Monday, 30 May 2011

Multiplying Ducks Drive Many Quackers

'If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, looks like a duck, it must be a duck,' goes the old proverb.

Talk about the problems of the world being based around the great population explosion and the fact that there are too many people inhabiting this earth. I don't think so. As I drove the school bus this morning, the thought struck me that the inhabitants in our neck of the woods are now outnumbered ten to one, by ducks.

Yes, yes, I know, the rabbits with their advanced breeding habits are in the proportion of 100 0r even 1000 to 1, but they are wild animals and nature has a way of dealing with them, aided by the local farmer and his gun.

The Northern hills have recently seen an influx of incomers whose only desire is to become hobby farmers and the majority seem to want to breed ducks. They want them as pets and unfortunately due to their fluffy bunny/feathery ducky duck beliefs, there is no way of controlling the population. It is getting out of control. The local farmer did try and he had a duck shoot, but he was nearly ostracised from the community and viewed as a mass murderer. You take your life in your hands if you even mention Beijing, plum sauce or anything to do with oranges.

I narrowly missed three ducks this morning. Two Mallard and a Muscovy. They seemed to have a suicide pact as they scuttled in front of the buses front wheels. I came to an abrupt halt and let them cross. It was not a charitable act because perched on the adjacent stone wall was a white fluffy pussycat, who had been stalking these birds for quite some time. The cat leapt but missed the first two ducks. He landed on the third duck's tail and managed to grab some tail feathers before landing in a heap on the tarmac road.

Ironically the cat landed beneath a sign which announced the whereabouts of a Buddhist community. The cat lay there before slowly getting up and walking away, maybe to consider how he could attain perfect enlightenment.

Tis The Season For - Grumpy Bus Driver Syndrome

Grumpy Bus Driver Syndrome season has descended and is in full swing.

'No one gets past me,' said the driver with the fearsome record. He was renowned for being tough on passengers. So tough that they regularly wrote letters to the local newspaper complaining of his antics.

'He sneaked by me on the journey down,' he continued, looking disappointed. 'But not on the way back.' His face lit up. 'And I've heard that he had to walk for six miles and cadge three lifts too.' A large smile broke over his face, like the fast rising of the sun at dawn.

There was another driver wandering about the depot loudly muttering and being grumpier than usual. It was hard to hear everything he was saying due to the high winds which were rattling the steel frame of the building. In between gusts you could just make out:

'Fookin 'ell ... who the bloody 'ell ... left that there ... fookin brakes ...fookin bad parking ... fookin ... fookin ... fookin ... bloody 'ell ...'

But I could talk.

There was a gaggle of drivers talking about general topics of the day. They were looking over in my direction, talking about my own grumpiness.

'Have you heard? 'E's spat the dummy out.'

'Aye. He spat the dummy out.'

I suppose I had. It had been a bad day. There had been a breakdown in communications and my plans had gone awry. I had snapped and growled at another driver murmuring something about him ruining my day and it was all his fault.

'Don't blame me,' he replied in slight shock. He was half my size and I had cornered him between the falling down drivers lavatory and the diesel tank. To an outsider it may have looked like a school billy pinning his target up against the wall. 'It's not my fault,' he went on and then promptly left the building.

Bus drivers are gossips. Most cannot keep their mouths shut and before long rumours and Chinese whispers develop are multiplied by ten, then spread far and wide. I knew my name would be dirt within minutes.

It was.

'Why did you want to attack poor old Simpkins?' said the boss the next time I saw him. But contrary to the bus industry's poor habit of gossiping, the good side is that there is little emotion banded around and things seem to vanish as fast as they arose.

'He's over it,' said another driver.

I returned to a dark corner to continue bein grumpy ... alone.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Its A Magical Time - It's Appleby Fair

I'm excited.

It's that time of year again.

The roads are full of gypsy caravans on their way to Appleby Fair. It is a fascinating time, the annual gathering of gypsies and travellers. You drive round a corner and on one side of the road there is a rag tag collection of vehicles and caravans. On the other there are tethered horses; piebald and skewbald cobs. There is a plume of smoke wafting skywards from the recently lit camp fire.

It is life in the slow lane. The old ways still holding their own against the new. But it is fraught with danger. Over the crest of the hill flies a 4WD car in a hurry. At the last minute the driver sees the slow moving caravans. He doesn't have time to jam on his brakes. He overtakes. Only to see there is a bus coming the other way.

It is me.

I hit the brakes and the car pulls back onto the right side of the road. Having seen the gypsy caravans earlier, I had cut my speed, expecting something like this to happen on one corner or another. It always does. Every year.

I can't wait for next week. It is one of Britain's finest sights. The horses being trotted at full pelt up and down the road at Fair Hill, the washing of the horses in the River Eden often ridden bareback by children and the field full of caravans, fortune tellers and stallholders selling everything but the kitchen sink is pure magic.

