The long and winding road

Great British Bus Journeys: travels through infamous places

David McKie <em>Atlantic Books, 352pp,

David McKie is a Guardian columnist and sometime deputy editor of the paper whose last book, Jabez: the rise and fall of a Victorian rogue, was shortlisted for both the Whitbread Biography Award and the Saga Award for Wit (and let's face it, they know wit when they see it at Saga). In Great British Bus Journeys he very entertainingly perpetuates a familiar joke: the employment of the humble word "bus" in a grandiose context. For much of the 20th century, Cecil J Allen wrote a column in the Railway Magazine called "British Locomotive Practice and Performance", which Punch guyed as "British Bus Practice and Performance". A D Godley's poem "The Motor Bus", which is mainly in Latin, comes from the same strain of humour: "Domine, defende nos/Contra hos Motores Bos!"

And so McKie's book is full of sentences such as: "How many who wait here at the start of the 94 bus route know this was part of the ground on which the Battle of Brentford was fought in 1642?!" He juxtaposes the quotidian world of the post-privatised, (mainly) provincial bus with the history of the landscape through which that comical vehicle proceeds.

His method has been to take a medley of bus journeys within a particular region, and then to let his mind wander. Not that he's not ferociously specific about the type and number of the buses he uses. In the chapter starkly named "Sleaford", he rides a "spick and span number 1 Lincolnshire Roadcar" from the village of Harmston to Grantham. He then takes the Roadcar service 609 from Grantham to Sleaford, which invites the question: "Can there really be more than 600 routes operated by Lincolnshire Roadcar?" McKie begins musing on the mysteries of bus numbering: "You might think the lowest on record was number 1, but that isn't the case: there was one that ran briefly in Sheffield that called itself 000."

In one chapter he journeys by post buses across the Highlands (meditating for much of the time on the morality or otherwise of a 19th-century Duke of Sutherland), only to find that the post bus at Bettyhill is in fact a car - a Vauxhall saloon. But its driver argues that it must be a bus "since the word 'bus' appears in quite large lettering on the door".

McKie uses his buses not so much to get from A to B as to gain access to the obscurer corners of his own well-stocked brain. In his Surrey chapter (substantially given over to the grippingly nasty story of William Whiteley, retail magnate and founder of the Surrey village that bears his surname), McKie is riding the number 71 out of Guildford when he overhears a passenger moaning to the driver about the state of English cricket, and saying: "Why don't they bring back Maurice Leyland!" McKie reflects that he'd seen Leyland bat, and that the man was part of the same Yorkshire side that included Paul Gibb, who'd ended up, strangely enough, driving buses in Guildford, "usually the 273 Alder Valley Service to Shamley Green". McKie keeps this flash of synchronicity to himself, however.

All he needs is to glimpse from one of his buses the sight of a curious episode, and he's off. And sometimes he doesn't even need that. McKie's style is careful and gentle. "It was a provisionally sunny day," is a typical phrase; he keeps you reading by some effortless, invisible means, and he has a fine ear for place names, quoting one bus driver as saying: "I've never seen so much traffic through Helions Bumpstead."

An affection for, and sensitivity to, the places themselves also comes through. McKie describes Haverhill in Suffolk as "a Peacock town . . . which is to say that they're too small for a Debenhams, and the nearest thing they have to a department store is the successful if rarely celebrated discount operator Peacocks". You couldn't have written that if you'd roared through Haverhill in an SUV.

Being a man of progressive political opinions, McKie can't afford to be too fogeyish, but the awkward fact is that most of the interesting stuff that happened in the places through which he travels happened a very long time ago, and he ends on a Betjemanesque note: "What has struck me most on my meandering way is how much is lost when a place neglects or erases its history."

Speaking of which, McKie touches only glancingly on the passing of the Route- master. I expect his publishers told him we were all over that . . . But guess what type of bus is shown on the cover?

Andrew Martin's novel The Lost Luggage Porter will be published by Faber & Faber in May

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Heroes Special