Caught by the River

The Number 9 Bus to Utopia

Ben McCormick | 7th August 2015


The Number 9 Bus to Utopia – David Bramwell
Published by Unbound. Out now.

Review by Ben McCormick

First things first: I wanted to hate this book. Not because of its author, the title or indeed any of its contents. I wanted to hate it out of sheer jealousy. Brighton resident David Bramwell boarded the Number 9 Bus to Utopia shortly after being dumped by the love of his life in an attempt to become a more loving, sharing person. That bus consisting of several flights around the world to communities that all in some way lay claim to having found an ideal for living. From the flourishing new age commune of Findhorn in northern Scotland via the Czech S&M haven that is (or was) the Other World Kingdom to the otherworldly, clandestine, Alpine time-travelling collective of Damanhur, Bramwell roams the planet trying to find himself and a better way of life while trying to get over the ex. Along the way he would encounter anarchists, hippies, polyamorists and any number of characters who, just by meeting, would provide such distractions as to take your mind off any lost love within moments. It’s a fantastic trip; just the type I’d have given my left bollock to embark upon on the several occasions I’ve found myself in a similarly dumped state. Except every time it’s happened to me I’ve been utterly skint and unable to self-indulge in anything more costly than several bottles of supermarket plonk and a keg of freshly made homebrew. That the author funded his quest through savings makes it even more galling. Savings? Who has savings?

So why, given my happily confessed antipathy, was I unable to put this book down for the day and a half it took me to read it? I’ve thought about this for a while. Sometimes overly philosophically, other times on a more rudimentary level. As with so much in life, the reason is complex. For a start, it’s packed full of hilarious observations and is written in a relaxed, disarming almost self-deprecating style that allows you to read keenly about the kind of adventure you’d love to have without being troubled by outright envy. And there is plenty to ponder too, as you’d expect from such a journal of discovery. But the reason for me is perhaps best summed up by Hecase, an archetypal wise old man Bramwell meets in the Californian commune of Esalen. “Esalen’s greatest gift is the people who come here. I’ve met some incredible people over the years.” Because through the pages, as you accompany the author on his journey – and this is perhaps his greatest gift – you feel like you’re meeting a wealth of strange and familiar folk who in one way or another are just as lost, uncertain, bewildered and ultimately seeking some kind of answer as we undoubtedly all are.

From the mid-forties musician Henrik in the hippyish enclave of Christiania to Carel, the wild-spirited Belgian heavy metal bass player with a penchant for drinking and a propensity for wandering off and shouting in his sleep, Bramwell introduces us to a long line of like-minded seekers searching for a better way of life. It’s fascinating reading about them and their searches. And they’re a complex bunch, though inevitably the author does come across his fair share of clichés as well. Almost from the outset, Bramwell flags up his irritation at those who would, while pointing to their heart, vacantly pose him the rhetorical question: “Don’t you know that Utopia is here?” It’s fair enough: that kind of glib, self-satisfied, cod spiritualism is exactly the kind of codswallop peddled by those who would also have you believe you’ll ‘only find love when you’re least looking for it’. But the odd and perhaps ironic thing about it is, the more you read about the outlandish, anarchic and alternative lifestyles pursued by people in search of their idyll, the more you begin to suspect the smug, smiling ‘heart-gesturers’ could be on to something. And by the end of the book, I wonder whether he’d have come to the same conclusion had he carried on for another couple of chapters. He disembarks the bus a few stops short of that ultimate destination but, without spoiling anything, you feel he’s happier for it. Thomas More coined the word Utopia based on a Greek pun: ‘eu-topos’ meaning a good place and ‘ou-topos’ meaning nowhere. Throughout this funny, engaging and thought-provoking book, you’re invited to consider the possibility it might just mean nowhere in particular. Or rather, anywhere you can find that works for you. As an elderly lady Bramwell met in Harbin Hot Springs says: “Find a place that has what you want. Or if you like where you live already, whatever’s missing you must create for yourself.” Whether we can all do that without interfering with anyone else’s ideal world is the subject for another book.

David Bramwell will be speaking about the book and other things at Wilderness festival this weekend.

Ben McCormick on Caught by the River