The MT Diary: Why I won't be getting on a bus again

Howard Davies on his aversion to public transport, the view from Washington, and Italy, divided.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 21 Oct 2011

I haven't liked buses since they introduced doors, which happened in Manchester in about 1965. Before then, you could jump off on a bend just before school, saving a good 50-yard walk. All the fun went out of life when the dreaded Leyland Atlantean replaced the Routemaster. There are of course still a few of the latter plying their trade on heritage routes in central London, which I occasionally jump on and off as a protest against progress, but otherwise buses are out. I cannot bear sitting stationary in a traffic jam 20 yards before a stop, unable to escape. So it's two wheels or feet for me.

Sometimes, however, needs must. In Washington recently, I was forced onto a K-Street Metrobus to Union Station, when the heavens opened and every taxi ran for cover. I had an hour and a half to spare before my Amtrak departure to New York, so I paid my $1 and climbed aboard.

It was a mistake. At the first stop, a man caught his arm in the opening door. It seemed to me to be 100% his fault, but a bench of harridans demanded that the driver 'complete an incident report'. They talked like a Health and Safety Executive form. After 10 minutes of argy-bargy the driver undertook to do it at the end of the line, so off we went.

Then a clearly disturbed young woman began to shout and hammer on the driver's partition. She wouldn't stop, and was eventually invited, quite politely in the circumstances, to de-bus. She did, to general surprise, but clung on to the door and began kicking the bus from the outside. So the driver called for assistance. Fair enough. But he also refused to open the doors in case she forced her way back on. So we were trapped, while bus after empty bus sailed by.

Negotiations got nowhere. The silky skills I learnt in the British Diplomatic Service were to no avail. Only when she saw an approaching police car and ran were we allowed to jump off into the monsoon and transfer. I made the train with five minutes to spare. So that's it for me and buses for another 40 years.

Outside the transit system, DC was abuzz with wild talk about the debt ceiling and the destructive lunacies of the Tea Party. (My bus lady was clearly a Palin supporter, with a grudge against any public service.) But, for once, Europe has made it onto the radar within the Beltway. Everyone I met thought the euro was a busted flush and would go the way of the sucre and the groat. The Greeks are off down the Swannee. If Spiro Agnew were alive today he'd be organising a military coup with some robust colonels.

The big question they were beginning to ask was whether the Italians would be on the next boat. Oddly, given the Italian influence on American life, Washington folk pay little attention to Roman politics. They think Berlusconi is your normal, run of the mill euro-PM, elected by an adoring nation. When you suggest he is a kind of combination of Rupert Murdoch and Dominique Strauss-Kahn they affect surprise.

Having just been in Rome for a couple of days I could pass for an expert. In the Kingdom of the Blind ...

I pointed out that Italy is rather an odd country in a number of ways, even forgetting the bunga bunga factor. Indeed, it remains two countries. Though 2011 is the 150th anniversary of unification, the celebrations in Milan were muted, with barely a Garibaldi biscuit in sight. The head of the Northern League (Lega Nord), Umberto Bossi, memorably commented that Garibaldi's achievement was not to unite Italy, it was to divide Africa.

The league never misses a chance to point out that northern Italy has an economy to rival that of France or even Germany, while the south is full of idlers who are a drain on its wealth. GDP per head in the north is around $42,000 a year, while in the south it is more like $24,000, and less in places like Puglia and Calabria. Milanese wits call the south Magna Graecia, which can be rendered as 'Greater Greece', but I am told that Graecia can also refer to grease, as in 'grease my palm', a reference to business ethics in the Cosa Nostra. The Lega fans favour a subdivision, with the north breaking off and renaming itself 'Padania', deriving from the Latin name for the river Po. Polls suggest that popular support for the idea is rather higher than for independence in Scotland. That figures, as in Italy it is the hard-working, prosperous north trying to separate from - as they see it - the motivationally challenged south, whereas in the UK ...

If Garibaldi were alive today, he would be turning in his grave, along with his co-conspirators Cavour and Mazzini. Italy couldn't break up, surely? Nor Belgium? Nor the eurozone itself?

Of course not, but people are doing a bit of scenario sketching and contingency planning, just in case. An LSE prof, Charles Goodhart, has written a paper on the euro crisis of 2013 when, he speculates, the euro will divide into two, a neuro (with an 'n' for both new and northern) and a medi (you get the idea). But who goes where?

Some of the answers are clear. Greece will live more happily with a weaker medi, and Portugal too, if we stretch a geographical point. Iberian solidarity will force the Spaniards' hand. But where does Italy go? Lombardy would have no trouble in the neuro. Milan can take its German name of Mailand. Venice will increase its German tourism by renaming itself Venedig, while Sicily could look to Athens for financial support.

Is this getting too silly? Hey, it's still the season - just.

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