It is often remarked that, in an age of mass transportation, what we have lost is the thrill and glamour and sheer romance of travel. It is true that were a modern day Richard Hakluyt to publish a modern day version of The Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation, the navigations, voiages and traffiques would already be familiar to millions, and the discoueries few, if indeed there were any at all. Journeys that were unimaginable even to our fairly recent ancestors we now undertake at the drop of a hat. But was the thrill and glamour and romance inherent in the travel, or does it depend above all on the attitude of the traveller? If the latter, we can still experience the sensations of Hakluyt’s voyagers, of explorers treading into the unknown, of wide-eyed wonderment and awe.
If our attitude is all, then we need not hark back to the past in our choice of transport. However appealing the steam train and the hot air balloon and the vintage car, what they offer is nostalgia. Yet it is possible to find thrills and glamour and romance in bang up to date transport systems if we screw our heads on properly, that is to say, if we adopt a true traveller’s attitude. Consider, for example, that often overlooked wonder of the age, the replacement bus service.
You arrive at the railway station for a routine journey. Perhaps you are simply commuting from home to work, or paying your regular visit to Great Aunt Flo in her seaside retirement home, or taking your monthly trip to a distant city with a castle and an exciting zoo. You already have your train ticket, and as you prance into the station you take it from your inside pocket, ready to present it to a uniformed factotum. It is then you espy, emblazoned with a magic marker pen across a board, a notice telling you that all train services have been cancelled and there is a replacement bus service in operation.
You become aware of fellow passengers standing around the railway station looking lost, tutting and muttering and in some cases seething. They are annoyed and irritated and frustrated. One of them is already shouting his head off at a uniformed factotum, who is blinking frantically and parroting the “line” he has been given by his superiors. You, by contrast, have not a care in the world. You are a true traveller. Bright of eye and determined of gait, you turn on your heel and stride out of the station, seeking the bus stop. And there it is!
There is a bus waiting there for you, its engine already grumbling. A rapid glance confirms that it is indeed the replacement bus service bus that will ferry you to your destination. There is another factotum, wearing a peaked cap, standing on the kerb by the open door. You show him your train ticket, he acknowledges it with a manly nod, and you board the bus and select a seat. At this point, while you wait in a state of high expectation for the bus to rev and slowly ease away from the bus stop, at the outset of your journey, you might take from your bag a piece of fruit, an apple or a pear or a Carlsbad plum, a snack to calm your nerves.
Eventually, your waiting is over. A few more passengers have clambered aboard, some still tutting and muttering and seething, but you block them out of your consciousness. In regrettable modern parlance, they are, or appear to be, bus wankers. But you are of a higher calling. You are a replacement bus service voyager, with the core of your apple or pear or the stone of your Carlsbad plum now tucked away in your bag. And the door hisses shut and the engine revs and away you go.
“Make it new!” was Ezra Pound’s battle-cry, and that is exactly what happens to your oh so familiar train journey. You stop at all the same familiar stations, yet, crucially, following a parallel yet different trajectory, from an unfamiliar angle, and you stop, not at a platform within the station but at a bus stop outside it. And all along that trajectory, everything you see you see from an unfamiliar angle, including the railway tracks themselves, sometimes visible from the window of the bus, sometimes occluded, as when the bus needs must follow the line of the road where it veers away from the railway line due to the terrain, the physical geography, or historical imperatives. Trees, shrubs, huts, outbuildings, factories, orchards, canals, aerodromes, coppices, lakes, duckponds, churchyards, volleyball courts, swimming pools, chimneys, follies, otter sanctuaries, car pounds, statues, industrial estates, science parks, gin palaces, clock towers, unoccupied plinths, standing stones, plague pits, recently-landed alien spacecraft… each and all, seen from a different angle, are made anew, made unfamiliar. And here and there, scattered along the line, groups of railway employees, with no trains to run, are gathered, smoking pipes or playing improvised games of boules using pebbles or staring at the sky and at the birds in the sky, the engine drivers and ticket collectors and inspectors and buffet stewards gathered together with porters and maintenance men and signalmen, ripp’d from their familiar context, they too are made anew.
You disembark from the bus at the bus stop outside the railway station for which you set out, whether to go to work or to see Great Aunt Flo or to visit the castle and the exciting zoo. You know where the waste bins are inside the station, but here, outside, from this angle, at the replacement bus service bus stop, you must cast your eyes about until you spot one. Only then can you take from your bag and discard the core of your apple or pear or the stone of your Carlsbad plum. And, that done, you can wend your way, now on familiar pedestrian territory once more, but having travelled as a true traveller, with thrills and glamour and romance.