Monday, 31 January 2011

3am - The Lost World And The It's The Best Time Of Day Show

"That's the most I've ever been insulted before 3o'clock in the morning," said my fellow driver in response to some crass remark I had made about him not looking so good at that time.

"Well," I went on sarcastically, looking at my watch, "it could get worse as there's still ten minutes to go."

It was 0250. The bus's wheels were about to roll in the direction of Sheffield. It was icy. In fact it was very icy and two buses in convoy slithered over the 2000ft white tops of the North Pennine hills. In Sheffield we were to pick up a group from a school and bring them back up to an outward bound centre. The traffic is now so bad 'down country' that the only option is to allow extra time and leave early.

Night time driving is a good thing to do every once in a while. A whole new world opens up and as there is little traffic, I find it nicer, even pleasurable at times. The traffic which is on the roads is commercial, with professional drivers and delivery times to be met. They crack on.

I turned on Radio 2 to see what was happening and came across the Alex Lester and It's The Best Time Of Day Show! Having been a BBC contract worker for Radio 2 in one of my past lives, I listened, expecting the worst. When I last worked at Broadcasting House, I used to listen to the night radio shows, on the way in. Then it was rare to hear anything on the airwaves after Midnight, but Sheila Tracy's Truckers Hour became a phenomenon, attracting a surprisingly large listenership.

Alex Lester is better. It is the most surreal show I have ever listened to. The three hours flew by. His choice of music is varied, eclectic and fun. His outlook on life is vivacious. The great British public, depending on your view, either make a big and funny contribution or are a load of weirdos, showing off, with the worst kind of sick and base humour. I haven't quite decided. Either way, listening to Lester is refreshing and the monotony of driving up motorways fades into the background.

So tonight's show asked the audience to come up with ideas for the name of a new scent, advertising and marketing campaign and strap line. This was after Lady Ga Ga has just released a perfume which smells like blood and other male bodily odours. "DERV" said one listener (obviously a truck driver with an industry in-joke. "Fillet Of Beef", said another. Black puddings, double D cups, personal hygiene associated remarks kept coming.

As it degenerated, it became better and better listening. Only because of Alex Lester's quick wit and ability to let things flow without, seemingly, lifting a finger. If you are an insomniac and want news - turn on Radio 4 and listen to the World Service. If you want to be a fly on the wall and observe an unknown chunk of British life - then tune in to Alex Lester.

Sheffield appeared through the fog. Cancel that. Sheffield appeared through the smoke emanating from the chmnneys of various power stations and factories. Though you cannot say it is beautiful, it is a great city, aided by its friendly people.

"Eeh, 'ello," said a parent of a child going on the trip, who was already waiting on the pavement, suitcase gripped firmly in hand, "you're early."

Saturday, 29 January 2011

More Ripping Yarns On The Vallium Run

"I'll catch yer while I can, though I can't see you very well this morning, because of the water in my eyes," shouted the fellow in the Russian hat and tweeds. He had a walking stick in one hand and a dog on a lead in the other. I was was walking up the street to find my supermarket reduced item for lunch and so I just gave a hearty wave and marched on. Today there was extra value in the bargain basement department - a flattened, tired prawn pasta salad for 89p - an unfamiliar brand of continental chocolate bar for 19p and some solidified soya milk for 43p. Total: £1-51. You can't get cheaper than that, even if it was food which was about to be binned.

When I got back to the bus, there was the old fellow, sitting in the front seat. "I hope yer didn't mind. I just wanted to have a good crack with yer." I liked his company on the bus. He would ride the whole route, occasionally getting off to walk his dog, then catching the bus again, further along the route. The other passengers warmed to him too, and when he was on the bus there was always a plethora of stories.

The sluice gates opened and tale after tale was let loose.

There had been a fight in the market town. A woman had caught her boyfriend with another woman. All hell had broken loose and she had beaten up the boyfriend and the other woman. "Makes a change from them brawling in the street," said one of the women on the bus.

In another village there was a lady who lived there who had a fearsome reputation. A reputation for 'planting her lips' on anyone she could find. "Well you see, this young lad was on the bus and as it happened she was also on. Well when they got off she dragged him in the doorway and kissed him. He was very embarrassed and came to see me."

"What did you say to him?" asked a passenger.

"I told him he should go to the doctor's."

One of the elders on the bus had a problem with another lady passenger. "I was standing at the bus stop minding me own business, waiting for the bus," he said. "It turned up, the doors open and this woman fell down the steps, straight into my arms." She was another of the passengers gaining a reputation fast. She had fallen down the steps once when I was driving.

"Are you well?" I said to the pensioner, trying to change the subject.

"Nae fine fettle. Nae fine fettle at all," he replied. "Me and the wife went to the hospital yesterday. We asked the reception where the department where the appointment was at. She said she dinna know, but it may be on the third floor. We went into the lift and pressed the button for the third floor. Up we went. The doors opened. We got out. but it weren't floor three at all. It were floor five. So we got back in and pressed the button for floor three again. The doors opened but we were in the basement. Then we asked a nurse to take us there. 'Don't ask me dear, she said, I'm new here.' So we got back in the lift and pressed floor three again. We went up, but we got out on floor two..............(and so it goes on...and on...and on).......and do you know how long it took us to get there? One hour. One bleeding hour."

I felt physically drained when he got to the end of the story.

"Well I hope the appointment went well," I said, making polite conversation.

"Nah it dinna." He looked disgusted. "When I told him aboot me problem, the doctor asked me what I drank. Well I says, on a Friday night I usually has two pints of lager and three whiskys.'Ah that's the problem, he says. You'll have to stay off the beer.' So now I'm on a whisky only diet."

I watched him descend down the bus steps and head off for the club.

Health & Safety And The Buddhist Monk

Whenever I drive past the Buddhist monastery in the frosty hills, I think of The Dalai Lama. Usually there are some monks strolling down the road wearing their traditional brown robes. They always seem apprehensive at the bus, bearing down on them, but when I slow down and wave, they always reciprocate. Possibly out of relief.

The Dalai Lama once said: "If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them." I do try and be courteous to the monks when I see them in the distance. Today, however I feel, one of them has taken the bull by the horns and tried something new for self-preservation.

There is a monk in her brown robes, but wearing a high visibility waistcoat over the top. Eminently sensible, as she is on a straight bit of road where all drivers tend to put their foot down and try to make up some time. I cannot tell you why I find it strange? Perhaps it is that all the Buddhists I have met have the most amazingly trusting and serene outlook on life. Wearing a fluorescent jacket seems a symbolic departure from these ways.

I'm sure it's not really. I don't blame the lack of trust of the traffic. Don't forget that sometimes, it's me flying around the corner. Though I try sometimes to copy the Buddhist outlook. I always remember a Buddhist monk who I met in China who was talking about cars, the roads, and driving in general:

"Don't worry," he said. "When you have a problem, just wish the other traveller well and say: 'May you be well. May you be happy."

It's hard to keep it up.

There's No Wealth But Life In The Land That God Forgot

Is the Vallium Run going to survive? The debate continued amongst the passengers.

"I went to the meeting and the council man said we ought to be car sharing," said an animated woman who lived somewhere in the 'Land That God Forgot'. "I let him have it and gave him a piece of my mind."

"Well good for you," added another local resident.

"Yeah, I feel sorry for the drivers," said another. "this is like a community on a bus. We know all the drivers well. We like them." It gave me a warm feeling inside to hear this. It is true. This is a rural route and unlike any other. In some ways it is like a small club. Everybody knows everybody.

