Angel. Photo © Tim Marshall.
I started the ’38 Special’ bus project largely because the bus was always so overcrowded that rarely could you get a seat to read the paper. So, in order to fill the time, I began to take photographs during my journey to and from college. The whole of life’s rich tapestry unfurls on a bus and I soon extended the brief to observe the small dramas that occurred outside the bus as well. Although the real action often happens when I pass college and head towards China town and Piccadilly Circus, the main challenge had been documenting the journey from Essex Road to Central Saint Martin’s.
Between 1938 and 1941, the great Walker Evans took his (suitably disguised) camera on the New York subway and photographed unwitting passengers. The photo are sweet and revealing but don’t have that unflinching, forensic power that we associate with Evans at his best: the man who photographed the faces and homes of poor, Depression-era farmers with such eloquence and grace. Tim has cited Walker Evans’ 1930s photos of the New York subway as an influence, but unlike Evans, Tim Marshall was not trawling the public transit systems for material, he was keeping a visual diary as he travelled to work. When he photographs bored commuters stuck on a bus stranded by traffic, he is one of them. These days, a photographer taking his camera onto public transport risks exposure, ridicule, violence and possibly arrest. I don’t know what subterfuges Tim used in order to conjure up the images that make up his 38 Special project, but as the image reproduced above shows, it was worth it. We will run more of them later in the year.
On a number 38 ‘Bendy’, Islington, 2006. Photo © Tim Marshall.
From The Bus We Loved; London’s affair with the Routemaster* by Travis Elborough:
The Routemaster was made to measure, Savile Row tailored for the city, ‘an attractive piece of street furniture’ specifically built for London. It exemplified the highest ideals of a public-spirited passenger transport service – physical evidence that London and ordinary Londoners should have the very best. ‘A handsome city deserves a handsome transport’ as All That Mighty Heart, the London Transport film, proclaimed in 1962. We loved it, not because it was old and quirky, but because it was bloody good. Well made. Importantly, it was greeted as an equal. It respected our custom. It was comfortable. Convenient. Efficient. We were free to get on and off, within reason, when we wanted to. ‘Passengers’ an old London transport motto maintained, ‘are our business not an interruption to our service.’ And on a Routemaster you could believe in that too.
Of course it grew out of and was born into another world. The society it was created to serve was more, or more visibly, stratified. It was a world with a certain intolerance of difference; you might see in its straight rows of seats a reflection of those times. A bus built for a city known for forming orderly queues rather than for wild alcoholic sprees; for a city of parsimonious coupon-snippers rather than designer-label consumers. It’s a bus that can exclude (the disabled, the pushchair), I concede. I prefer, however, to see a more egalitarian spirit at work. It was designed for (nearly) everyone, and everyone aboard is equal. By its careful, skilful design, it was intended in some small was to elevate an everyday experience.
By contrast, the metaphors many modern buses offer are slightly depressing. Their designs indicate troubled minds; seats on different levels, seats back to front, lurid playpen fabrics and colour schemes, straps at unusable heights, lava-lamp globules of extruded plastic at every turn and a soundtrack of bleeps and ticks, the Bendy’s have all the aesthetics of the inside of a Hoover attachment. New double deckers are huge, boxy, noisy and unwieldy. They look deformed, bulked out like Action Man after Hasbro pumped him full of steroids and turned him into some kind of inhuman gym-bunny cyberpunk in the 1990s. The average speed of a London bus continues to hover around 11 mph, and yet the engines on these vehicles seem tuned to accelerate with a speed and abruptness previously reserved for propelling dogs into space.
© Travis Elborough 2011
* Published by Granta Books.
On board a no. 38, Shaftesbury Avenue, 2005. Photo © Tim Marshall.
Timothy Hadrian Marshall writes:
Everybody maps the city in his or her own unique way. My map of London started in 1980 when, as a student, I travelled from Battersea to Leicester Square on the old Number 19 Routemaster, as I made my way to the CSM Graphic Design building in Covent Garden. The characters I encountered on the journey intrigued me and I began making drawings of my fellow passengers. My location eventually changed and I went underground to become a Northern liner for two years, then in 1986 a Piccadilly Line man. The tube became another project, this time photographic, and I rarely travelled by bus anywhere during that time.
On moving to Islington in 2004, the estate agent said “ It’s a great location, only five minutes from Angel.” At the time good public transport connections all seemed terribly important. In my new locality I was pleasantly surprised to see the old Routemaster bus was still running, conjuring up every good thing about London, like a giant dinky toy from my childhood. Everyone appeared happy on the ‘Cliff Richard’ bus. You invariably knew the bus conductor, who would chat and make jokes, and you didn’t have to worry about bus stops, you could just jump off where and when you wanted to (all at your own risk, of course). Then one day, like Triffids in the night, the dreaded ‘Bendy Bus’ appeared.
© Tim Marshall 2011