Joyce had a fictional shot at recreating it, dissecting the moments, in Ulysses, but there were no electronic devices then and I don’t know how it could have been done to capture real life. A long chain of ideas brought me to a recent experiment on YouTube, and I still hadn’t given up the idea last on Friday, when armed with modern devices and time to spare I went off to buy a loaf of bread. A simple errand, arising from necessity, chosen randomly for the furtherance of Art. The resulting video, stills and audio have been duly ditched as unfit for sharing. Fiascos they were, or more correctly in the Italian, fiaschi. Yet a cut-down transcript, tarted up with editing, might just make the grade, when seen as a further experiment: not one to explain or justify, but publish and be damn’d. So here it is.
Hovis. I’ll get it from Loudwater, at the other end of the valley, for the sake of the stroll. My route passes the bus station, so if there’s one ready to depart, I’ll hop on and let it take me as far as the Valley Path, past the town centre’s dreary familiarity and earthbound faces.
There’s one scheduled for Hicks Farm Rise at 2:30. That’ll do nicely. There’s nothing more heraldic, in Lawrence Durrell’s term, or archetypal, in Jung’s, than a diesel bus, emblem of my life-story, from the Forties in Australia till this moment. Buses defy the passage of time, as I try to do. Let one be painted on my escutcheon, let “Defiance” be my motto. Nothing has changed of their noise, smell, vibration, variety of passengers carried, lumbering slowness and sullen unreliability. The government gave me a free bus pass, renewable till death us do part, as a prize for reaching the age of 60. I shall brandish it, and travel!
It’s 2:30, the passengers get up from their benches, poised. The bus doesn’t come. Some hang around in hopes; others move along in search of an alternative. I follow them, and see a bus about to depart for Castlefield, which will do just as well. I take a seat at the very back, near to someone who has just produced an odorous meat pasty, which he munches straight from its half-opened packaging. Eating is on the list of forbidden things on a bus. Another near passenger is obese to the point where, if there was no other choice, I could just half-sit beside him, so long as I had a rail to hold on to every time we rounded a bend. He sits opposite a seat filthy and tattered from previous passengers putting their feet on it, in this corner out of the driver’s view, He’s dropped his shoulder-bag on it, bearing the logo FCUK, mark of a once-desirable designer brand. Officially it’s not a dyslexic expletive but the initials of French Connection UK.
Looking out the window, I see we’re at Green Street, yards from where I live: surely a round-about route for Castlefield. Whoops! My brain had registered “Micklefield”—I’m going the wrong way. The easy thing would be to get off. The nearest place I could get my usual loaf is at Tesco, next to the bus station. Convenience is plainly not my concern, otherwise I’d ride to the the summit of Everest by helicopter, if I wanted to go there at all. (At the bus station I had visited the men’s room, where a cubicle was closed with a notice “We apologize for the inconvenience.” In England, “convenience” is a euphemism for “public toilet”. I wished I had brought a pen, to change it to “the lack of convenience,”, but who would appreciate my pedantic joke? Some humourless cleaner might report me for graffiti in a public lavatory, an offence that stripped of context could be misunderstood.)
No, I shall not get out of the bus. I will carry on to Castlefield and walk to the southernmost edge of town, instead of Loudwater to the east. The die has been cast. I find myself emulating The Dice Man (Luke Rhinehart), for I let my life be ruled by careless chance. I bought the book for my younger son when he dropped out of a psychology course at university, in his final year if you please, for what turned out to be a career in bartending. Seeing randomness in his trajectory, influenced by nature or nurture, I thought it might appeal to him, or offer a warning. Now he’s a manager in a company with 800 pubs and hotels, still as he claims practising applied psychology. While I was at it, I bought him a copy of Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk) as well. I can’t quite recall why, except that it might appeal to a hidden part of his temperament—or mine. In his heart of hearts a father thinks of a son as a homunculus of himself (a Mini-Me?), doing the things he never could do himself. Or it’s just that we tend to give that which we would secretly like to receive.
You need a lot of patience to be a bus driver. All these narrow roads, parked cars, thoughtless drivers coming the other way. Think how many jobs we take for granted which gain their stature and dignity from human frailty. If people were not too lazy to drop their litter in the bins provided, there’d be no jobs for the picker-uppers. Whenever I see one, I thank him. (The last one, in the children’s playground behind our backyard, was at pains to say that his real job was to mow the grass, but the picker-upper was sick. He had a fine grasp of pecking order.) If all children received the kind of parental guidance—or good genes, I don’t know which—that provide them with a properly functioning conscience, there’d be no crime and few jobs for the police. If people cared enough for their own health to use food, drink, drugs and tobacco in moderation, there’d be need for fewer doctors and nurses. And so on.
