London has much to to be proud of, but you’d be hard pushed to find anyone willing to praise the punctuality of our public transport. Whatever else it may be, London is certainly not Tokyo. In Tokyo, if a sign says a train will be along in three minutes, then you can bet you bottom dollar that it will arrive one hundred and eighty seconds from now at the latest. In London, though, time works differently, especially on public transport. Buses can stay due in three minutes for ten minutes or more, and the 11:15 to Victoria sometimes arrives closer to 15:11!
I was reflecting on this last Thursday, when the band I sing in played a gig in Hackney. After the show, I popped out for a cigarette and in the smoking area I got talking to an Italian guy. He said how much he’d enjoyed the music, which is always nice to hear, and then went on to explain how he’d recently taken up the guitar again after more than thirty years! When he was a teenager in Napoli, he’d had a guitar, but he used to spend the money his mum gave him for lessons on records and never really made any progress. Now he’s decided it’s time to try again. He’d recently bought an acoustic guitar and was using YouTube video tutorials to help him get started again. He then told me about a weird thing that’d happened the day after he’d bought this new guitar: he’d been walking home from work when he saw the neck of a guitar sticking out of a skip. Curious, he dug into the rubbish and pulled out a whole guitar – a small Spanish one, about the size of a kids’ guitar. He dusted it down, and took it home. “It was funny”, he told me, “like the buses!” “What?” I asked in bemusement. “The buses. I wait and then there are two.” “Right, right”, I responded, now getting where he was coming from. “You wait ages for one – and then two come along at the same time!“
For Londoners, the experience of waiting ages for a bus only to find two – or three or four – all arriving at the same time (presumably because the drivers were all busy chatting and enjoying a tea / cigarette break together at the bus garage before they realised they were running late and so all set off together!) is so common that the phrase has become a pretty normal way of expressing the idea of suddenly finding a surplus of something after a period of not finding any at all! For instance, recently a friend of mine who’s as much of a keen record collector as I am sent me a link to a website offering a buy-it-now option on a rare 45. As it happened, I already had the record i question, but noticed that in his explanation he said “It took me ten years to find a copy of this, and I was dead chuffed (=very pleased) to pick one up in January for only three bucks ($3). Typically, though, like buses, another one has just come along. Saw this and thought of you.”
The idea is used in informal everyday conversations, in emails, and even in journalism, as the examples below show:
These days, government policy papers are like London buses. You wait ages for one, and then three come along at once.
You wait ages for a new series to fall in love with and then three come along in the same week!
Gold medals for Britain in Olympic gymnastics are like London buses: you wait 120 years for one and then two come along at once!
and my own personal favourite:
- What’s the public transport like where you live? How punctual are trains and buses?
- Do you know anyone who’s taken up any new hobby or interest recently?
- Can you think of anything you waited a long time for and then suddenly found more than one of?
- Do you ever watch YouTube tutorials? Why?
- What was the last thing you were dead chuffed about?