THE NIGHT RIDERS

PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDY HALL WORDS BY MATTHEW SWEET
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The Independent Culture
If You're an urban dweller who's out late and wants to avoid death and taxis, hop on a night bus. Most British cities and some of the larger towns operate a small-hours service; there are a staggering 1,100 routes through Greater London alone. And the pleasures they offer are infinitely greater than a quick spot of daytime seat-ripping, or that feeble bit of apres-school vandalism: "Fleas do not smoke".

London night buses in particular are an urban taxonomist's dream. Just look at these pictures. Had the Victorian socio- anthropologist Henry Mayhew known about this sort of material, he'd have grabbed his notebook and jumped on the Number 53 to Plumstead faster than a child chimney-sweep up a flue. Night buses contain human types found nowhere else. These are nocturnals who spend all day under the blankets: Nosebleed Technolad, who can't hear how much the fare is thanks to his tinnitus; Posh Bird, who ruins her feather boa with the mustard in her hot dog; Shift Worker, who's so used to labouring in the dark that his eyes have almost healed up.

But basically, quite apart from being scientifically interesting, night buses are a lifeline for city dwellers, who know that no matter how much they drink, they stand a reasonable chance of getting home if they can keep one number in their heads.

Most Londoners seem to have a night-bus story: that time when someone decided to smoke dope on the way to Kennington, and the driver pulled over at the door of the police station; that time when that gang of 15- year-old girls all whipped their knickers off and started singing about Camden Town. Essential night-bus experiences include: arguing with the driver about whether or not you can use your One-Day Travelcard; making a BSE suicide-pact by sharing an oleaginous cheeseburger with your best friend; waking up in the depot at six in the morning; looking for somewhere to stick the business section of the Sunday newspaper you've just bought; find- ing yourself at knife-point. Consequently the drivers need a different set of skills from their diurnal colleagues. A spokes- person for Cowie Leaside, one of London's biggest bus operators, explains that: "They have to be able to deal with all types of people, because many of the passengers getting on might not necessarily know where they're going."

But there's camaraderie as well as blind terror. With the exception of wars and Tube strikes, a night-bus journey is the only situation in which Londoners will dare to make eye contact. And cramming a lot of inebriated people in close proximity to each other can not only inspire spontaneous conversation, but may quickly generate that rat-arsed version of the Blitz spirit which allows you suddenly to discover that you know all the words to "Like a Virgin".

As inhibitions leak away, it becomes possible for the traveller to pursue that great British pastime of listening to other people's arguments. Of course, most rows between friends are terrifically boring and tend to involve a fiver someone once lent somebody somewhere; couples, on the other hand, tend to be top-class performers. Sitting in on a good, scabrous bit of romantic fric- tion can turn your average evening out into Best Night of the Month. Classics of the genre include: "Why have you been funny with me all night?", "I saw you eyeing up x or y at the bar", and "Why don't you like any of my friends?" Once the pugilists get off, you can discuss the finer points of the battle with the remaining passengers.

At moments like this, the night bus is transformed from a mode of public transport in which a couple of people have been sick into a two-storey, strip-light-illuminated mobile theatre staging a raucous Jonsonian comedy that most people in the audience are too pissed to appreciate. But don't applaud. Someone might bash your lights out. !

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