Now the bus stops on a steep hill. An unsteady man with a drinker’s nose and bandy legs stands up to get off but then he sees an ancient couple he knows, and they exchange greetings in a leisurely way, while the doors remain open and the bus driver waits in a limbo beyond timetables. Then the man realizes, moves to get out, till a sudden afterthought moves him to go back and deliver it. The ancient couple reward him with a laugh. Finally he gets off, steadying himself at the bus stop, waving with equal benevolence at the couple and driver. I find myself rather affected by this tableau, and wonder why, till the penny drops: one day I too may be dependent on the kindness of strangers and bus-drivers, grateful for everyone’s patience as I creep like a tortoise; while I can. Then buses may be just a memory and memories will be stilled in a dewired brain, till the curtains and it’s end of show for another person while the world goes on just the same. Making this “now” all the more piquant, till the last drop is drained.
Off the bus, I pass the house I nearly bought in 1988, on first moving to the town. “I”? It was a different “I”. And if I had bought it, how would that have changed things? I don’t know. Today’s “I” would be a different “I” from the one which thinks this thought. It’s like that sci-fi comedy, Back to the Future. If you change the past, you may never return to the same present.
I leave Rutland Avenue by this footpath which connects with Halifax Road, to avoid the traffic noise and because I feel at home in footpaths, these generous gifts to the people, preserved by statute in perpetuity from being blocked or built over. Footpaths in any case are the staple of my wayfaring, a solid way to “step on air”, a ritual & pilgrimage whose journey is also destination. We perform rituals, sacred or profane, to strengthen the original experience by repetition. We do them for no reason except that they make us feel at home. Through such means, we are helped to float airily through life.
When I first started scribbling, and later when I learned to chatter into a voice recorder while on the move, it was to set down a thought so that I didn’t have to remember itleaving empty space to let the next thought float in. Whereas, if I were to sit at a desk, and wait for the next thought to arrive, it likely wouldn’t come. So that would be the end of that. But now I’ve learned this. Thoughts arrive, prolific, uplifting—or trivial.
Now I’ve nearly reached the supermarket at the southern edge of town, You can see golden fields, already harvested, just beyond. Just now I was standing at the traffic lights to take a photo when two women in their car stopped at red, seemed to be laughing at me, I’m not sure why. So gave them a disarming smile. They were duly disarmed and smiled back. It was a powerful moment, for I cannot smile at will and my face in repose can resemble a scowl.
In the old days before all this technology, people might laugh at you if you went down the street talking to yourself, but these days everyone does it, what with BlueTooth and all that stuff. But still, I stop this recording when someone passes, as a woman just did. Perhaps she was beautiful, or perhaps it was her smile, which I certainly don’t assume was intended for me. It was inclusive and generous, embracing her entire field of vision, the whole visible landscape; a smile which said she was fortunate and knew it. And I like to think it was broader for recognizing I was having the same experience. She was dressed loosely in black, and she was black too. It’s my observation, certainly in this town, that white women avoid your glance, as if to say “in your dreams!” or simply “get lost”. Whereas the women of a certain religion or culture, prevalent round here, who keep their heads covered, will not admit to seeing you even, unless they are crones, in which case they might share a moment of inner sunshine with you. While by contrast, strictly in my experience, a black woman, even with her Sunday church-hat on—perhaps she especially—will usually be interested in the fact that you are aware of her, & glad of it, boosted by acknowledgement of the trouble she has taken with her hair, deportment and dress. These are my uncensored thoughts.
I brood on my inability to smile at will. I could never have been an actor. It’s a step forward to start accepting my own face, to see it starting to reflect the person inside. To find contentment within one’s own skin can take a lifetime, I don’t mean of constant effort, but of waiting till life smiles upon one, and then with no effort one can smile back.
There is a special beauty about clouds. They don’t step on air. They sit on it side-saddle. They are my role-models. I’m at home with them, head in the clouds, feet on the ground. And now I am in the supermarket. It has kept its old name but now it is owned by Wal*Mart, and so it doesn’t have employees any more. They are associates. I ask an associate if they have a small Hovis Wheatgerm loaf. He goes to a shelf and picks one off for me: “Here you are!” I stand there, waiting till he’s turned his back, then change it for one at the back of the shelf, with a later expiry date. We don’t eat a lot of bread.
And here are three more adverts for Hovis from the 1970s.