You could drive a bus through there

Our series, putting professional drivers in their dream cars, sees Debbie Avis in a Jaguar XJ6. Matthew Gwyther reports; DRIVING AMBITIONS 3: THE BUS DRIVER
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There's a war going on out there and Debbie Avis is not best pleased to find herself under constant bombardment in the front line. "I've been screamed at, abused, had drinks poured all over me and one of my colleagues had a shot-gun pulled on him a while back," she complains. Debbie is one of the 10 or so women drivers at Holloway bus garage in north London and she wants us passengers to know that we need to do something about our manners fast.

"It's an incredibly stressful job these days," she says. "The behaviour of passengers and other road users is the worst I've ever known it. My ex-husband, who was also a driver, had a heart attack a few years back and when we were in the hospital the doctor said to me, 'You smoke, you're overweight and you're a bus driver - we might as well make up a bed for you right away.' "

If you are a regular traveller on the Number 43 from Friern Barnet to London Bridge then you are among the worst of the lot. "It's hell, sheer hell, that route," says Debbie drawing a good lungful of yet another cigarette. "One of the worst in our garage. The people are just ... cruel. With women drivers they always go for our sexuality. You know - 'What's the matter? Didn't you get your leg over last night?' if you just ask to look at their pass."

Debbie has a few ideas about the roots of the problem. "People started to get far more aggressive during the Eighties. Now they never stop going on about their rights. It's not just pub dwellers at night that cause the trouble, either. It's those going to work at seven in the morning and coming home at seven in the evening."

She began driving in 1978. "I joined initially as a clippie in 1974 but decided I wanted to drive instead. I'd never even driven a car at the time. One of my ex-husbands told me I'd never do it, so that got the bit between my teeth. At London Transport they told me that because I was five feet three-and-a-half, rather than five four, I was too short." Her response was to decamp to Northampton and learn the art of the double- decker there.

Since then she has had a variety of other jobs, including a milk-round in Sheffield - "they've got a real thing about us Londoners up there. The Avon lady wouldn't even sell me anything when she realised I was a southerner. It wasn't my fault - I never shut their pits down" - but she always returns to the war zone of the modern bus cab in the end. She puts it down to the companionship of her workmates.

Debbie's normal set of wheels is the Metro bus. Lacking the romance of the old Routemaster, this model is not likely to get many Japanese tourists jumping into its path for a close-up snap. The Metros were an early Eighties bus produced by Metro Camel Weyman from Birmingham which has since shut up shop. It's a 10-ton monster powered by a six-cylinder, 11-litre engine which, on a good day when the traffic is not too thick, returns around six miles to a gallon of diesel. Most of the models Debbie pilots will have covered well over half-a-million miles.

She still has the occasional foray in an old Routemaster - there was a recent outcry when it was suggested they might be phased out completely. "We still run them on the 139 and 10 routes," she says. "It's like having a day off because you have no worries about passengers. You sit up front all on your own in peace. The steering's quite heavy, though. When I was younger, the old RTs which were similar had no power steering at all - I sometimes had real problems. Now they're having a bit of trouble getting a skirt to fit me for my uniform, but I was only eight stone in those days, and to get an RT through some tight corners I had to stand up in the cab to heave the wheel around."

It's hardly surprising that Debbie chose something sedate as her dream machine, something behind the wheel of which - were it permitted - you could drop off into a silky reverie. She went for the new Jaguar XJ6. Its hard to imagine anyone driving an XJ6 in an agitated fashion. Things have come on rather since the old Mark II from the Sixties was the car of choice for every armed robber. A bit like a Mercedes estate, the XJ6 is one of the more civilised cars on the road. The model provided was the cheapest available, which can be yours for just under pounds 30,000. Taking home pounds 160 to pounds 180 a week, Debbie will have to wait a while before she orders hers.

"I've admired Jaguars ever since I was a teenager," she says. "Jaguar drivers tend to be more patient and better mannered. Maybe, although I say so myself, they're driven by more mature individuals. But to me they are also very sexy - smooth and sleek like a big cat."

She covered a few miles during her brief tenure. "We went off to Canterbury to see my step-daughter with my two kids who are 11 and six. I tell you it's the first time those kids have behaved in a car. It's not a car that needs to be rushed. When we got onto the motorway, my partner said, 'Right, open it up to see what it'll do'. But I said no. I knew I had the power and if I put my foot down I could leave them all standing but why bother? I knew it, they knew it, so what was the rush? I just enjoyed the ride and the smell of the leather and the walnut dashboard."

From Canterbury they headed off for Southend. "When we got there the kids wanted to go on the beach, but I didn't want to get sand on the carpets. When we finally got home at 11.30pm I wasn't tired or stressed out at all. I could have driven it all again. I only had one gripe - the position of the ashtray. Stuck there in the centre console, it made it very difficult to drive and smoke at the same time. So I didn't smoke that much, which can't be a bad thing." !

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