The passengers are fighting for their bus service. They are good campaigners. They go to meetings, they make their fears known and they are forceful in their actions. It takes a good council man to stand up to them and not be reduced to a quivering wreck. They live in an isolated spot and there is no doubt that, if the bus is pulled then people will lose their jobs as a result of not being able to travel to work. So I feel there will be a great British compromise.

"Yes those poor bus drivers, they've got to come out in the cold. All this way too."

"Yes, I know," one lady went on nodding her head in agreement. "I get mad with my neighbour who often stands with me at the bus stop. Her friend sometimes passes in a car and she jumps in. What hope is there?"

"The problem is that we're on a loser as we've lost four passengers recently, who could have written letters of support," said the voice of reason from the back. "W is in hospital and unlikely to come out. X is in a home - also unlikely to be released. Y is in a hospice and is unlikely........and Z has just gone missing."

There was a thoughtful silence. It didn't last long. It was broken by a woman who had far greater worries than the future of a bus service.

"My heating's been off for the last three days," she said with a sad look in her eyes. "It suddenly came on and there was a scream and I thought, blimey the radiators need bleeding. But I laughed and laughed because I came into the room and saw it was only my husband who had put his hand on the boiling metal."

'There's no wealth but life.' John Ruskin got it in one.

Romanians, Turks And Bulgarians Congregate In The North

The bright red Romanian truck looked lost.

His Sat Nav had obviously failed him as the road ahead narrowed and looked more forbidding. He slowed to a crawl, naturally frightened by the local speedsters coming from the opposite direction and the increased likelihood of him hitting a stone wall.

He stopped and turned into a single track road. I thought I'd better try and help him. He spoke no English, so the only word I could think of which seems to be understood worldwide was:


It worked as the dark featured man with black hair nodded his head vigorously. Then I failed him miserably by speaking English in the typical, ultra slow, unintelligible way that Brits tend (often without realising it) to talk to foreigners, as if they have just come out of the cot.

"Go? Where? Come from? To where?" My dog would have had a better chance of understanding me. I realised I was condescending and ineffectual when he continued to nod his head rhythmically. Then he had the brightest of ideas by writing with his finger in his wing mirror.

'N69' - he wrote.

Ah the A69 - then all became clear and I was able to direct him. I gave up on the speaking and used vigorous arm movements to direct him. It was only afterwards that I worried that one of my gestures, though innoocent in this country, may have been the worst insult to a Romanian. Then again he hooted his horn and waved as he departed.

The next visit to the town, I came face to face with a lost Turkish truck. It was easily identifiable by the flag on his dashboard. The red background with the white crescent and five point star was visible from a long way away. He did not slow down and turned round with dust flying out the back, narrowly missing a Bulgarian truck coming the other way. A superb driver, who missed everything by inches, though he gave the feeling that he always did that, in safety.

It had been an international start to the day. There had been more overnight snow, but the day had turned into the nicest day of the year so far, confounding recent reports that the average sunshine in January was one third of what we are used to. Everyone was happy......except one.....there's always one.

"They didn't give me a pay rise for eight years. Eight years!" said a passenger. "Said they couldn't afford it. Then I find out they've gone and bought a villa on the Costa Brava. Urggh."

I looked out of the window at the sun giving off a warm orange light onto the fields and moors, and thought why would anyone want to leave this country on a day like today?

How lucky I am.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

49 And I'll Cry If I Want To

49 is an interesting number.

The 49ers are San Francisco's NFL team; 49 BC Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon and starts a civil war; 49AD smallpox arrives in China; the 49th Parallel forms part of the border between Canada and the USA; the A49 runs from Ross-on-Wye to Bamber Bridge, near Preston; Route 49 runs from Piggott, Arkansas to Gulfport, Mississippi; Club 49 in Soho; Number 49 Aldgate - restaurant....

...and as of midnight last night that is my new age. It's my birthday and I'll cry if I want to (with apologies to Lesley Gore 1963 and Dave Stewart/Barbara Gaskin 1981). The boss telephoned. But for once he wasn't crying about some misdemeanour I had done.

"Have you, perchance forgotten to put the diesel cap back on the bus, after you last filled it?"

I checked as we spoke and to my relief, I hadn't forgotten.

"Oh dear," I said in pathetic but useless conciliatory tones. "The bus has gone on another run. Would you like me to run down with the cap and give it to the driver?"

"The only thing I am going to run down is that driver who neglected to put it back on."

I walked back to the bus, thinking life was not so bad at 49 if it was going to be like this. I completed the chorus of 'It's my party and I'll cry if I want to' as I went.

'....You would cry too if it happened to you." I didn't have to think for long before I was reminded to the three times I had left the fuel cap on the depot diesel tank. Once was with the keys it it too.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The Donkey Fails To Excite The Travellers

Due my amnesic moment with the Flying Pig yesterday, I have been punished and given the Donkey today on the College run. The Donkey is a sluggish old bus with a floppy gearbox. It is like driving one of those Italian cars which, as the saying goes, has regularly been in the garage and fixed by Toni. But apart from the gearbox where the gearstick feels slack and spongy, she's a good old thing who, when wound up, is a good go-er. Besides with my record, complaining would look suspiciously like a case of a bad workman blaming his tools.

There are no such things as coincidences, but there must be something close, I thought as I turned into the coach park to find it full of caravans. I had stayed up late last night to watch Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. It is the best show on telly. I had no idea that I would be running into them so soon. They seemed peaceful enough, the cars were not the usual old bangers, the children were well dressed even though there was an eviction notice pasted to the automatic barrier at the coach park exit.

Nonetheless I rang the Council, in shameful arse protection mode, to make sure the cameras in the car park were working and would record if my wheels were stolen.

The crime theme seemed to follow me round. While I was sitting on a bench in a shopping centre, a boy and a girl sat next to me and discussed the serious criminals in Carlisle.

"My mate hasn't been to prison. He's only 18 and he's got 56 offences," said the boy.

"Yeah, that's not fair," said the girl in obvious disgust. "I've got loads of mates in jail, and they haven't committed half that number." I golloped my Cumberland sausage sandwich, walked once round Carlisle city centre and hurried back to see what state the Donkey was in.

There was no need to worry. The wheels were still on. The doors were locked. The travellers had moved on.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Amnesia And Deja Vu Are The Bus Drivers' Friends

"Right now," said the American comedian Steven Wright," I'm having amnesia and deja vu at the same time. I think I've forgotten this before.

I'm standing in the dingy area which is the main depot, with the Flying Pig on my right and two angry mechanics on my other side using animated hand movements.

"You've broken it," said one

"Aye, you've broken it," said the other.

"You've put a dent in it."

"Aye, you've put a dent in it alright." And sure enough there was a small hole at the back of the bus and missing chips of fibreglass.

And that's where the amnesia begins. Personally it's a worrisome. No excuses - but still worrisome, as I was the last one to drive the Flying Pig. But I simply cannot remember connecting with anything or reversing into anything.

This is where the deja vu begins.

When I was twenty-one, I had a fall out with a girlfriend in a London nightclub, drowned my sorrows and decided to walk or weave the two miles back to my flat in the early morning drizzle. Somewhere along the route, I fell asleep in what seemed a comfortable chair and was awoken from my comatose slumbers by a strong hand tugging at my ankle. When I sobered up just enough, I realised it was not only a strong hand, but that it belonged to the strong arm of the law - a burly policeman.

