Sunday, 5 January 2014

S for Stagecoach, an extract

Stagecoach- Once a hugely expensive, uncomfortable, unending and unreliable way to travel between destinations, and still is. I'm not talking about particular companies here, just buses in general. My ire while writing this is fuelled by standing in a bus shelter for three hours last week in sub-zero temperatures, my only company being a man with a huge slowly freezing drip coming from his nose and the electronic display, installed at massive expense by the Regional Council, which instead of saying something useful like ‘your bus is 40 minutes late/been cancelled/ or whatever, insisted instead on wishing me, repeatedly, a Merry Christmas.
Coach transport has always been tough.

“When the Marquis of Downshire attempted to make a journey through Galloway in his coach about the year 1760 a party of labourers attended him to lift the vehicle out of ruts and put on the wheels when it got dismounted.....when within 3 miles of the village of Freetown near Wigtown he was obliged to ......pass the night in the coach with his family”

(Thomas Telford; Samuel Smiles)

 I’ve often sympathised with the Marquis of Downshire, especially when sitting at the side of the road in a bus after the alternator’s packed up or the doors blown off, or a tree has tumbled across the road. I’ve never driven, as poets don’t drive, everyone knows that, so I judge myself an expert in public transport. Why should everyone need to have a car to live in the countryside?

Rural buses are a lifeline but the service is poor, though the drivers are often, though not always, men and women of great humanity and kindness. If you depended on the buses completely, though, you would evolve into a creature with no social life past quarter to five in the evening. I have thought this more keenly since my local pub shut down and often, at a bus stop, think of Henry Thoreau’s words, “It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life and what methods have been taken to obtain them.  I have a theory that in the centre of all this technological advance, some of the population are, through poverty or remoteness, living a medieval life, or a medieval life with some mod cons. Some folk embrace this lifestyle, of course, and become rekei therapists but most are just trying to have a decent life.

Difficulties in rural transport encourage depopulation and foster the ghost landscape. Mind you, there’s another way of looking at it. I was having a conversation with a young man about to leave school in Newton Stewart, but who lives some miles from there, and the talk got to buses. I was saying what a shame it was that there weren’t more services and he said “aye it’s a conspiracy to keep us here, they don’t want us to leave. Even the ones you get take you round in circles.”

It’s true of course. I used to get a bus that took 50 minutes to travel the 13 miles to Dumfries, and half an hour into the journey we were further away than when we started. There’s an inherent symbolism in the Region’s bus services which should not be underestimated.

We butt into the countryside.
Our bus is aggrieved:
it grinds through swamps and ruts,
between dykes and crippled hedges,
down miles of wet tarmac,
from one telegraph pole to another,
from one five bar gate to another,
from one muddy bunkered cottage to another,
criss-crossing land dank and paralysed
below an oatmeal sky.
There seem hundreds of miles,
thousands, but it is the same mean mile
circling, taking us back where we didn’t want
to come from, where we didn’t want to leave.
 (From Mean Mile)


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