At 4:09 a.m., a red double-decker N279 night bus speeds down Tottenham High Road in North London. This is the main artery in Tottenham, one of London’s poorest boroughs. The bus’s lonely headlights pass darkened 18th and 19th century buildings, a stadium for an English premier league soccer club, and everything-for-a-British-pound shops.
The bus comes to a stop off of White Hart Lane. It still has 50 minutes to go until it reaches its final stop outside of Trafalgar Square, one of the most visited tourist sights in London.
A woman gets on and sits by the main exit door. She’s wearing what appears to be a Kente pattern head wrap with her blue uniform shirt and pants, blue painted fingernails, and soft-sole shoes. She introduces herself. Her name is Abenaa Mills and she is in her forties. She is on her way to work. Owing to circulatory problems, she typically avoids the stairs on the bus. But she says her 4-year-old grandson Tinchy always wants to sit in the front-seat window on the top deck and pretend he’s driving the bus during afternoons she spends with him.
Mills is heading to her job in the central kitchen for EAT, a major London-based chain of fast food restaurants. She can alternately sit and stand on the job, which varies from peeling and washing vegetables to overseeing large pots of soup. She makes the food the company ships to its locations around town.
Mills says she is paid £6 an hour. That is nearly $10, if you make the pounds-to-dollar conversion, which may sound relatively good to the ears of minimum-wage workers in the U.S. But London’s cost of living is expensive. Her daughter is currently unemployed, so Mills has two dependents: a daughter and a granddaughter. She’s tired. She takes a nap.
Mills is riding to work on a route passing through many neighborhoods affected by London’s recent riots: Ponders End (looting of a Tesco supermarket), Edmonton (brick-hurling at police), Tottenham (burning vehicles and shops), Holloway (unrest outside of a police station), and Camden (masked youths looting).
These riots formally erupted out of a peaceful vigil for the killing of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black father of four, by police in Tottenham as he sat in a minicab. The riots that suddenly took over the streets were an unsettling reminder of some of the things that are wrong in England.
Yet neither the riots nor the peaceful vigils are why people are on this bus today. They’re on the bus to get to their jobs. They’re part of the so-called “working poor.” Like everybody else, most black Britons strive every day to better their situations for themselves and their children, but you would never know it from today’s news coverage focused on the rioters. On this bus, you can see the exhaustion written on the faces of the passengers, an exhaustion that often comes with the low-wage labor that keeps the birthplace of capitalism churning. And an exhaustion that comes with being the isolated, cultural scapegoat for the increasing anxieties of the British middle class.
London’s troubles can seem mysterious to an American outsider. Imagine a city that’s a global leader in public housing, with ample, relatively well funded, subsidized apartments. One reason the riots seemed to have the entire city in flames is that London made an effort decades ago to integrate its public housing projects through all of its middle class neighborhoods. That stands in sharp contrast to Paris, for instance, which confines its poor to segregated banlieues on its outskirts. What’s more, imagine a city with relatively strong unions. Imagine a city that benefits from government-supported health care, insuring that young children must meet minimum targets for health. Imagine a city not awash with guns. Imagine no death penalty. In so many ways, London seems like a John Lennon-loving, American liberal’s dream.
So why is this bus so depressing to ride?
Earlier in the route, in Ponder’s End district, a tall, thin, long-faced black man stepped on and made his way to the back seat. He had deep-set eyes made deeper-looking by the over-bright fluorescent light overhead. He would rather be sleeping, but he told an annoying American reporter (the latest reporter to come searching these routes for wisdom) that his name is Chris Howard.
Howard said he worked on a construction site in The City, London’s version of Wall Street, which requires a rail transfer to reach the Monument Tube stop. Howard said he didn’t like his job these days, despite its handsome £15 an hour pay. Not because of the work, which he likes. But partly because he has no friends on the site, a mostly white crew overseen by Scots foremen. And partly because he says its dangerous.
Howard tells me a story, when I step off the bus at his stop to ask more questions before he makes a transfer. Most of his co-workers made fun of him, but he always insisted on wearing a safety harness while working many stories up on a construction site.
Howard didn’t like how the harness limited his freedom of movement and made him sweaty, but he didn’t want to accidentally fall either. One time, to earn extra money, he agreed to work additional days to help speed along a project. When he had been working on this eighth day in a row, a Sunday, he felt tired and accidentally lost his footing on the scaffolding several stories above the ground. When he dropped, he was in shock.
“I thought it was game over.”
