Destination inspiration

I’ve spent hours of my life on buses, but the time has rarely been wasted. A bus journey is often a source of inspiration and a space to meditate on whichever creative project I’m working on at the time.

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Buses don’t have the same sense of glamour or excitement as some types of transport. There’s no doubt it’s easier to jump in a car than to wait for a bus that may be late. Journeys may take longer and you may still have some distance to walk to your destination. There’s little joy in waiting at a bus stop in freezing weather or pouring rain. And you have no say in who shares the journey with you.

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But I’ve always found bus journeys to be a perfect trigger for creativity. There’s a feeling of respite in boarding a bus and allowing it to take you where you need to go. You have little control over the journey, so you may as well surrender to it. On buses, you can be anonymous. Other passengers, armoured by their ipods or newspapers, rarely pay you any attention. On buses, you don’t have to watch the road, so you can notice things you wouldn’t on a journey by car. Usually, you can take a window seat and simply gaze at an array of scenery slowly passing by.

Buses give me time to think. The majority of my journeys last about half an hour, which is plenty of time to ponder. I’ve had many good ideas for writing on bus journeys. I’ve reshaped plots, developed characters and changed the whole direction of stories, all because I’ve had that time to think. I often scan passengers as they board the bus, watching how they behave and inventing theories about who they are. Thinking on a bus is different to thinking at home or in another place. Perhaps it’s the fact that for half an hour there’s nothing else I have to do. Or maybe it’s something about the forward movement through changing scenery and the regular drone of the engine that takes me to another place. A bus journey is never just a trip between destinations: I travel into other worlds on a bus.

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Let me take you on one of my regular bus journeys. Imagine yourself settled comfortably beside the window. It’s been raining outside and the bus is warm and steamy. You can feel the hum of the engine, lulling you into a meditative state. We travel first down a quiet road, past warehouses and compounds filled with rusting cranes. The road has an air of dereliction, but there’s also a kind of beauty in the twisted metal and decaying buildings. You just begin to wonder about the characters and the activities that might take place there, when the road opens out onto a panorama of the river. It’s not long after sunrise and the light is clear and tinted with pale blue and pinks, ideal for painting. You scan the buildings lining the banks, including the ruins of the priory overlooking the river mouth and you watch the small ferry crossing from north to south. There are layers of history and experience along the river, waiting to be brought to life.

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Next, we pass through a small housing estate and reach a bridge. On one side is a park, with cascades of water running down the hill towards the river. On the edge of the park is a hospice and you consider the stories of the people coming to the end of their lives there. Perhaps they think about their lives as they watch the assortment of boats sailing in and out of the marina on the other side of the bridge. They may mark the days in the daily arrivals and departures of the ferry from Holland, or watch the oil rigs and cranes lining the river and remember when ships were built here.

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Further on, we pass through an industrial estate, where the streets are named after Swedish cities, and through wasteland, dotted with pylons. We cross a bridge over the line used by the railway museum for steam train rides, and pass the old wagon ways, which were once used to transport coal from the mines to the river. Our final destination is the business park, packed with newly built, perfectly landscaped buildings that are standing empty, like shiny sentinels, waiting for someone to inhabit them and bring them to life.

Any of these things on their own could spark a story or a painting, but a bus journey is a kaleidoscope of sights unfurling one after the other. Some are barely registered, but they percolate in my imagination, sparking ideas and connections which I might use in the future.

So, if you don’t usually take the bus, why not try it? You don’t have to have a destination in mind. Choose a time outside of the rush hour – mid-morning is good – when you’re likely to get a seat to yourself. The type of route and the scenery don’t matter, it’s the movement and the letting go that do. See what comes of your journey. And if you can’t take a bus journey of your own, perhaps you can take a little inspiration from mine to help you on your way. I’d love you to share your experiences.

The idea of a journey

In the movie ‘It’s a wonderful life’, George Bailey says that the three most exciting sounds in the world are ‘anchor chains, plane motors and train whistles’. I agree completely with George’s sentiments and, although ultimately it’s an uplifting movie about being grateful for the life you have, I’m always struck by the tragedy that George is destined never to leave Bedford Falls.

George spent years growing the idea of a journey in his imagination: he read leaflets about interesting jobs in exotic locations and had picked out in his mind just the type of suitcase he’d want to take with him. But it was only the idea of a journey, without all the detail that would bring it to life. And in the end, the journey that George took was of a very different kind: into what life would have been like without him.

Close to my home, there’s a working river and international port. Every evening at the same time, I can walk to the end of my street and watch an enormous passenger ferry sailing by, as though levitating across the end of the road. Often, the air is filled with the hoot and buzz of ship’s horns, sounds that always make me long to be on the sea. Often, we visit the port to watch the ships berthed there. I never imagined that the world was filled with so many unique designs of ship: the sleek passenger ferries and cruise ships; the sturdy pilot and tugboats; the flat cargo ships piled with rusting containers; and the futuristic sub-sea construction vessels. I’ve taken to researching those that are particularly strange in appearance, to discover their purpose. Sometimes, I’ll look up lists of expected shipping: Sapphire Ace, Star Comet, Havla Phoenix, Pleiades Spirit, Ice Crystal – these are just some of the evocative names of ships shortly to arrive.

All journeys begin with an idea, but all journeys are a trip into the unknown. Even the short trips we take every day can become filled with unexpected events. I didn’t travel abroad until I was 21. Before I ever left the country, I yearned for travel, devouring travel programmes, collecting travel books and studying brochures. I planned trips and developed many ideas of journeys, just as George did. But they are only ever ideas of a journey – often seen from someone else’s perspective.

On the first trip I took, to Italy, I could never have imagined the reality of the journey, both good and bad. I couldn’t have predicted the coach breaking down in the Swiss Alps and the motion sickness I was stuck with long after the journey. Nor could I have anticipated the emotional reaction I had to the wonders of Rome, when I’d always imagined it was too familiar from TV and movies to inspire me with any kind of awe. But then that’s the wonder of a journey – you look forward to it because you think you know where you’re going, but the real excitement is that you don’t know at all.

For me, the idea of a journey is glamorous, exciting, full of anticipation and wonder; but there is also a touch of fear and the sense that I don’t want to leave the familiar environment of home. Often, once the trip is booked, I have a reluctance to discuss it and make any kind of preparations. This, I think, is because of the ambiguity I sometimes feel about the journey: longing to go, yet not wanting to go at all. The idea of the journey is much more comfortable than the journey itself.

Starting a story is similar to starting a journey. It’s still the idea of something, but you can’t imagine the ways it will develop on the way. There’s the same sense of excitement, of thinking that anything is possible. And there is also the trepidation – the fear that the words won’t come, that you won’t be able create the vision you’ve shaped in your mind. You may have a plot or characters, or both, but there’s always some part of the story that’s out of your control.

I never believed those authors who said that their characters did unexpected things, as though they were alive and decided to do the opposite of what their creator had planned. How could it be possible that something you’d created yourself was outside of your control? But then my own characters began to do things that were unexpected. My plots meandered off in surprising ways. And most startling of all, was that these unforeseen changes seemed to make the stories come together, as though they’d always been meant to be that way.

So you begin to write as you begin a journey: starting with an idea, which is an idea of how the story might go. But part of the frustration and part of the excitement of writing, is where the journey eventually takes you and what happens along the way.

Does the idea of starting a journey inspire you? Have your characters taken on a life of their own to change the direction of your story?