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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser