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Outstaying our Welcome

By way of a mapping of the 341 bus route in London, writer and musical artist Aidan Tulloch uses the vehicle to think about place, space and language in London, through the lens of Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities.
words – aidan tulloch
location – london, england
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On one hand, there are pilgrimages, flights and novels. They’re all things with a start and a finish, a rise and a fall. We think about them in their entirety.

But there are also waiting rooms and rolling news channels. Such things that we only ever see in fragments. They are patchwork tapestries in our shared social mind.

I’ve been fascinated for a while by what we can learn – about the importance of community, of connection, of contemplation – by zooming out and taking a full view of these plain-sight secrets, that are so rarely seen as they are.

 
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Which is what first led me to the car park of a supermarket in ‘Meridian Water,’ somewhere between Tottenham and Edmonton, in early March, in 6 degrees, in the rain, in shorts.

I would do a whole bus route from start to finish.

There’s a way the buses in London manage to make you feel like you’re still part of something profound, even with red eyes, late at night on the way home. At any hour, all over the metropolis, buses ping between termini. It’s a kind of muscle memory, and we all have our precious, regular journeys; stretches we know so well that we could play them by ear.

 
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I chose the 341 because it casts itself widely. It was to begin in a place that I didn’t know, far enough away to be an adventure, and it would stretch down to the other side of the river at Waterloo Station.

A small but devout congregation of us gathered, boarded and tapped our cards. We were almost outnumbered by the other, future 341s that queued up the road. None of us were thinking about Waterloo, even though we were all on a bus that was heading towards there. And just as our journeys were ready to branch out, there were surely half-lives of silent stories stretching back behind each of us, too. That’s the joy of society, and the song of the city. Our lives weave, overlap, intersect and trail away.

Before long, a few passengers had got off, and more still had come on. I’d just got settled into a pew in the middle of the top deck, and the bus had already changed its skin. It was no longer the ‘341 from the Angel Road Superstores’ – it was the ‘341 from Tottenham High Road.’ Soon it would become the ‘341 from Harringay Green Lanes,’ and then the ‘341 from Manor House,’ and then ‘from Stoke Newington’ and then ‘from Essex Road.’ For each wave of passengers, the same 12 tonne bus was a different beast. There are so many things that look exactly the same, or are exactly the same, but mean something different to everyone.

 
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Somewhere near the Harringay Warehouse District, a part of me was still in Meridian Water, where I’d spent a good half hour before getting on the bus earlier. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Most of Meridian Water – including the empty new flats, the station [that looks like a 1960s church] and the name – is the result of a multi-billion pound, multi-decade project. Though in its time so far, owing to delays, setbacks and funding hold-ups, very little of the project has actually materialised. The nearby IKEA has closed.

While I was there, I’d gone up the colourful boards that they’ve put around the building site, and I read about Meridian-ONE. I thought of how often this sort of public-private development partnership shows an affinity for the number one, for some reason: Liverpool ONE, Cambridge’s CB1, South London’s One The Elephant.

‘Park Life,’ ‘Homes for All’ and ‘Where Start-Ups Level Up.’ These promises of community, employment and sustainability were far from convincing for anyone who might have passed the clay heaps, corporate flags and ‘sales and information’ kiosk.

Just recently, at the end of April, another couple of hundred ‘affordable houses’ were dropped from the Meridian Water ‘strategy’ in response to updated financial modelling. This means fewer properties will be let at the London Living Rent, nor will be available to the families on Enfield Council’s social housing waiting list, even though the development is being made on council-owned land.

It feels like a great shame, and a lost opportunity. It embodies the widespread denial of London’s housing calamity, which gets worse and worse each year. Developments promise the ease of stock photo living, but on the ground, the reality is often emptiness. It’s grey skies that, even just a hundred yards away on the North Circular, I’d smile at like an old friend. It’s the Cameron-era/ Johnson-mayoralty New London Vernacular architecture that is now everywhere, and is so out of touch with natural and cultural inheritances. It’s royalty-free music in bricks and mortar.

Since my visit, I’ve learnt that the Meridian Water management workforce, which was 45-strong in its heyday, has been ‘right-sized,’ and that the council has formally backed off from construction – instead asking the private sector to step in to ‘accelerate delivery.’

And so, as we passed through the Harringay Warehouses, it felt like the 341 was telling a cautionary tale.

The Harringay Warehouses were once the core of British piano manufacturing, and were more recently renowned as a barbican of proper community-building, well-known for music, art and leisure. But it’s a place that is now anticipating its own forced renovation. It already has a bold-type, upper-case label on Google Maps.

The Meridian Water/ Harringay Warehouses ley line, as traced by the 341 bus, makes so clear the need for creative voices in the city planning conversation. With truly affordable housing, humane architecture, financially-supported arts organisations, sports facilities and some kind of biodiversity, a development like this could genuinely succeed. But my instinct is also that meaningful places for people to live are… already there. And that these sorts of public-private interventions, if anything, tend to dismantle them. It’s often a place’s creativity and originality that charms the developers in the first place, who then eradicate it like weedkiller on a petri dish.