Long may it go on.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Soaking On The Way To The Swimming Baths

The obligatory school baths run should be a cinch. It usually is. It was today, apart from the fact that I was wet through, miles before we were anywhere near a swimming pool. Of course, I was driving the Flying Pig and there happened to be some heavy storms around. When I parked her, I couldn't follow the boss's advise and park facing uphill so that the water cculd run down the back and escape out of the boot.

It had accumulated above my head and deposited bucket-loads onto me everytime we hit a bump. There was something ironic, I thought, about being the only truly wet person on the bus - possibly in both senses of the word.

It gave the children something to laugh at and diverted their attention from being sick. It had not been a hopeful start as the teacher had announced to the children that he always felt travel sick on any bus he went on. Great. In my mirror I could see the nods of approval from many of the children, who had now had the seed of probability sown into their heads. I drove doubly slowly, even though it meant being showered more.

When we got there, the other waiting bus drivers made predictable comments like, 'Been for a swim' and 'Is it a bit damp in there?' One even started singing the old Split Enz song 'Six Months In A Leaky Boat', substituting the word boat for bus. It was the normal standard of bus driver banter.

The evening required another run from another school. The children were fired up by some kind of stage act and came onto the bus in over exuberant mood. The Eastern European child was in potent form. Aa a car passed us, perilously close, he shouted,

'Go on. Hit him. You must crash into deez car.'

'And why should I do that?' I naively asked.

'Why not?' he replied. 'No problem. It is not your car. So you can crash into it.'

He could be an interesting adult, I thought.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Community Buses: The Sections Drive You Round The Bend

I have the feeling I have been sectioned.

Section 19 ... Section 22 ... these are all terms which have recently come into my life.

They're basically 'get out' clauses into how to run a bus service without the usual requirements of having to hold an 'o' or operator's license, meaning that you have to jump through many hoops and satisfy stringent criteria before any bus is allowed to place one wheel on a public highway.

Under the Transport Act (1985) a Section 19 Permit allowed a non-profit making organisation to make a charge to their own members and groups. The non-profit organisations could apply if they were concerned with - Education, Religion, Social Welfare, recreation or other activities of benefit to the community.

Section 22 issues Community bus permits to bodies which wish to run a local bus service which is non-profit making, voluntary and using unpaid volunteer drivers, with the main purpose of serving a community where there is no adequate provision in place.

That's all great.

Fast forward to 2011. The councils, in their haste to cut costs have spotted a loophole. Section 19 has become Section 1984 - Orwellian Section. Section 22 has turned into Section 2001 A Space Odyssey. Councils have tried to crush the commercial bus companies by awarding the contracts, often untendered to charities who say they are running a community bus.

Brilliant. Saves a fortune.

What they haven't thought about are the consequences. Half of the charity operators are now employing drivers - thereby going against the ethos of the 1985 act which called for volunteers. But worryingly, they do not have to adhere to the same strict regulations which cover commercial bus operators and their drivers.

It is risky. The drivers are driving about on mini-bus licences. It may work. But i there is any form of accident, the shit will really hit the fan. Too much cutting corners to save a few bucks.

I was jogged out of my internal, daydreaming rant by a child's voice from the back of the bus.

'I've just seen the huge poo in the toilet'

That didn't sound good. I was driving a tour bus. An old tour bus. But a tour bus nonetheless, equipped with coffee machine and onboard lavatory. I thought I'd locked it.

'It's huge ... and round ... and a funny colour ... and ... and ...and ...'

I closed off my ears and went back to thinking of the more clinical and bland topic of community buses.

Both are enough to drive you round the bend.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Training Drivers For The Weather For Ducks

Listening to the radio this morning, I thought of something.

I don't like the radio in the bathroom. The wife does. I don't like listening to Radio 4 all that much. The wife does. Knowing how to keep peace in the home, the best is to leave all things as they are.

I have recently been tempted into turning the knob and listening while I shave in the early hours. I must admit Farming Today is quite appealing. There is something consolatory about listening to braying animals in the background while the interview is conducted. Today the topics were drought (there is usually something about drought now every day) and a spokesman from the Institute of Advanced Motorists saying that rural roads were so dangerous that car drivers should be taught what to expect when driving in the countryside.

I have to agree with him.

Three hours later I doubly agreed with him, as the car screeched to a halt behind me, narrowly missing the back of the bus. I was stopped and there were schoolchildren boarding the bus. The car had been coming so fast round the corner that the driver saw the bus at the last minute. He was lucky as it was between showers and the road had dried a little, giving him some grip.

Later on three ducklings decided to cross the road. In their innocence they caused chaos and the traffic did a variety of manoeuvres. Some braked, some swerved and some drove at them. The ducks soon learnt and scuttled across the road and into the safety of the farmyard, though there was a risk that they would be flattened by the enormous tractor coming out of the barn. They made it and lived to fight another day.

The IAM man was right. To me cars in ditches, mad overtaking, ice, skidding, hard breaking, vehicles on the wrong side of the road, loose sheep, cattle, chickens, pheasants and all types of birds are every day incidents. Any town driver will get a shock when meeting these hazards. So why not have a little training and education?

It might be good for bus drivers too. Though I suspect pride may put a damper on that.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Wrong Number And The Valentine's Day Vandalism

It was another usually strange day on the Vallium Run.

The signs were there from the beginning. When an overweight pony was rubbing its backside against the bus shelter, I should have known. Sure enough by the time I reached the town, the plastic Police No Waiting bollards were on top of the railings and the billboard outside the paper shop was warning of an attack on the public toilets by vandals.

'Not as bad as what happened in February,' said a passenger.

'Oh yeah, you mean the Valentine's Day attack?' said another, 'when someone sprayed pink paint all over.'

'Yeah, it was an outpouring of love.'

I went into the Gents later on. There was no pink paint. It was crowded with fluorescent jacketed council workers who had been cleaning up.

'Shit job,' one of them greeted me with as we passed through the main door, going in opposite directions.

Back on the bus a couple got on. Holidaymakers. They stuck out a mile, dressed in pristine clothes, neatly and well equipped with the newest backpacks, thermoses and boots.

'Can you drop us off at the camp, please,' said the man politely.

'Which camp?' came a grumbly voice from down the back.

'Ooh err, I don't know.'

'Do you want the holiday camp or the prisoner of war camp?'

There was silence as the holidaymakers seemed stunned. They were rescued by another passenger who told them about the grumpy passenger and that there used to be a POW camp during the war.
They relaxed a little.

Another regular got on and was even more animated than usual.

'I didn't know what to do,' she said in a panicked voice.

'I had to ring this man yesterday.It was engaged. So I rang again. It was still engaged. I must have rung 100 times. Everytime it was engaged. I got cross. I thought selfish bugger, what's he on about?'

All the passengers had gathered around, expecting a terrible outcome. Some awful trouble must have befallen her.

But no.

She simply said, 'I then looked at the phone and found out it was the wrong number I had been dialling. It was my own number. I had been ringing myself.'

The passengers laughed and looked out the window, with a look which said - 'go and have another drink.' The bus carried on regardless.

Thar She Blows And The Bus Struggled On

'A great wind is blowing and that either gives you imagination or a headache,' said Catherine The Great, as quoted in the book Daughters Of Eve (Gamaliel Bradford 1930). Today there was a great wind blowing over the north of England. It gave the children plenty of imagination. All I got was one big headache.

It started earlier in the day with an articulated truck being unable to climb the hill through the middle of town, due to the greasy and rain sodden road. As a result the traffic came to a grinding halt in all directions. Angry locals impatiently blew their horns. But there was nothing that could be done. It was quite nice having a breather, while the truck driver considered what to do next.

Later in the day the wind got up. It blew hard. So hard that it was hard to control the bus over the hilltops. The doors were blown in and turning a corner, it felt like the wheels were up in the air and I was about to flip over.

The children were struggling against the wind. The wheelie bins were flying along the ground narrowly missing them, some were seeking sanctuary inside a telephone box. They came over to the bus as soon as they could. When they boarded a boy shoved an open book under my nose.

'Look at this, will you. Look at this,' he said. 'We've just had to sit through an afternoon lesson about ...PUBERTY. Imagine the humiliation'

Sure enough, in the book he rammed close to my eyes, there were diagrams, similar to those I remember from my own biology lessons, when I was at school. He threw the book out of the door. The gale force wind carried it over the hedge and up into the sky. And ... that was that.

Bus Driving Can Be A Fishy Business

Good news.

The town near the Land That God Forgot has a new attraction for bus drivers. There is one of those new fangled fish-nibbling-the mould between your toes businesses. They're everywhere. Perhaps the arrival of one into a town like this, might mean that saturation point amongst fish spas might bear close.

Just think of the luxury for a bus driver during their half hour break. It will be the cure to all flat feet, corns, and other ailments caused by feet moving up and down all day in hot, sweaty boots.

Then again, think of all those lovely diseases like verrucas and warts which might be spread all around. Already these spas have been shut down in Singapore and several parts of America.

'You can clean the tank, you can clean the water, but there's no guarantee that the fish aren't carrying something from the previous customer,' allegedly said a sanitation police spokesperson from Washington.

'Now I know what happens to those fish,' I said to a passenger who came onto the bus with a particularly pungent fish and chips, smothered in vinegar. 'They don't smell very good.'

'What do you mean?'

'After they've expired, I hear that they are sent to the chippy, pounded and reconstituted, before being dipped in batter and fried,' I said to her, trying to keep a straight face.

'You're joking, aint yer?'

'No and just think who might have been the fish's last customer.'


'A bus driver, of course.'

She stopped eating, walked off the bus and put the fish and chips into the bin. It was four hours later that the bus returned to its usual aroma.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Mothballs Or Muffins, Witches And Near Misses

'Why do you like mothballs for breakfast?' I asked one of the school children, in response to his strange answer.

'NO NOT mothballs,' he shouted in alarm. ' I said MUFFINS.'

It was the Flying Pig's fault. It is so noisy that it is hard to hear what anyone is saying. Quite useful when there is an awkward passenger and you nod in blissful oblivion to what the person is actually saying. Not so good for schoolchildren, who speak so fast and in muffled slang, that it is difficult enough to understand them when the bus is motionless.

It was a difficult morning. It had begun with the children being suspicious and worried. Another driver had left early, the day before and all the children had missed the bus. Another bus had to be sent to scoop up the stragglers.

'I am a victim of my own success,' said the driver unwisely. 'I am always so punctual that I leave the depot early. How was I to know the times had changed.' He was right. They had changed. About three years ago. These limp excuses will be the brunt of many weeks of leg pulling.

The children had not been in the mood for jokes - one girl boarded the bus with a new hair arrangement. You know, the one where all is tied back except for a few strands which are positioned downwards over the nose.

'New hairdo?' said another child. 'Or has the wind caught it?'

The girl scowled.

Two near misses happened on a blind corner. A lamb who had escaped from a field was wandering aimlessly around the road. At the sight of me and the Flying Pig, it took off, did a flying somersault over the wall and landed in a field, in a heap. I had to stop on this dangerous corner to pick up a child. A delivery truck came hairing up behind, round the corner, screeching as he jammed his brakes on. He stopped at the last minute. The children on the back seat were unphased. They looked back, shouted 'Yoooo-hoooo,' at the surprised driver and waved.

The next child who boarded the bus was carrying a cauldron.

'Why?' I asked.

'It's magic day at school,' she replied.

'Yeah and she's going to boil up a potion and make Mrs Honkey-Tonk disappear,' a voice came from the back.

'Aye,'came another. 'Hubble bubble toil and trouble.'

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Roman Wind Turns My Passengers Pale

'I speak Latin with a Geordie accent, I'm afraid,' said the guide at the start of the tour.

I tagged along, following a group who were looking at various Roman ruins. Now, Roman ruins can be an acquired taste. Personally, I find history only comes to life after the Russo-Turkish War in 1877-8 and that the Romans were relatively dull by comparison.

How wrong could I be.

The guide was excellent. He brought it all to life and kept putting forward interesting scenarios and theories. What would have happened if ... imagine if ... why would they have done that ... history would have been different if only... He was the ultimate expert.

The weather was the usual North British offering. Clear, bright and sunny, meaning it was possible to see thirty miles in each direction. But accompanied by a biting wind which began to tell on the passengers. One by one they started creeping back onto the bus to thaw out. One person began the day looking pale and proceeded to demonstrate a spectrum of different whiteness as the day progressed. When the packed lunch arrived, not one wanted sit outside.

The sites were busy. There were school trips from around the country. I found myself parked between two elderly coaches. Both were depositing liquids onto the ground. One was leaking diesel and on the other, a puddle was forming under a sign on a panel stating: TOILET DROP. Tight school budget meant bargain basement buses, I thought as I stepped gingerly over the spilled liquid.

For some reason I thought of the Roman poet, Lucretius. Perhaps because he wrote: 'Constant dripping hollows out a stone.' He could have been a bus driver.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Bus Driver Too Hot For The Thais

When I spot a Thai lady chopping up fresh chicken, asparagus, herbs and chillis, and throwing them into a pan, I take notice. When I spot three other Thais sitting, waiting for their food, then it is an open invitation to stop and sit down. You know it will be proper Thai food.

And it was. Fresh, simple and just delicious. She even chops up some extra chillis and puts them into a bowl with some fish sauce, if it is not hot enough.

The three diners are all local ladies. Two are married to Englishmen.

'The other lady,' they say 'is looking for a husband. But she no like you. You eat too much chilli. Chilli costs a lot of money in England. So you are too expensive. No good.'

So if you are walking through the indoor market in Carlisle, stop at the Thai lady's stall. It's the best Thai food I've had outside Thailand. You won't do better for £4-50. That's the price of a soggy burger.

Queuing - Is It Britain's Favourite Sport?

I've been hearing news about the Radio 1 Big Weekend.

Some said it was brilliant. Some said it was dreadful. Take your pick.

'It took four hours on the bus,' said one of my passengers. 'It was expensive - cost £10. When we got there, it was wet and cold. A burger cost £8. Lady Gaga wasn't on for long. We queued everywhere we went and there were not enough buses to get us home so we didn't get home to 3am. But it was fantastic. Wouldn't have missed it for the world.'

The newspaper seller was shocked about how little clothing the concert goers were wearing. 'I told them to go to the Oxfam shop and get something else, or they would catch the death of cold. They didn't listen to me. They must have froze.'

Is this a peculiarly British habit of making yourself so uncomfortable, then moaning about everything and anything? Only this time there was no moaning. People had enjoyed the discomfort.

C'est bizarre.

Bus Companies Want Their Pound Of Flesh

'I wouldn't do any work for them, if you paid me,' said a bus company executive to me. 'They pay less than half price they are getting, want you to put in more hours than you are contracted for, pays the drivers rubbish wages and makes a bloody fortune.'

'Ah,' I sighed and looked down at my shoes. It is a familiar cry, I have heard so often over the years. The bus industry seems, at times to be a cutthroat industry and when it comes to sub-contracting, the knives are often out.

I guess it will never change.

Ich Bin Ein Schotte

'I sell a lot of water,' said the Scottish driver I was talking to in the coach park. 'There's a secret to it. 1. Buy it for very little - I pay 12p a bottle. 2. Turn the heating up on the bus on a warm day. 3. After a few minutes have a swig from your own personal bottle, making sure all the passengers are watching you. Tell them how refreshing and good it is. 4. Sell as much as you like and with a good mark-up.'

The other drivers are full of good advice and information.

'Whatever you do,' said another driver. 'If you are driving in Germany - DON'T tell anyone you are English. They are still a bit iffy about English bus drivers. tell them you're Scottish.'

'Really?' I said looking surprised.

'No,really,' he went on. 'The last time I went, I was in a bar with three other drivers from Newcastle,Liverpool and London. The barmaid served me quickly all evening when I told her I was from Scotland. I advised the others not to say they were English. The Geordie said he was Scottish from the borders. The Liverpudlian also said he was Scottish and lived on an island well to the south. They were fine. The Cockney stupidly said he was English, from england's finest city and proud of it. She ignored him all evening. In fact it got worse and after three days of everyone being rude to him, he went home.'

Alles ist in Ordnung. Ich bin ein Schotte.


Das ist nicht ganz richtig.

Ich bin halb Englisch und halb Schottisch.

Ich bin ein Betruger (a fraudster).

The Germans however have the best advice for all bus drivers, which I have always admired but never quite managed to comply with. They say - 'Fahre nie schneller als Dein Schutzengel fliegen kann.'

Never drive faster than your Guardian angel can fly.

Stone The Crows - The Tables Are Turned On The Hawk

Do you sometimes get the feeling that something is going to go wrong? It happened with an impromptu act with a man exercising his hawks. I took my daughter to a local park because she wanted a go on the playground.

Next to the playground there was this man with boxes stacked up on the grass. Squawking came from the insides of various boxes. It is not every day that you find someone exercising his birds in the local park.

As he let the birds go, he was matter-of-factly talking to a small group of mothers and children, not concentrating fully. I thought something bad was about to occur. And it did.

He let loose the second, who did two loops of the park, skimming my hair on the second run, before disappearing into the wood. No amount of whistling or calling or waving a dummy in the air was going to entice this bird out.

After about five minutes, the wood erupted into a chorus of crows calling. There was also much scrabbling going on in the undergrowth. I thought the hawk was going to kill a crow. But the opposite happened. The hawk shot out of the wood, hugging the ground and cheeping in alarm. He was being closely pursued by four rooks, who were trying to bite his tail off. Brave birds. There must have been some young in the trees.

This was nature at its best.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Respectable People Never Fart In Church

I've heard all the jokes about farts, vicars and hearing aids. I suspect that you have too.

Today, it was different. It was unique where acoustics and immaculate timing combined to create a magical moment of comedy. No scriptwriter could have written it better. No actor could have performed it better.

The time was 3.55pm. The choir were midway through a challenging anthem. There was a break in the music. A brief silence written in by the composer so that the audience could take full advantage of the emotive nature of the music.

Then there was this noise. This thunderous noise. A trumpet? Someone blowing a raspberry? A mixture of the two? A duet?

No, of course not.

It was a loud fart. A loud fart at evensong. A loud fart at evensong in a big church with a few dozen in the congregation. It had a dramatic effect on proceedings. The choir master flinched. The choristers kept their heads directed towards the choir master, but their eyes rolled in all directions. The priests looked at their kneelers. The congregation looked around. Some tried to keep a straight face, others sniggered into their hymn books. Many looked at each other with accusatory eyes.

'Was it you?' I asked one of the congregation who I knew would be horrified by the question. 'We were all certain it was you, Mr Honkinstetson.' Mr Honkinstetson was doubly shocked.

'It wasn't me,' he stuttered. 'It was the old lady standing in front of me.'

I felt that the ghost of Voltaire was somewhere close by. He once said,

'Inspiration: A peculiar effect of divine flatulence emitted by the Holy Spirit which hisses into the ears of a few chosen of God.'

Tonight, the whole congregation was the chosen few. I wonder if the old lady realised what jollity her actions brought to the usually serene service. It was nothing short of a miracle.

When's A Cafe Not A Cafe

I passed a new roadside cafe.

It was a converted container on a recently graded bit of ground.

The rumour is that it is only there six days a week. On the seventh it has to be put onto the back of a truck and taken somewhere else. I suspect this is to satisfy the criteria that it is a temporary and moveable structure.


It is a natural progression from those billboards tou see in fields next to motorways. You will see they are always mounted onto redundant articulated trailers or farm vehicles. All however will have wheels - meaning that they are mobile, therefore temporary.

I'm sure this trend will continue. Any ideas for any other businesses which could go down the same route? If so post a comment.

A Saturday Dose Of Vallium

It is several weeks since I last had the pleasure of driving the Vallium Run. So what's new in the Land That God Forgot.

Quite a lot.

Several more shops had closed in the market town. The retired poacher told me when he and his dog sat on the bus during my rest period.

'I saw you,' he said, 'so I just thought I'd come and see you for the good crack.' I soon turned into a discussion about why one particular shop had closed.

'Health inspectors went in,' said one passenger. 'Found rotting food in the back.'

'Cash went missing,' said another.

'He was serving out the front of the shop and out of the back, if you take my meaning,' replied the first.

'What was he selling?'

'I'll leave that to your imagination.'

'Oooh,' said a shocked lady, as if someone had pinched her on the bottom. 'You mean it was not exactly legal?'

'No,' said another passenger, raising his eyes and trying to be patient.

I escaped to go to the cash point machine to get some money out to buy a local hot pork pie. Another shopkeeper in the shop next door was standing on the pavement, putting out his display items.

'Morning,' he said. 'Getting some cash out?' It was the typical British habit of making polite conversation by stating the bleeding obvious or saying something utterly useless. I mean, what did he think I was doing at the hole in the wall, admiring myself in the computer screen? I kept my sarcastic thoughts to myself and punched in my pin number.

The keys felt heavy and the keypad had a certain stickiness. I felt my fingers being stuck to the keys. I tried to pull my hand away, but couldn't.

'I ought to warn you,' said a voice behind a large box which was being placed outside the shop next door, 'that you should be careful. Some idiot has smeared super glue on that cash machine.'

It was one of those moments when you stop and stand rigidly still, as if a pile of bricks has broken loose and is about to hit you on the head. Idiot? I thought, not as great as the idiot who is standing next to me, who might have warned me before I started punching the keys. fortunately the glue had only partially set and I managed to yank my fingers painfully away. The keypad suffered more as the glue had run down into the innards and the keys were frozen.

The day turned more bizarre. The bus service only has another month or two to run. The council have decided not to renew the contract; they have given it to a charity and told everyone that it will be a community bus.

Community bus?

I'd better warn them that they should expect days like I've had today. The bus driver will have to be:

1. Creche Leader

On one trip, there we four babies. I had to assemble and de-assemble prams and pushchairs. The mother brought a granny with her, who sat on the bus and babysat while she ran into the shops.

2. OAP Helper

The driver will have to be ready to help with bags of shopping, walking sticks, lost property. They will need to be good listeners - listen to countless stories, often ones you have heard many times before.

3. Agony Aunt

I had a passenger who needed counselling. 'I'm that fed up. I've had the fire engines in. The stove set on fire. The house nearly burnt down. There is smoke damage. I've had cowboy builders in. On top of that, I was in bed last night and I felt a drip, drip, drip on my face - it was the water tank giving way.'

What do you say?

'It could be worse,' was the only thing I could think of saying. 'It can only get better.' She looked stunned. I thought for a moment I had blown it and was going to be the recipient of a council complaint. But then she laughed.

4. The Master of Patience.

Many times I have to bite my tongue and smile sweetly. The passing tourists ask asinine questions. 'Is this a bus?' said a Canadian to me today, in a slow way. 'Yes, madam.' was the best reply I could think of, without lowering myself into a sea of swear words.

But I fared better than another driver, who stopped on the route the other day to see if he could help someone. The reply came in the form of two raw eggs, thrown smack into his windscreen.

'The next time I see ... I'm going to rip their ...'

Ah, promises, promises ...

Eurovision Song Contest After A Dose Of Vallium

When you are an ageing bus driver, what's the definition of an agonising choice?

A. To do some shuttling of passengers in Carlisle for the Radio 1 Big Weekend. B. To have to sit at home and be forced by the children to sit through the entire Eurovision Song Contest.

It was a tough choice.

The chaotic nature of the sub-contracting of buses for the Cumbrian event, meant that it was cancelled at the last minute, and I was moved onto the Vallium Run for an eleven hour shift. This meant that it conveniently finished, just as the Eurovision Song Contest began.

Curiously, I rather enjoyed it. Apart from most of the contestants choosing an X-Factor style song, which they sung in English, presumably because this heightened the possible number of future sales on iTunes, there was still a uniqueness about each contestant. They epitomised their country's national characteristics. For instance the Moldovans wore over-the-top hats, the Italian was schmoozing like a 1930's nightclub singer mixed with a little Paolo Conti, the Frenchman resolutely refused to sing in English and the Georgians ... well, the Georgians ... no one had any idea what they were about ... they were Post-Modern Goths from the Caucasus, I suppose.

I swore that I would never watch the blooming contest again, when Terry Wogan retired and was replaced by Graham Norton. And Graham Norton is no Terry Wogan. Well I eat humble pie. He's quite good and developing nicely in the roll. Fortunately there was no Albanian entry this year, as he successfully managed to alienate all the Albanians in 2008 by commenting, just before Kejsi Tola began to sing:

'The bad news is that you are about to watch Albania. She's only 17 so please bear that in mind. Where was her mother? Why didn't she step in and say no?'

Diplomatic relations were on the verge of being severed. The BBC had to issue an apology. That was then, last night Graham Norton had come of age and was politely rude about the contestants, not controversially rude. He had learnt from Terry.

As the evening went on I found myself wanting two countries to win, either Bosnia and Herzegovina or Azerbaijan. this had nothing to do with the singing, but of tenuous connections from my past. Years ago I had briefly met the Bosnian singer Dino Merlin in Mostar, when he gave a concert. I have fond memories too of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. A dry and fascinating city, I visited sometime just after the fall of communism. Azerbaijan Airlines had managed to lease or buy a second hand Boeing 727 which commuted between London and Baku. It was quite an experience.

When I returned to the depot following the Vallium Run, I told another driver that I was going to be cajoled into watching the Eurovision Song Contest, if only to listen to Graham Norton's insults.

'Insults?' he said. 'You want to hear an insult. You should have been to the town that I have been to today. It is so pisspot poor, that they bypassed it twice. The first bypass was not good enough so they had to build a bigger better one. and the idiots still have not got the message!'

When I got back to the depot after the Vallium Run, I wa

Friday, 13 May 2011

Is It Radio 1's Big Weekend Or Bog Weekend?

Driving past the site where Radio 1 are planning to hold their Big Weekend, I didn't hold out too much hope. I watched a large vehicle install the portaloos and churn up the field as he did so. They'd better tell Lady Gaga to pack a warm coat and bring her wellies.

But this is Cumbria, the wettest county in England. The weather can always be unpredictable. I suspect there will be some nice sunny spells amongst the showere. It will be the wind chill which will be instantly noticeable.

'That's just the way we like it,' said an excited student. 'We'll be out there tomorrow, wearing vests and shorts. Lovely.'

In fact there is a ripple of excitement generally running through the area. It must be the biggest event in the Carlisle area for many years, discarding the Cumberland Agricultural Show. In amongst the confusion,I detect profiteering, panic and perhaps an impending thought that chaos will ensue.

The access road to the venue is just a single track A road. With 20,000 people descending, the queues will be magnificent.

'They'll get up here by train, alright,' said the railway inforrmation, 'but they may struggle to get back. Terrible engineering works, you know. Some might not even get back at all..'

The bus shuttle service seems to be a new venture in making as much money as you can. The Big Weekend has always put on shuttle buses. In 2009 Swindon Council met the cost and they were free. Last year the return fare to Bangor was £5. This year it will be £10 (on the day) - three times what the normal bus fare would be. But, it could be worse, taxis are £20.

There is a buzz of anticipation around the county that there is a great deal of money to be made. The take-aways are looking forward to the rush after the event. The farmers will fill their fields with tents, and there will be many teas and coffees sold.

Where the real money could be made, is in the towing out of cars, if it really does rain. The place will turn to a bog and there will be happy farmers charging for a tow with their tractors.

'You see, what you want to do,' said a burly passenger, eyes glistening, 'is you charge 'em to get in - then you charge them double to get out again.

Bon chance festival goers. Welcome to Cumbria.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

When Early Is Late And Late Is Early

Times have become hectic on the morning school run. Now that an extra school run has been introduced, it is utter chaos as four buses now pass through in twenty minutes, heading for different schools.

Not helping the situation, is the fact that all the students wear clothing which are different variations on black, white and navy blue. The drivers are confused. There are children getting on and off the wrong buses. Some think they are early. Some think they have missed their bus.

It is fun.

A car has just shrieked to a halt in front of my bus, restricting any form of movement. Out get two schoolchildren, who I recognise, but normally pick them up at the first stop.

'We thought we'd missed the bus,' said the out-of-breath girl. 'First we followed the bus we thought we had missed but it was the earlier bus. Then we followed the other bus which we thought was early and it turned out to be the late bus. Then we saw you but we couldn't figure out if you were early or late.'

Get it? Gotit? Good.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Sitting In A Lay-By Discussing The Merits Of Chewing Gum

It's a tough time in the bus industry. The rapid increase in the cost of diesel has clobbered everyone. There's a company quite close to where I drive, which has just called in the administrators. It could be an interesting summer. It could be the summer of discontent.

On another side, the good companies will work through this. The company I am with I think will ride out the storm. The boss is financially prudent and has a firm hand on the rudder.

That's why I am sitting in a lay-by cleaning a bus. Part of the cutbacks is the cleaner. Drivers have to spend more time cleaning the buses themselves. I now have to spend six hours in this lay-by as it saves the expense of burning another ten gallons of diesel, so there is plenty of time for cleaning.

I even now have my own bucket, with my name written on it, in large, black capital letters to stop me leaving it behind. It is not a bad thing. The buses are beginning to sparkle with so much new found attention.

The lay-by is the only downside. It is boring in the extreme. The nearest town is 15 minutes walk away, and when you get there, it turns out that it is less exciting than the lay-by.

So I'm picking up the different varieties of chewing gum which have been placed under the seats, listening to the radio, as I do it. Appropriately,in some programme about the 1960's in America, a commentator is recalling a quote the then President, LBJ or Lyndon B Johnson made about someone being:-

' ... so dumb that he can't fart and chew gum at the same time.'

Would a bus driver be in the same category? I could not possibly comment.

A Confirmatory View On The Image Of The Royal Wedding Mini-Coaches

I was not the only one to remark on the fact that the mini-coaches transferring the entourage to and from Westminster Abbey, lacked some style and looked as if they had just come from doing a long shift between the airport terminal and the park and ride.

Have I Got News For You last week on BBC1 confirmed this.

Check it out.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

A Tale Of Two Animals: 2. Misery

Quaver, the orange coloured Syrian hamster has just died, in the palm of my hand this morning. It happened at breakfast, when one of the children was sitting having a bacon sandwich and I had to try and mask the fact as best I could.

I could only withhold the information for so long and, rightly or wrongly, believed that honesty was the best policy and told her that Quaver was no more. There were floods of tears and a little voice said that she couldn't eat any more of her food, and would she mind if I drove her to school. She couldn't cope with the noisy school bus.

It was heart wrenching.

I felt a little shaky, too. It was not the first time that an animal had died in my arms. I once had a Labrador called Hector, who was run over on a busy road when he was out chasing the ladies. He lay fatally injured and held onto the last breath of life until I arrived. He recognised me as I held him, sighed, wagged his tail and died. It was a harrowing experience.

I never thought the death of a rodent would have the same effect, tugging all the emotional heartstrings. Quaver was a sweet little thing. When the children were away I used to look after her. She always sat on my shoulder while I fed her morsels of bread, raisins and celery tops. She would snuggle into my neck. When she was in her cage, she would hold onto the top wires like they were monkey bars and perform acrobatics like a trapeze artist.

She was a resilient little thing. My five-year-old cousin tried to murder her twice. Once he pushed her into the goldfish bowl to see if she could swim. I arrived in the nick of time to see a half drowned hamster clinging desperately to some weed. The second time, the little boy's curiosity got the better of him as he opened the cage door. As Quaver was half way out, he panicked and tried to force her back into the cage by slamming the door on top of her. I again arrived just in time, to find the hamster splayed between the bars like a grotesque toasted sandwich.

Quaver also survived the greatest adventure of her life. She escaped as a result of one of the children failing to close the door properly. I thought that was the last we would see of her. The next day, while watching television, she suddenly appeared in the middle of the carpet. She came up to us, far from frightened to say hello.

She was a remarkable creature.

So this morning I have been busy conducting the funeral. I found an old cardboard box which had preciously contained some wire wool. I lined it with sawdust and cotton wool, put some raisins and celery tops in and gently laid Quaver in it. I dug a hole in a quiet corner of the garden and laid her to rest, placing a small wooden cross on the newly covered grave.

As I knelt beside the grave, I felt a lump in my throat and my eyes welled up. Misery or sentimental old fool - you can take your pick.

A Tale Of Two Animals: 1. Happiness

Coming round the bend in the road, I had to jam on my brakes as there was a red haired lady standing in the middle of the road, flapping her arms wildly. I missed her and continued.

The next day, it happened again. The next day, again. The fourth time, as I was not in a hurry, I stopped and asked her what she was doing.

'It's me ducks,' she said.

'Your ducks?' I lamely replied.

'Yes they've escaped. They're all along the road. Two have already been flattened by passing motorists.' Sure enough, further along the road, you could see ducks waddling in every direction and cars trying desperately to avoid them.

'Do you know what the last motorist who stopped cruelly said?' she continued. 'He said 'lunch' and that he was going to ring up his friend who ran a Chinese restaurant and tell him that there was Beijing Duck to be had. Disgraceful.'

I drove around the same corner yesterday and the lady was there, but standing peacefully on the verge, hands in her pockets. There was not one duck in sight. She must have rescued them and put them all back into the farmyard.


Tuesday, 3 May 2011

A Busman's Wife's Holiday On A Greyhound Bus

What does a bus driver do with his wife? He sends her off on a holiday to Cornwall. To the sunny beaches, the surfers' paradise and centre of excellence for anything to do with clotted cream or ice cream or clotted cream ice cream.

Well no, that's not strictly true.

Yes she's in Cornwall. No she's not on a holiday, but working hard with writing. And no, it's not been sunny. It's been cold and wet - the complete opposite from the weather she left at home in the North East where no clouds have been seen for the last week.

She rang me today. 'I'm on a bus.'

'Oh I'm so sorry, for you,' I replied, knowing that she rarely was seen on this form of transportation.

I expected a report of the poor state of West Country buses and the unfairness at having to travel on a public service vehicle. But it was the opposite.

'I'm so pleased to see that bus drivers are the same the country over.'

'What, grumpy?

'No what they talk about. They say the same things as you do. I've never enjoyed a journey so much. The bus is nice, friendly drivers. On time'

'What's the name of the company? Stagecoach? First? Arriva?'

'No it's called Something Greyhound - can't remember the first name.'

I looked at the Western Greyhound website. It is smart, efficient and smacks of through and through Cornish-ness. A true local independent company which seems to be holding its own in a difficult climate.

Well, good luck to them. They must be good if they can satisfy my wife's high standards.