59. 9.30pm. Top deck, halfway down and then nearer.
A middle-aged cockney man in a black raincoat, sitting right at the front of the top deck, began speaking, quite loudly. He was speaking to himself to begin with but gradually his words and his manner broke down some invisible London barrier and a conversation flowered.
‘Come on driver! Drive that bus! … Now there’s a sight: a cyclist who doesn’t jump a red light … The reason we can’t breathe in here is because human stupidity won’t open the windows.’
The woman sitting next to him silently reached up and opened the window.
‘Now that’s better, you can feel it clearing.’
The PA announced that this was the 59 to Streatham.
‘I know where we’re going, just drive the bus!’
He looked down at the people waiting to get on. ‘I don’t think we can take all these people, we can’t accommodate them. Look at that! There hasn’t been a 59 here for at least an hour!’
His neighbour showed signs of joining the discussion. I changed seats to get closer.
‘It’s a weird service, it really is. It’s alright in the morning, alright at night, but that weird time from 8.30 to 10 there’s nothing. I wrote to Boris Johnson – that blond bombshell – to tell him.’
The neighbour expressed surprise.
‘Yes, it’s easy! Just whatever-whatever-at-gov-dot-something. I’ve told him anyway. Not that he’ll listen. It’s a weird service. Hasn’t been a bus for an hour at least.’
A ripple effect occurred and the woman now next to me, an American, joined in. The conversation was turning, inevitably, to the current financial situation.
‘Now China owns half of Africa, and the young women in China are wearing Burberry scarves… I don’t understand it. There are all these experts on the job and they can’t understand it either. Economists: if you laid them end to end they’d have to resign.’
‘It’s about surplus,’ said the American woman sagely.
‘We saved them! The taxpayer saved the banks, and now they’re turning on us again. “Responsible lending”, they call it – I heard it on the phone today. I told him I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation. It just means lending to less people!’
‘Our children and our children’s children will be the ones paying for these mistakes,’ said the neighbour.
‘Exactly! How are our kids supposed to afford even a tiny little flat? It’s an absolute disgrace, an absolute disgrace from start to last. And the kids are leaving, moving to Europe, moving to Australia -‘
‘And the Spanish are coming here,’ said the American, cryptically.
‘- we owe the World Bank such a huge amount they may as well just cancel the whole thing right now and start again!’
‘We can’t even pay the interest, let alone the debt!’ exclaimed the American.
‘Exactly! Wise words!’ shouted the man.
‘There’s another 59!’ cried the neighbour, pointing.
The man shook his fist at it. ‘How dare you overtake us! Anyway, globalisation: they said it was the key but now I’m not so sure. I’m absolutely upset by the whole thing. I’m also upset by seeing the Greeks queuing for their medicines. They can’t afford their medicines! You have to show some compassion. I know they weren’t great at paying their taxes, but you can’t just take away all their jobs and their medicines just like that. It’s ridiculous! To my mind, if you’re a human being you have to show compassion.’
Too right, sir.