In a city where the sky will allows have a plane in sight, where the street is a morphological phenomenon and where the excavated layers underground vibrate continuously to remind us of their presence; in a city where languages from around the world are conglomerated in a single bus during the blackened hours of it’s life, it is a constant mystery how we perceive this multi-faceted city. The quest is to understand human perception of London as visited from the bus. It is not a hypothesis-based search, but rather, an exploration into how a city of the twenty-first century is perceived and consequently through what platforms it can be mapped. Every inhabitant, visitor, speculator and theoretician of London has a hybridised personal interpretation of their city and has consequently mapped a mental image. How fragmented or complete the image may be, is irrelevant as it is the visualisation of this fabric what I am trying to understand.
This text is about a specific bus route, Bus 55 running from Oxford Circus to Leyton. This is the route I have used most often in London, and it is interesting as it encompasses key elements of the London Metropolis: Oxford Street as the city shopping district, Holborn’s heavily dense office quarter, richly historical Clerkenwell and Farringdon; Old Street as a ‘fringe’ of the corporate City; the trendy re-appropriated Shoreditch; the more residential South Hackney and deeper North into it’s regenerated and artist invaded Central Hackney; farther up the highly estate council area of Clapton and finally deep in the suburban Leyton. I have attempted to record my own perception of the area along the route through the map, images and my thoughts at the time.
London has provided a spectacular arena for this dérive, due to its complexity and infinite layers, for its versatility, historical richness and multicultural assembly. The city is a chaotic one that is notoriously difficult to navigate but cartography has proven to be the way into this giant. By looking at cartography, it became clear that to understand London is to begin understanding its map. Most importantly however, is the belief that to understand Londoners is to understand their map. For this same reason it seemed important to attempt constructing my personal version of route 55, as it was materialization of how I perceive the city. The research I did on cartography was crucial to this aspect of the research, as it equipped me with the necessary tools of the hierarchical language that already exists. I became aware of the established code of lines, names and their importance for a general public understanding. I did various versions of my route before arriving at this concluding piece (which will surely change tomorrow as I catch the bus again), and it was not until I subverted information from the AZ that the map began to take a meaning beyond its personal diagrammatic narrative. Although the geographical placement and scale of the existing AZ is distorted, its widely recognized quality –hopefully-allows the general public to understand how I perceive the existing city fabric along route 55.
Can a bus journey be a type of dérive?
It is a fixed and routine geographical displacement: one that will traverse pre-designated streets and stops at pre-designated bus shelters. The Situationists envisaged the dérive as a free flowing, spontaneous act. One that encourages alley finding, corner turning, shadow stalking and continuous discovery. Debord used to say that the only means of transport worth preserving in the city was the taxi; it was the one who crossed the city in the most hazardous fashion with no geographical logic to their displacement (bear in mind he is referring to French taxi drivers here). The car was seen as yet another product of the lucrative post-war consumer society based on non-productive laziness and public transport as a development that “exacerbated the disintegration of traditional city life.”
“Small and bundled Mummery presents a shapeless profile as he walks rapidly beneath dark leafless planes to his stop, congratulating himself that as usual he is a few minutes ahead of the main rush hour crowd which must soon begin its process up a high street already roaring with traffic from the suburbs. It gives him familiar satisfaction to be only third in the queue when the throbbing scarlet double decker draws in for its passengers to mount…”
Marc Atkins argues that the bus cannot really be a form of dérive. He says that as a passenger, you are drifting to the rhythm of the traffic, rather than to that of your own. If you feel like stopping in a corner for a while, it is subject to the buss making the same stop.
However, the speed –or lack of- that a bus rides in is independent to the speed of your thoughts and ability to perceive. The bus driver, Eileen Payne is a fine example of how the mind has an incredible ability to linger –in her case indefinitely- on a particular place of a specific bus journey. Atkins is undoubtedly right when he points out that the individual is not free to stop at a corner at his own whim. However, when the dérive is explained as a technique of transient passage through varied ambiences, it is not specified that the ‘technique’ needs to be a pedestrian one, rather a ‘transient’ one. With their definition, I would say the SI could have been defining what it feels like to travel on a double decker through London. It is important to remember that the SI were primarily concerned with the end rather than the means and as a passenger, you are essentially a receptor of the urban fabric that you are traversing and indirectly exploring the effect that this receptiveness has upon yourself. It is without doubt- the reason you can walk upstairs to the deck of a bus and find passengers staring gloomily off into space. Whether this drift is carried out consciously or not, the very essence of daydreaming on the bus is an act of psychogeography.
Undoubtedly, the SI associated the bus with laziness, and regarded it as one of the elements that prevented society from waking up and activating itself. It is a cynical view of what the bus really offers, because without it there would be inaccessible territory, unexplored urbanism and consequently unmapped perceptions of the individual and its city. If the bus is seen as a gateway to play rather than a commodity of the consumer society, then the double-decker is arguably a form of dérive. This is not to say, that when we catch our bus in the morning to go to work, we cannot see this also as playtime in which we are urban anthropologists.
“From behind the glass he watches his Londoners. This fabulous flotsom. They come from undergrounds and subways (their ditches and their burrows) flowing over pavements to where myriad transport waits to divert them to a thousand nearby destinations. The mist has dissipated. A cold sun now brightens this eruption of souls. Through streets enlivened by their noise small crowds flow: through alleys and lanes and narrow boulevards. At this distance Mummery loves them.“