I was going to write about something totally different this week, but a couple of events over the last few days have pushed the issue of travelling on buses to the top of my mind. I think I have mentioned before that I am one of nature’s pedestrians and a cheapskate. My commute to work, lengthy though it is, is far cheaper by public transport than by car. Plus it gives me a nice dose of exercise each day, walking to and from bus stops and usually a little nap time as well.
To commute on the bus is much like commuting on the train, but slightly lower class. The same approximate group of people arrive at the station each morning, catch the same time bus or train, sit roughly in the same seats. We don’t speak, just vaguely pretend that everyone is invisible. Sometimes, an event will crop up and you’ll have to speak to your fellow travellers, usually about some delay you’ve found out about. (For example, the other day I shared a tweet I’d seen from the bus company saying our bus wasn’t running.) For a few minutes everyone will tut, and chat and moan then the veil of silence falls again. We, the daily commutes are, what I like to call, the professional bus user. On before nine, home after five. Our journeys are largely civilised and quiet. I almost always have ear buds letting my Ipod lull me to sleep. We are in our own quiet worlds, thinking of the day ahead, or just past, or, as the bus has WiFi, glued to our various devices.
It’s when you travel outside of working hours, at the weekends and during the working day that the process becomes a bit more tiresome. Yesterday (Saturday), Mrs Bloke, Little Bloke and I had cause to all catch the bus into Peterborough, something we have not done together for many a year. We got on and climbed to the top deck and took our seats. There were already up there, predictably at the back, a group of teenagers, about half a dozen, mainly boys with a couple of girls. They’ll have come from some of the smaller villages further up the route, or possibly the bright light of King’s Lynn. They were making a lot of noise but I wasn’t unduly bothered. On the forty minute ride though their language and conversation got worse. I don’t pretend Little Bloke has never heard harsh language, but it was repeatedly being shouted along with a couple of jokes about rape and sex toys.
If I was on my own, it wouldn’t have been an issue because I simply wouldn’t have heard them. But on a bus, in front of my 10 year old it was annoying me. I toyed with the idea of getting up and complaining to them, but like as not that would have resulted in the rest of the trip with abuse being thrown at us all sotto voce, whilst I have thick skin (made thicker by my husky physique) abuse aimed at Mrs B or the boy might have pushed me over the edge. And that’s where I have a problem, as a middle aged man. If a woman stood up and told them off, like as not, they might return some abuse, but that’s a s far as it would go. If I, as a perceived Alpha male, were to challenge them, especially in front of their girls, then at least one of them is going to physically challenge back. And once there, what am I supposed to do, a grown man punching a 15 year old kid? Or letting a 15 year old take a swing at me? And I’ll admit, in this frenzied Daily Mail world you do wonder if one or more could be carrying knives as some macho display. So, I did the British thing and remained silent. We arrived into Peterborough and, as we stood to queue to get off, to my complete surprise, I found myself turning and telling them off. I genuinely didn’t think I was going to. I was polite, I didn’t shout, I may have been a bit sarcastic. (Alright, I was sarcastic) What happened next was textbook teenage boy behaviour. I was met with surly silence, but as we moved off the bus a few f words, half a dozen people back, were aimed at me. We stood by the bus though when we dismounted, and oddly none of them were brave enough to say anything to my face then. We walked down the bus station, a safe distance away and another expletive was thrown at my back. Just far enough away so that if I turned to walk back at them, they could run away. We stopped at the escalator to discuss the issue of toilet needs. That pause, I noticed from the corner of my eye, caused their little group to stop as well and they waited until we were on the escalator going up to follow us again at a distance. Little bloke, bless ‘im, looked at me and said ‘well done dad’. One of those rare times you think, have I just set a good example? And I think I did.
I must smile at the conversation they would be having, one lad would be saying ‘I could have taken him.’ (Good luck, I’m not a fighter but there is a lot of me to absorb a blow.) The others would be nodding and saying, ‘yes mate’ whilst thinking, ‘funny you didn’t try when we walked right past him at the bus.’
So that was my run in with a bunch of gobby village kids having a trip to the ‘big city’. One aspect of bus travel you occasionally run into. To my shame, I was once getting off a bus and a couple of elderly ladies in front of me stopped to complain to the driver that a man upstairs had been verbally abusing them all trip. I had my earbuds in and had fallen asleep and didn’t realise. I hated the thought that they thought I’d sat there ignoring them. The guy is an occasional traveller and has some mental health issues I believe so I’m not sure what I would have done, but at least I could have changed the target.
Coming home from work Friday I was looking at Twitter and saw a tweet from Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour about how you’d react if the person sat next to you on the bus was watching porn. I replied with a (what I thought) hilarious tweet saying ‘ I’d tell them to stop looking at my phone and move seats’. Got me only one like. Twitter is so cruel.
But the point is a good one. When we are travelling on a bus, we like to pretend we are in our own private world and the journey becomes very uncomfortable if someone invades that privacy. That applies doubly so to women and kids travelling alone. I sometimes wish I could qualify for a ‘safe passenger’ scheme, a little badge that says ‘If you sit next to me, I will not try and talk to you, or touch you up. If you are feeling uncomfortable and need support please ask.) But frankly, since I’m usually at a limited level of consciousness on the bus I wouldn’t be much use.
The porn issue got me thinking though, and it raises rather more questions than it answers. According to the show it isn’t actually an offence to watch hardcore porn in a public place on your phone. I would argue it is a public decency offence. Being naked in public isn’t illegal unless someone is offended by it and I would argue the same would apply. The Woman’s Hour piece related to an experience one of their reporters had actually had, it wasn’t a hypothetical. She had been shocked, and made to feel deeply uncomfortable, but had left the bus without doing anything. Wisely in my opinion. When asked the transport company did say they would have reported an incident like that to the police.
Now, you probably won’t be surprised to know I am not especially anti-porn. Broadly speaking, as long as everyone involved is of consenting age and fully aware then it’s okay. Yes, content needs to become more adult and realistic, there is a generation of boys and girls grown up now who think Porn sex is the norm. Let’s be honest, you watch porn for one reason. And the bus is not a good place to be seeking sexual excitement. You aren’t watching it for the story. ‘But I really want to know if the washing machine ever gets fixed!’
To sit on the bus, or train, or any public place with people close by, and watch that content, I believe is a type of exhibitionism. Like a flasher in a park, you are deliberately trying to shock, make uncomfortable and perhaps even frighten a little, anyone who catches a glimpse of what you’re watching.
I have just one last point though. And it’s one I’ve touched on in the past. They made great point on the radio of questioning what if a child had seen it. Well, what if? Yes, they might be confused but at the end of the day, it is sex. Not good sex maybe but still a (relatively) natural process. What if the person has been watching an 18 certificate, gory horror film? I would argue seeing explicit depictions of bloody torture and murder would be much more upsetting to a child. Why do we heap the highest level of indecency on porn? (Again, I stress am talking about mainstream, legal, porn.)
What really grinds my gears on the bus though, is the 6 weeks before Christmas, when rich middle class pensioners start using their bloody passes to avoid the car parking and traffic, to do their Christmas shopping and treat the whole thing like a bloody school trip out. They barge into the queue, pile on board with their John Lewis and Pandora bags, forget where they’ve put their passes, fight to get the front seats on the top deck. It literally adds ten minutes to each journey and they don’t pay a penny! On this point though, I am willing to concede I may just be being more than usually miserable.