He shook his head and firmly said: "Will you please get out of the dustbin, now, sir!" But I couldn't. I was wedged and it took all the policeman's strength to pull me out. My coat and my jacket, wallet, credit cards had disappeared. Where? I have no idea. For all I know, I could have given them to someone, been mugged or thrown them away. It is locked away in some broom cupboard in my small brain.

You will remember that I drove a bus two months ago into a pile of gravel and didn't realise I had dented the bus. So maybe it is not surprising, in view of my past, that it has happened again. And, once again........I think I have forgotten this before.

Sir Lancelot, A Latin Test And The Double Decker

'Stop pussyfooting around, boy!'

I was nine years old once again and standing in front of my teacher. I had been caught staring out the window and daydreaming. The whole class had just sung: "Ave caesar! Morituri te salutamus." (or Hail Caesar! We who are about to die salute thee) to the tune of Z Cars, as we always did before a Latin test. Now the test was completed and we had to wait in agony for the results, knowing that minus marks would lead us directly to the Headmaster's office and either a loss of tuck or possibly the cane or Jacari Bat (a stubby table tennis like bat but heavier).

I'm jolted back to reality and 2011 by the sound of a bus horn. I am sitting in the driver's seat of the Flying Pig once again, and during my dream my elbow must have slipped and pressed the horn button. Directly in front of me was a large double decker, parked and silent. It needed moving or the school run would be late.

I'd driven the decker before. The first time had been OK. The second nearly OK. The third I had driven into the rollerdoors and nearly put the top deck window out.

"Tool," one of the bosses had said.

"I'd just like you to know," the other had said, "that you are the first driver to hit all three sides of the door....."

I hid in the Flying Pig and hoped the double decker would just go away. It did. Hiram B. Birdbath appeared through the mist on his motorcycle like Sir Lancelot seeking to rescue Guinevere. He drove the bus out of the depot narrowly avoiding the steel pillars. I drove off on the school run.

It was a satisfactory outcome.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Nettle Cheese, Flatulence And Ways To Outwit A Policeman And A Parking Warden

'Cut the cheese' is an expression you may or may not have heard of. It is an old American expression which means flatulence. It should have no relevance on my bus, early on a Monday morning.

It does, unfortunately.

I am doing the usual school run with the Flying Pig. Today it is different. There is another bus driver who has hitched a lift. We will drive on to the company's second depot in Tyneside, where he will pick up another bus. In effect it is a cheap taxi ride.

"Pardon me," said the driver as he sat down on the front seat and emitted a sound which I initially mistook for the Flying Pig's exhaust backfiring. "It was the nettle cheese. I think it's upset my stomach."

"Not half as upset as we are," muttered a passenger, whose appalled look was similar to someone who had eaten a lemon. When we arrived at the destination, there was a rush for the doors and when they met the fresh air, there was visible relief.

The Flying Pig rattled and vibrated down the dual carriageway. This was unfamiliar territory as it had been a very long time since she had ventured off her usual route. Anything over 50 m.p.h caused turbulent noises and rattling, so it was a leisurely drive.

The banter between the drivers of the two depots was lively. There was always plenty to catch up on, as it was rare that we all met up. We made the most of it. We always did. Having a late breakfast picked up from one of the North East's finest butty vans - the Scran Van in Throckley. The depot was transformed as the diesel fumes and grease smells were permeated with sausage, bacon, egg, black pudding and onion aromas.

"I bought these.......," said one driver.

"Bought? You? Bought - how do you spell that - P...I...N...C...H?" said the other.

"Similar to the last time you went to church," continued the first driver. "You went in a truck."

"A truck?"

"Yes a truck - so you could take the lead away."

"Ha ha, very funny."

"I got a parking ticket the other day in the snow," the third driver chipped in."I said to him, you can't ticket me when the yellow lines are covered by the snow. It's illegal."

"Did you get away with it?"

"Of course. I used to be a parking warden. Right nasty sod I was too. I know the law though. That warden took the ticket and ran to the far side of the car park as fast as he could."

"Aye I know the feeling," said the fourth driver. "I know what to do when I am stopped by a policeman. It has to be a single policeman, mind. Two are no good. And I was pulled over in the bus late the other night for hoofing it down the motorway. After he had questioned me and taken down all the details word for word he asked:

'Is there anything else you want to say in evidence?'

'Yes, ah says - is that alcohol I can smell on your breath?' He looked at me, ripped up the ticket, said 'you bastard', got back into his car and drove off. Aye, it would not have sounded so good if he had had to read that out in court."

"Aye my friend's a parking warden and he put this ticket on a car for having out of date tax disc. Now the traffic wardens and the police share an office and there was a knock at the door, and a policeman was standing at the door. 'Did you put a ticket on a white car?' He said. 'It was my wife's. Well tell her to buy some tax, ah said. He laughed, but I was sure he'd be waiting round the corner to give me a ticket, so I left by the back door.

It went on and on. But I had to be back for the afternoon school run.

The children were back on the football chants. "Toot! Toot! Black and White Army" was louder and more atonal than ever. I thought again of the German officers sticking cheese into their ears to ease the pain of Edith's singing in Allo Allo. But following this morning's unpleasantness, it is perhaps better to stay off the topic of cheese altogether, nettle cheese or otherwise.

G K Chesterton said 'the poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese'. It is a pity some of my passengers cannot be as silent. The boy in the third row is doing backfiring exhaust impressions.

Open the window.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

ASBO For Me Is Fully Deserved

It had to happen. It has been coming. My constant observations and general chatter have come under scrutiny from the boss. On Friday afternoon, he presented me with a piece of paper. A wage increase? A wage slip? A P45? ASBO. (some thought a humourous ASBO) It began:


Anti-Social Behaviour Order

has been issued against you for


......Restrictions.....You must STOP talking tripe when in polite company. ..........

....and on it went.

'Talking crap' is a wide subject. It is not limited to bus drivers. But I find it is an area in which I seem to excel. Trying to describe a fault on the bus or trying to come up with an excuse why I am late, have turned up at the wrong place, have broken or dented a bus, or just general conversation, always seem to end in a grimy mire of confusion and Double Dutch.

So I cannot complain. It is richly deserved. Having to comply with its rules for a period of six months will be impossible. Six minutes is hard enough.

Oyster Cards And Ventriloquist's Dummy - The Life Of A London Bus Driver

I've just read a book.

The Road Ahead by Kenny Mackay - Observations of a London bus driver. It's a good read. For those interested in buses, it's an essential read. For those not, it is still good value as it contains some entertaining anecdotes. The amateur lawyer and Mr Jones the ventriloquist's dummy, the Swedish bus driver who couldn't find a lavatory and the buxom lady in the low cut dress who keeps her Oyster Card down her bra, are all amusing.

Kenny Mackay is more than just a bus driver on the route 27 between Turnham Green and Chalk Farm. He is also a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, a comedian, singer/songwriter, holds an LLB in Business Law, visits Destiny House church and is a trades union learning representative for Unite.

On my travels, I often hear moans from other bus drivers about the high wages London drivers earn in comparison to them. Kenny's writings show you why. The relentless stress and pressure, the security, the general frenetic style of life and cost of living in a capital city justifies a higher wage.

Kenny seems to take it all in his stride in a tranquil way. Informative too. I'm more the wiser.

You can buy Kenny's book on-line. It's good value at £6-40 (£8-99 from all good bookshops)

You can find it at the Author's House website

I wish you success, Kenny.