 
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There was quite a bit of traffic through North London during our journey, and there were lots of stops on the route, so every couple of minutes we were stationary. It was a bit like a hop-on-hop-off tourist double-decker. Except nobody, least of all me, was hopping anywhere, instead running our own commentary.

The pacing and rhythm of a bus route means you have just about long enough in each place to imagine what life would be like if you lived there. It’s a conveyor belt of almost-futures that gently crossfade. Maybe that off licence or that park on a stunning July Sunday; maybe that squash court or that Co-Op on a tired post-work Tuesday… and so we pull away.

 
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As the 341 wound through Stoke Newington down towards Upper Street [to the route’s second Angel], the London Borough borders began to blur: one moment you might see a Haringey street sign, and then one of Hackney Council’s “Covid Cases are Rising” banners. Then, the municipal recycling banks and the wheelie bins of Islington.

This is another arbitrariness of London geography that you can’t escape. Unlike New York’s 5 continents, London’s boroughs are more numerous – like European countries or Olympic sports. Some have a coherent enough shape, but then others are more uncertain. Incongruously, Holborn has ‘Camden’ written on its street signs.

Meanwhile, a Boundary Review for UK Parliamentary Constituencies is going on in Westminster. The 341, as it smudges the ink of the borough borders, again reminds us of the importance for decision-makers to be attuned to how people feel about the places they consider their own. I remember Tyne Bridge – a short-lived constituency designed so that it spanned the River Tyne, taking one small bite out of Newcastle and one out of Gateshead. For an electoral system to do us justice, its boundaries need to emerge from the authentic and shifting connections between communities, and within them.

 
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The 341 reaches Central London after crossing the Pentonville Road. It’s important to see your city gradually articulating itself like this, from as many points. Americans talk about their points of downtown, uptown and midtown.

There was a moment when Londoners were expected to talk about Midtown.

It was all very High-2010s, when a load of orange ‘BEE MIDTOWN’ pennant flags were installed around Holborn, Tottenham Court Road, and in the parts of Clerkenwell and Farringdon where the bus was now motoring towards its home straight.

It was about the same time that the Strand and Aldwych became ‘Northbank.’ Marylebone became ‘Baker Street Quarter.’ There was [and, I think, still is] a ‘Paddington Now’ zone. The 341 was soon travelling down Fleet Street – or, should I say, ‘Fleet Street Quarter,’ which claims, on its Twitter account, to be ‘taking a leading role in shaping this historic location into a thriving quarter.’

The PR gurus coming up with these names were all working for ‘Business Improvement Districts’ – syndicates of firms who ‘contribute to the decision making and management of street assets, public realm and public transport.’

If you run a business within the bounds of a BID, you face an extra levy. And so, since they appeared on the scene, lots of small shops and cafes have struggled to afford the cost of operating within these areas. The BIDs are a big reason why a lot of places in Central London have exactly the same brands, and monotony is rife. They were, like so many ludicrous acts of marketing in the built environment, framed as engines of enterprise and vitality.

Sometimes, though, new names for old places really do stick. Some, like Southbank, Bankside and Canary Wharf, are well-worn. The name Fitzrovia is quite new; it was first popular as a nickname used by regulars at the Fitzroy Tavern, who included the MP Tom Driberg and the writers Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf and Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu.

BEE Midtown: On a hyper-local level, BEE Midtown continues to support the Met Police regarding issues on our streets such as opportunistic crime that often masquerades as homelessness.

Dylan Thomas: Hear the houses sleeping in the streets in the slow deep salt and silent black, bandaged night.

 
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As the 341 taxied across the Waterloo Bridge, I was genuinely moved by how the Southbank took shape that evening, as the dark set in, Greenwich Mean Time keen.

Tucked alongside the National Theatre, the Royal Festival Hall and the BFI, I knew I was looking straight at the work of the Coin Street Community Builders – the social enterprise who led a globally-significant development project. Though Coin Street might lack the marketing hyperbole of Midtown and Northbank, it consistently puts all of those BIDs, and those Meridian Waters, to total shame. So at the end of the journey – hope, and a reminder of the tenacity of goodness.

Bus routes, like all of the world’s vast, hidden physicalities, are like canvases onto which our lives paint their own fantastic stories. But they can also have voices of their own. They suggest things and point out connections. They create rhyming couplets and expose faultlines.

 
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When the bus stopped for the last time, as the suspension exhaled and the doors opened, we all filed out through the side door. I was sort of exhausted.

Then, walking up through Waterloo, past the IMAX and back towards the river, I saw a different 341 beginning its journey in the opposite direction. “Angel Road Superstores” on the front, in huge text. That is an invitation for anyone.

A functioning transport system is the lifeblood of a great city. It’s beautiful without vanity, and is never judgemental. Shared transport is truly social: even when you’re on your own, there is life around you. I grew up in a part of Yorkshire that lost its buses to Coalition austerity, wiping out an often overlooked facet of connection with it.

 
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A bus route has the rhythms of a lifetime. At the start, I’d settled in, and had far, far to go.

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