There's a guy in the German embassy trying to travel on every London bus route before he leaves town

Don't worry, he's done these two. Image: Getty.

What would you do, if you found yourself posted to strange cities for years at a time? How would you get to know them? How would you explore?

You could visit all the famous bits, but that probably wouldn’t take you very long. You could work your way through the various cultural treasures listed in the guidebooks, and thus get a view of the city unrecognisable to anyone who actually lived there.

Or, then again, you could travel on every bus route in the city's transport network, in rough numerical order. That's also a thing you could do.

It is, as it happens, a thing that the head of press at the German Embassy in London has been doing since he got here four years ago. “I've just got to number 155, and there are 499 in all, Dr Norman Walter tells me when I phone up to ask him about this hobby of his. “I've also done a few others, like the 452, which run near where I live. But I'm not sure I'll make it before I get back,” he adds, with the wry understatement of someone who is quite sure that he won't.

And then, just in case you thought we were dealing with an amateur here, he starts enthusing about route 465, which runs from Kingston to Dorking, “the farthest point you can get on your Oyster card”.

Route 465: the queen of Surrey.

CityMetric has love in its heart for anyone who enjoys a good bit of urban transport geekery, and Dr Walter very kindly took a few minutes out from a Brexit-packed schedule to talk buses. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Jonn Elledge: So, er: why do you spend your time doing this?

Norman Walter: It's an idiosyncrasy, I guess. Some people collect stamps; for me, it's this. My wife thinks it's completely crazy, but she's been married to me long enough that she's used to it.

I did in several cities where I was posted before, but in London it's simply unique. I love to go up to the upper deck, just to go through the streets and “be there, you know. I did the underground first – but as the name says, you don't see that much. Buses are the best way to discover the city.


JE: Which other cities have you explored by bus?

NW: I did some in Belgrade, but that was 30 years ago. I did Bucharest, but didn't get very far. I did Vilnius – and in Moscow, I did a fifth or so of all the bus lines.

But in London it's actually a real pleasure to do it – the upper deck's a real incentive, it gives you the feel of the city.

JE: How does London's bus network compare to those of other cities? It has more routes to cover, right?

Certainly that's the case, though Moscow has more underground lines. But the [London] bus lines are quite well organised, I would say. You mostly have at least two or three bus routes which run parallel for a while and then diverge, like the 19 and the 38. So if you just have a short trip, you can take either one of them, and you have a bus every three or four minutes.

JE: It must be getting harder though – most of the suburban routes don't run that frequently.

NW: Yes, I was rather quick in the first 100 or so, but the farther out I go the longer it takes. When I took the 468 to Croydon, I took the tram and then the underground back, so it can take several hours.

Normally I have to get up rather early, so on a Saturday morning I'd do two or three – but I've been rather lazy the last couple of weeks.

JE: I heard you'd had some difficulty locating route 5.

NW: Yes, it took me at least a year to make sure there is no number 5. There's a night bus, but-

JE: But there is a route 5 – Canning Town to Romford. It's the suburban route with the lowest number.

NW: That's amazing! There's an N5 that goes up to High Barnet, so I looked for a number 5 around Holloway, but I couldn't find one, so I assumed it didn't exist.

Route 5: nowhere near Holloway, or route N5 come to that.

JE: Do you have a favourite route?

I like the buses which come every three minutes – the one I really like is the number 38. It runs near our embassy [in Belgravia], and when I go to Piccadilly I can always catch one of them. It's also one of the Boris buses, which has a conductor and where the rear door is open – I like that very much.

Route 38: simply the best.

 

When I first saw the 38, I noticed that it normally goes to Hackney Central, but some go on to Clapton Pond. So I thought, there can't be a pond there, can there? So I went to check, and I found out that there was! It's still a sweet memory.

JE: When do you finish your posting?

Probably next year, I've around 300 more days. I'm glad the foreign office gave me an extension – certainly, the only reason they did that is to help me complete the bus lines.

JE: And will you keep exploring by bus wherever you end up next?

I'd love to, but it always depends – I might end up in a small town in Africa, where there aren't too many buses and it's too hot.

Or there's a risk I'll get called back to HQ in Berlin. But perhaps I could start there, too – they only moved the capital to Berlin 15 years ago.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge

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Bus maps courtesy of TfL.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

****

Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

****
Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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