The Bendy Bus And A Giraffe With Hydraulics

"Why did you stop on that corner?" asked the experienced driver who had been driving for 35 years, and knew the road like the back of his hand.

"Because there was a car coming," I replied tamely, "and I have had a dent before." I wasn't going to argue, I am a mere novice with only fourteen years experience, and most of that was as a part-timer.

He wasn't impressed.

"Well the company nearly had a new bendy bus in the fleet. I nearly went slap bang into the back of you. It would have concertina'd, but at least we would have been conjoined and turned into an articulated bus."

We had been taking a school trip back to Yorkshire. It had been a happy trip. A brilliantly behaved school. Tidy in the extreme, I picked up more sweetie papers that I had discarded on the control panel to the side of my drivers seat, than they had left on the floor of the bus. They were vibrant children. Funny too.

"What's the difference between a tractor and a giraffe?" said one girl.

The excitement grew when I obviously had no idea. They controlled their enthusiasm for fully twenty seconds before blurting out in unison, "well, you see a tractor has hydraulics and a giraffe has high boll........."

"Errrrr children, we'd better put a dvd on," said a teacher in haste, rescuing the situation.

The journey on the way back was not quite so smooth. A near miss with an overtaking car, a slow service bus trundling up the valley road at 25 m.p.h and refusing to let anyone past, icy roads causing the back wheels to spin more than you would like at the bends and spending too long filling up the bus at the depot so that the first signs of frostbite showed in black and red fingers.

But, it's only January. There's February, March and part of April to go before winter turns to spring.

Friday, 21 January 2011

A Busman's Holiday And The Moral Dilemma

Buses. Irksome passengers. Bus drivers. You just can't get away from them.

Every day off a bus driver has is a busman's holiday.

Busman's holiday? Where does such a well used expression emanate from? says there are several theories, the most common refers to the regular drivers of omnibuses in the 19th Century. These drivers became so attached to their horses that they would disguise themselves as passengers and keep an eye on the health of their horses and how the relief drivers were treating them.

But the term could have nothing to do with omnibus drivers. It could refer to gangs of pickpockets who were trawling the streets at that time. They would work in pairs and one would engage in conversation with their victims, while the other would relieve them of their wallets. He was known as the buzzman or buzman and a 'buzman's holiday' meant that there was never any time for a holiday as there was never a day off.

Take your pick.

Either way, today the meaning of busman's holiday is doing the same on your day off. Take yesterday. I had the day off as it was my daughters eleventh birthday. Travelling down to the school in a car, over the brow of a hill in the bleak moorland landscape, there was the big local service bus parked on the side of the road. The driver was sitting on his own in the front passenger seat, the rear panel was open, the engine was in full view and it was making gurgling noises. It had broken down. Further down the road there were the odd frozen looking, huddled to the bus stops. Through the town another bus pulled speedily out of a side road, forcing me to break. Down in the valley it was foggy and there was a bus with faulty back lights which kept flickering on and off, as if there was a loose wire causing the fault.

I find it impossible to not notice these things. An off-duty bus driver on a busman's holiday seems to be no different from an antique dealer on holiday failing to resist the temptation to pick up a ceramic object and check if it is genuine or has undergone restoration. The difference is that often I seem to face a moral dilemma.

Do you stop when you see a broken down bus? Is it help or hindrance? Do you say something or report the bus driver who carved you up? Do you tell someone about a faulty light?

I didn't stop for the service bus which had broken down as it was a big company, who are highly efficient and there would be a replacement bus on the way. I did stop and warn the huddled passengers that they may be facing a long wait. I didn't say anything about the bus driver (who I recognised) who pulled out without looking because that would have been a case of 'pot calling the kettle black'. The amount of times I have done that sort of thing must be shamefully large.

"Never criticise another driver," a wise old sage of a bus driver once told me, "because it always comes back and whacks you in the face". He's right, life is too short to get into that game. And the bus with faulty lights? I'd forgotten about it by two corners later and the driver will pick it up when he does his walk round check.

I read the Racing Post instead.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Cheese Can't Stop The Football Chants

"Right you are flower," said the older driver as we carried the vicious looking circular saw out of the depot side door. "Just mind it doesn't catch you in the 'testimonials'" Between school runs the boss is generous to his drivers and tries to find them things to do to keep their wages up. Today there was a choice of washing buses, filling in the potholes or setting fire to the recently demolished wooden office block.

There is something therapeutic about bonfires. It burned well. Too well. The nearby children's playground vanished in the smoke for an hour. It did not matter as the children were at school and the place was deserted. The brief respite from driving energetic schoolchildren around was bliss personified.

It was not to last. School ended. The pupils were even more energetic than normal. Before long they were singing out of tune football songs....."Toon Toon Toon the Black And White Army". I found myself searching for something, anything to stick in my ears to kill the awful din. It was a situation similar to the BBC comedy Allo Allo where the German officers would stick camembert in their ears when Edith, the cafe owners wife started singing.

Having been shopping earlier, I happened to have some Northumbrian cheese in a bag by my side. I thought about it, but decided against the idea. Northumbrian cheese is hard, like a cheddar. That would be far more damaging than any football chant.

Bollywood Dance Songs Ease The Gluteus Maximus

"Things are bad when you feel your arse gripping the seat said a bus driver from another company, as I rolled up at the school coach park looking pale but determined.

The morning had not started well as the Flying Pig developed an electrical fault, losing half of its rear lights. The only bus left in the yard was the new bus, a 57 seater coach. The bus which I had reversed into a pile of gravel on its maiden voyage and put a minor dent into the back bumper. "I'm not going to say anything," the boss had said at the time, "but the place you dented was the only part of the bus which had been newly painted."

Every time he saw me, for weeks after he would say, "I'm not going to say anything, but perhaps you should know.............". It ceased when a van ploughed into the back of the bus and made such a mess of the panels that it was impossible to see my misdemeanour.

I was timid on the school run with all the black ice around. Most of the route was white and sparkling, but the new bus was sound and the journey was without incident. It was a great bus to drive, even on the ice. It had been acquired from an Asian bus company in the south of England. It had arrived in the depot, complete with a Bollywood dvd that had been left in the DVD player. Other buses previously, which had been bought from the Home Counties had reacted badly to their new lives in the inhospitable climate of the North Pennines. But not this one.

The way back to the depot was much more gratifying. The sun shone. The ice melted. The fog lifted. And my gluteus maximus relaxed as I performed a few exercises and released myself from the seat to the background rhythms of a Bollywood dance routine which filled the bus.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Old Wives Tales: The Second Lesson - The Farmer And The Hares

You will have figured out by now that I am fascinated by superstitions and 'old wives tales'. I am not shy to admit it. I treat them mainly as my personal weather forecast.

I stopped to chat to one of the farmers in the market town after the school run. "Will we get anymore snow?" I asked him.

"No I don't think we'll be getting much," he replied. "I'm a great believer in watching nature. I watch the hares. If the hares don't the hares don't come down from the high ground onto the farm land, then there won't be much snow."

Mysterious creatures hares. In Medieval times they were thought of as witches in disguise. They are magical in their movement, preferring the open ground to promote their natural speed. They do not burrow and lie close to the ground which makes them vulnerable to predators. When they are frightened they duck down and remain motionless, hoping the danger will go away.