The thing about the safety harness, he explains, is that it works in a series of sleeves. So you drop a bit, and then your fall is stopped. Then you drop again, and your fall is stopped again. Each time he started to drop again, he thought the harness had broken.
“It makes you think,” he says.
Howard says he didn’t feel any racism at the site, but he did feel frozen out. Some of the Scottish workers who had apparently met each other on the site left one day to become bouncers at city night clubs, but they didn’t tell him about any job opportunities before they left. He had thought he’d been getting along with them, kicking around a football during work breaks in a nearby alley. But he had been left behind.
I catch another N279. Like the earlier bus, this one began its roughly 13-mile route from one of London’s northernmost neighborhoods, Waltham Cross. It will also chug on to its final stop downtown, near Big Ben, the famous clock tower that’s part of the Houses of Parliament.
In the Holloway neighborhood, Juraj Janosik steps on, wearing a brightly colored Adidas windbreaker. Underneath is a black T-shirt and dark pants. He’s heading to work at a sit-down fast-food chain called Wagamama, where he earns £9 an hour. He lives in public housing, called “council housing.” More precisely, he shares a one-bedroom flat, or apartment, with two other fellow Croatians. He doesn’t like it.
Janosik feels he gets no chance to practice his English at home with his countrymen, who prefer Slovak, and he only hears broken English from the international visitors who usually visit his restaurant. He is studying nights at a public university to get a degree in what he calls “restaurant sociology,” with the goal of becoming a professor. He is exhausted, he says, from having to get in early to be part of the opening crew at a restaurant, only to have a long break in the late afternoon before classes start. He has trouble getting to sleep, as his neighbors have a small baby that “likes to use its lungs.”
As the bus heads toward Camden, I only get around now to introducing myself to a middle-aged British Jamaican, who had boarded back in Tottenham. He speaks precisely as he tells me he doesn’t want to talk to me.
After some back-and-forth, including some commentary on how America is a nuthouse, he reveals his name is Alex Jones, who lives off of Drapers Road. He works as a sorter of mail for a financial company in The City. He filled this position when it was vacated by someone on maternity leave who never returned to the job. Having been there for a few years, he is bothered that he hasn’t received a raise.
I ask Jones if he thinks things are better, worse, or the same as a decade ago. He chooses “worse.” But like the other passengers, he didn’t refer to “the cuts”—the austerity measures launched last summer that are so often discussed in London media. Like the others on the bus, he spoke instead of what some have said are the immediate impact of those policy choices: fewer jobs and rising crime.
The North London neighborhoods that the N279 passes through are some of the city’s poorest. They weren’t always this way. Hit the rewind button, and imagine life here a few decades ago. In the early 1980s, a bus like this might have a different mix of passengers on board: more black Britons going to living-wage jobs in heavy industry, more women going to office jobs requiring reading skills, and fewer recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, Turkey, and North Africa competing for those jobs.
But what I’m most struck by in my conversations is the isolation (or is it quarantining?) of North London from the city’s middle class. None of the people I met said they had visited, for instance, the city’s famous free museums downtown. Unlike some North Londoners, they regularly pass these landmarks and other cultural spaces (reggae clubs, sports venues, historic churches) on their way to their jobs. They said they preferred to spend their free time in their own neighborhoods.
In a recent and well-received book, “Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class,” author Owen Jones writes that British society and media now portray the working class negatively, in sharp contrast to decades ago, when the working class was admired and even venerated. Britons now casually use slang terms like “Chavs,” which is the UK equivalent of “trailer trash” and often has a negative meaning. It’s a shift in thinking that’s also deeply racialized. In a now infamous exchange on BBC2’s “Newsnight,” historian David Starkey offered this explanation of a presumed moral decline among the “Chavs”: “The whites have become blacks.” Jones argues this cultural shift from respecting to demonizing and scapegoating the poor affects how working class people think of themselves, too. I wonder if many decide much of London just isn’t theirs.
I speak with Richard Grannum as he gets off a couple of stops before the end of the bus line, where he works as a cleaner for £6 an hour. I want to ask more questions before he makes his transfer, so I offer to buy him a coffee and something to eat.
We walk into a Pret-a-Manger, one of the city’s fast food chains. He says he’s never been in one before. I offer to treat him to whatever he wants. Grannum asks what he should get and I say, “Whatever you see that looks good.” I ruffle through my wallet, reaching for some coins, and I look up and he’s walking out. I run after him, but there’s no point. He doesn’t want to talk anymore.
Sean O’Neill is a reporter living in south London.