Sunday, 20 March 2011

Getting Ready For A Week In The Netherlands

There's something satisfying and serene about a deserted bus depot, early on a Spring Sunday morning. Even if a) architecturally it resembles something out of the early Soviet era, and b) the bitterness of the wind doesn't offer any spring like qualities.

But it is different. There is no noise. The buses are lined up in rows in silence. There are no people. No drivers. No mechanics. No bosses and no passengers. The only noise is from the little birds flying between the rafters.

I am preparing a bus to take to the Netherlands tomorrow. The windows need cleaning. The floor needs mopping. The dashboard needs polishing, toilet filling, water tanks topping up, chewing gum under the seats hoovering up, plastic bags put out and the carpets need washing. Bus drivers are multi tasked. Many of the tasks are unglamorous.

But the bus smells lovely. After two hours, it is ready for a week on the continent. It will be a good week - a school singing trip. Holland is a great place with lots to see and do. The Dutch outlook on life is refreshing too:

'You can't hatch chickens from fried eggs', as they say. What it means is another matter.

Friday, 18 March 2011

What The Hell - That Guy's A D******d: Red Noses On The School Bus

It took a long time for it to sink in. Too long. Far too long. The first boy came onto the bus with what appeared to be plasters stuck all over his face. had the had a bad morning while shaving? Then a second boy followed, and a third. Had there been a job lot of poor quality razors for sale in the town that week? Then there was a girl, followed by another girl. So the shaving theory had to be discounted.

The next schoolchild thought I was a dimwit as I examined his plasters more closely. It was then it twigged. The plasters weren't plasters. They were stickers emblazoned with:


Then I noticed that all the students had red hair, or red fingernails or red clothes.

"It's not Red Nose Day is it?" I asked and received a chorus of "Durrrr's" in response. I was probably the only person on the planet who was not entering into the spirit of Comic Relief. But I was in luck. An angry looking teacher was frog marching a boy towards the bus. His face was thunderous and there was no comedy to be seen anywhere on it.

"If you can't behave like an adult and have sunk to the depths of....." His voice tailed off as he walked past the bus door, shoving the down-at-mouth boy up the steps. He was a new teacher. I hadn't seen him before, but had noticed he had various nose and ear piercings. Maybe he had been at The Stranglers concert the other night. He looked like most of the audience.

So I said to one of the children: "What's that teacher called, I haven't seen him before?"

"Dickhead," came a voice from the back.

"Well that's not very nice," said another.

"He's not very nice,"came the voice from the back. Whether it was the boy who had a run-in with Mr Dickhead, I wasn't sure. I couldn't see properly.

The moral of the story is you don't need to watch hours of over indulgent stars on BBC1 trying to be funny in the name of charity. You just need to be on the average school bus.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Back To The Grindstone - Little Changes

So it's back to same old, same old. Great. I've missed it.

It's 6am and I'm on a bus being driven by my equally tall companion, to pick up another bus; then to drive in convoy and pick up a school somewhere near Teeside and drive them to an outward bound centre.

We found the school, drove up narrow lane to the school gates, before the other driver remembered that he had been to the same school last year and it had been so narrow that it had taken him one hour to turn round and he had nearly removed the gates. So we didn't try again. Preferring to reverse into a side road and park on the main road.

"I thought another driver was going to do this run," I said, as we relaxed and waited for the school to come out.

"No, he's retired again," replied my colleague.


"Yes, he's always retiring. But he'll be back, he's made more comebacks than Frank Sinatra." There was a loud knock on the bus door. A traffic warden was standing there looking displeased. He was a hi-tech warden wearing a yellow fluorescent waistcoat and on the lapel was printed: RECORDED ON CCTV.

"Would you gents mind moving," he said politely. "After half past eight we will have to issue you with a ticket, if you don't." That was three minutes away so we revved up the engines and shot off down the road in a puff of smoke.

The school came out twenty minutes later and off we went. Ten minutes later a boy's voice came from the back:

"Sir. Sir. Are we there yet?"

"Well, Gerry, I suppose in a way."said the head teacher. "We are here but we are not there."

There was a brief silence and you could feel the children digesting this riddle. Then the same voice replied:

"Oh yeah, Sir. Right, Sir. I understand.....I think." He never asked another question. The head teacher had obviously being reading books written by the late well known child psychologist Haim Ginott who said:

"Children are like wet cement. Whatever falls on them makes an impression."

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The Buck Stops Here

Reading about the recent bus crash in New York City is a reminder as to quite how precarious life as a bus driver can be. All for £7-8 per hour, too.

It was a horrendous crash. The bus turned over and fifteen people were killed. It came a day after another bus crash which killed two people. As I write, it is not certain what the causes were.

The truly shocking thing though is, that having read the press coverage and what the official bodies have allegedly been saying, there seems to be an ongoing witch hunt against the driver and he is almost guilty before he can be found innocent. Sprawled across the media are stories that the driver has a manslaughter conviction, numerous traffic violations, served time for grand larceny and other problems.

But none of those convictions prohibited him from driving a bus. That's the law. The Governor now wants a full enquiry.

On a lesser scale, I knew a bus driver here who had a terrible time when he had an accident whilst reversing and someone was injured. Immediately the authorities and various individuals tried everything to pin the blame squarely on him, without taking into consideration many other factors. It was his age - he was too old to drive a bus. He couldn't see properly. He didn't look. He wasn't concentrating. On and on it went for a whole year, before charges were finally dropped. It was hell on earth for him. But similar to the USA, this driver fulfilled all the legal requirements, had the right licenses and had passed all the required medicals.

In America, who knows what happened? That's what the investigators' job is - to find out what went wrong and hopefully they will.

Here, each year there are new regulations which put the onus squarely on the driver. It is nervewracking if you sit down and think about it. If anything happens I know there will be an army of inspectors all over me, asking questions, demanding answers, checking into all aspects of my life, public and private.

Just look at what the National Transportation Safety Board investigator in New York is supposed to have said to the press:

"We want to know what he ate, what he drank and how much he slept."

They might regret asking me those questions at this precise moment - Lentil Curry, Irn Bru and nine hours sleep are a volatile combination.

Monday, 14 March 2011

iPhone Becomes pPhone And The Hillbilly Is Entertained

In these current times of terrible things happening around the world, you have two choices. Either you become embroiled in the psychological side effects and become depressed. Or life goes on as usual and it spurs you on to enjoy every minute and see the brighter and funnier things of life.

So when a schoolchild arrived in tears because an iPhone had fallen down the lavatory, everybody started laughing.

"When that happens, an iphone becomes a pPhone," said one wag.

"Reminds me of the joke about the rich Scotsman, the poor Scotsman and the dead Scotsman,"
started another student.

"I don't want to hear this," said the student who was unsuccessfully trying to get the soaked phone to fire up.

"I know," continued the mischief maker, "but I'll tell you anyway...a rich Scotsman has a canopy over his head; a poor Scotsman has a can 'o pee under his bed and a dead Scotsman cannae pee at all."

The old jokes come round again and the students found it mildly amusing. More amusing than I found the return journey home from school, with a car crammed with a wife, two children and an old dog and a brand new puppy. Travelling through a hamlet in the middle of nowhere there was a bang and judder as one of the snow tyres punctured and exploded.

While I was scratching my head looking at the damaged tyre, there was a buzzing noise and a man on a moped came through the mist and stopped in front of the car. He took off his helmet, walked round the car then stood in front of it and grinned like a Cheshire cat. And that is all he did. He stood, stared and grinned. He stood, stared and grinned all the way through the performance of changing the spare. It was eerie.

But that's all he did. When the new wheel was on, he put his helmet on and rode off into the sunset.

"What was all that about?" I later asked a local elder.

"Don't worry," he replied. "It's just typical hillbilly behaviour."



I am writing this with a sleeping six week old black Lakeland Terrier/Patterdale cross puppy in my arms. Therefore Cedric takes the blame this morning for awful spelling and grammar, not I.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Bus Drivers Find Littering To Be An Expensive Day Out

Last month a coach driver was fined £250 and ordered to pay £400 costs to the council by York magistrates (The Press,02/02/11), having admitted illegally dumping two rubbish sacks out of his coach into the hedgerow on the York Outer Ring Road.

I won't be a hypocrite and complain that this was wrong, as I've moaned over and over again about the increase in litter in the hedgerows. Also I redden at the thought of when I was a child I would think nothing of throwing sweetie papers out of the window, until a stern parental rebuke halted that behaviour.

