By Ashley Davies
I spent my 20s working in London, which involved spending ten hours a week on the Underground. That’s about three (oh God Christ I can’t breathe) whole weeks a year. Sometimes you’d be so crammed in together that the condensation produced from all the desperate bodies combined to create a vile soup that would drip on to your already damp head from the ceiling. If it was winter you’d try to hold your bulky coat and anything else you had to carry while somehow staying upright. If it was summer and you were near a window, you’d try to fool yourself into thinking the air you could feel was somehow fresh, when in reality it was a blend of dirt, human skin and exhaust swirling around this evil transport drain.
Hating your fellow man became easy. People’s briefcases would jab into your delicate parts, mouth-breathers would blankly, silently invite you to imagine what horrors lurked within their digestive tracts and if you were lucky enough to get a seat you’d inevitably be stuck beside a manspreader (men whose precious testicles are clearly so large and so, so delicate that they must spread their knees wide open, regardless of who’s in the next seat). If you are in the next seat, your options are to make yourself smaller to avoid touching the offenders (they win); to allow their legs to touch yours (they win); or to confront them (justice wins, in theory, but having this conversation is harder than it sounds).
I don’t even want to remember what it was like when a train broke down or got stuck in a tunnel. When I was last in London I heard a recorded message warning of delays because there was a “passenger under a train” – a necessarily straightforward term for a heartbreaking act. It happened so often that there was a pre-prepared message about it. People are so used to it and so focused on the need to get this awful part of their day over with that, for many, their first reaction is a quick logistical recalibration to work out an alternative route. It’s de-humanising.
I will never, ever stop being grateful for being able to live and work in Scotland. A few years ago we moved to within walking distance of The Scotsman office and I could stroll to work in 40 minutes if I chose to go through Holyrood Park and past the loch, spending a bit of time in the company of the swans, tufted ducks, gulls and geese. It always made me feel fortunate, being so close to nature despite being near the city, and a soft green mental health cushion topped and tailed my working day. I could indulge in Border collie envy and revel in smugness seeing tourists marvel at our ridiculously beautiful city – and it cost me nothing.
Then last year The Scotsman moved to the other side of town and I was appalled to learn that an on-foot commute would take up to three hours a day, so I started taking the bus. Once the surprise of the expense subsided, I quickly fell in love with Edinburgh buses.
For the record, obviously I’ve been on thousands of buses before, but it’s never been part of my quotidian routine. I love the utilitarianism of them: every day they carry a fascinating cross-section of society and even during rush hour, when they’re overcrowded and slow, the respect with which people treat each other is symbolic of how society, at its best, ticks along: people give each other space when possible, instinctively offer seats to those who need them more, and on the whole, are tolerant. The network serves the city pretty well, in my view.
Outside of rush hour, smiles are reciprocated and people show kindness to the vulnerable. Of course there will occasionally be a passenger whose odour rams itself so deep into your nasal passage you think you will never recover. And of course occasionally there is noise pollution, whether it’s the tksss tksss tksss from headphones; inane, unending chat on mobile phones or, my pet grudge, that which turns me from David Banner to the Hulk, extravagant mismanagement of mucus.
However, Edinburgh’s the only place I’ve ever lived where nearly everyone, including the scallies, say “thank you, driver” and I think that’s wonderful.
I love getting to understand the personality of each route. I now know who the nice drivers are (there are more here than anywhere else in the world, I reckon), which ones will wait until the frail and elderly are seated before putting their foot on the pedal, and which ones appear to take cold pleasure in sharp, early acceleration. Thankfully there aren’t too many of the latter – the ones who seem to be training their passengers for lives on the high seas in rickety vessels.
Because The Scotsman’s new office is near a hospital, I’ve started recognising people for whom that is the often worrisome destination. You see flowers, you overhear anxious telephone calls, and you witness lengthy, sometimes one-sided, conversations in which one person shares with a stranger forensic details about their medical history.
On some buses you can spot the silver-haired groups on their way back from bingo – salty laughs, tobacco smells and friendships that go back many decades. You can make bets with yourself about who’s likely to get off at the zoo, the sheriff court, the art galleries or the universities. And you can take inspiration from destination names that sound like Game of Thrones kingdoms – Clovenstone, the Jewel, Hunter’s Tryst, Hillend, King’s Road, Slateford.
I also love the way people, when given an option, choose a section of the bus that most represents their personality. Mischief and youth are drawn to the top deck, the adventurers opting to sit at the front, but the back of the lower deck is often the go-to place for the intoxicated. One morning recently I saw a skinny man in this spot, at least £100 fanned out in his inert, scabby fingers as he drifted in and out of consciousness. A fellow passenger popped the cash into the man’s pocket and everyone smiled gratefully on his behalf. All life is here.
This article first appeared in The Scotsman on 22 April, 2015