Sitting on the upper deck of a London bus. When I woke this morning, I was in a terrible state: my eyes were itching and my head was really buzzing. I had a need to do a brain dump…
It does not have to be that I was sitting on the upper deck of any particular bus (bus spotters would love it if I could cite the precise bus), or any particular route (my thoughts ran to several routes that I used to ride, frequently). The view that was special was that given simply by the higher position–nothing surreal. But, what you saw was different and special for a child, who would normally have trouble seeing over the heads of many. “Look at that lady! She’s got a wig on. It’s crooked.” You could peek into prams and cars without people looking back at you; back then, cars were rare and not many had the experience of riding in one. You could try to look into living rooms and gardens; sometimes you could see what people were doing. Prurient interest? Puerile fascination?
In the brief time in my experience that trolley buses also operated with buses, it was often fun to speculate whether the bus would collide with a crossing trolley or, worse, with its overhead cables.
When my family first went to London, we spent many weekends, usually Sundays, travelling from Shepherds Bush, in the west, to Brockley, in the south-east. Much of the ride was on a bus–number 12. Whatever my parents wanted to do, I would love to run upstairs and sit in the front seat if I could. I tried to peer down the front of the bus to see if I could see the driver. I pretended that I had the steering wheel in my hands and was make the bus turn. I braked when I thought it was necessary. I ducked when we went under a bridge. In those days, buses had conductors who would come around saying “Fares, please!”, then reel off the paper ticket from their machine. It was fascinating how that worked, and I loved to see the tickets being ripped off and handed to the passengers. As a small boy, I treasured my tickets. Route number, fare paid, date, time…mementos of an adventure. I had an uncle who worked as a conductor and another who was a bus driver; my father also worked as both for a while. When I was growing up, the buses were increasingly being operated by the new and increasing group of immigrants from the West Indies.
Riding the bus was fun, and trying to get on the bus became an adventure as I grew up. Bus and trolley passengers had to get used to the open platform for their entry/exit. By misfortune, or bad timing, the bus could often be pulling away just as you arrived at the bus stop. But, this simple design feature meant adventure for many, not just children. It was fabulous to run after the bus, try to grab on the pole, and hop onto the bus. It became a London skill: you could hop on and off and skip behind the bus and hop back onto the bus. You had to be good with one hand, because your other could be holding a bag, or God help you, a child! Heart pounding, a little sweat, beading on the forehead. Sometimes, the adventure went wrong, and the jumper slipped and fell. In those days, no one seemed too concerned at such mishaps. Bruised ego, bruised knees, scraped knuckles. Been there, done that.
Were those who rode upstairs different from those who sat downstairs? Maybe. You had to be fit and able, good on your feet, so younger people tended to run upstairs. I’ve seen enough people slip down the stairs. You had to like a tussle; not everyone wanted the front seats, but sometimes to get them meant a little pushing and shoving 🙂 Whether it was allowed or not, it was great to eat on the bus and upstairs was better. When your bag of chips was finished, what better than seeking a target for the rolled up fishy and vinegary wrapping :-)? Kerplunk! The look of shock and horror and effort to see from where the missile had come. Laughing like crazy…till the bus stopped…till the driver got down…till he looked up stairs…till he came to the back platform…Oh, @$#^! Trapped. Done for. The unforeseen risk of being upstairs.
Sometimes, when the bus was caught up in traffic, a unique opportunity existed–to connect with passengers on another bus. The emergency exit upstairs was the rear window. What better wheeze than to try to open that window and hang out a little, while the bus was not moving. Seen it. Thankfully, the front windows did not open the same way. Well, thankfully, for most. Some small people would try to do the ‘out of one, into another’; it was a tight squeeze. Risky? Oh, yeah!
Who would think, standing at the bus stop on any given day, that lying ahead, was the prospect of a ride of a life time? Ring a bill? Hold on! Fares, please! Time to whistle the refrains of “Wimoweh” 🙂