How to assay the state of contemporary urban Britain for ten short radio programmes, given only a single progress around its several parts, limited time and, generally speaking, saving a somewhat tarnished gift for the gab, waning powers. That was my problem.
I have a certain notoriety for plodding about the place sticking my nose into things – and in previous series for Radio 4 I’ve circumambulated the Large Hadron Collider at Cern outside Geneva, and driven a plastic Trabant car back to its factory of origin, in Zwickau, eastern Germany. But neither feet nor car seemed quite the right means by which to go in search of the elusive soul of brick-built Britishness.
Trains as a documentary method are already Portilloed to the hilt – besides, if you put a microphone in the face of someone on a train, all they want to talk about is… trains. Worse still, the train carries with it its own complex of British urban associations, from glass and iron architecture, to Will Hay-alike stationmasters and seedy railway hotels.
No, I needed another way into this curate’s egg of an isle, a means of transporting me both between and within cities of the middling sort; for I also wished to avoid the too bright lights of the big ones: Manchester, Glasgow, London and Birmingham. My objective was to capture Britons’ unseen lives – Britons, if you like, hiding behind the bus shelter – and interrogate them about how they view their cities and themselves in the age of Trump and Brexit.
So I set off from London Victoria, and hit the ground running in Plymouth. Here the landlady of my bed and breakfast, within five minutes’ walk of the Royal Dockyard, cavilled over my very first question: how had she voted in the referendum on British membership of the European Union? She hemmed, she hawed, eventually conceding she’d voted for Brexit, but with this all-too-familiar rider: “I’m not racist…”
I hadn’t set out to examine the state of the nation explicitly in the light of Brexit, but it was impossible to avoid the issue. Standing in Swansea’s covered market, eating laverbread, a local seaweed delicacy of surpassing weirdness, I found I couldn’t ask anyone about how it felt to be British in 2017, without also considering what it means to be Welsh, a native of Swansea, and whatever other identities my diverse interviewees subscribed to – whether that be gay or straight, Muslim or Christian, man or woman, or eschewing all such simplistic binary oppositions. No, really, as I bumped and bombinated by bus – from Wales into the Midlands, then up through the Black Country, via West Bromwich to Wolverhampton – I found I had to offer my interviewees a mixed palette of putative identities from which to paint an accurate portrait of who they are now.
I was accompanied on my halting, air-brake-hissing progress by a trio of travellers from earlier eras, all of whom had attempted something similar: Daniel Defoe in the early 1700s, JB Priestley in the 1930s and Paul Theroux, who travelled the coast of Britain in the early 1980s.
What struck me, as I alternated between their observations, and the view from the Magic Bus heading for Preston, Lancs, was how both regional and national character had seemed so much surer in the past. Even Theroux, writing a mere 35 years ago, speaks authoritatively of British national characteristics being ever-present in quotidian life quite as much as the symbolism of the state.
But whether talking to social workers of African-Caribbean heritage in West Brom, or a Polish-English café proprietor in Middlesbrough, or young creatives from both communities in Derry, I found such stereotypic notions of Britishness altogether besides the point: whatever else contemporary Britons may be, their Britain has become a highly debatable land.
Coach and bus stations tend to be located a little bit askance to the main stony symbols of British civic life, while my commitment to either using local bus services or walking within towns meant that I saw Britain in a state of dishabille, rather than dressed to impress. I skulked around the remains of the metal-bashing businesses along Spon Lane near Smethwick, West Midlands – which Priestley had identified in the 1930s as the Stygian epicentre of industrial Britain – and found a man who wouldn’t be interviewed because he was ashamed of his Black Country accent.
The bus carrying me from Glasgow to East Kilbride broke down beside an isolated shopping parade, and in an opulently appointed South Asian restaurant, I ate a late supper beneath a framed quote from Virginia Woolf hymning the good life, which had been translated into Sanskrit. And at the very end of my progress, I found myself on the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic, talking to a former customs officer who laughed long and hard at the very idea of a hard border.
But if there’s no defined border between Britain and not-Britain, it rather begs the question I set out to answer: what does it mean to be an urban Briton in this day and age? The very diverse and complicated answers I received to this simple question kept me running for the next bus, where there’d be yet more debate, yet more views of the exhaust-smirched median strip, and yet more whiffs from the chemical toilet. Join me in coach class for a view of contemporary urban Britain that eschews all cosy clichés.
Will Self’s Great British Bus Journey is on Monday 29th January to Friday 2nd February at 1.45pm on Radio 4