Friday, 23 September 2011

Is My Bath Water Like Swimming In The Thames?

Now here's a topic which has been on my mind. Have you checked the state of your bath water recently? It was something I've never really bothered about, probably due to the fact that the country air, spring water and my general hygiene did not cause much discolouration of the dirty bath water.

On returning from a trip to London the other day, the water turned black. Shock horror? No not really, well I suppose. Though being a bus driver, it should not have been a problem. There have been many times when an oil slick has appeared on the top of the water. It resembled an environmental disaster when the yellow plastic duck stopped floating and sunk to the bottom, with black streaks lining its body.

It is impossible not to bring oil and grease back into the house when you are a bus driver. Some depots are dirtier than others. There are diesel spills. Some buses leak more oil. Sometimes it is impossible to return home looking anything other than a Victorian child who has been forced up a chimney.

I always admire Stagecoach and other bus and coach drivers. They always look pristine. It is one of the mysteries of life. How come? Even the cleanest of bus depots cannot escape the odd greasy patch. They must wear protective clothing.

It makes you realise quite what an astounding feat David Walliams' Thames Swim was. Aside from the fact that that it is a notoriously difficult river to negotiate, it smells, the sewage is regularly dumped and there is a chance that you will be attacked by a swan or a hungry pike, it used to be said in the old days that the tap water in towns beside the river had been through ten people's stomachs by the time it had reached Windsor. David Walliams obviously has an iron stomach as he was only minorly inconvenienced by 'Thames Tummy'.

Years ago I was walking on the South Bank between Battersea and Vauxhall Bridges when there were screams that a man was in the water. The person I was with managed to haul him out. He was most indignant and upset to be saved.

'I wanted to die,'he shouted. It was like a scene from a Hollywood movie. Until that was I overheard what the ambulancemen were saying in low voices.

'His wish might be granted,' said one.

'Yeah,' said the other.

'It's 30/70 that we save his liver.'

'Yeah. No one who jumps into the Thames comes out with their liver intact.'

Bow even further to Walliams. Superman. Super stomach. Immortal liver.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Shape Of Buses To Come

This is a curt reminder as to the sensitive relationship which exists between bus driver and passenger.

You can imagine a disgruntled and fed up driver, standing on a bench, late at night after a grueling shift, defacing the bus stop.

Remember the motto a colleague used to espouse - 'a happy bus is an empty bus.'  It is an undercurrent I have felt amongst drivers I have met throughout the industry. The companies try to institute customer care courses, which work to some extent. But at the final analysis, no amount of training is going to stop human nature. Grumpy Bus Driver Syndrome automatically kicks in when an aggressive, rude or violent passenger comes on board.

Maybe the future will hark back to the past. With greater usage of cards and less cash, the driver will be cocooned in a cab, similar to an old London Routemaster double decker driver. There will be no communication with passengers, except by microphone. There will be an ejector mechanism to push off the bus anyone who hasn't inserted the correct card into the machine, or is drunk, or antagonistic. There will be happy, smiling drivers safe in the knowledge that they are in no danger and do not have to strike up some conversation with someone they have no desire to.

Wishful thinking?

Of course. And if you happened to watch the film on ITV last night - Children Of Men, it is more likely, in view of the way the world is going, that bus travel might end up in the same apocalyptic way. Buses struggled along streets which were war zones as a result of the breakdown of society. The only bright spot was that the doors seemed to be permanently open. Brilliant. The bus wouldn't smell like an old bus anymore and it would be easy to evict someone if necessary. A simple stamp on the brakes at the right moment would be enough.

My fantasy was ruined by a voice. I must be near waking up. 'We are near awakening when we dream we are dreaming,' the German Romantic Poet, Novalis once said. This voice was a monotone to be precise. A monotone wearing a crimplene jacket and holding a clipboard: 'I'm very sorry, but you can't do that...not having the doors closed at all times whilst the vehicle is moving is an infringement of regulation 8642HG/2/11...besides your insurance is invalid...'

I will go back to dreamland.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Observation Is An Old Man's Memory

'Observation is an old man's memory,' said Jonathan Swift.

Well quite possibly, but it is one of the pleasures of life. Seeing things. Noticing something different. Knowing what is going on in life.  That's all part of the excitement of observing the things around you and it's a key part of one's life, particularly when you are a bus driver and spend so much time on the road.

Some would call it nosiness. I'd like to call it progressive knowledge collection and an ability to comprehend the environment where you live and work.

