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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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear