I started the year, as I do each year, with good intentions to read more books. One book a month I always feel shouldn’t be too ambitious. I’ve always loved reading but recently, particularly over the last couple of years, I’ve struggled to find the attention span to sit down and read. There always seems to be something else to distract me.
So far this year I’ve only finished two books. Since March I’ve been slowly reading ‘Between the Stops’, a memoir by the legend of British broadcasting Sandi Toksvig.
I’ll admit that reading her biography isn’t something I always thought I’d want to read, but told as she travels on the number 12 bus from Dulwich to the west end, this is also a love story of London and the London bus.
It’s about a bus trip really, because my view from the top of the Number 12 bus. It’s not a sensible way to write a memoir at all probably, but things pop into your head as you travel, so it’s my way.Sandi Toksvig
Last night I reached the last page and the end of the route. I’ve never been so sad to reach Oxford Circus and have to get off the bus.
Sandi’s written word is as engaging as she is when she’s hosting QI or any of the other wonderful programmes she’s appeared on over the years. I didn’t realise quite how diverse her career has been, or how she started out in the world of entertainment, but it feels just as winding as this bus route can be as you weave through south east London, up to the river and into the beating heart of this great city.
I’ve learnt we have similar views on Kate Middleton, that Gummikylling is Danish for rubber chicken, that I’ve drunk beer in what was once the last legal brothel in London and the first first three colour traffic light in London was installed in 1926 in Piccadilly Circus.
This book has been an education on the part of London I’ve made home as well as Sandi’s life – the highs and lows, and a lot of very funny moments.
“I find I am beginning to feel the class divide between those on the bus and the people in their cars below… Buses are neglected because it is mostly women who use them and on the whole women don’t make things as butch as transport policy.
It’s why you can catch a bus easily into central London but not to the next village. As a generalisation, men think about commuting with purpose; women don’t travel in such straight lines.
In Britain it is also the poorer person who takes the double-decker, who stands in the cold waiting for the bus. It is the poorer person who must share a seat for two with someone they don’t know or perhaps care for. Margaret Thatcher, that great egalitarian, is supposed to have said, ‘If a man finds himself a passenger on a bus having attained the age of twenty-six, he can count himself a failure in life.’ I don’t think buses deserve this. I like this communal moving forward, not confined to tracks like trains but out on the open road.”Sandi Toksvig
I’ve lived on the number 12 route since I moved to Camberwell back in 2008, and without a doubt it is one of my favourite bus routes. I’ve frequently sat in traffic in mine and Sandi’s favourite seat (top front above the driver) watching the world go by below knowing little about why the streets are named the way they (I never knew medlar was a fruit) or the history of some of the landmark places the route takes you past.
It was only when I moved to Camberwell, after years living at the end of the Victoria line in Brixton, that I really embraced travel by bus. I’d long been an advocate for this way of travelling around London though – afterall, if a bus gets stuck in traffic you can get off; you can’t do that so easily on the tube.
Last year I wrote about some of my favourite bus routes, including the number 12, after a year of not travelling by bus due to covid. I’m pleased to say I’m back in my favourite seat on a regular basis, though now mainly for pleasure as I no longer commute into town for work.
At the time of writing however, the powers that be are planning on removing this route. Not only is it one of the oldest bus routes in London, it’s a crucial route for those in south east London to get into central London and one that would leave a gaping hole.
I always thought I’d miss living near a tube station, but the buses are a much more enjoyable and convenient way to travel. As they don’t want to do anything to improve alternative transport links in this part of the city, they are once again dismissing and ignoring the needs of south east London residents.
A survey on their bus review closes tomorrow. If you use and rely on the buses in London, make sure you take a look and let TfL know what you think about their plans for making financial savings. Whilst I was all for the bus hopper fare when it was introduced, allowing users to change buses within 60 minutes of starting their journey without additional charges, interchange locations like Elephant and Castle are becoming impossible.
Hopefully they will listen and retain this crucial route, but if the worst happens Sandi has captured this route in a most wonderful way. She may have not used the right name for the bus stop at the end of my street, but it’s inspired me to pay more attention as I travel around London by bus and learn more about the people and places I’m passing by, and what stories I might have to tell.