Picture, if you will, one of the more vividly and outlandishly grisly works of Hieronymus Bosch. (Hell, in these days of Web 68.0, you don’t even have to waste your energy on picturing it; here y’are.) Now imagine that some vengeful spirit has, in a fit of malevolent magic, brought such a scene to life and has set it trundling between north and central London, twenty-four hours a day, its creatures and creative torments crammed into the stifling confines of a bendy-bus. And there you have a basic idea of what it’s like commuting on the number 29.
If you’re going for the cheap and uncomfortable option, the 29 is your best bet for getting into central London, and on the 29 every journey is an adventure. Who knows what excitement may spring fully-formed from its threadbare and vomit-stained interior, what sudden thoughts may move its clientele of the drunk, the malodorous, the quietly singing to themselves, the loudly shouting at themselves, the addicted, the deluded, the passed-out and the pettily criminal? I think the 29 is a marvel. Pace running on time, not breaking down and actually reaching the destination that’s stated on the front of it, it never lets me down.
When the 29 is good, it’s adequate, and when it’s bad it’s horrid. One memorable morning, I took not one 29, but three. The first had to be halted and evacuated when an altercation broke out between the driver and a drunk. The second, having intended to travel as far as Trafalgar Square, arbitrarily changed its mind and refused to budge any further than Camden. The third took me from Camden to Warren Street – ten minutes away from work – and then, with a sad little splutter and sag, its engines gave out. Already about forty minutes late, I decided I could walk from there.
The 29’s main problem is that, at rush-hour and at night, it’s packed 175% full with the squashed, the angry, and the late. The N29 in particular goes through Camden after the pubs kick out and thereby picks up the dregs of the earth. An average week spent regularly taking the 29 will unavoidably feature some combination of sex-pestery, fare-dodging, police harassment, racism and attempted pickpocketing. I’m sure Iain Sinclair would have something to say about the 29’s route echoing an ancient path to the gallows, or something. It doesn’t, of course, it’s merely a route that takes in stretches of the capital which have always been socio-economically interesting and probably always will be.
One time getting the N29 home, I was privy to the driver’s deadpan instruction: ‘This is your driver. If you’re going to smoke on the bus, can you get off the bus please?’ Truly, it’s a bus with few rivals. Perhaps only the old 36 could match its frequent impression of a pressure-cooker reaching boiling-point.
Still, it’s cheaper than the Tube, which counts. Particularly if one cynically exploits the ease with which one can fail to swipe one’s Oystercard on bendy-buses (NB obviously don’t do that). And with its myriad inefficiencies, frustrations and injustices, the 29 comes dangerously close to making the working day itself a better prospect than the commute. After a particularly crazy sojourn on the 29, leaving it behind to start your working day can feel like entering the gates of paradise. This, in a job market full of work stress and plummeting wages, balanced only by the increasing threat of unemployment being turned into a fate worse than working, seems increasingly incongruous.
Explaining the state of the 29 bus as military-industrial counterrevolutionary strategy is perhaps a stretch too far, and in any case can’t quite be pulled off; even a trip on the 29 is more bearable when there’s something other than work at the end of it. That’s what really gets me, of course: alienated labour and the sense not only of being a cog in the machine, but of the machine having run out of fuel and its controls abandoned about a decade ago but still lumbering unstoppably onwards.
Anyway, you know who knew all this already, almost forty years ago? I mean, apart from Marx? The Third Rail, that’s who.
I freely admit to knowing nothing about the Third Rail beyond what a cursory Wikipedia-ing will tell you. This song made its way unannounced into my ‘listen when you get a minute’ playlist, hidden among several similar songs off the sort of Nuggets-esque Lost Songs of the Sixties compilation that tends to get downloaded in the pursuit of slightly dated coolness and then is afterwards left to flounder unregarded. You know, sort of like a musical Situationist pamphlet.
This song, though. The false security you’re lulled into by the ‘Waterloo Sunset’-esque opening. The backbeat which, despite being dull and relentless, thrums with a jittery urgency while going nowhere in quite the manner of a 29 stalled at Holloway, Nag’s Head. The all-encompassing banality of ‘The paper’s filled with all bad news.’ The corporate breakdown in the third verse related in the same jauntily mundane manner in which we reached this point. The fact that it could have been written yesterday, not least the middle-eight’s laconically ironic nod to the
Big Great Society. The fact that, in its closing moments, it starts again, because there is no escape from this. The fact it sounds like Camus fronting The Drifters. The fact that it’s not the Velvet Underground song of the same name but does date from the same year and makes an interesting companion piece in pointing out that you don’t have to be a square-despising over-romanticising junkie drop-out to know how bad the working week is, do you. Incidentally the cast of the latter song would fit quite happily on an N29, as long as everyone breathed in, and I bet none of them would swipe their Oystercards.