In the early sixties in Leeds children either walked to and from school, or they caught a bus. There was none of the over indulged, fear driven need for mummy to escort you to the door of the classroom in a vehicle built to withstand a nuclear attack and the size of a tank. No one demanded half an hour of the teacher’s time, whilst everyone else waited, ensuring that their needs were being met. There was no cross examination at the end of the day to check that no one had been mean to you. (You see the effect a lifetime in education has had on me!) Not at all. In fact on my first day at Harehills my mother did escort me to the school gates, the only time ever, I might add, and I upset her as she gazed through the bars of the fence by saying, ‘Would you please go away!’. She did and I never looked back and loved my time there.
I was used to using buses. My first school was Stainbeck Preparatory School and I started there at four years old. I used to travel there on two busses with my older brother, and when he left when I was six I used to travel on my own. Nowadays my mother would be seen as wildly negligent, but at the time I don’t think it was anything out of the ordinary. We would catch a bus from Arlington Road/Easterley Road junction and change at Harehills and travel through Chapel Allerton down to Stainbeck Lane. I remember one very cold frosty morning, passing a milk float, an electric one that the driver walked in front of with a control handle. It had toppled over on the ice on a steep side road towards Chapel Allerton Hospital and a white river of milk was pouring down the street. I wondered if the milk man would have lost his job as a result.
Anyway, I usually walked to Harehills and saved the bus fare, but I would catch the bus home normally as it was all uphill and a bit of a slog. Double decker buses in those days had a driver in a separate cab at the front and a conductor who took your money, gave you a ticket and told you off if you misbehaved or failed to stand to give up your seat to a lady or an elderly person. I think the fare was a penny and the large heavy coins were a wonderful feel: tactile, solid and usually well-worn. I loved the ticket machine. Coins were stored in special storage tubes on a leather belt and with a quick flick of the thumb from the conductor change would appear in his or her hand. Another flick of the thumb and the correct ticket was dispensed and there was a ripping sound as it was separated from the roll of tickets. If you were lucky, the tickets would run out and the conductor would open the machine and fit a new roll of tickets. It was quite a to-do and appealed to my senses. Another feature I was fascinated by were the bell buttons. There were round white affairs, with Push Once printed on them and there was a bright red button in the middle. As a small lad they were well above my reach and, in fact, only the conductor could use them. It is probably something Freudian, but I really wanted to push them. Some conductors would give a jaunty double push to tell the driver to set off. They were replaced on more modern buses with a strip, which reminded me of a hose pipe that you could push from anywhere along the aisle.
Most conductors I remember seemed to enjoy the job. The young men liked to hang on the pole at the open end of the bus, lean out, show off their skill and impress young ladies or easily influenced boys. They were masters of their steed: hats perched on, often quite long hair. They appeared a poor man’s Waltzer attendant from the fairground. Their daring dos on the pole, their debonair panache as they sold tickets to teenage girls and swaggered up the aisles. No matter how bumpy the ride they were balanced and disappeared up the stairs to the top deck like dancers.
The upstairs of the buses were often smoke filled and if you went up you often felt sick before too long, but the upstairs had great views, particularly from the front seats and the deck swayed alarmingly at times. At the front there was a sign that said, ‘Spitting is Forbidden’, but occasionally old men could be heard clearing their throats. Oh, how times have changed!
The bus ride from Harehills up Easterley Road was only short and I knew the trip like the back of my hand, but on one afternoon the fog was in. Fog in those days was something else. It really was fog, or smog and the white mist would be a dark green, due to the heavy smoke from all the coal fires. Before the introduction of smokeless coal and then the disappearance of coal from domestic fires, smoke was ever present. I grew up thinking that the main buildings in Leeds were made of black stone. The Town Hall was this black, overpowering building, until they started to sand-blast the buildings in the 1960s. It was quite a revelation to see these stone buildings appear in their naked glory as yellow/white, gleaming and very impressive. But on this specific day, the fog was dense and olive green. I can still taste the air, chemical filled and bitter. It wasn’t just a cosmetic danger. Bronchial disease would kill about 30,000 people each year in London alone.
I waited outside in the gloom. Sound was changed by the air thickness and pale orbs of light could barely be seen from the street lights. Of course, being Winter in England meant it was dark when we left school and cars crawled past as we waited for the bus. You had to be careful to get on the right bus as the numbers on the front could barely be seen, even when they stopped in front of you. A wrong choice and you could end up at Oakwood and I did make this mistake at least once. My bus arrived and I got on and sat on the sideways facing bench seats near the open section as it allowed some view outside. Further in all the windows were steamed up and you had no idea where you were. The bus crawled along Roundhay Road and the shops aided me in telling where I was, but as we slowly turned at the roundabout by the Clock Cinema and headed up the hill, all knowledge of where I was vanished. The world disappeared completely and the swirling miasma transformed the vista into a nightmare of uncertainty. It was so dense you truly could see nothing and I always had perfect eyesight. I began to panic and decided I must be near my stop and the conductor rang the bell and the bus came to a halt and I stepped down into darkness and confusion. The air was damp and heavy, but as I watched the bus drive off I realized I was not at my stop. I was still on the hill so I worked out I must have got off too soon. I almost panicked, but I knew if I just headed up the hill I would eventually reach my stop, and so I did. Finally I got my bearings and reached the stop and made my way home, a little shaken by the experience.
As I got older, I became bolder with the bus journey and I developed the skill of hanging off the bar well before the bus arrived at the stop. The ability to jump off the bus whilst it was slowing down and hit the ground running was what was craved and, apart from a couple of embarrassing miscalculations, I honed the skill to perfection. The joys of youth!