We'd never tangle with the park-keeper

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The Independent Online
WAS John Patten remembering his childhood when he reportedly suggested that bus conductors and park- keepers could be used as ancillaries in the fight against truancy? It had a puzzlingly quaint ring to it. I have not seen a bus conductor for more than 20 years, except in those delightful old Ealing comedies. As for park-keepers, they belong to the mythology of my childhood. Are there still bus companies that can afford to put two operatives into every vehicle? How many councils have room for park-keepers on their wages bill?

The progressive demise of the bus conductor started when my children were still young, so I have experienced what every young mother goes through when trying to board a bus with baby, pushchair and toddler in tow. Which do you drop first, so that you have a hand free to get your fare out? While you are struggling to hold baby with one hand, while you stow pushchair away with the other, how do you stop the toddler being catapulted into the lap of a complete stranger, when the bus starts with its usual jolt? Once upon a time, there was a conductor to give you a helping hand, to see that old ladies were safely on the pavement before the bus started again, to make sure that people had time to get themselves and their parcels on and off in a comfortable and orderly fashion.

They were multifunctional, these old-fashioned bus conductors. Never mind the truant-spotting, they were entertainers and therapists, offering a song, a joke or an up-to- the-minute news bulletin, with political commentary thrown in. They were a friendly ear to the lonely and distressed, and made the kids get up and offer their seats to those who needed them more. I remember the desolate Roman Catholic lady whose beloved only son had decided to go into the priesthood.

'I wanted to see him married, you see,' she sighed. 'with children and all that.'

'Look at it like this, my dear,' said the conductor. 'He'll be married to God and that has to be an honour, now, doesn't it?'

She seemed mildly comforted by this bit of homespun wisdom.

Park-keepers, too, did much to make the world around them more civilised and well ordered. They wore peaked caps and brown uniforms and allowed neither children nor adults to behave badly in their domains. We were innocent and did not know how limited were the park-keeper's powers. He wore a uniform and behaved with authority, so we thought he could imprison us in the little keeper's lodge if we disobeyed him. As a result, we did not trample on flower beds, scribble on benches or stone ducks on the pond.

Even grown-ups respected his rules and kept their dogs on leads, did not allow them to foul the grass or footpaths and picked up their litter to put in the bin. There was less opportunity for copulation in the shrubbery, with the park- keeper watching you, and the play areas were relatively safe from child molesters. Any child about in school hours, and hoping for an illicit smoke behind the bushes in the park would have been spotted, clipped round the ear, had the cigarettes confiscated and been sent packing. I would like to think there were still a few of these admirable gentlemen around; if not, Mr Patten is right to call for their reinstatement. If that is what he is doing.

There are other jobs, gradually disappearing in the name of economy, which used to contribute to the unofficial policing of our world. How many young women these days would rather prolong a railway journey unnecessarily than get out at an unstaffed station after dark? A whole army of guards, porters, ticket-collectors, whose very presence was reassuring, has vanished from our stations. An automatic dispensing machine can only spew forth tickets: it is a poor substitute for a kindly, watchful eye. Public lavatories, too, have largely lost their attendants and become not only filthy and vandalised but a setting for the nastiest of crimes.

I have no doubt that those comfortable, brown-overalled ladies who kept the loos clean in the London of my childhood ware also excellent truant-spotters and would not have tolerated glue-sniffing or drug-shooting on their premises. So let's hear some more speeches about the utility of these unsung heroes, so we may have them back again. It's the best idea the education secretary has had in a long time.

Margaret Maxwell is away.