Educated While Waiting for the Bus
THERE have always been plenty of reasons, or excuses, to justify my lack of formal education. Learning, I once told myself, is just something to circumvent common sense, or thinking "naturally"; a kind of stand-in for true knowledge. I would make jokes about it.Many years later, I taught myself to write and found that editors and readers actually liked my jottings - that lack of seriousness about my credentials had worked against me. "All the years I've known you," they said, "you've never had a serious thought to save your life. I can't believe you're now writing like this." Suffice it to say, I have, over the years, managed to write upon a variety of subjects. They have included art, architecture, family, and technology. Book reviews have been produced on architecture, engineering, Japanese culture, and post-World War II Germany. Whence cometh this store of knowledge and education? As no human teacher will come forward to answer that question, I can honestly say that there have been many valuable fountains from which I have sated my thirst for knowledge. In almost any town in Britain, as in America, there stands a modest building called a "free public library." I remembered acquiring my first library card with something like awe: There was a whole new world to be discovered within. I could find out what electricity was, study the principles of accounting, or even learn about Marie Antoinette and Dostoevsky. Precious stuff: Information and pleasure awaited me there. My education got off to a good start. But I needed more. When I was 10 years old, the ownership of my first automobile was 20 years away. That meant that I had to make my traveling via bicycle or public transport. If the journey was too long or too complicated to be made by bicycle, then I would travel by bus, tram, trolley bus, or underground. At every London subway station and bus-stop shelter, there were boards for posters, and it was these posters that opened up a whole new world of art and artists, poetry and poets, printing methods and typefaces, and history. They were, and still are to this day, a valuable source of my education. From these posters, and from the smaller posters inside the buses and subway cars, I learned to quote Shakespeare and Milton. I learned to regard and respect Matisse, Picasso, and the Fauves; and I was introduced to the styles of Cubism and Modernism. Many times I waited for the last bus home, outside a subway station on a dreary winter's evening. Posters depicting my beloved city's most famous buildings - St. Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, and its companion, Tower Bridge - were lit up like familiar beacons in the fog. I often wandered over to read their messages:
The height and spread of frontage shining sheet The quiring signs, the rejoicing roofs and spires - 'Tis El Dorado - El Dorado plain The Golden City ...
On one occasion, I read a poster exhorting Londoners to visit their zoo. The poem underneath still brings a smile to my face.
Old Noah stocked his sturdy Ark With animals both old and gnu And sailed away to Regent's Park To found a comprehensive Zoo.
Who could resist a visit to London's markets upon reading:
Another early morning expedition. Chaos is the order of the day, merchant and customer bargain in a vegetable shorthand which defeats the uninitiated ear, porters battle through the throng between mountains of begonias and broccoli, grapefruit, and greens. Try not to obstruct - here time is money, and neither grows on trees.
Without these posters, I suppose I could have found out elsewhere that Mabel Lucie Attwell, the creator of those cherubic little darlings that adorned so many books, was born in the East End of London as the ninth of a butcher's 10 children, but libraries were less interesting, required membership, and one always had to return the book. I don't know who or what would have informed me that Anna Katrina Zinkeisen, whose vibrant colorful posters for London Transport, was also commissioned for murals on the ships "Queen Mary" and "Queen Elizabeth." I SUPPOSE there's hardly a person in Britain who does not know the fine lines of David Gentleman. As a Royal Designer for Industry, his work has been seen on numerous stamp designs, but I learned about him through his posters for the commuters of London. They taught me that Victorian London was in jeopardy and irreplaceable. When I read his words, Victorian architecture expressed the powerful, sometimes grandiose aspirations of a rich, expanding empire, confidently unaware of the precariousness of its f oundations," I began appreciating this legacy of 19th-century urban life. These posters told me that "old" St. Paul's became "new" St. Paul's because it had been totally transformed - by a cleaning. One hundred years of industrial soot had been blasted and cleaned from its ancient stones. The posters also told me about Neo-Dada, Constructivism, Kinetic Art, and Abstract Expressionism. I was drawn to the souls of rivers by posters that revealed to me that the Thames was a gateway on the world, sweeping into London from the sea with a tide of white gulls to remind the Londoner of his heritage." The heyday of the poster, both in quality and quantity, was in the 1920s and '30s - a little before my time. But it was a time when artists were allowed to experiment with new graphic styles, producing an astonishing range of posters to which the now acclaimed Johnston typeface gave a strong visual coherence. Amazingly, a bus and subway company became an important patron of the arts and the acknowledged leader in the field of poster publicity. London's Underground Group was considered an American-based interloper bringing alien ways to London. But by the 1920s the company's patronage of good art and design probably achieved much more in improved public relations than it did as a form of direct advertising. It is true that in some circles nowadays, poster art may be regarded as an irrelevant luxury, but if the poster "gives" and not just informs, if it reaches out and embraces the viewer with an affinity for color, form, and expression, then I fail to see how they can ever be passe. Throughout their history, the posters have been received well by critic and passenger alike - and by young men and women looking for an education. For myself, I can never appreciate enough the joy I have felt, and the endless enrichment I have received, when just waiting for a bus.