Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Back on the bus

Recently I wrote about public transportation -- how important buses and trains are for a functioning society. Many countries, especially my native USA, once had flourishing rail, bus and trolley systems, and they were widely used – look at old movies or television shows and you see normal people taking the train instead of driving. That’s still the case here in rural Ireland; many people don’t have cars, or don’t want to commute all the way to the city, so they take Bus Eireann (Gaelic for Ireland Bus). The double-decker buses still look incongruous to me hurtling along the windy country roads, but they are quite stable, and once they get to the motorway they use special bus lanes to bypass the worst of the traffic. 

When I wrote about buses, I noted that our bus drivers had threatened to strike; shortly after that that article appeared the strike began, reminding us all how important the buses are. For us it was only the latest of a long string of problems with our heat, water, garden and many other things that needed fixing. I spent the last few weeks driving to work, getting no writing done, chatting to no neighbours and generally losing three hours every day, wishing for the return of the buses.

For about a decade I’ve worked in Dublin, and taken the bus to work each morning – about 90 minutes each way, so three hours a day on the bus. I’m not fond of commuting so far, but I can use to the time to write – almost anything you read that I wrote, I wrote on the bus. It’s where I create the home-schooling lessons I give my daughter. It’s where I correspond with friends and family – often the only place, as for a long time we didn’t have internet at home. For people with more talented napping skills than myself, it’s three extra hours of sleep.
For some of my co-workers, it’s their only means of transportation; one young lady at my office takes the same bus as I do, and she’s never owned a car and never planned to. When you have a good bus service, you don’t need one. Buses, moreover, allow me to chat for hours with neighbours who commute to the city as I do.

Occasionally, of course, something interferes with the service; a bus runs late, or it knocks against the branches along the tree-lined lanes, or breaks down. Sometimes they fill up fast and I have to wait at the bus stop for hours, or take a different bus to a different village and get a ride home.  One stormy night a few months ago our bus was inching through the long, single-road traffic jam of Celbridge, going over the old stone bridge across the River Liffey, when the high winds wobbled a sign so hard that it smashed against our bus window, shattering the glass. No one was seriously hurt, but the bus had to let all the passengers off – it was too great a risk to have all the glass around – and we had to wait an hour or so until the next bus came.

I did not feel any great inconvenience, and I just relaxed in the pub across the way – a pub that, by the way, has the splendid name of the Mucky Duck, and claims to be Arthur Guinness’ old pub from the 1700s, where he invented the beer that bears his name. As I sat on one of the pub stools, I took out a pen and did some quick math on a piece of paper == the bus drives past dozens of signs and tree branches every trip, and makes several trips a day, every day of the year, and that several hundred buses roll across Ireland. Something like this happened two or three times in the ten years I’d been riding, and on those occasions people tend to vent their frustrations at the buses and drivers. We don’t, however, pay enough gratitude for all the times they inch narrowly through Irish roads with no margin of error, avoid rocking signs and fallen branches, and get us there within five minutes of their predicted time.

It’s such a different experience than the USA; there, half of all public space is devoted to cars, the other half for people, and bus services are often paltry and carry a stigma of poverty.

Over Easter weekend the drivers returned to work and the services resumed, just in time for people to visit their families. Today, for the first time in weeks, I waited at the bus stop to return to work, and saw the old people who waited for the same bus, like a reunion of friends. An old lady who lives near me – we’ll call her Bridey – saw the bus coming in the distance and said, “Ah, isn’t that a blessed sight?”

“It’s been a long time coming,” I told her.

“And it’s Liam at the wheel,” she said with delight. Everyone loves Liam – he fills us in on the gossip from the buses, the local politics, and all the villages around. He’s a better source of news than the television.

The bus was still far away, though, and if I couldn’t make out who was at the wheel, I was quite sure the old lady couldn’t. “How do you know it’s Liam?” I asked.

“I just know these things,” she said, smiling, and I let her keep her secrets.

When we boarded, Liam (sure enough) was talking to the young lady I work with, and the four of us stood and talked as he started up again.

“Liam, I’ve never been so happy to see you,” I said.

“Sure, you should always be happy to see me!” he responded in mock offense.

“Always, but never more than now,” I said. “How’ve you been keeping?”
“Glad to be back to work,” he said, “I’ve spent the last few weeks outside, getting a tan.” Liam has a typical Irish complexion – he’s lighter than the cast of the Twilight movies.

