Mrs Thatcher was widely believed to have said that ‘any man over the age of 26 who finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure in life’. In fact there’s no evidence Thatcher ever said it — the most likely culprit is the Duchess of Westminster.
Mark Mason loves buses, and doesn’t much seem to care if anyone thinks he’s a failure. He loves them so much that he decided to travel the length of the country by local bus. This, he declares, would be a kind of anti-travel, ‘a rejection of everything we always strive for’, namely speed. Along the way he’d visit all kinds of strange and exotic places — Tiverton, Kirkby Lonsdale, Dornoch — while trying to take the pulse of contemporary Britain.
This sort of thing has done before, of course, many times. When Beryl Bainbridge embarked on her English Journey in the early 1980s, she took her own lightbulb as ‘all hotels have 40 watt bulbs, and my eyesight is failing’. Mason has only his timetables, his rucksack and, to begin with anyway, some fairly low expectations. At Land’s End he’s outraged to find that you have to pay £9.95 to have your photo taken next to that annoying sign that says that New York is 3,147 miles away; but once he starts chugging through country lanes and craning to listen to people’s conversations his mood lifts.
It soon becomes clear that Mason has a mania for obscure facts. Thus we learn that Jim Callaghan was so embarrassed by the tattoos he’d had done in the Navy that he always wore long-sleeved shirts, and that Harry Houdini accidentally locked himself in the loo at the Glasgow Empire and had to bang on the door for staff to let him out.
But there’s something else about Mason that becomes plain as he passes Gloucester (‘a shithole’) and crawls on to Worcester (‘not as pretty as I’d imagined’). He scarcely, if ever, talks to anyone. The reason for this becomes apparent on page 137 when he confesses, ‘I’ve never really got the hang of friendship.’
Although this might seem a bit of a drawback in a travel writer, it does at least lend weight to Mason’s theory that as a race we remain locked in our own private spheres, swaddled in shyness. Certainly, the people he meets — or overhears — seem courteous, mild and deeply withdrawn, roused only by booze or thoughts of property ownership.
This in particular induces an awed, almost religious reverence, although possibly not on quite the same scale as the former Secretary of State for Air, Sir Howard Kingsley Wood, who on being instructed to bomb German munitions stores in the Black Forest during the second world war protested, ‘Are you aware that it’s private property?’
Periodically Mason is apt to sound eerily like the late Terry Major-Ball — ‘The driver of the 104 accepts the £10 day-pass I’ve had since Kendal, bringing today’s average fare down to £2.50’ — but for the most part this is a charming as well as an oddly heartening meander.
All this talk of Broken Britain, Mason reckons, is nonsense. Instead, he finds a country that is remarkably at ease with itself. At the end, gazing through the perspex windows of John O’Groats bus station at the grey North Sea beyond, he tots up that the whole trip of 1,106.53 miles has cost him just £190.65 — and another unexpected glow of patriotism spreads across his chest.