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1 May 2024

The unbendable rules of where to sit on buses

A pleasant journey is rendered suboptimal by other passengers. It is a situation for which the British are ill-prepared.

By Nicholas Lezard

To Oxfordshire again to see my friend A— (also known as T—) and her cat, the Mighty T—. I need to get away from Brighton, where my creditors are closing in, and, like the Small Faces, I need to rest my eyes in shades of green.

A— suggests a new way of getting there: leaving from Marylebone station to go to Islip, where she will pick me up. As it happens, I rather like Chiltern Railways, which go from Marylebone, but I cannot afford it, so go the usual way: train to Victoria, then the coach from Grosvenor Place. This is at the beginning of the coach route, which means I can go on to the top deck and sit at the front, which means you’re driving the bus. And while the bus takes ages to leave London, the views are spectacular when you do, particularly when you get to the cutting in the Chilterns just before the stop at Lewknor, and you see the whole of Oxfordshire spread out before you like a blessing.

But I let a couple of ancient Chinese tourists on before me and they sit – if you imagine the four front seats being labelled, from left to right, A, B, C, and D – in seats B and C. This leaves me in a situation for which the British are ill-prepared. For although they are sort of sitting next to each other, there is an aisle separating them. Common courtesy would suggest that they should instead be sitting in seats A and B, or C and D, thus freeing up, respectively, seats C and D, or A and B, for the freelance hack who is childish enough to pretend that he’s driving the bus. Do I go up to them and have a word? Of course I don’t, I’m English. Instead I seethe through Park Lane, Notting Hill Gate, White City, the Westway, RAF Northolt, Hillingdon and… you get the idea. All points to the Park and Ride. By the time I get there I am very much ready for a soothing drink.

And I am soothed; for A— has bought in the first of the season’s asparagus and she is a splendid cook; one of the dishes she makes involves a dressed crab, tons of butter and tons of garlic and tons of black pepper; served with fettuccine, it is one of the nicest things I have ever eaten in my life, and she photographs me sticking the bowl in front of my face as I lick up every last molecule of the sauce. If you don’t like it when someone licks the plate after you cook their dinner, then you have no business in the kitchen.

Afterwards we light the fire – for it is chilly – and we watch season three of Slow Horses over two evenings and, unlike the time I came round to catch up on season two, I am not too pissed to remember anything that happens. We writhe in pleasure at Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Jackson Lamb. I had been hoping to meet Mick Herron in Oxford over the weekend but he had other plans; this will have to do instead. It is satisfactory. The weekend is also peppered with unusual coincidences. The details of these are rather dull but the number of them is remarkable. (Example of dull coincidence: hearing the phrase “flat-headed screwdriver” twice within half an hour, when I have never heard it before, or not for decades. You see? Other people’s coincidences are as dull as their dreams.)

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But all good things come to an end, and on the Sunday, after I cook a roast chicken and spuds and drink 7/8 of a bottle of wine, A— drops me off at the Park and Ride and I look forward to the journey home. Maybe I will get to drive the bus this time.

Only I don’t. Seated in seats B and C of the front row are a couple, and the journey whizzes by because I am in a continuous seething rage. But this time, because I am emboldened by Australian Shiraz, I decide enough is enough, even though it takes me until the old Hoover Building on the A40 to make my move. Amazingly, I note, from the text I see on one of their phones before he turns round, that they are Chinese. I advise them that this is not the way to make friends when travelling by bus in the British Isles, and turn away the offer of seat D with a scornful wave of the hand.

Victoria Station is rammed: it is the London Marathon. The first train is too full to get on, so with the last of my money I buy a large Scotch at the station Wetherspoon’s. The barmaid drops an ice cube into it from a height and half the drink splashes out. I protest.

“You’ve splashed half the drink out,” I wail.

“No I haven’t,” she says, so I leave it. I’ve exhausted my indignation for the day. I sit gloomily at the last table on the terrace and a man in a Crombie overcoat and a suit and tie makes a do-I-know-you? face. Is he a bailiff? I wonder.

No: he identifies me as Nicholas Lezard, and it turns out that he knows me from my book reviews. Not from this column: he’d have known I was broke and would have bought me a drink. He asks what I’m reading and I say Kafka, for work; he tells me that Kafka and Lenin died in the year Benny Hill was born. So not all coincidences are boring; and I am cheered up.  

[See also: The superhuman I’d pictured turns out to be a super human indeed]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March