A 1959 AEC Routemaster at the London Bus Museum.
By Tom Phelan
My accuser was sitting in the center seat at the rear of the upper floor of the bus. Dressed in bowler hat, dark jacket and pinstripe trousers he banged the tip of his umbrella into the floor to underline every clipped word he shot at me.
“Conductor! Conductor! It’s people like you who are driving London Transport into bankruptcy.”
He was right.
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I was a conductor on a Routemaster bus on the Shepherds Bush/Harlesden route in London. In the hustle of collecting fares, issuing tickets from the five-pound dispenser on my belly, digging for change, and keeping my balance, I seldom knew where I was as London whizzed by in a blur. I did know that at certain points on the route, unobtrusive signs indicated a new fare stage that necessitated my changing a number on my dispenser. But only at the beginning of the workday did my dispenser and the fare stage number agree.
I tried to hide my ignorance by holding out my hand to the passengers and hoping they would name the price of their ticket. But if they asked for a particular destination I had to ask them how much the fare was. The inevitable reply was “thrippence”–three pence–the cheapest ticket.
This was in the summer of 1959, when I was a student working in London for the summer. Until my arrival from Ireland in the capital of the foundering empire, I had depended on Joe Mack’s tree, the tower of the Catholic Church in Mountmellick and Slieve Bloom to triangulate my position in the world. In our flat bogland the cypress, the church and the mountain could be seen from far away.
When I was accepted as a trainee conductor I spent one week in a classroom memorizing the many free-pass cards, how to work the portable ticket dispenser and learning how to stand on the open bus platform without being flung into the street. We were warned, “People will get on your bus carrying all sorts of things. Some will get on and cuddle their dead pets in their laps or have snakes around their necks, but just carry on and don’t make a fuss. They’ll be getting off after a few stops.”
Why had I sought out this most unsuitable and unconquerable job? I had been advised by a fellow student that it was a way to make quick money. Looking back, I might as well have followed advice to jump feet first into a meat grinder.
The irate man in the striped trousers and bowler hat was only touching the surface when he accused me of bankrupting London Transport. I was on the lowest rung of the ineptitude that was driving the company into the ground. During those nerve-stretching weeks I did not encounter any inspectors, even though I had been warned they would sit unrecognized on the bus evaluating my job performance. But I know they never did because they would have fired me before the bus reached the next stop.
During rush hour the Routemaster was so packed that I could only stand on the exit platform, hold out my hand at bus stops and shout, “Fares, please!” In the piling down the stairs and the pushing from the emptying downstairs seats, many passengers ignored me. Others dropped pennies in my hand as if I were a sidewalk beggar. But when I handed in my day’s takings, no one ever asked me why I had gathered so little money.
During my first few weeks, when I made my collecting rounds, I issued many five-penny tickets because to my Irish ears “thripenny” sounded like “fippenny.” Every time I registered a three penny as a five penny I had to make up the difference from my own funds to keep the numbers on the machine and the money in my pockets balanced.
Many of the bus drivers were Jamaican and, for the first time in my life, I was exposed to loud joyous laughter, boisterous fun and mockery of people being brave behind their shreds of authority. When a rotund and nasty garage mechanic made a racist remark, they asked, “Hey mon, when was the last time you saw your john thomas?” During cricket matches groups of Islanders gathered in front of the television in the canteen, yelling advice and throwing obscenities at the players. Their high jinks and wide open delight at being alive was in stark contrast to the often corseted and suspicious life of rural Ireland.
One early morning I was alone in the canteen except for a Jamaican driver reading his paper. As he turned a page he began to laugh quietly. Then he laughed louder and louder until his body was shaking, laughed until he bared himself to the world by stretching his arms across the table, stretching his legs far apart and throwing his head back. Uninhibited, lost in a world of his own, he surrendered himself to whatever he had seen in the paper. Eventually, the laughter exhausted him and he plonked face forward and dropped his head onto his arms. When he eventually sat up, he wiped the tears of his face and said to me, “Dem Brits have pokers up dare arses.”
I had never laughed like that man.
Once, on an almost empty bus, I was issuing tickets at the rear of the upper deck when the Jamaican driver brought the bus to a screeching stop. I fell backward onto my side and slid forward along the aisle until I bumped into the front wall. Pennies, three-penny bits, sixpences, shillings, two-shilling pieces, half-crowns and my dignity were all over the floor.
As I got back on my feet I heard the driver yelling, “Why don’t you look where you’re going, you blind bastard!” The blind bastard, who was feeling his way along with a white cane, turned around and stuck up his middle finger.
At the end of the summer I handed in my uniform and ticket dispenser, then lost my way going to Euston Station to catch the train to Holyhead. I was going home with seven five-pound notes, but more importantly I was bringing with me the exposure to a group of men who, in the space of 10 weeks, had loosened the stays of my own cultural corset. Out there in the world of my Jamaican coworkers there seemed to be no looking over the shoulder at religious leaders, no continuous dwelling on the horrors of slavery in the sugar cane fields in the Caribbean, no constant looking back at the brutal four hundred years of oppression by the Spanish and the English.
From the Jamaicans I learned it is good to laugh uproariously at the absurdities of life, that to laugh is not to forget.
© 2020 by Glanvil Enterprises, Ltd. Tom Phelan is the author most recently of the memoir “We Were Rich and We Didn’t Know It.” Go to tomphelan.net for more information.