That sounds like a load of bat guano, but I do believe observing things can make things more fun. Take this 'For Sale' sign I saw in a local town. Quite innocuous usually, but when balloons are tied to it, it inspires some thought.

Is it about to be sold? Is it a marketing tool to try to attract potential buyers in this stagnant market? Is the house owned by a magician? Or is there a children's party taking place? It could be something else.

And look at this sign in the children's playground. the teenagers have taken the words literally and splattered it with mud. Open for fun. For sure - the youths have obviously thought.

Underneath the playground sign was a window. Inside were the offices of the local youth club. They had posted a sticker in the window which advertised 'Free Condoms' The window, as you will see has been painted in mud and looking like a Braques abstract painting.

Now either the condoms were no good, or there was an unlikely explosion of artistic talent. The real reason was probably boredom. An analyst would have many questions.

The powers of observation. Utterly useless really, but interesting. I feel I know the true psyche of the local area where I.  That can be good and bad.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Don't Bend Over Orwell!

Nothing is what it seems. Take this tranquil picture of a foggy autumnal morning. Al seems quite normal. The grass is green. The sky murky. The trees are looking tired but normal for this time of year. Expect one ...

... an unexciting tree which looks tireder than the others. Yet there is a glint of strong colour emanating from somewhere within its trunk...

... the strong yellow notice leaps out against all the other countryside colours. It is a warning sign of some sort. Maybe it says 'Beware Of The Bull' or 'Danger Deep Slurry' or 'Caution Mud On Road'. But no... instead it says...

Now at first reading I felt a fraction taken aback. You don't expect to come across urban type signs in a rural idyll. I briefly look round for the CCTV cameras, before realising that it is just the farmers' version of a Neighbourhood Watch. We are fortunately an area where the net curtains (in houses which have them) rustle at the slightest hint of the abnormal or the irregular.

The area is occasionally targeted by thieves. A horsebox, a trailer, a transformer, some Victorian fireplaces...the odd thing has been stolen. So this is a good sign to remind the ne'er-do-wells that they have a good chance of getting caught. The eagle-eyed locals and the fact that the Police helicopter can be up above in ten minutes is a great deterrent. Once it is up, the chances of getting caught in the getaway car heighten, as there are only four escape routes out of the place - easily covered by a whirlybird.

Bus drivers are increasingly on camera. One driver was spitting with rage about the eight cameras he knew about on his bus.

'They're spying on bloody everything,' he said. 'It's all very Big Bruvver-ish. These bloody smart cards. I swipe it when I get into the motor and then it moans at me all day. It tells me...'Yer've breaked too hard'...'Yer've left yer engine idling too long'...'Yer've done this'...'Yer've not done that'... and yer get back to the depot and yer've gotta swipe the doors to get in, swipe computers, swipe bar codes.......'

He went silent, before looking pale and irritated,

'It's got to the stage where I'm frightened to bend over because someone might come and swipe my arse.'

Not very Orwellian.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Chill, Danger, Smugness And Itchy Bracken

It's the first true day of autumn. Following the rain and the winds of the good old British summer, some semblance of peace, stability and order has returned to the valley. The clear blue skies come at the cost of the cool air, almost frost-like and as a result the windows are fogged up .

 Perhaps it is a good time to reflect about the casualties of the storm. The North East of England has had its fair share.of deaths as a result of falling trees. In May a sixth former was killed whilst driving her car. The day before yesterday exactly the same fate befell the volunteer driver of a minibus. Terrible luck.

Several times I have been in close shaves during a storm. Driving buses in high winds is not fun. It is a case of gripping the steering wheel and gritting the teeth whilst the bus sways and rotates all over the road. This day it was particularly bad and the bus felt as if it could roll over at any minute.

A wood was visible on the horizon. I put the foot down and gripped and gritted harder in the hope that we would seek shelter from this typhoon. More fool me. As the bus entered the swaying trees, there was a crack, a bang and a tinkling sound. A branch had snapped, slammed into the windscreen and smashed the mirror. The reflective glass was dangling by a shard.

'That'll be yer mirror,' the passenger in the front seat helpfully observed with a smug grin.

I stopped in the next lay-by which was conveniently situated in the wood. As I struggled down the steps to check the mirror, the wind swept me off my feet and I ended up, flat on my back in the soggy green bracken by the side of the road.

'Is it windy, then?' asked the same passenger, with the same smug grin, who had stood up and was leaning out the main door.

I decided not to answer him. I needed my energy for a). removing the itchy bracken from somewhere under my flapping shirt tail and b) to think of how I was going to deflect the mechanic's take on losing yet another mirror, when I returned to the depot.

'Waht have you broken, now?' were his first words. 'You are a .....'

Monday, 12 September 2011

Wind What Wind?

Not more scaremongering, I thought as I watched the lunchtime news. The world was going to end in the next few hours, but before that, all the trees were going to be blown over.'They're much more likely to uproot,' said one weather reporter. 'It's the leaves - makes them heavier and more susceptible to falling over.'

Ha, ha, I thought. Another exaggeration, as I went out the door and promptly fell on my backside. It was a strong wind. Must have been to lift a 17 stone 1 metre 99 lump upwards. I came down with a bang. Thanks to the last few months of rain, there were no injuries except to the grass. A buttock sized indentation remained as I pulled myself up. I made a mental note that it might need re-seeding next week.

As I looked around there was devastation of the floral kind. The trees had dropped branches. The rose frames were across the other side of the garden. The autumn crocuses were flattened, looking like the aftermath of a gladiatorial contest.

And then there was the joke...the joke which nearly had me ... it was not possible ... the wind couldn't have been  that strong to...

... lift someone off their feet and put them head first into a dustbin. Then a smiling child's face confirmed that it could not have happened. Though the wind was strong and though reports were coming in of difficult driving conditions, there was no way it was that bad.

A caravan had been flipped over. Caravans are always the first casualties. Whether it is design or driver or a combination of the two, they turn over in high winds, block the carriageway and force the road to be closed. The bus drivers were reporting their buses weaving all over the road. I was glad I wasn't driving. It would not be much fun. You are always fearful when the bus starts to wander that you will lose all control.

The winds are forecasted to get worse. If that's true, spare a thought for the driver of the night bus.

There's Still Hope In Humanity But ...

These days all is doom and gloom.

The press make it worse by putting an even gloomier slant, even on happy and good stories, usually by adding the word 'but'. 'Manchester United won the match but they could have played better.' 'So and so raised £X thousand, but it could have been £XX thousand if the hurricane had not intervened'. 'The restaurant gave a delicious dinner but there wasn't any tomato ketchup'. And so on and so on ... you get my drift.

It is hard, when this negativity is all around you, not to get sucked in and adhere to the old proverb ... if you can't beat them, join them. I try not to. I tell myself and my friends ... 'it could be worse' or 'look on the bright side' or 'perfect'. It has the effect of pulling myself and others momentarily away from the mire with a brief smile or a laugh, before they deem me to be profoundly irritating and we all head back from whence we came.

So imagine the consternation the other day when a friend from 'across the pond' lost her wallet somewhere in a city centre. The fun day we were having was turned upside down. The atmosphere blackened and the winds of anger, fear and self-blame weighed heavily in the air.

Having retraced our steps without success, asking every shopkeeper, tour guide and publican along the way, there was no sign of the purse. Gloom became gloomier as the realisation of what was in it - which amounted to a substantial amount and would take many calls and time to cancel items such as credit cards. It is everyone's worst nightmare. The only thing left to do, was to go to the Police Station and report the loss or theft. Then at least, life becomes easier with insurance companies when you furnish them with a crime number.

And that was the last we all expected to see or hear of the wallet. And if we did, it would be dragged soaking out of a shrub, minus its contents. My friends flew home.

Two days later they were woken at 6am by an international call.

'Is that Mrs Irma Fozzpitt?' said the gentle tones from somewhere in the North East of England.


'I've found yer wallet. It had fallen down the Coke cans in my sweetie shop.'

The lady had found it, seen that it belonged to someone in North America and had set her daughter onto the computer with the task of tracking her down. A phone number was found and the lady rang. The contents of the wallet were intact. All was well.

Doesn't it give great hope to know that the country still possesses unselfish and honest souls like this lady ... and plenty of them, hidden behind the aggression, cynicism and general bad news we hear everyday? If this story makes the news, expect to read:  'a kind lady found and returned a wallet but....'

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

A Mere Coincidence? Yes. No. Maybe.

The window display in the local Christian bookshop seems to have overdone it on putting together the window display, using as many signs as possible. But at least the vendeuse had a sense of humour and you can read anything you like into the close proximity of these signs.

I was on my way to the local Chinese restaurant at the time and felt that they might well be a warning to the forthcoming black bean sauce.

It turned out that the 'welcome' and the 'blessed' aspects were particularly short lived and the 'stressed' and the 'toilet' were .... no I won't go into details. The message in the shop window was so correct, that I decided to look at the display in the other window on the way home.

Ha, Ha, I thought. Very funny - no way will I experience or need a miracle.

But I did.

The water pump packed up in the middle of nowhere, on the drive home. Steam hissed and rose steadily from under the bonnet. The engine stopped. We were stranded. few cars would be coming along the road and there was a family of four sitting like stewed prunes. The children had to be at school in two hours and the situation seemed hopeless.

Then, around the corner, returning from a trip to the Lake District, came the garage owner. He stopped and gave us a tow to his garage, before driving us home. Extraordinary.

I will be paying particular notice to the next window display at the Christian bookshop when it changes. I hope there are no Tarot Cards.  

It's Showtime. Time To Swerve Around The Slumbering Bodies

It's showtime.

The great agricultural shows of the Wear Valley in County Durham are in full swing. They are great events. St. John's Chapel, Wolsingham, Stanhope happen in quick succession in the first three weeks of September.

They are accompanied by a travelling funfair which camps in the centre of town for a few days.

The only downside is having to drive through these towns at night, after the show. It is damned dangerous, as often there is a drunken soul weaving his way back home after a heavy day's drinking. You see them at the last minute and swerve at any glint.

Often the glint is a pair of weasel's eyes or a hedgehog spine lurking in the bushes, but you can never be too careful. Last night I only saw one weaving person. There were two, however passed out on the road, using the grassy verge as a pillow. They had a curious grin of satisfaction in their slumber.

Happiness is ......

Autumn Is The Closest Britain Gets To Being Italian

Autumn is here early this year. It was early last year too, but is even earlier now. The winds are chilling and the colours are deepening, probably due to the great amount of rain we have had this summer. 'Wot summer?' 
a person waiting at the bus stop spat out with venom, when I stupidly mentioned the weather. There is a general air of depression around that summer has passed without any warmth and now it is the beginning of the long haul until next May or June, before it gets warm again.

But actually, we are heading to the traditionally most settled part of our unpredictable weather. October is always the best month. Longish and warm days. The light is Italianate and the smells of damp rotting wood and foliage are fresh and pleasant.

Already there is a striking beauty to the landscape, in between the torrential downpours. The wind has hastened and seems to be warning that it is time to stock up the log shed and check the coal cellar. Winter is very much on the way.

Execution Of Litter Collection Has Not Bin Too Clever

Taste is a much discussed word. Everyone has an opinion on what they think is good taste and what they consider bad taste. Sometimes they are undecided.

Functionality and taste are often at loggerheads, as is trying to be too avant garde, hip or trendy which is sometimes at taste's expense.

Take the British love affair with the litter bin. A very essential part of our lives, because we eat and drink so much and need somewhere to deposit the contents. If we didn't have these invaluable bins, we would soon begin to look like the ditches in China, which are full of multi-coloured plastic bags and other such disposables.

Now here is the dilemma. Look at Durham City, for example, who have spent millions upgrading the city centre to meet the requirements of having a World Heritage Site in their midst. Pavements have been removed, roads re-tiled, new drainage has been put in, statues moved, bollards inserted, new stone seats have been added and there is a new number plate recognition camera system to implement the £2 Congestion Charge.

There has also been a spawning of new stainless steel litter bins. Someone thought they would be trendy, but the reality is that they look cheap and as if the council have spent thousands rather than millions in carrying out their master plan. They look better at night when they are not so noticeable. In daylight the stainless steel is tinged with a brown stain, either from tea, nicotine or mud splats. The tops are blackened with stubbed out fags.

The same day I went to a local beauty spot, which is close to a river and has become a preferred picnic spot for families. Blow me down, there was a Wall's ice cream litter bin, close to the gate. Its fluorescent orange clashed wildly with the soft greens, browns and purples of the countryside colours. 'Feed Me' it proudly announced under the logo, like a quote from an alternative Alice In Wonderland.

But there is hope. When I returned to Durham, one of the stainless steel bins which had been so badly sited that it narrowed the road width substantially, was bent double. It had been hit by either a truck or a bus. Several days later, when I visited again, it had been removed completely, hopefully forever. Then they will be 'has bins'.