When I was a chit of a girl I had a mind to know all the bus routes in London.
A red Routemaster down Regent Street, its reflection on wet pavements, the smoky top deck, condensation on the windows. The spiral staircase to the bus conductor. A double decker with its double ding ding pull bell. I wanted to know them all.
My wanderlust was a trip from Aldgate to the West End, no Italian spires for me just a front seat on the Number 15 – top deck – holding onto the rail as we passed Tower Bridge, towards Trafalgar Square. Crouching down, holding out a handful of seeds for the pigeons, I have black and white memories to prove that I was shat on from an early age.
And then we moved to Hertfordshire. Green buses not red.
The 358 stopped outside our house. Separated by a sliver of green and some trees, close enough to see the bus stop from the kitchen window. Regularly the Great Auntie Becky made the trip from the East End, in her beaver lamb fur coat and head scarf. Down she stepped with her high insteps carrying a string bag with sugared almonds and London bagels.
The 358 started in Boreham Wood, outside the dance school, past the studios, towards us then onwards to St. Albans, through Shenley with it’s mental home, past a convent in the field, then into the ancient town with the oldest pub by the Abbey – The Cock – and my favourite music shop on the hill with a wall full of wooden shelves displaying everything from Brahms to Liszt. Ah! The smell of polished wood a symphony for the nose.
Then the 306 a bus ride from Boreham Wood to Watford. Every Wednesday, carrying my basket of music, the green bus drove through Elstree, and Bushey into Watford, where I studied peearno. Miss Spottiswood, Mr. Churchill, both had high hopes of me being a concert pianist. I had nothing of the sort. I loved the piano but I enjoyed the bus ride more. After eating in the Wimpey Bar I dashed for the bus. The day I left it too late, I reached for the pole lost my footing as the bus sped off and I was dragged a good few agonising feet till somebody saw me and rung the bell. I bought a pair of thick tights to cover my ripped knees. For a time people talked about the funniest thing they had ever seen.
‘It was like a Buster Keaton comedy’ they said. ‘That girl being dragged along by the 306 bus, her hair flying and her basket of music trailing behind her.’
I was off school for a month.
It was on that bus that I taught myself how to gurn on the dark ride home, at my reflection in the window. The romance of the 306 when I flirted with a boy in a cap. Smiling and averting eyes. He only appeared the once, but just enough for me to yearn for him every journey. It was also the bus ride home that prompted my eye tests. I keep arriving at the fire station, not the Red Lion pub where I was to pick up the 358.
The eye tests revealed I was blind as a bat.
But it was in that very music room that I did my first ever audition for The Watford Palace Theatre. The theatre bought the house with the very room where Daphne Spottiswood berated me for not practicing, and Mr. Churchill told me to put down the loud pedal, even with Bach, since nobody would no the difference and it would cover up all my mistakes. Tell that to Glen Gould.
Needless to say the familiarity of that room got me my first professional job and an Equity card.
And then, whilst at drama school I took the 113 bus from Golders Green to as near to home as I could get. The number 113 where I took on Anti-semites as they shouted racist comments at the Jews walking home from synagogue. I was fearless then.
I set up home in North London. The starting point for the 24 bus. Oh! the joys of the 24 bus route. From South Hampstead through Camden, past RADA, onwards to Victoria and gLorious Pimlico. I lived for a time in Queens Crescent opposite a 24 bustop. I was a poor actress begging for rotten food from the fruit and veg stall. ‘Here she comes’ they said as they handed me a box of ageing tomatoes and wilted cabbage. Thirty years later a regular on ‘Good Food Live’ revealed he had worked that very stall owned by his uncles. I have a sliver goblet he gave me when the show came to an end. The 24 bus carried me for years until I went up in the world and moved to a riverside apartment in Battersea, paid for by the TV studios. And then the 19 bus came along. From Battersea Bridge, down the Kings Roads, swinging past the Duke of Westminsters pile then down the Strand. Christmas on Sloane Street and Spring past Hyde Park. A glorious ride. I was Southside Opposite Michael Caines Chelsea flat. We met once when I interviewed him, and we vowed to flick our light switches at bedtime, sending messages over the Thames. He never did I was small fry.
Hopping on and off buses. Knowing my way round. Talking to strangers. Recovering from love affairs and lost auditions. Watching time go by – buses have been my shelter. Now we have one bus an hour that passes the cottage. I have a senior bus card but rarely use it, after all I am a car driver and living 2 miles from anywhere the local bus is only used occasionally. I did once arrive home, as a surprise, for the old git. But I caught him out he was standing in the doorway smoking – having given up. His look of amazement was tinged with guilt; when the cats away the mouse will light up and flick his ash into the geraniums.
I didn’t talk to him for two days.
But now the rotten bastards are cutting buses from all sorts of places. No more the chatter of old ladies. No more the screeching of school kids. No more thanking the bus driver and knowing his name, or hers. No more giving up seats for the pregnant. No more moving a bag of shopping for the old geezer who smells of smoke and linseed.
No more watching the fields speed past. No more petting the wet dog in the aisle. The rotten bastards have forgotten that buses are a communal experience. The spread of laughter when one starts and a busload follows. The rotten bastards couldn’t give a tuppenny for people who can’t drive, don’t drive, won’t drive. No more the ding ding of a bus bell. Communities are worse off without our bumbling buses. The rotten bastards couldn’t care less.
I never did learn all the routes, but from the number 11 to the number 38 I have bus routes that knit my life together. A thousand curses to those rotten bastards who have forgotten what communities mean.
To quote Flanders and Swann
If tickets cost a pound apiece
Why should you make a fuss?
It’s worth it just to ride inside
That thirty-foot-long by ten-foot-wide
Inside that monarch of the road
Observer of the highway code
That big six-wheeler, scarlet-painted,
London Transport, diesel-engined,
Ninety-seven horsepower omnibus
Hold very tight please!