Poor old hares have had a bashing in our part of the world. Last winter, the two months of snow eradicated many, who were unable to find food. They jumped over fences into people's gardens and the stripped all the bark off the roadside trees in search of any form of nourishment. They became thinner and thinner and many starved to death. When the snow melted, there were carcases all over the place. I even found one under the wheelie bin.

I haven't seen many hares recently, but I keep looking. And when they are close to the road, I'll be grabbing the shovel and putting it back in the front of the bus.

Mondays: A Good Way To Send 1/7th Of Your Life?

Bob Geldof - you either love him or hate him. Whatever you think of him, I bet he has touched you in some way at some time.

He touched me this morning as the Flying Pig's back wheels failed miserably to cope with the ice on a potent downhill s-bend on top of the moor. Having narrowly avoided slamming into the wall (which is becoming an all too regular occurrence) I found myself singing, off key, the Boomtown Rats 1979 number one hit, 'I Don't Like Mondays'.

"Tell me why
I don't like Mondays
Tell me why
I don't like Mondays
Tell me why
I don't like Mondays
I wanna shoo-oo-woo-woo-woo-oot the whole day down."

It was good therapy as my heart raced well over the normal 70-100 beats per minute. As I had the driver's side window open, I noticed the sheep close to the road acknowledged the the ruination of a good song by stampeding in the opposite direction, regardless of the danger of heading towards a bog.

I'll tell you why I don't like this particular Monday. It's because the weekend had been so amazingly good with fun, jokes, laughter, generous friends and wife and family time. Like 99% of the population, getting back into the humdrum of the working week can be found to be a traumatic affair.

But it could be worse.

Near misses aside, the general mood on the school run was genial. Sunday's local derby football match had ended in the perfect result - Sunderland 1 Newcastle United 1, meaning that there were few black clouds lurking above the heads of the passengers. As the support is split down the middle, a win for either team results in one tribe being in a rotten temper.

"Yeah, I saw the match," said one of the drivers who was in a much better humour than he was on Friday evening.

"On Sky?" I asked.

"No on a Swedish channel, and before you ask, it's not the sort of channel you think."

That set the scene for a Monday morning with an international flavour. On the school run one of the schoolchildren was unusually not at her stop.

"She's gone to Australia," said one of the other children. "And she's gone for three weeks, lucky devil."

The Eastern European child looked angry as he stood in a gateway.

"You are late," he growled in his habitual Eastern European directness. "It's a quarter to nine." I bowed my head in momentary shame.

As we neared the school drop off zone, I thought I heard one child call out my name.

"No I didn't," he said when I answered back. "Have you lost an earring?"

"I haven't. I don't wear earrings," I replied in puzzlement.

"No not EARRINGS, I said have you lost your HEARING?"

This is quite normal on the Flying Pig. It is a noisy bus and often it is impossible to hear what people are saying. One driver hates it so much that he refuses to drive it without wearing headphones.

It might explain why I've had times where angry passengers have had to walk several hundred yards as a result of missing there stop....but that is another story.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Passengers Paradise: The Weekly Gripe

I've found a good on-line newspaper.

It's perfect for me, my fellow drivers and the passengers. It's called The Weekly Gripe and contains many things which I have heard people moaning about on the bus.

It's fascinating and quite a good indicator about the general mood of the people of Britain.

I'm thinking of printing out some copies and giving them to people. The Weekly Gripe is pretty comprehensive, but perhaps they should send a reporter onto my bus for some topics they have missed.

Bunions, doctor's waiting rooms, various internal body organs, the increase in the price of breakfast cereals, bus drivers who don't pull their weight and, naturally, passengers.

You will remember one of my colleagues motto:

A happy bus is an empty bus....

Don't Trust The Satnav Or The Great British Public

"Have you seen the news about the bus driver taking the school trip to Snowdonia?" said one of the drivers. "He relied on his satnav, ignored the road signs warning of an unsuitable road for big vehicles and continued on, bashing into walls and knocking over fences, with all the children screaming behind him."

It's something I dread. Having experienced it once, in my early bus driving days, when the mummies on a toddler group trip, took me down a road which was too narrow for the bus. I just got out but there were several dents and I had to pick up the twisted metal wheel trim which was torn off by one of the stone walls. There too, the noise of burning rubber from the wheel spin, grating metal and screaming children is something you never forget.

"Are you sure you've taken a bus down here before?" I'd asked the organiser on the way down to the picnic area.

"Of course, many times."

"You're really sure you've taken a big bus down here before?" I asked again, following the disaster.

"Of course, many times. But they might have been mini buses."

I felt empathy with the driver in Snowdonia. He may have had a moment of gross misjudgement, but if he was like me, your legs turn to jelly and you break out in a cold sweat. It is a harrowing experience.

The subject of road signs is a long involved one. There has been a proliferation of signs of all shapes and sizes on British roads over the last ten years and I find I have to keep my wits about me. An added problem is that many of the signs on the rural routes have been vandalised, shot, covered over by shrubbery or stolen.

So satnavs and the great British public can be unpredictable when it comes to giving directions to bus drivers.

Never Try To Keep A Bus Driver From His Tea On A Friday Afternoon

"Everything you touch breaks," said the boss as the wiper blade detached itself as he was standing next to the front of the bus. "You are the kiss of death." It was the second time that day that it had fallen off.

It had been an alarming afternoon. The diesel delivery tanker's unexpectedly early arrival had meant that I had to leave the depot in the old Bedford in a hurry. Three miles down the road, past the point of no return, I looked at the dashboard and noticed the fuel guage needle was hovering suspiciously close to the E.

The whole way round the school run I had my heart in my mouth, listening for the juddering and stuttering noises which are a forewarning of the tank running dry. Then I would have been in trouble. Being stuck on a country road, in the middle of nowhere with marooned schoolchildren would have been the least of my problems. Having to face the wrath of the boss and the mechanic who would have had to come out and bleed the system, would have been unbearable. I would have never lived it down.

'Effing tool,' the boss's voice was reverberating around my head.

But I was lucky and there was just enough diesel to get back. It was Friday afternoon and all the buses returned from their respective school runs. A recipe for Grumpy Bus Driver Syndrome. Of course I arrived first and blocked the entrance while I filled up. The fuel pump is always painfully slow following a delivery and as the buses queued outside a succession of irritated drivers stood nearby, moving slowly from foot to foot, muttering ever ruder grumpy-isms and curses.

"Hurry up - will you," said one. "I want me tea."

Their patience snapped as it took another ten minutes to fill the Bedford. As the Bedford could only be parked in the depot in a certain way, which meant driving into the depot forwards, I had to drive back onto the road and do a circuitous route. This was a green light for the dirty tricks department. The other drivers sprinted for their buses and in the rush to beat me to the steam cleaner, the air was filled with the cacophony of excited chatter, roaring engines and flying gravel through the clouds of exhaust smoke.

Being demoted to third in line for the wash, it was now my turn to wait. I controlled my glumness as things like this always happen when you are in a hurry. I tried to smile and remembered what my nursery school teacher used to tell us four year olds when we were impatient:

'Patience is a virtue, virtue is a grace. Grace is a little girl who wouldn't wash her face.' (Dick King-Smith, I think)

It hasn't survived the test of time. It didn't translate into the grimy world of bus driving. The ancient Japanese proverb - if a man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty - has, however.

It could have been written in the bus depot, last Friday afternoon.

Friday, 14 January 2011

I Broke The Bedford: Explanation Needed

Walking past the mechanic this morning with a plastic bag full of wine bottles en route for the bottle bank, meant an explanation was necessary. The bus industry has self-regulated, taking action on bus drivers who drink and many companies have introduced random breath testing.

It was bad timing. On the tv the previous night there had been one of those 'follow the Motorway Police, fly on the wall documentaries', where they had stopped a truck driver, found half drunk cans of strong lager in his cab, breathalysed him and arrested him for being three times over the limit.

"So are those bottles all yours?" the mechanic asked half jokingly. "You're driving the Bedford today. Don't break it."

The Bedford was a 1970-something Bedford bus which was still used on the school run. It was an amazing bus. It had a unique smell, three decades of cigarette ash, smelly passengers and mud - mixed with Jeyes Fluid, engine oil and furniture polish. The Bedford was a great character. It took twenty minutes to build the air up. The steering wheel was heavy and you really had to hold on tight to it as you went round corners. None of this power steering lark.

I get off the Bedford and feel rejuvenated. I'm not a bus spotter or a bus enthusiast, but there is something about this machine which gets me going. All very sad. It had been a challenging journey. Three large lorries had come along this narrow country lane and we had to inch past each other.

All was well. No dents. Then it all went wrong. There was a loud noise and the windscreen wiper detached itself. The mechanic was not there when I returned to the depot.

I will have some more explaining to do.

Jumbo Bus Driver Gets Stuck And Meets The Frenemies

I've always marvelled at the way bus drivers manage to contort themselves and stick their heads out of the window to help them reverse. being a galumphing great oaf, I find it a painful experience which at best causes pain as the muscles at the bottom of my back are stretched and strained. At worse, I have the embarrassment of being wedged in the window like a champagne cork in a bottle. I have to seek help.

It happened when I had dropped the passengers and I drove into the car park. Following all the dreadful weather we had been having, today was (forgive the pun) like a breath of fresh air. The air was warm and I suddenly had the urge to stick my head out of the window, thinking it would be an experience similar to a hair dryer. And for 30 seconds it was, before it started to rain and became more like a tepid shower.

Yes, I got stuck. What was worse was the purgatory of being parked next to a another driver who I had come across and knew that he loved standing and talking and rarely drew breath. Due to my crass stupidity, I was a sitting duck. he took full advantage and stood by my window and started telling his long involved stories, as I tried to wriggle back into the bus. I was trapped. It was a close run thing to know whether my back pain was equal to the endless stories.

"You should have seen me yesterday...I came in here and went round three times on the ice...and you should have seen the other driver who slid all the way from his bus across the front of my bus...I just waved as he flew past...Have you 'eard about the...?...I said to him and he said to me...He wanted me to do this...I said f**k off...He said f**k off yourself...Did you hear the one about...??..."

With the maximum of effort progress was made. There was a grinding noise, followed by a tearing sound as my jacket ripped at the seams and my head shot back into the bus. From that point it was easy to shut the windows, lock up the bus, make a feeble excuse and run.

The schoolchildren were in feisty mood. Two girls raised their voices and threatened each other. It was a version on 'Junior Handbag Wars'. "We're not that bad," one of the girls said when she got off the bus. "We're frenemies."

"Frenemies?" I asked in a naive way.

"Yes we love to hate each other."

Betting And Fishing At The Level Crossing

No one realises the observation powers a bus driver and passengers have.

Being so high off the ground, it is possible to see what's going on over the hedge in someone's garden or behind the curtains of the front room.

Yesterday we sat at the level crossing for five minutes, watching the level crossing operator in his signal box. The passengers were mesmerised by the way he conducted his work. He had the most laid back approach to his duties which he carried out meticulously whilst reading a magazine. He walked up and down the signal box, pushing buttons and pulling levers, without seemingly taking his eyes off the article he was reading. The passengers were transfixed. They started taking bets on what kind of magazine he was reading.

"It's not a fishing magazine," said a voice from behind. We never found out, as the train came and the barriers were raised.

At this particular level crossing, there was one operator who was well known for taking infantile pleasure by keeping the barrier down as long as possible to frustrate the waiting motorists. The barriers were raised too quickly, it couldn't be him. Many a bus driver has cursed this operator for his antics and making their service late.

There's no point moaning. The operator will have all the reasons lined up from health and safety onwards. Besides it is quite nice to have a five minute break, so long as I don't focus on the flashing red lights and their soporific effect. I need no encouragement to take forty winks.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

P Is For Pavements, Peeing And Posterity

Carlisle, the Border City is always full of surprises. Today was no exception as I walked past the Cathedral on my break. There were many yellow jacketed workmen standing around doing very little. The road was dug up in many places, the vast new pavement was half completed and there were piles of gravel and sand everywhere.

In amongst this chaos was a film crew who were seemingly about to shoot some footage of the city centre improvements. I overheard the tv reporter pleading with the workforce to start doing some work so that he could get some good shots. They ignored him.

Carlisle City Council, according to its website, is shelling out £843,000 for these improvements and on these runway-like pavements will be fitting 'high quality street furniture' or in layman's terms, nine stone benches. That should be interesting as the pavement seemed to be steeply angled downwards towards a new drain which ran the length of the street. If ever they wish to turn the pavement into an outdoor cafe the tables and chairs will have to have two legs chopped down so that people can sit on the level. It will be worth keeping an eye on what happens.

Other things never change. The student in the Burberry tartan baseball cap had still lost his free bus pass and wanted a free ride. "Oh so you're going to charge me?" I thought I'd better get the name calling in first and said,"yes, I am. I'm a mean git."

The little service bus pulled into the coach park and the driver rushed out of the doors and relieved himself on his back wheel. "You know it's quite legal, goes back to the horse and cart days when the driver was allowed to hold the reins and pee on his back wheel. Bet you didn't know that."

"No I didn't,"I replied, lying through the back of my teeth. I hadn't the heart to tell him that he'd told me this dubious fact the last time we had met and the time before...and the time before....

When he came back for his second break, the same thing happened again. The rush out the doors, the peeing on the back wheel and the sound of intense relief and then the banter: "Did you know......"

I looked up at the security camera attached to a lamp post and wondered if it was working. You Tube will be interested.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Defiance Shovel And Black Ice Are Good For Making Whoopee

The shovel which I purloined is sitting bolt upright in the front of the bus. It is the subject of nervous stares from the passengers as they board the bus. It is not an object which inspires confidence even though, on it's wooden shaft is clearly written, in bold black type on a yellow background, the word DEFIANCE.

It takes the passengers a matter of seconds to digest the fact that this is the manufacturer's logo and no reference to the resilience of the bus service or its driver. They know damned well that the driver will be the first one off the bus in the event of becoming stuck in a snowdrift and one by one they raise their eyes upwards and grin.

Yes, it's snowing again. So much for the forecasts of warm Atlantic winds and above seasonal average temperatures. Not in the North of England, for sure. But we have our own excellent amateur forecasters in the hills. The farmer's granny told me in morose detail last night that there would be more snow on the high ground where the snow was already lying. Call it what you like - clever intuition or old wives tales. Either way, it has been remarkably accurate all winter, so far. You might remember another one of the hill folk telling me six weeks ago that they were worried that the sheep were 'awfy low down on the fell', meaning a bad winter was in store for us all.

The snow melted later and was replaced by black ice on the return journey. The frozen roads did not frighten the school children. Their minds were on other things:

"You know Esmerelda," one of the pupils announced in a foghorn voice. "She says she likes that Boris and wants to, you know, have, you know, make whoopee............

It was pure coincidence that the bus, at that moment failed to take the bend on and veered at an odd angle towards the hedge. The bus straightened but there was a nasty crunching noise. One little boy's polythene bag holding some licorice gums split and the contents crashed to the floor and rattled down the aisle.

The journey continued peacefully.

Monday, 10 January 2011

The Flying Pig And The Power Shower

You would think that the quick thaw that happened today was something to be grateful for. Particularly in view of all the moaning and groaning at the recent ice and snow.

Well hell yes it was great to be driving on proper roads again. The thaw, however brought out one of the Flying Pig's nasty quirks. It was after twenty minutes of trundling down the road at a leisurely pace that I received my first shower. Water cascaded out of the destination board locker and landed on top of my head. I was drenched. It happened again and again.

When I spoke to the boss later to find out what was going on, he asked me:

"So which way was the Flying Pig facing when you parked?"

"On the level," I replied.

"Oh that's no good. No good at all. You have to park it either facing uphill, or downhill and slightly leaning to the left."

It transpired that water accumulates in the roof and has no place to go except into the bus and often over the driver's head. By parking uphill, the water runs down the length of the bus and finds a way out through the boot. if you park downhill and leaning to the left, the water runs out the door.

But I had no idea and the snow on top of the bus must have melted and sprayed me. But who's complaining? Not I. Give me a bus with character to drive any day and not one of these increasingly computerised monsters you see more and more on our roads.

Long Live The Flying Pig!

Monday: Gloom In The Toon And The Fallen Angel

There is gloom in the Toon. There is gloom in the countryside. There is gloom all over the North East. There is nothing worse than a Monday morning following the weekend when the regional football teams have performed badly.

And boy were Saturday and Sunday calamitous days in the FA Cup. Newcastle Utd humbled by little Stevenage, Sunderland by Notts County, Middlesbrough by Burton Albion, Hartlepool by Watford and Carlisle by Torquay.

The adults are so angry, they only seem to utter a grunt. The children are speechless and tearful. There seems to be a black cloud over the region, affecting everybody's moods. In the usual British psyche, Monday mornings are never usually the best. In the North East, the passion for football is so great that the ambience on the bus is often dictated by the recent results.

Today is the worse I have seen.

I am joining them, coming out in sympathy with Grumpy Bus Driver Syndrome. Not because of the football, but self induced good living which promotes tiredness and hence grumpiness ensues. I went to a fundraising dinner at a great hotel restaurant in Durham. The Fallen Angel Hotel is fantastic. All the rooms are themed like the Sci-Fi room, Le Boudoir and the Edwardian Express (like a smart train compartment). The food is very good and the generous hosts brought in their wine supplier from Corney & Barrow who supplied seven wines to go with each course. (It's a must if you are in the area.)

I turned the corner and there was a cheery local, bucking the trend, waving and smiling. Perhaps she had not seen the results. It bucked me up and the clouds began to lift.

I'm The Bus Driver From Somewhere Between Uranus And Neptune

"He was from a different planet, man," one of the bus drivers said in the murky gloom of a typical January Monday morning. The roads were their usual unpredictable selves. Frozen rain had fallen on the snow which had fallen on the ice which offered three different ways to skid into the ditch. The shovel was back at the front of the bus as a precautionary measure.

"Yeah he was definitely on a different planet," he repeated. I thought he may have been referring to me, as often I have seen other drivers huddled in corners, uttering that exact phrase and pointing their fingers in my direction, positioning me somewhere between Uranus and Neptune.

This time it was not me, but a passenger who had got on the bus wearing a t-shirt, shorts and flip flops on the coldest of days. Northerners are tough and seem blissfully happy feeling the arctic breeze on their skin. You see in in the Toon on Friday and Saturday nights where the colder it gets, the less the clubbers wear.

The hoots of derision are widespread at my view that any bloody fool can be cold.They are less than impressed when I wear four layers and a vest when the temperature drops below 10 degrees celsius. I truly am from a different planet. Today the wind chill is so bad that my legs look like the Michelin Man's as a result of wearing some long johns. I adhere to John Shuttleworth's stereotype in his film 'Southern Softies'. I admit it. I can't cope with the northern winds.
But, no matter, it is what the other drivers expect of me. They would be disappointed if my eccentricity was to be tamed.

Fat chance.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Cushion The Blow - The Second Blow To My Buttocks

Hold the last entry in this blog. Hope does not spring eternal. Not just yet.

I will need the aid of a cushion for the run I am scheduled to do on Monday morning.


I've just slipped up and fallen over in the new snow. I landed on my backside again. To be thankful for small mercies, I did not fall on the side I damaged last week. This time I evened it up and bruised my other buttock.

I shall have to find a discreet bolster, as people tend to jump to the wrong conclusions and think that you are suffering from haemorrhoids.

I'm sure the children's old learning to swim rubber rings are packed away somewhere in the house. Now where did I put them?

Sarcasm Is The Lowest Form Of Wit: Even In Yet More Snow

"I suspect the roads are shit, where I am driving to, with all this ice and snow," said the newer driver nervously.

Well what do you say? do you act the old soldier/bus driver, know-it-all and risk frightening the living daylights out of the poor fellow? If honesty was the best policy, then I would have said something like:

"Well yes they are. I would go as far as to advise that you go home to bed and not brave it over the tops. It is so icy that you will slip and slide the whole length of your journey. If you are so fortunate as to miss slamming into a wall or have another skidding motorist, driving too fast, embed their car into your rear end, then go ahead and have a nice day."

Instead, I resisted the urge of being a sarcastic brat and simply said:

"No, not really."

Always in the workplace, particularly in the bus depot, what goes around comes around. So if a driver is sarcastic or mean, give it a couple of weeks and something will befall that driver that will bring him/her down to earth with a bang. This is from the voice of experience. I once laughed at a driver's bad luck when he dented the bus he was driving. Ha, ha, what an imbecile I thought and said so in only slightly politer form. Sure enough, the next day I reversed into a pillar and rightly had to suffer weeks of so called witty comments and snide remarks. No sympathy due there though.

I jumped into the Flying Pig for another hairy drive over England's highest bus route. The road had disappeared in places as the wind had blown the snow onto the tarmac. Thank goodness for the black and white marker poles by the side of the road which gave some indication where you were going.

I feel the same as the newer driver. Nervous. It hasn't really changed since the first day I got behind the wheel of a bus. I feel a little shivery, in anticipation of what I might find on some of the notoriously bad hills and corners. But as soon as I venture onto the road, that all changes and the adrenaline starts flowing. At the end of a run through atrocious conditions, there is a sense of achievement and an inner warm glow of pride.

This is the seventh week that snow has been around. There was another good fall last night. The place is a whiteout again. Roll on the Spring. It's been an awfully long Winter. But the signs are looking good. It is definitely lighter in the mornings. For the first time in weeks, the hint of dawn breaking is noticeable as I drive across the frozen moors to the depot. It is lighter for longer in the evenings too. That means, just January, February, March and part of April to get through before the risk of heavy snow lying on the ground in the North Pennines. Of course it did snow one day in June last year and the old folk tell tales of it snowing in every month of the year.

I'm optimistic. Besides the ice in the bowl of the bus driver's lavatory in the depot is thinner. Even the spider seems reluctant to make his alternative winter short cut to the other side and is creeping around the porcelain on the more usual orbital route. Hope springs eternal.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Dented Pride And A Bruised Behind

I have a sore behind.

My fault. I stuck my nose out the door, thought the air seemed quite a bit warmer and strode purposefully onto the back yard. As I hit the ice I skated for what seemed like a long time, waving my arms in Norman Wisdom-like, out of control slapstick movements, before feeling my legs fly vertically and my ample bottom to hit the hard ground. Serves me right. The weather has been doing some funny things the last few days, snowing, freezing and thawing all at the same time.

I now walk with a hunched back and a limp. It looks rather good and my dignity is restored by my disingenuous tales of old war wounds. No one is fooled and they can spot an old idiot who has fallen on his backside a mile away.

Sitting on the Flying Pig's already uncomfortable seat proved hard. The 'oohs' and 'aahs' took the childrens' minds off the excess of black ice and the feeling that the Flying Pig's back wheels would soon overtake the front. They just stared in stunned amazement.

It will be a mustard bath tonight and a tube of arnica ointment.

The Continental Trip And The Courier From Hell

"You can only stomach so many of those effing Christmas Markets," said one of the drivers who had just got back from a Festive Tour of the Continent. "They're all the same."

It had been an interesting trip as he had been paired with the courier from hell, who had made his life stressful by her meticulous planning and fear of not fitting in everything on the itinerary, down to the last detail.

Hence the scenic drive was not at all scenic, because of freezing fog and an inability to see anything out of the bus windows. The beautiful mountain village had disappeared, so it was impossible to judge quite how beautiful it was.

"I don't think the feedback form will be very complimentary," he went on. "The Courier was so pedantic that she would not walk 20 yards from the hotel entrance to the bus to tell me something. Instead she would text me - 'Aha' she told me, 'I have a bus driver who is awkward and refuses to work with me.'

"Don't worry dear, I said, I have a string of awkward couriers who refused to work alongside me."

It happens. Most couriers are fantastic and fun to work with. But there is always the exception. The final insult came when the French city which the courier insisted on going to, even though time was short and the weather was dubious, was closed by the Police due to falling icicles. Relations deteriorated even further.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Snow Joke On The Return To Work

How pungent the cow dung and silage smelt this morning. The snow seems to heighten my senses and my nose was tingling with all the strong aromas being blown through the open bus doors on the cold air. It had been a 'seat of your pants' kind of morning. The roads were treacherous. A mixture of snow and frozen rain had fallen on top of black ice and the Flying Pig was sliding all over the place.

I drove like an old granny, as it was impossible to tell where the next icy bit would be. "Happy New Year" I said in cheerful mode to each child as they boarded the bus, only to receive a grunt in response. "Did Father Christmas bring you what you wanted?" Their faces darkened. One said: "No he did not! He forgot the iphone."

It was a rude awakening to drive buses after the Christmas break on such poor roads. The gritters had not been out so early as they had before Christmas. Maybe they were conserving salt. There had been a rumour that our beloved council had sent trucks up to our depot in the local town and had loaded up and carted our salt off to another area. That's not cricket. People are cross. We don't like having our much needed rock salt whipped in some sort of dawn raid.

"Drive more cautiously and carefully," a council official told someone when they complained.

We do. When the roads were as icy, it doesn't really matter how cautiously you drive. One of the school bus drivers was as white as a sheet as he told of his near tragedy when he turned the steering wheel to go left and the bus went straight on. All he could do was to take his foot off the accelerator and pray. He hit the curb and bounced back onto the road. It was a fortuitous event, because if he there hadn't been a curb there, he would have driven over the edge of a precipice.

There is a feeling of satisfaction when you get to the school car park. Relief and a sense of achievement mask the jittery fingers. Then it's all relaxed as you drive off for your rest period. That's the dangerous time. It was for me, anyway, because around the next corner, I met the Big Banana who was in a hurry. The yellow school bus was obviously late and trying to make up time. The driver yanked the steering wheel and pulled the Big Banana onto the right side of the road, narrowly missing the back end of my bus.

Oh well, it was a miss. No damage done. The weather forecast is hit or miss for the next few days, so I have a feeling some outlandish things may happen over the next few days.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Snowman Causes A Bus Driver Heaps Of Trouble

Here is a link to a bus driver in the States who has allegedly lost his/her job as a result of running down a snowman on the highway. Have a look as it is similar to my standard of driving on a good day.

I suspect there is more to the story than appears. At the very least the driver has probably been given the push for deliberately driving on the wrong side of the road. A no no for any bus driver, at the risk of sounding prudish.

How glad that the routes I drive are so remote and so rural that it is highly unlikely someone will want to video me and stick me on YouTube. But these days, you cannot be certain, so I am on my guard for every eventuality.

One more day's holiday before the schools go back. Then the grindstone begins and anything could happen.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Bus Driver's New Year's Eve

New Year's Eve was a chaotically low key affair.

I have got to the age where I prefer working. The money is good. The hours are fair. There is something peculiarly satisfying of being stone cold sober when everyone around you cannot stand up.

The local village hosts an old pagan ceremony which involves a lot of dressing up and leaping flames and a bonfire. It is not as old as they like to think, but it is good for attracting tourists, who come in droves. I mentioned to the organisers that I was thinking of running a coach tour for the event.

Their faces darkened. The frowns deepened. The talk became more serious.

"We take a dim view and don't encourage bus tours, here." Reading between the lines, the underlying hint was 'don't even think about it!'

"Besides," they went on. "You can't park a car or bus in the village. For a start the diesel tank or petrol tank might explode." Oh yeah. I bit my tongue and nodded agreeingly.

So instead I was a spectator with my children. Still sober as a judge, having to drive a car. Everyone around me was swaying and holding some form of alcoholic drink in their hands. It was nice. It would have been nicer on double, double overtime.

False Teeth Lack Bite On The Buses

I've resisted the temptation to write 'Happy Christmas', 'Seasons Greetings' or 'Good Winterval', depending on your want, as it would be seen as an unnecessary and divisive departure from the curmugeonly persona you have become used to over the past six months, since this blog's inception. Besides, you will have had your fill of people slapping you on the back and wishing you compliments of the season.

New Year? Well that's a little different. My Scottish blood considers this to be one of life's essentials and quite permissible to wish someone a Happy New Year (if you haven't seen them yet that year) up until the 1st July. Passengers on the bus tend to look bewildered and hesitate before usually laughing and returning the greeting.

So, a Happy and Prosperous New Year to you all. A new broom sweeps clean, but the old broom knows the corners and all that. I like the word 'prosperous' even though it is not often used in bus drivers' vocabulary. It has a Chinese ring to it, similar to their New Year's greetings Gong Xi Fa Cai or Kung Hei Fat Choy, if you prefer it in Cantonese rather than Mandarin.

Talking about prosperity, there was an interesting article in the Times on New Year's Eve entitled: Lost and found: kittens, cash and teeth. It was about 'the staggering array of strange belongings left on buses in the last year,' as reported by National Express. They included a box of kittens, a decorated Christmas tree, £4000 cash, false limbs, the same tuba left five times on different buses, a jar of panda bear wee wee and some false teeth still attached to a Zimmer frame.

The teeth don't surprise me. It is a peculiarly British habit to take your teeth out on any form of public transport and leave them on the seat. I remember the old London Transport and British Rail Lost Property Offices had shelves full of lost teeth, thousands of them.

Of the other items, are people really that careless or are they too prosperous to worry? Maybe the doom and gloom recession will not be coming in 2011. Not on National Express it won't. They will do fine as it's possible to travel long distances with them for £1. This downturn might even be the making of them.