“Ah go on with you – like you’ll ever have a tan in your life,” Bridey told him.

“But it’s true!” Liam insisted, showing us his sunburned ears. “My ears are like to fall off!”

“Was it a good Easter?” I asked.

“Sure it was grand, Brian,” Liam said. “I was worried about you, Bridey, you being in the country without the bus.”

I think I was the only one of the group who even had a car – when you have a good bus service you don’t need one. The loss of such a service has been devastating for country people, especially the elderly.

“Ah, my nephew brought me to church on Sundays,” Bridey said.

“So God was sorted,” Liam said with a smile.

“And I had the garden for food,” she said.

Most people around here would give those same answers, I said – they took the bus, knew neighbours and family they could rely upon, and had some self-sufficient skills to get them through small disruptions like this.

When I hear people talk about preparing for the future – whether left-leaning environmentalists or right-leaning “preppers” -- they usually talk about everything collapsing overnight, Hollywood-disaster style.  In real life, we face little chance of that, in the USA or anywhere else. Instead, people should think about what happens if they can’t drive for a while, or lose their jobs, or can’t drink the water that comes out of the tap, or lose their electricity for a while. Living here has many problems, but it teaches me that a bit of self-sufficiency, and a healthy relationship with neighbours, goes a long way toward getting us through when systems – as they inevitably do at some point –fail.   

Photo: Bus in Dublin behind horse carriage. This is purely for illustrative purposes; it was actually Bus Eireann that went on strike, not these green buses, but I don't have a photo of a Bus Eireann bus. 

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Threads of a society

In my last few posts I've used mid-20th-century Ireland as an example of a traditional society – say, one without electricity, cars or modern media – and the USA right now as an example of a modern one, but of course there were many types of each, and a spectrum in between. Americans in the 1950s, for example, generally had electricity, running water, and often had cars, radios and televisions, all things that many Irish in that decade did not. Food more often came from a store rather than the field or pasture, paid for with paycheques earned at recognisable jobs. A time-travelling American plopped down into 1950s America might struggle with some pop culture, but they could survive.

Yet Americans then had some things in common with Irish people at the same time; they spent more time with family and less staring at screens, had more friends and spent more time with them, knew more neighbours, volunteered more, trusted strangers more, gathered for political causes more … and were generally happier and healthier. Children played more games, roamed a greater area, read more, and were better-educated at a younger age.

How do we know all this, you ask? Academics and pollsters took detailed surveys of American life through the 20th century -- “time diaries,” door-to-door questionnaires, phone polls and marketing research – in a way that more agrarian societies like Ireland did not. You don’t get many phone surveys where people have no phones, or market research when there’s little to market. America in the 1950s, then, presents a great test case – technological enough to be well-studied, traditional enough to tell us what we’ve lost.

In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam looked at hundreds of such surveys, and they chronicle the decline of “social capital” in America, the web of relationships that sustain a society. Bowling leagues, churches, political groups, fraternal organisations like Elk or Kiwanis all create and run on social capital, but so do friends carpool to work or who meet at a bar afterwards, families who have supper together, or neighbours who check on the old lady down the street.

Such people might give us encouragement or advice, a sympathetic ear or shoulder to cry on, a loan when we are short of money, a friend when we are sick. Humans are social animals, and   
live longer, feel better, have better health and more meaningful lives when we have such connections, and enough such threads weave together a civil society, a quilt that cushions the weight of the world.

We don’t often stop to thank, or even think about, the person who picks up rubbish on the street, the driver who lets us through, or the neighbours who keep an eye on our house when we’re away, but a decent life depends on such courtesies, no matter how much money we have. In places where we see them removed – say, in a violent ghetto – we immediately feel their absence.   

As a result, Americans today feel far less happiness than their grandparents did, trust others less, and know fewer people to trust in the first place, if survey responses are any guide. We see the results in the crime rate, the suicide rate, and the skyrocketing levels of mental illnesses that were once rare. We see it in the numbers of police, security guards and lawyers – their numbers stayed level relative to the population through the first two thirds of the 20th century, and then doubled in the last third. They exist to enforce social rules and standards of trust that we can’t rely on anymore, or don’t feel like following ourselves. 

Happy Easter to everyone, and in a few days I'll write about what we don't need to admire in traditional societies.