics.

Sir Philip Green’s Efficiency Review (2010) is his Das Kapital and it is still, happily, online. You can, if you wish, smirk at his recommendations to the government, which were solicited by David Cameron, I imagine, because when he stood next to Green he looked not like a 17th-century woodcut but like a tall, handsome semi-aristocrat.

“There is no motivation to save money or to treat cash ‘as your own’,” Green grumbles, before complaining, “There are inconsistent commercial skills across departments.” I am weeping with laughter at the whole report. But I’m not one of those BHS employees watching their pension ­vanish as the hideous cushions, throws and bedspreads pile up on the Green family yacht Lionheart. I instantly rename the yacht 14-Day Return Policy No More.

The days when Green could write efficiency reviews for people to ignore are gone. It is said that he could lose his knighthood, because that would be exciting and pointless. If so, I hope the ceremony features the formal rending of a garment from the BHS sale bin – perhaps a torn sock will be flung at his head? The Queen will not be happy, because de-knighting makes the ancient system of patronage look as ridiculous as it really is. Do intercessors between man and God make mistakes? Would they raise a man the Daily Mail now calls “Sir Shifty”? (I checked whether there was a Sir Shifty among the knights of the Round Table who flogged the Holy Grail to a passing tinker. There was not.)

Lord Melbourne advised Queen Victoria not to attempt to make her husband, Albert, a king, for if the people knew that they could make kings, they might unmake them. Green will discover this in his tiny way. But the elites should not hide their baubles. One fallen knight will not destroy the system (and I cannot think that Green will take £571m from his Lionheart cushion budget to save his knighthood by replenishing the BHS pension fund, because a knighthood is, in essence, just a tiny Bentley Continental that you wear over your nipple). One fallen knight should destroy the system but it won’t, because human conceit and docility are without end. Green will be shunned. Nothing will change.

One might have hoped that the Brexit vote would have alerted Cameron to the abyss between the electorate and the elected. (Even Alastair Campbell, chomping against Brexit, seemed to forget that he was as complicit in the alienation of voters as anyone else: government by sofa, teeth and war.) The response was glib, even for Cameron, a man so glib that I sometimes think he is a reflection in a pond. Brexit hit him like someone caught in a mild shower without an umbrella. He hummed at the lesson that history dealt him; he hummed as he left his page. It was the hum of the alpha Etonian caught out in a mistake, yes, but it was still a bloody hum.

His next act was to increase pay-offs to favoured courtiers against civil service advice and at public expense; then, it was reported, he nominated his spin doctor Craig Oliver and his former spin doctor Gabby Bertin for peerages, because the upper house needs more PRs. He has learned nothing. I wish him a relaxed retirement in which he will, apparently, write his four-page memoir, David Cameron: My Struggle (sub-subtitle: Eton Mess?). I hope he does not attempt to deny “the prosciutto affair”, because there is no need. It was not true. It was too pure a metaphor.

So the honours system, an essential part of our alienating politics, alongside dodgy donors, duck houses and George Galloway, endures in its worst form as conventional politics fails. It is a donkey sanctuary for political friends and Bruce Forsyth. I am not suggesting that everyone who has been honoured is dreadful – some lollipop ladies deserve to be patronised with an OBE (when there is no E any more), I am sure, and the lords, some of whom are excellent, are the functional opposition now – but the system can no longer be defended by the mirth potential of watching politicians ponder what light-entertainment celebrities might swing a marginal before being posthumously accused of rape. We must find something better before the house burns down. Perhaps a robust parliamentary democracy?

The problem is best expressed by the existence of a specialist consultancy called Awards Intelligence, which engages in “VIP brand-building” by soliciting awards. It sells “awards plans” from £795, which I could well imagine Philip Green perusing as he bobs about aboard Lionheart, were it not too late. The Awards Intelligence website tells us so much, though obliviously, about the narcissism of modern politics that I am tempted to reproduce it in full. But I will merely report that it asks:

"Did you know that you can join the House of Lords on a part-time basis as an Independent Crossbench Peer or a political peer affiliated to one of the main politial parties – even if you have ongoing work, family or community commitments!"

The message from Awards Intelligence, which boasts of a 50 per cent success rate, is clear: the legislature is part-time, it exists to “instil trust, add credibility and provide a platform for you to have your say” – and it can’t always spell “political”.

Sir Shifty and Awards Intelligence do not constitute the worst crisis in the history of honours, dreadful though they are. During the First World War the royal German cousins were stripped of their garters, so that British soldiers would not have to kill men of higher rank. But it is time for the Queen to stop pinning toys on nipples. They are part of a political system sweeping us, swiftly, towards the night.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue