Paradox on the Buses

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Paradox on the Buses

I’m perversely tempted to take part in the indefatigable Jon (Birmingham: It’s Not Shit) Bounds’ demented-yet-delightful bus-based social experiment, 11-11-11:

On the 11th of November let’s create a modern ritual, a post-millennial cultural cult.

Eleven hours on the eleven bus — join us.

The rules:

  • Get on the 11C at 11am (or as near as dammit) on 11/11.
  • Get off the 11C at 10pm — 11 hours later — (or as near as dammit) on 11/11.
  • You can get on and off the bus as many times as you like (don’t spend more than an hour off bus).
  • Document your journey; photos, film, writing, cross-stitch, knitting, amigurumi, poetry, blog, twitter, however you like.
  • Meet up with others as mad as you, if you want.

I’m up for a bit of that. I quite like the idea of donating some bandwidth-by-proxy to such a bold, civic-minded endeavour, particularly when it’s a public transport-based collective metamedia travelogue. It’d make me feel like a walking, talking, head-on collision between Bill Bryson, Marshall McLuhan and, perhaps, Reg Varney.

More importantly, though, it’d give me plenty of potentially juicy things to write about on here. Not only is the Number 11 the longest urban bus route in Europe, but every time I’ve been on it I’ve witnessed something odd, weird or mad as a bungee-jumping bishop in a ballgown. They don’t call it an “Out-Patient Ward on Wheels” for nothing.

All this talk of buses reminds me of several things.

For the sake of clarity, brevity and sanity, however, I’ll narrow it down to one. Long ago and far away (which, by my calendar, makes it approximately August 1996) I witnessed a Hofstadter Strange Loop in action on the Number 45. Being a part-time philosopher and half-arsed science geek – which I define as someone who read about CERN and the Large Hadron Collider before Dan Brown wrote about it in Angels and Demons (which, of course, I don’t plan to read) – I had a basic grasp what a Hofstadter Strange Loop was. For the sake of clarity, brevity and charity, however, I’ll just say that a Hofstadter Strange Loop is a sort of elaborate definition of a paradox. You can find a proper definition on Wikipedia, but for me its best summed up by the art of MC Escher or that memorable line from the 80s video classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension:

“Wherever you go, there you are…”

Indeed. Anyway, while I had a reasonably firm grasp of what a Hofstadter Strange Loop was, I never knew what one looked like. I certainly didn’t expect it to resemble a grumpy old fart with a tartan shopping trolley.

Cut to: one sunny Saturday afternoon in 1996. There I was, sitting on the lower deck of a number 45, heading home from somewhere I can’t remember and reading a book I can’t recall when the bus got itself stuck in a traffic jam along the Pershore Road. It was a particularly vicious and stubbornly viscous strain of traffic jam, even by the standards of the Pershore Road. I didn’t mind, though: it was a pretty good book.

Sitting in front of me was a grumpy old man with a Tartan shopping trolley who spoke in a Birmingham accent that was so strong that you could be forgiven for thinking it was a bad parody of a Birmingham accent. I couldn’t be forgiven for thinking this, of course, as I’ve written so many bad parodies over the years’ that I wouldn’t get away with it. A fairer description would be to say that the old man spoke in that rarest strain of the Brummie accent, the raw, unrefined, undiluted Brummie accent that these days only exists amongst scattered pockets of traditionalists and in certain parts of the BBC Radio WM schedule.

As the traffic jam slowly eased its way into a terminal case of entropic paralysis, the man and his trolley huffed, puffed and fumed with increasing bile and volume. I tried to ignore them, but it wasn’t easy. These things rarely are.

Eventually he stood up and marched over to the bus driver: “Ooroyt, mucka – what’s gooin’on with the traffic, then?” he asked. “It’s a bloody disgrace, that’s what it is – a bloody disgrace!”

The driver explained that some Reclaim the Streets protesters were exercising their democratic right to park their derrieres on the tarmac up ahead.

The old man seemed to explode with rage. Innocent bystanders were maimed by shards of herbal cough drops. The shopping trolley spewed its contents out in sympathy. “Bloody protesters?” he roared, “bloody protesters? You mean to say we’re stuck here on accounta bunch a BLOODY PROTESTERS?” He was disgusted. He was outraged. He was possibly vitriolic with fury. You could feel his vile, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

“I’m sick of these bloody bastard protesters”, he continued, now addressing the entire lower deck of the bus. “Bunch of arf-soaked, scruffy, workshy bastards with nothing better to do, the lot of ‘em. If they’re not out saving the whale or banning the bomb or getting there knickers in a twist they’re holding things up for the rest of us.”

“That sort of thing should be against the law,” he said. “People shouldn’t be allowed to protest.”

I looked up from my book, but decided to say nothing.


About the Author:

My name is Tom Lennon and I'm a freelance writer who specialises in humour at the geekier end of the pop culture spectrum. I'm based in Birmingham, UK, and my work has recently appeared in BuzzFeed and Time Out.


  1. Rol September 29, 2008 at 9:12 am

    You sure it wasn’t Metcalfe?

  2. Tom Lennon September 29, 2008 at 9:32 am

    I’ve never been sure of anything.

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