I took a bus the other day, around the Isle of Dogs in East London. It’s a regular, scheduled bus which takes people about their daily business but, since I had no particular daily business and I am not familiar with the route, I was able to enjoy the journey for the simple pleasure of discovery. The history of this area is probably familiar - it contains many of the docks of London which were once so important to the trade of an empire. But they became redundant and unloved when the empire collapsed and cargoes became containerised. Now they have been revived as marinas and ‘water features’ for the enhancement of housing and office developments.
I would have appreciated a knowledgeable guide to give me a spoken commentary on the journey but had to make do with picking up the clues and piecing them together with the help of an A-Z street map. Names, like Westferry Road and Eastferry Road, have very obvious origins, as do the many others with seafaring references to wharfs, cargoes and overseas destinations. Other streets are named after people of presumed importance to the area and there is, intriguingly, a major route called Manchester Road. Best of all is a place called Mudchute, so named because it was the destination of all the mud and silt excavated during the creation of Millwall docks then deposited there by conveyor belt.
The topography of the Isle of Dogs is dominated by the huge rectangular tracts of water chopped into the land which, although they may disorientate the casual visitor, have dictated the geography of the place since their conception so that even Canary Wharf- that self-contained, commercially sustained private estate- is, despite its massive scale, built around those old dock excavations. The bus diverts through security gates into the guarded territory of Canary Wharf so that passengers may access its immaculately tended buildings and open spaces. The power of money is manifest here in a harmony and order which contrasts sharply with the visual jumble of the public environment surrounding it.
Back in Manchester another, less epic, bus journey also transported me through history - although this time it was my own past that I encountered. The bus passed a house I had once lived in and wound its way through old stamping grounds I had long since forsaken. On this route I should not have needed clues to help with the story; my own, silent commentary was running. But, after a while, a question emerged: “Had I really lived here?” I tried winding back the tape and pressing replay but the picture was rather blurred. All those years later and, with no remaining connections to the place, the focus had become indistinct. It could have been another person’s life that I was contemplating, set in a familiar-looking suburb on a typical bus route. Some memories emerged, like brief sequences of a dream, but I could detect no real trace of me in the passing landscape. At my destination I stepped off the bus and into the present day wondering what had really happened back then.
Getting from A to B is straightforward and easy to achieve if that’s what you want: take stock of where you are, decide where you want to go and when you want to arrive, buy yourself a ticket and get on board. For some this serves as an effective strategy for life itself– a focused progression towards a predetermined outcome. But not knowing where you want to go can be a more interesting proposition; it contains the potential of open horizons and adventures beyond everyday experience. The scenic route, the roamer ticket, the speculative journey: these are not to be dismissed as mere whimsy, for they may be used as the means to an end – one which is deliberately not predetermined. Getting on a bus is a great way to get you to places you didn’t know you wanted to go.