Friday 20 March 2009

Travelogue: Front Row Seat

I miss my Toronto friends, though I do like being in London, and something one should certainly do here is to take a visit to the buses. Although the 168 is not regarded as one of London's great buses—it gets four stars rather than five—it is definitely worth considering. It goes from Hampstead Heath (though really it's South End Green), to very useful places like Euston (just a couple of minutes walk from the British Library), through Russell Square from where one can see the tower of the University Senate House, then across Waterloo Bridge to the South Bank, where the National Theatre is. Waterloo Bridge is not Westminster Bridge with its view about which Wordsworth wrote, "Earth has not anything to show more fair." For that you need to be on the Number 12. But the view from Waterloo Bridge is still good. The 168 is a double decker. It is best to go upstairs and, if possible, get a seat in the front row, from where one can see not only the buildings, and the river as one crosses it, but the Audis and Jaguars below which scuttle like cockroaches through gaps in the traffic.

On the 168, the timbre of the voice announcements as we approach each stop is very fine. The announcements are recorded by an actress who I would say is fresh from a run at the Old Vic. For the bus, she uses her BBC accent, informative rather than intimate. One can imagine that although this woman would have preferred something in the West End, she was pleased to get this part. She is of the expressive school of acting, so that two stops after leaving South End Green, she announces "Pond Street" with a sense of satisfaction. Although I think she is doing her best with the script, one could question the decision to announce the stop in this way since (like the stop from where we started) this one is named inappropriately. By the time we reach it, we have turned left from Pond Street and are 200 yards down Rosslyn Hill. I would suggest the stop be renamed "Hampstead Green," home to a host of golden daffodils. Further down the hill we come to "Belsize Park"; this delivered with confidence. Soon afterwards, "Chalk Farm Station" is said with a rising tone, expressing surprise. If I were the director, I would query this interpretation, because in my experience there are few things in London less surprising than reaching Chalk Farm Station. "Camden Town Station" is said as if in passing, which is perfectly correct, and "Pratt Street" is said in the most matter-of-fact manner. As the bus leaves each stop the announcer tells us the number, "one six eight," and then after a tiny pause we hear "to." This preposition is pronounced in a neutral tone so that it can be inserted by the recording engineer into any phrase. Then: "Old Kent Road, Tesco," said with descending pitch not, I think, to disparage Tesco, but to give the sense of final destination, where the driver can have a cup of tea.

One might think that hearing every couple of minutes, "one six eight ... to ... Old Kent Road, Tesco," would be pretty annoying. In fact the experience, with the moving stage set and the sound of this woman's voice in one's ears, is quite stirring. For the sake of the appreciation she must receive from a wide sector of the population, it is perhaps good that she got this part rather than something in the West End, which would probably only have been a re-run, and where the seats are much more expensive.

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