Where the underlying problem may possibly lie, is that this coach was most probably on a day trip to York. He should not have been sitting in a lay-by on a ring road. He should have been comfortably parked in the city's ample coach park. But York, like other urban councils will charge a minimum of £10 per day for coach parking. That doesn't sound a lot, but because of the coach companies tight margins, and the public's reluctance to pay, the result is that drivers clear out of town as fast as they can and sit in lay-bys.

I've done it myself. Many times, as every company I have ever worked for encourages their drivers to save the cash. Litter, as you will be aware is a big problem on buses, particularly when there are children or stag/hen parties. There are bin liners full of the stuff. As there are rarely enough bins in British cities these days, the bags just have to be thrown into the lockers under the bus and taken back to the depot. There is no where else to put them - the bus is quite pungent enough without an added rotting aroma.

More and more, us bus drivers feel alienated from visiting British cities. It is as if the authorities want the coach tourists, but they do not want the coaches. Maybe there could be more kindness shown to coaches, more convenience, maybe free parking, 'meeters and greeters', more bins and convivial places for drivers, like Rochester or Southport.

But as E.M.Forster said: "Logic! Good Gracious! What rubbish!

Friday, 11 March 2011

Stone The Buses - You Are Unlikely To Miss

The Windies beat Bangladesh at the World Cup Cricket. The locals in Mirpur did not take kindly to this and tried to stone their fellow countrymen's bus. Unfortunately they mixed up the two team buses and stoned the West Indies' team bus in error.

Opening batsman, Chris Gayle, tweeted: "Bangladesh stoning our bus!!! Freaking glass Break!!! This is crap...This is ridiculous!!! Damn!!!...Trust me I'm not keen here!!!...players lay flat!!!"

How consoling. It is home from home.

It reminded me of driving a bus load of away fans to and from a football match and having stones flung as we left the city, regardless of the result. It happened several times in various cities. Sometimes in the same city but in different suburbs. The fury and hatred was vented on my bus. Even when we were accompanied by police outriders, the bus was still an inviting and simple target. A blind man could hit us, and quite possibly did. Most trips returned to the depot with battle scarred buses. Paint chips at best, smashed windows at worst.

The irony of all this lay in the fact that the team, whose supporters we carried, were seriously bad. They rarely won and were always in danger of relegation. But they seemed to be hated by every other football supporter in the land. Strangely I used to enjoy these days - you never knew what was going to happen next.

I used to love to listen to another bus driver's tales of when he drove buses during the Miners' Strike in 1984. He was a brave man in what must have been a petrifying experience. He had to drive at full speed everyday through rows of furious striking miners on the picket line. Enraged at the sight of his bus carrying the blackleg miners to the mines. Every day, for months he had to run the gauntlet of rage.

Today there was a different driver talking about his experiences driving prison transfer buses. He found it a terrifying ordeal when he arrived at the prison. The onset of claustrophobia as he drove through one gate, which immediately shut before an inner door was opened, was almost unbearable.

"And I knew I was going to leave. Prison was a terrible place."

In those days ordinary service buses were used to transport prisoners from one jail to another. The driver had no protection apart from the wardens who accompanied the convicts. Occasionally he would transport the high priority prisoners - the murderers, the rapists etc.

"Don't talk to them. They will try to speak to you. Try to manipulate you," the chief warden had said. "Don't even make eye contact."

So this was the Friday night wind down, with drivers relaxing in the boss's portakabin, with a can of John Smith's in hand, recounting all tales from their distant pasts.

"Well, time to go home," said one driver. "Another week bites the dust." I held back the sarcasm and did not tell him that there was no dust in the depot - only oil slicks.
In the Friday afternoon wind down session

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Camp Scarecrows, More Wind And A Hedge Is Flattened

The gateway was narrow at the sports ground in Yorkshire.

"Bloody idiot," I heard a voice behind me say. "Where the bloody hell does he think he is going? I turned to see a mid sized bus crash into the hedge as it failed to negotiate the tight turn. As it was my day off, and I was just a plain old member of the public going to watch his daughter play in a hockey match, I put my head down and tried to mind my own business.

For whatever reason, the voice I had heard sidled up to me and continued his lament about stupid bus drivers. Particularly ones like the driver who had just taken out the hedge.

"Typical bloody bus driver," he went on, "he could see it was a narrow entrance and could have got out and walked down the lane to have a look before driving down. Now I suppose I'll have to help him." And off he trotted to help the bus reverse all the way back down the lane.

