The View From Here: As a bus driver he can't help looking down on us

Magnus Mills
Sunday 22 May 1994 23:02

It can get lonely here in the cab. The glass is thick: I can hear none of what is going on inside the bus except for the occasional heavy foot above my head. And while I watch the road, I sometimes get to ponder things.

Such as: in the ocean, when a large fish wants to make a magisterial turn to the right or left, the other fish move out of the way. If they make a mistake they get eaten. This is how London traffic should be, but it isn't. Small does not give way to big. The cars and vans swirling round Hyde Park Corner certainly don't. They are coming up all the time in my mirror as I ease my way across four lanes of traffic. Each one the same message: 'Let me through, Let me through. They keep coming, but I'm slowly closing the gap to my right until - WHOOSH] - the last one accelerates past. Now I join the inside lane of this huge roundabout . I slowly heave the wheel and the timber frame of the bus creaks as the weight shifts: 77 passengers, 40 seated upstairs, 32 seated downstairs and 5 standing. And one conductor. Now there's a car alongside me and the driver is on the phone. This is one of the busiest traffic junctions in Europe and he's making a phone call. He's not really concentrating at all and just for a moment an evil thought enters my head. . . no, forget him. Let someone else take him out.

Out of a side turning come three geezers in a Ford Transit eating sandwiches. Having a larf. The driver sees me. He hesitates. Will he wait? Or pull out? Five standing passengers. Others asleep. Will he wait? Or pull out? He pulls out; so does the car behind him. Bastards. Brake, gently though. Make allowances. Forget them. Keep going. Here's Knightsbridge Station. A tense ragged queue at the bus-stop: maybe 35 people, tired, trying to get home. The bell goes. Ding Ding Ding . . .Ding (sic). The conductor is telling me: 'The bus is full up. . . but there are a few getting off. Be ready.'

I pull up. In the mirror I see six people alight. So there's room for another six. The queue surges forward. Six only. Six. No more.

Ding Ding. Go. We can't hang about. Somewhere ahead of us is another bus: our leader. The gap between buses is supposed to be five minutes, but, with luck, we'll reduce it to three. Then we won't get clobbered by these monster queues. Even better, if he gets held up somewhere, we'll get him in our sights and keep him there. But if we take too long at the stops and he gets away, we've had it. The crowds at the stops will build up. We shall be swamped.

I read recently that the buses would be better if they employed nicer drivers. Well, give me 50 minutes to travel between, say, Oxford Circus and Streatham, and I will be nice. I will wait for the runners who come charging up the road as if their life depended on catching the bus. And my conductor will wait until all the little old ladies are safely in their seats before he rings me off. But give me 40 minutes to do the same journey and I start getting mean. I don't like leaving people behind, but, to tell the truth, sometimes it happens. The days are long. Eight hours of driving time can be spread over a twelve hour shift. Sometimes it gets too much. So if someone is standing at a request stop and doesn't put his hand out, I might not stop. This job can make you mean.

And when I try to be nice, it doesn't always work. Eight-thirty in the morning, two old women are standing at a bus-stop in south London. On the bus are 50 rowdy schoolkids, getting off here. Lazy little sods who won't walk half a mile to school, raging with energy. If I pull up next to the old girls, they'll be flattened in the stampede. So I pull up 20 feet short. The old women scowl.

Mid-afternoon and a taxi is pootling along in front of my bus. The cabbie's head is down: he's counting money, sliding pound coins into a little rack beside the wheel. I can see over his black roof and he's got a fare coming up. A woman on the other side of the road, on tiptoe, waving frantically. He still hasn't seen her. Then at the last moment he does. The taxi lurches to the left, but what he is actually going to do is yes, here it comes. . . an unsignalled U-turn. But I'm ready for him and have already slowed up. He's locked round now, facing the other way. This is Sloane Street. He's in the money. But if I'd gone up the back of him it would have been my fault. Ironic, isn't it? Isn't it? I press the foot-brake. Many heads nod in agreement.

(Photograph omitted)

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