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The Lost Art of Conducting Buses

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There was a time when every bus ride was a job for two people. The driver had his own separate cabin and his own personal door to climb in through, with a single inset step (almost like a stirrup) to help him mount his steed.

The other member of the team – the one who saved the driver from having to deal with the general public – was the conductor. Although there were no female drivers at that time, besides conductors, there were also conductresses and for a short time, while we were still living in that cobbled street in Halliwell, my mum was one of them.

It was the conductress’s job to take fares, give change, reel off tickets, keep order and ring the bell (once to stop, twice to pull away, three times in an emergency).

For the most part, a driver and his conductor were a settled team – they worked the same shifts on the same route. My mum’s driver was called Gordon. She liked Gordon. She said he was a good driver which, since she never learned to drive herself, probably meant he made her feel safe and didn’t throw her or the passengers about when braking. There was also one trip when Gordon demonstrated what mum viewed as grace under fire.

As I’ve said, the driver’s cabin was entirely separate. However, just behind his head, was a small sliding window (meant only to be used by the conductor to pass important information) which opened into the downstairs section of the bus.

On a crowded, late night trip, one particular gent, ‘drunk as a lord’ in my mum’s description, tottered to the front of the bus and slid open this driver’s window. Whether his impulse was primarily homicidal or suicidal, we shall never know, but he then reached an arm through the opening and started to throttle poor Gordon.

The obvious thing to do was pull over, put on the handbrake and try to wrestle himself free before proceeding. Gordon, however, seems to have been determined – whether through professional pride or reduced oxygen supply to the brain – not to allow a hand around his throat to come between him and the proper execution of his duty.

As the bus alternately hurtled and veered, there was a certain amount of panic among the other passengers; some wailing, others screaming. No doubt, many of them had in mind the famous “Just room for one inside, sir,” story from the 1945 Ealing Horror, “Dead of Night”, which ends with a bus careening out of control, crashing through a bridge and falling into the river below. This particular bus was heading towards Turner Bridge, beneath which trickles the mighty River Croal.

Anyway, as they say in Bolton, cometh the homicidal drunk, cometh the man. In this case, the man was a fellow passenger who, grabbing the assailant firmly by his collar and the seat of his pants, yanked him away from Gordon and carried him bodily towards the exit at the back. In those days, there were no automatic passenger-doors, just an open platform for getting on and off. The hero of the hour asked my mum to get the driver to slow down around the next bend.

For the first time in all this fuss, the bus did indeed slow at the next bend and, with the valediction, “My life’s precious, mate, if yours i’n’t!”, the rescuer dropped the assailant onto the pavement like a sack of spuds.

A round of applause followed. The man nodded and took a seat.

Gordon drove on.

Written by
Martin Thomasson

A winner (with Les Smith) of the Manchester Evening News award for Best New Play, Martin taught script-writing at the universities of Bolton and Salford, before becoming an adjudicator and mentor for the 24:7 theatre festival. Over the years, in addition to drama, Martin has seen more ballet and contemporary dance than is wise for a man with two left feet, and much more opera than any other holder of a Grade 3 certificate in singing.

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Martin Written by Martin Thomasson