Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Buse/ Vietnam/ Julian of Norwich

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Buse/ Vietnam/ Julian of Norwich

Article excerpt

It's a pity Will Self didn't embark on his bus tour round Britain before the Brexit vote. If he had, we might have all had a better understanding of what's going on in the shires. In his series of ten short programmes on Radio 4, Great British Bus Journey (produced by Laurence Grissell), Self sets out to emulate Daniel Defoe, William Cobbett and J.B. Priestley by taking the bus not to the big centres of life in the UK but those smaller towns and cities we often rush past on the motorway or have no reason to add to our bucket list. Places like Plymouth, Preston, East Kilbride, Wolverhampton and Swansea.

His big question is to find out what it means to be British today (the intention behind those earlier cross-country trips by horse and chauffeur-driven car). But actually far more interesting are his by-the-way observations and offbeat conversations with strangers encountered on the way. In Devonport, for instance, once 'the cockpit' of Britain's strategic power, he takes a late-night walk and comes across 30 homeless people clustered round a mobile food van. Demand has gone up 10 per cent in the past year, one of the customers being a young man who came out of jail 15 months ago and has been homeless for the past nine. He really does want to reform his life but can't find a job. The organiser says that Plymouth has a very organised soup run, there's a real community spirit. But she also explains that she was not allowed to park the van by the main road into Devonport and had to move it further down a side road. 'Is this what it means to be civic-minded in contemporary Britain?' says Self, adding with sonorous cynicism, 'keeping things out of sight.'

In Wolverhampton he can't resist pointing out the irony of a centre for those without jobs being funded partly by the National Lottery and partly by the European Social Fund. On his way to the centre he passes lots of newsagents and corner shops advertising lottery tickets. The people using the centre, 900 of them at least, are part-funding it themselves with their weekly habit of gambling on £1 scratchcards.

Yet Self sounds a lot more upbeat than usual, as if he's really enjoying his meetings with people who love where they live, and he's 'entranced by the facility and fluidity of contemporary British bus travel'. Timetables may be a work of 'speculative fiction', but the usually short-fused Self appears remarkably composed after hitting 'a spot of traffic'. He's also very excited by the sight of Preston's bus station, a Grade II-listed brutalist building from the 1960s. 'Awesome,' he declares. …

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