Alexei Sayle: Life really was like a sitcom on the buses

He called from a phone box to say that he and his conductor had been seized by food poisoning
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The Routemaster was an amazing vehicle; there can't have been any other bus that was planned and built in the city that it was designed to work in. In the past few months, there have been a number of elegaic articles in the newspapers concerning its imminent disappearance from the streets of the capital.

The Routemaster was an amazing vehicle; there can't have been any other bus that was planned and built in the city that it was designed to work in. In the past few months, there have been a number of elegaic articles in the newspapers concerning its imminent disappearance from the streets of the capital.

In the early 1970s, I lived in a council tower block in Fulham. My best mate, Harry, lived around the corner and at the time he worked as a driver at the Hammersmith bus garage, driving the 11, 73 and 9 routes, all of them Route-masters, from the Riverside Garage at Hammersmith Broadway to the City and the West End. Perhaps somewhat unfortunately, there was a pub called the Britannia more or less built into the fabric of the garage, and I used to spend a great deal of time in there drinking with my friend and his fellow bus workers. I remember the Scottish manager of the pub was one of those people who has an absurd faith in the goodness of other people, so was always being taken advantage of.

He had an old Triumph Herald that one of the drinkers said could easily be changed into a convertible. After taking a deposit of £800, the bloke chopped off the roof with an angle-grinder then disappeared, leaving the Herald to moulder in a lock-up garage, flexing like a playing card. Still, his eagerness to please made the pub a pleasant place to drink in.

One of the things that was different in those prehistoric times was that semi-skilled workers such as bus crews were well paid. It is a barometer of how things change that in 1978 Harry was taking home £120 a week, and a bus driver right now will not get much more than that after deductions. Though, seeing as this only enabled the ones I used to hang around with in the pub to spend even more money on drink, I don't know what good it did them.

What stays with me from those days and what has disappeared from modern one-man vehicles is not the buses themselves but the relationship that grew up between driver and conductor. Riverside was famous for its large number of gay workers.

Often, if there was a woman driver and a clippie on a Hammersmith bus, then they would probably be a couple; similarly, a number of the male crews lived together. However, what struck me was that many of the other men who had worked together for a great number of years had, over time, forged partnerships as rich, heroic and mythic as those between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Roland and Oliver, or Robin Hood and Little John.

There was one pair - let's call the driver George and the conductor Tony - who drank in the pub. Tony was on a final warning for lateness and one early morning, after a session in the Britannia, failed to turn up for work. George, fearing he'd lose his mate, forged his conductor's signature in the signing-on book, then climbed aboard his Routemaster resolving to pick up Tony on the way.

Unfortunately, as the bus had an open back, he couldn't prevent passengers jumping aboard when he stopped at traffic lights. By the time he pulled up outside Tony's house, in a narrow side street in Fulham, he had a number 11 bus half full of people wondering what they were doing there. George climbed out of the cab and hammered on his conductor's door, yelling for him to get dressed and come to work. After some time, Tony yelled through the letter box that he wasn't going anywhere and George should sod off.

So George was now left with a full bus, because more passengers had got on board, delighted that the number 11 had started making house calls and had no conductor.

Eventually, George drove back on to the route, parked the bus near Fulham Broadway and called the garage from a phone box to say that he and his conductor had been seized by a sudden attack of food poisoning. He then abandoned the Routemaster and its passengers and went home. In the end, the people on board the bus drifted away when they realised that it wasn't actually going anywhere.

But one couple were still sitting there a couple of hours later, when the engineers came to take it back to the garage.

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