Walkie-Talkies – an audio-visual insight into the history of disabled people and London transport


Artist Michelle Baharier is in the process of creating ten digital audio collages to be published on Disability Arts Online as part of her Arts Council-funded Walkie-Talkies project. She talks to Colin Hambrook about the importance of peoples’ stories of the sublime yet ordinary history of London buses.

photo of a London Routemaster bus in motion at night

Walkie Talkies

Inspired by a poem by David Morris, the late lamented disabled activist who was a key instigator for the Liberty Festival in London’s Trafalgar Square in the early 2000s, Michelle’s project has involved interviewing disabled people about their experiences of London buses, past and present. Arising out of the restrictions on our use of buses during the lockdowns since March 2020, the project is a celebration of an undocumented history, highlighting the stories, positive and negative of London’s world famous red buses.

“Bus travel has always been a positive and therapeutic activity for me to the point where the restrictions during the pandemic have impacted hugely on my mental health. I use bus travel to inspire creativity; it helps me to process and to escape. It helps me take my mind off painful issues. I can go from one end of a route to the other. In between, I can allow myself to feel or to just sink into the journey. I like to sit at the front seat on the top of a Routemaster bus and either take photographs or tune in to conversations.

The most intriguing, intimate and private of words can be heard on a bus as passengers lose their self-consciousness as they talk or even scream down their phones. Sometimes irritating but often intriguing I write down snippets of what people say and use it as inspiration for poetry.

A white woman wearing a face mask sits on the top deck of a bus

Michelle Baharier

My fascination with London buses began as a child. My great granddad was a number 12a tram driver. His job was the reason my family were moved from the East End of London, living in a slum at the top of Brick Lane, to Camberwell Green to a secure home opposite the bus garage. We saw all the buses returning to be cleaned. The garage was a busy place and growing up my family received maps and bus passes and our connection to the buses afforded us a huge opportunity to meet people.

The Routemaster buses were originally made in Chiswick. They were designed to be part of the UK’s recovery from the damage caused by WW2 and were intended to be an iconic tourist attraction. In fact they were sent on a six months tour of the US and were a calling card to attract visitors to London. They wanted to show off the unique, friendly and cosy aspects of their design, the tough attractive upholstery etc. When you think about it, we had our red buses, red telephone boxes and the guards at Buckingham Palace with their red uniforms. London was and still is to some extent, a red city.

David Morris’s poem ‘Routemaster Race’ picks up on some of that history and recognises how a simple act of using a bus makes you a part of the life of the city. The poem tells it like it is; disabled people are excluded and do not exist, like an estranged family whose needs are ignored. It is a protest poem demanding an end to segregation and the right to equal access to bus travel. I shared David’s poem as a starting point for people to respond to in online workshops as one of the ways I’ve used for gathering the stories I’ve been collecting for Walkie Talkies.

Some have been groups I’ve been able to work with online, such as Survivors’ Poetry, Highgate Poetry Society and Golden Oldies, Southwark Irish Pensioners Project – both groups of over 55’s. Others I’ve connected with through advertising in newsletters and through communication with peoples’ key workers.

So many older people have been cut off or isolated due to Covid and are unable to access the internet. Their support workers have passed messages on during home visits and have helped us to set up door-step interviews.

I interviewed one Irish pensioner who had been a bus driver all of his life, but is not able to use a bus now because of the difficulties it presents to him as a disabled person. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t miss bus travel and I suppose that’s the relevance within David’s poem – buses are so important to the veins of London and to being a part of the community of London as a shared space.

I asked everybody specific questions such as “when was the first time you got on a bus?” Some sections of the final pieces are poetry and some, like the interview I did with Sue Elsegood, are stories of the Direct Action Network demonstrations in the 1990s to make the buses accessible.

portrait of two older white women pictured on zoom

Michelle in conversation on zoom with Ina Rogers

In total I have conducted 32 interviews that I’m currently editing. It’s about telling stories; they might be true or simply fictional, but in a way the bus journey is also a metaphor for life. Is the journey what we think it is? Does the destination really exist? I became obsessed with the number 1 bus, which runs across Southwark and the stories that are intimately linked to the routes. You might think that the number 1 is the first route and the number 2, the second etc. But, of course, it’s random as are the meanings we attach to the various routes we travel.

The buses themselves become symbolic of the politicians who have backed their design. For instance, some Routemasters have an open platform, others have doors, and then there is the Boris Bus, which I dislike for several reasons; their air flow system is horrid so they are always cold. The windows at the front on the top deck are too small and there aren’t enough windows that you can open. Downstairs the seats are only big enough for half a bum and are uncomfortable. But sadly Boris Johnson is a clever guy, a historian, and he recreated the Routemaster as a nostalgic statement even though it’s not as nice as the original buses or some of the other bus designs. Ken Livingstone tried to be more hip with his bendy buses, but they sadly did not work at all.

I created a number of workshops to tell tales of the buses, but as it has emerged the project has also documented peoples’ stories of the pandemic. One woman I talked to was walking from Camberwell to Peckham to do her shopping. It was her only option, without access to the internet. So many of the stories tell tales of exclusion, isolation and of resilience.

One person told me they used to get their PA to measure the pavement height, so that they could work out which stops she could use to get on a bus. I had a great aunt who was disabled. She was able to get on the Routemasters in the days when there was a bus conductor. They would get the driver to pull into the curb, so that the platform was the level with the pavement and then she could board the bus holding the bar, with help from the conductor. But when they brought in the one person buses, she could no longer get on the bus at all.

The importance of access cannot be gainsaid you know. The government keeps saying “we’ve got to lower pollution” but the only way you can do that is by making transport accessible to everybody. Buses need to be more available and safer for the drivers as well for passengers.

So with Walkie Talkies I’m going to attempt to cram a lot in to a series of ten short audio pieces. There’ll be some video and a lot of photographs as well, but in essence each piece will have a theme so audiences can listen in sequence or according to what attracts their attention.

It’s a wonderful piece of history that’s been really important to document, because it’s had a positive change. We’ve gone from a situation where buses were so completely inaccessible to a situation where we at least expect buses to have some wheelchair access now. So many campaigns don’t end with a positive outcome and although we cannot say that the struggle has ended, at least it has evolved and that is so rare and offers us hope.

In the first instance, as well as Disability Arts Online, Walkie Talkies will be published by Transport for All, Diversity Radio and Resonance Radio. Hopefully if it takes off it will lead to a bigger Heritage project that tells the story more fully.

Walkie Talkies will be published on our showcase pages in instalments from 8th June 2021.