What worried me was the fact that I had been clocked as an off-duty bus driver, or as someone with sympathetic tendencies towards buses. There were plenty of people milling around, but he singled out me. Were my clothes that tatty? Did I smell of eau de bus seat? Did I adopt the bus driver's stoop and walk? I have no idea.

Having watched my daughter trundle up and down the astroturf for a couple of hours, I got back into the car and turned tail up the A1. Nothing else out of the usual could happen. It was windy and the large vehicles were being buffeted across the motorway, struggling to keep straight. It was the usual dull motorway landscape flashing past and the reliance on the radio for any sort of excitement.

But then I saw it.

It was in the field next to the carriageway, dressed in tweeds and a cap. From a distance it looked like an ordinary scarecrow. But as I drew closer, its pose was different to ordinary scarecrows. With one leg in front of the other it appeared to mince. One arm was placed on the hip, the other was foreward as if to act as a balance. This was a very camp scarecrow. It seemed to do the job as there wasn't any sign of avian life for several fields. Maybe this is a new innovation.

Look out for a camp looking scarecrow, coming to a field near you soon.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Wind - A Contentious Issue


A contentious issue.

You either love it or hate it. It's either a bracing gust of oxygen which fires the innards or something which is misery personified and makes you want to curl up behind the nearest stone wall. I am of the latter opinion. I like a warm, cocooned bus, with the heating turned up to the max and not a hint of air con.

My fellow drivers have contrary views. Everytime I get into a bus, all the air vents are open so that air blows into the drivers face and the temperature is turned down into the blue. I must be the bane of their lives as I go round the bus shutting any vent which looks as if it will pump out cold air.

Musn't grumble, though. It is my choice to live and work halfway up a cold Northern hill. I should listen to Chinese wisdom when they say:

'Better to bend in the wind than to break.'...and...

'Raise your sail one foot and you get ten feet of wind.'

But then again, they had not visited the North of England when they wrote this. Now what was that number for the Visa Department of Australia...............?

Betting Bus Drivers Are Not As Successful As Heating Engineers

"Someone locally won hundreds of thousands on an internet card game," said one of the drivers. It was snowing outside and good to be back in the depot which resembled the Stalinist Tractor Factory.

"Ah but what he won't have told you about, is his losses," said the other driver wisely. "He will have lost thousands to win that."

Betting and horse or any other sort of racing seems a popular topic amongst many drivers. This is for two reasons. One, while waiting for your punters to return, it is highly likely that there will be a betting shop within five minutes walk. Though many may not bet, it is a lot warmer and more comfortable than waiting in a bus. Two there will be many drivers who will bet, looking for a way to increase their menial wages.

All the gambling banter was started because of yesterday's amazing £1.4 million Tote Jackpot win at Exeter by heating engineer, Steve Whiteley. He had only laid out two pounds and confounded the odds.

"I'm over the moon to be honest," he understated. "It was quite exciting." He spoke as if it was another of life's little incidences. So refreshing to hear.

Back to the buses and there were no thoughts of winning a bet and going off to the tropics on the proceeds. It had snowed again. The tops were skiddy where the wheel marks had frozen over the hailstones.

The winning bet will come up soon. Maybe next week.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Howay Fat Stuff - The First Race Is At 2.20

The school I had to transport had an 'up and down' reputation.

It didn't disappoint.

"Howay Fat Stuff," greeted the smug schoolboy. "Let's get ganning. The first race is at 2.20." The onslaught of teenagers brought an odd smell onto the bus. It was a mixture of synthetic strawberries, fried egg, cigarettes and fruit chews.

"Are we near Hartlepool?" asked another boy, when we were going down the motorway, about 25 miles away and travelling in the opposite direction.

That was the only polite bit of the trip. The rest was a turbulent tour around the bottom of the swearing dictionary. Some things were fooked. Many were shite. Most were fookin shite. Fortunately the racecourse was only a short hop. They had an exciting day ahead, being given a guided tour of the whole place and seeing the preparations for a day's racing.

They seemed more enthused by the way I drove. "Go for it, Fat Stuff. Smash inta tha' fookin car ower tha'. Goo onnn." The swearing escalated on the return trip. At times it got nasty.

"Turn the radio on Fat Stuff," hissed the cocky lad.

"Sorry, it's broken," I said wimpishly.

"Nah, it 'aint. There's a light on." Rule Number 1 for a bus driver, don't try and make things up. They never miss a trick. "And if you don't put it on there'll be more than a broken radio. There'll be a broken bus driver too."

There is nothing you can do. I couldn't stop - it was a motorway. And to stop would only have shown that the bus driver had lost and the situation would have been exacerbated. I needn't have worried. When we stopped, the teacher kept the cocky boy back on the bus, read him the riot act, gave him detention, told him he was going to be reported to the house tutor and ordered him to apologise to the bus driver.

"Sorry," he whispered.

"I didn't hear you," said the teacher.

"SO-RRRRRR-YYYYYYY," he repeated, louder and with a face of thunder as he got off the bus.

I was gobsmacked. Not for the behaviour of the children, but for the amazing reaction of the teacher. There's hope for those reprobates yet.

Demanding Ramblers, A Hearse And The Heath Robinson Doors

This is the third day without a cloud in the sky. Cold. Very cold, but breathtakingly beautiful and a chance to meditate as I drove through the hills to the depot in Tyneside. The quiet before the storm...and all that.

The depot was empty when I rolled up. There was a glistening new door. The old electric motor had blown up during a power cut and the doors were stuck in the up position. The only way of stopping the youths from vandalising the place, was to park a bus so close to the open door, that none of the delinquents could squeeze through. Once in the damage would have been considerable.

The new motor seemed to be a Heath Robinson affair, with wires and switches protruding from every side. But all was well and it juddered into life and effortlessly raised the steel shutters. The bus I was going to use was parked peacefully in the corner. There were one or two new dents in it's rear, due to a driver having to rush to the depot at 3am, when a mystery caller had rang to tell him that the delinquents had surrounded the building and were trying to break in. So he had tried to reverse the bus even closer to the doors, and as it was pitch black, had unluckily just caught the wall.

There were two contrary notices left near the steering wheel. One was a note, obviously left on the last trip with the feisty ramblers:-

'DRIVER', it began, in bold typeface and underlined...'Depart 9.00am...Drop walkers at...Then turn left and after approx 2 miles STOP and await walkers (just as road enters wood about a mile from....)...They will have lunch on the coach...Drop off again at...then continue to coach park to await remaining walkers. Depart 5.00pm ++'

Lucky I got out of that trip I thought to myself. They are a demanding lot the ramblers, requiring precision from the driver.

The second card was a business card from a Funeral Directors, tastefully emblazoned with a picture of an angel with wings and arms extended, underneath was the strapline: 'We will help you through this sad time.' For a minute I wondered why this card had been left here. Had the day with the ramblers been that bad? Was it a joke aimed at me, as I am known as a funeral going professional?

But as I looked out of the bus window, I remembered that the cars parked next to the buses, under grey fully tailored, waterproof car cover, were in fact hearses. The local Funeral Directors use the depot as their garage.

Maybe there is a bus driver's discount.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Pass The Deep Heat: The Morning After The Stranglers Concert

I used to laugh as a child when my father and his generation used to whistfully reminisce at such acts as Flanagan and Allen or the Crazy Gang. Fuddy duddy, I would think. But what goes around, comes around and last night I was at a Stranglers concert.

The difference in the fan's devotion was that my father and his friends would gently dance round the kitchen, singing Run Rabbit Run or telling gentle jokes. The fans at the Stranglers concert were just fatter and more balding leftovers from the punk generation. The dance movements, arm motions and ecstatic verbals were little different from 1976. There was even an atmosphere of middle aged menace. In the heat of 'No More Heroes' a large man was lifted above the heads of the fans close to the stage and an attempt was made to float him over the audience.

It failed.

The weight was too much and he ended up in an undignified heap, mingled with a dozen other prostate people. That would not have happened in the seventies.

The support bands were even better. More raw and not quite as polished. Wilko Johnson, an original member of Dr Feelgood was good. His sidekick, bass player Norman Watt-Roy was beyond superlatives. But best of all was the lesser known support act, Mike Marlin (his videos are exceptional - smashing up the office furniture etc., who brought some laid back style to the evening by appearing on stage in his dressing gown.

"Take your bleeding dressing gown off," barracked an impatient fan.

"Where are you from?" replied Mike Marlin.

"The TOOOOOOONNNNNN," shouted the man who seemed to be angling for a punch up and was waiting in anticipation for the joke about Sunderland. Mike Marlin wisely resisted the temptation and went off on a tangent.

So for all you middle aged readers - if that is what you are - if you want a good night out, go and see the Stranglers - I advice you to have some headache pills and some Deep Heat ready for the next day. Today, I am deaf in the left ear, have a headache and have pulled a muscle or two in my neck.

I sound like a typical bus driver.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Buses: Sophisticated Simplicity

I'll never complain about buses again.

They are in the main simple, demand one fare and things that you get on and get off as fast as you got on. They still accept cash. They don't try to give you loyalty bonus points or offers of a free flight to Bristol when you have spent X thousand pounds. They are honest.

Compare that with my experience of travelling by train or plane down to the South of England. The amount of time you spend piddling about in search of a semi-reasonable fare. The average Briton's infatuation with getting a bargain has meant that anyone who wants to travel anywhere with under a week or two's notice has to pay extreme penalties to subsidise these cheap tickets.

The whole thing is a charade. It is made worse by the ninnies who boast that they bought their plane ticket for 99p. Strictly true, but disingenuous when they neglect to add in the extras such as taxes and wheelchair charges which bring the total to around £65 plus.

Booking a train ticket is the same. You check online. The prices seem high. You check another company. They are higher. You go back. The price has changed. You try altering the times and for a minute the prices come down again. You try another. You go back again and finally you realise this extortionate price is what you have to pay. You leave the screen, go downstairs to get the credit card out of your jacket pocket. You get back, press the 'BUY' button. The screen goes blank. 'I'm sorry', it says, 'but you've been timed out. You have to start again. The price has gone up.

Two hours later you have the print-out saying that you have reserved a return ticket. Then you notice it is the wrong date. And it's non-changeable, non-refundable and non-everything else. You have lost £100 and have to begin all over again.

There was a film called Falling Down where Michael Dougla's character becomes so enraged with all the injustices that happen to him during the day that he finally cracks. It was how I felt when I got to the station car park. There is not one but two car parks now. One is the usual one which now charges £11 per day. The other is a private one which charges £7. My frugal Scottish side forced me to try it.

Never again.

By the end of my conversation with a computer voice in Yorkshire, I was a gibbering wreck. I wanted to throttle it. It kept asking questions, repeating things then giving completely different information to what we had discussed. The amount saved on the car park was repaid by the time and cost of the call.

Aren't you fed to the teeth with all this computer driven profiteering? If you complain, you are in the wrong. If you complain again, you are threatened with a visit from the police. This way of doing business is Victorian. Disraeli once said:

"Never complain and never explain."

This seems to be everywhere in British thinking these days. That's why I will never complain about buses again. It is a simple way to travel. You may be stuck in traffic for four hours, be unlucky enough to sit in a cramped space next to someone with a personal hygiene problem and have to suffer a grumpy bus driver who more than likely has a heavy cold.

I prefer Leonardo da Vinci to Benjamin Disraeli for quotes I thought as I settled down in my seat on the train: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication," he allegedly said. Naturally, I thought. Then the announcer came over the carriage pa system...

..."The train will stop her for 45 minutes. Engineering works."

The reply, under my breath, though sophisticated in its simplicity, was unrepeatable.

Dumbstruck By Darlington

There's a curious delight to Darlington. I like it. In the 17th century it was known as Darnton; Darnton i the Dirt by some who were less enamoured with the place. King James of Scotland wrote following a visit in 1603:

Darnton has a bonny, bonny church
With a broach upon the steeple
But Darnton is a mucky, mucky town
And mair sham on its people.

The place recovered from this slight. It has the oldest park in the North East and possibly the finest, it was a Quaker town, Lewis Carroll wrote his poem 'Jabberwocky' and possibly based it on the local myth of the Sockburn Worm, the flowers are so good that the town nearly always wins Britain in Bloom, a biological phenomena can be found in the shape of some spring fed holes in the ground called Hell's Kettles and there were more hairdressers per square kilometer than any other town in Britain.

But if you have to take a train down the East Coast, Darlington is the most emotive place to depart from. Being the site of the Stockton - Darlington Railway, the first public railway in the world. George Stephenson designed 'Locomotion Number One' (still viewable at Darlington's North Road Station Museum - four years before the more famous Rocket. Darlington Bank Top station is an opulent triple spanned late-Victorian brick structure. Even to me, to whom trains are about as exciting as cold curry, this building excites me; from the entrance and turning circle for the taxis to the high glassed roof.

If you are heading North. Stop and take a look. You won't be disappointed.

The Irishness Of It All - In England Too

"All you are is a professional funeral goer," a friend once said to me.

I cannot deny it. I do tend to go to a great many funerals. Not that I want to. It is the downside to knowing so many people and feeling my Celtic side rising inside me and feeling that strength in numbers and 'being there' is the best way of giving a fraction of support. I've not yet resorted to reading in depth the website -, though the blog is interesting if a little morbid reading, with articles such as 'Afore Ye Go', 'Grief Memoirs' and 'Roundup'.

I'd prefer, in a perfect world to never have to go to any funerals at all.

This week there have been two. Equally moving in both ways. One was a village affair, where the local character was much thought of and the whole region turned out to pay their respects. The other was extra special. It was an elderly person who exuded warmth, fun, interest and caring, who meant a great deal to me. The family are equally genial and I would have traveled to the ends of the earth to say goodbye.

As I trudged up the hill from the station, through the flat countryside which reeked of manure and a mixture of badgers' and foxes wee wee, past the vast quantities of litter on the muddy roadside, I was met by one of the family outside the church.

"Oh hello, Big Foot," he said warmly.

That set the scene for the rest of the day. "Mother remembered your Size 15 feet," said one. "It was a part of her inspection tour of my house," said another, "when she came across your shoes she would always say to the other person, 'and LOOK at those shoes."

As funerals goes, this was the warmest yet. There was Irish blood running through the family and it was in effect an Irish wake in England. A rare and wonderful occurrence.

"Have you heard the joke about the Irishman and the eleven Englishmen," said a person, referring to the great Irish victory over England in the World Cup Cricket.

"Having seen everything today," said the priest, "I must say I am very proud to be one-eighth Irish.

Danny Boy was played in the church. There was whisky flowing at the reception. The day was sad but uplifting. A perfect send-off to someone who was loved by everybody.

I headed back to the station with a sense that I must enjoy every second from now on.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Wi-Fi On The Train Makes Writing Brief

I'm in a hurry.

I shouldn't be as I'm a passenger. A passenger on the train. Sitting cramped on a table, my next door neighbours have bruised my ribs and dented my kneecaps in their rush to answer their mobile phones.

"Sorry, sorry" they said. But the damage was done. The girl sitting opposite looked distinctively unimpressed when one of the suited businessmen took the opportunity at a swift glance down her cleavage.

"I'm on the train," said one businessman.

"I'm on the train," said the other. It seems to be the standard topic of conversation.

Why am I in a hurry?

It is so long since I have been on a train, that the wi-fi is no longer free. Well, 15 minutes is, then it's not that far short of a fiver and hour. The question is - is this blog worth a fiver an hour? No don't answer that, please.

It actually makes no difference if the train company charges or not. I remember the last time I used their free wi-fi. After an hour I received a message saying something along the lines that I was a selfish passenger, hogging the airwave, as there were many others on the train who were dying to get on - so Goodbye. And with that it hoofed me off the network and refused to let me back in.

I am about to be turfed out again. There is so much to say. It will have to wait until London. There's funerals, abysmal parking machines, fog and quarry vans and...........

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The Wife Has To Deal With The Mad Bus Driver: The Boot Is On The Other Foot

The boot was on the other foot today.

It was the wife who was struggling with tailgating bus drivers, three inches from her bumper. It exuded a satanic appearance, she thought, with its black paintwork and smoked glass windows. What betrayed its demonic air, however was the School Bus sign with children's symbols in black on a yellow background. She giggled as the bus shot past her and wondered if the children were also enjoying their journey and whether this was how her husband usually drove.

I, on the other hand was on dogsitting/child minding duties, as the bus world is quiet at the moment. Quiet before the mad summer rush. It was one of those incredible days where everything was perfect. The hard frost had made the landscape crunchy and white until mid morning. Then as the temperature rose, a blanket of fog rolled down from the summit of the hills, like a dry ice experiment in the school lab. It appeared like rolling waves. When it went there was just the warm sun and azure blue skies all around.

The countryside was happy. The birds were singing. The sheep were racing all over the countryside. The lambing season is imminent. What was remarkable about this beautiful day was the stillness. Bar the odd low flying Eurofighter Typhoon and distant tractor, the silence was deafening and eloquent.

It was a rare treat. No noisy buses. No passengers. Life can be tough.