I started to go on buses from the age of four with my brother who was four years older than me. We used to go from Arlington Road junction with Easterly Road down to Harehills and there we would catch a bus across from the Yorkshire Penny Bank outside the Building Society. The bus there took us from Harehills along to Stainbeck Lane every day to and from Stainbeck Preparatory School. Nowadays, my mother would be seen as an awful parent, allowing her young children to take such a trip, but then things were very different, and in her defence, we never had any trouble and always arrived safely back at the end of the day.
The buses in those days were double-deckers with a platform at the back used for getting on and off. There was a silver bar to allow people to hold on to it, but the rest was completely open. At this time, most people got about by bus, as cars were an expensive luxury, but were becoming cheaper and more common. There was a narrow staircase that led to the top deck and this section was reserved for smokers, and those who didn’t mind the foul smell of old tobacco and nicotine. The prime seat for us boys was the very front on the top deck; this was near to the sign for a hypnotherapist, who could apparently cure a whole range of conditions: fear of heights and smoking, being a couple, and the sign that said, ‘Spitting is forbidden”. Now, I never saw anyone spitting, but often heard people clearing their throats. If the bus was full, as they often were, then the upstairs would be filled with a cloud of smoke, which was thick and choking. The movement of the bus was much greater upstairs and there was an optical illusion that you were wider than the base of the bus and this made you feel that you were almost falling. The swaying and the smoke often made me feel quite ill before we got to school.
There was a conductor on the bus in these times and they would sell tickets and had a special dispensing machine that I loved. The way they pressed the lever with their thumb, and the ticket or tickets shot out, and then were ripped off with a well-practised flourish was wonderful. Even more intriguing was the coin dispenser. Coins were slotted into a series of almost like gun magazines, on the conductor’s belt, and again they flicked out the change in a perfected ease. When they had a down-time, they would be refilling the magazines, or counting coins, rolling them into paper and wrapping them in measured tubes and putting them in their leather satchels. I suppose they had to do a daily reckoning to match tickets with money taken, and they could save themselves time at the end of the shift.
I used to quite envy the conductors, but the drivers in their cabs at the front I never gave a thought to. Some of the conductors tried to impress the ladies and the young lads with the ease they could move around the bouncing bus, run up and down the steps, hang off the bar at the back, and were lords of their domain. They reminded me of the lads on the dodgems at the fair ground or those on the Waltzers. The thing that impressed me the most was the power that they had. They would put an arm out to stop any more passengers getting on when the bus was full, and everyone just followed instructions and, without grumbling, waited for the next bus. Some wouldn’t let children go upstairs, and looking back, they were probably right to do so; some were surly and intimidating, and some were warm and fun. I even remember some singing, opera or show songs and they had quite good voices. The thing that I always wanted to do was to ring the bell. The bells were bright red buttons with a white plastic surround that said, ‘Push once’. There was something so appealing and I don’t know why. Maybe Freud would offer some suggestions about complexes and repressed feelings, but I have no idea.
I caught the bus with my brother until he started high school, but I then had to do the journey on my own until I was eight and started at Harehills County Primary. Once again, I never had any problems and would sensibly sit and wait to get off. The only issues were when buses were full and then you had to stand and some drivers were fast and the bus used to rock about. If you were an adult then you could hold onto leather loops that fitted onto a bar running the length of the bus, but kids had to hang onto anything, and that was often the back of the chairs which had a silver rail. In these days, it was drummed into children that you had to give up a seat to ladies or elderly people, particularly the parallel bench seats near the platform. I am not sure that would be approved of nowadays as women are considered independent and equal to men, but certainly elderly people would still benefit and appreciate a bit of kindness.
Double-decker buses were used by Harehills to take us to sport on the Soldiers’ Field and to swimming, and on these occasions we boys would rush to get on the top deck, but Mr Kelly would often choose who he would allow such a privilege. He knew who would misbehave and he put a veto on them. I seem to remember having to change on the bus for sport, but maybe someone else can confirm whether this was the case.
The worst time to be on the bus was after school in winter when it was dark. It was very difficult to see out through the steamed-up windows and much worse when it was also thick fog. At these times it was hard to tell where you were and I occasionally got off too early or past my stop and had a long walk.
I have spoken about the joys of hanging off the back bar, waiting for the bus to slow to the exact speed where you could jump off, hit the ground running and come to a graceful stop and carry on walking. When done well it was magic, but when you misjudged it a face full of gravel could be the end result, added to by a good dose of shame.
When I was starting to go to youth clubs at Lidget Lane and St Edmunds the mode of transport was still the bus. We weren’t old enough to drive, and we wouldn’t have had access to a car anyway, so a bus or a lift from my dad were the only options, and the bus was by far the most common. Waiting for buses became a regular part of life and when in a group it wasn’t too bad and we could chat, play the fool or talk about music, girls, or anything we were interested in. When the weather was good and it was summer, this didn’t matter, but it could be dire in winter when it was freezing, raining and blowing a gale. Nothing we wore ever seemed to be waterproof, and that included my shoes. I always had holes in them, or they were splitting and wet feet added to the misery, even the trench coats that became the must-have fashion of the time, could only deal with so much, but at least they were warm and long, almost touching the ground.
The other thing, at the time, was that we were quite happy to walk, and I remember nights walking back from Alwoodley all the way to Oakwood and then to my house. This was a bit of an exception, as we generally socialised around Moortown Corner, Roundhay and Harehills. There was a youth club in the church hall where the Ring Road and Harrogate Road crossed. I believe it was St John and it was here that I learnt that smoking one of my grandad’s pipes and looking morose, hoping that some young lady would find me mysterious and enigmatic, was doomed to failure. At the time, I Can’t Help Myself – Sugar Pie Honey Bunch was a hit for the Four Tops in 1965, and was played all the time, despite it being out for a while. Other haunts were the Judean Club and friends’ houses all around this part of Leeds. We got to know the bus routes and knew when the buses should run, but there was often a long wait. The last bus on whatever route was the thing that we knew most. We would arrange to ensure we didn’t miss it, but a wait at the stop to realise the bus had come early and that we had missed it became a fairly common occurrence. This had such an impact on us that our band had a song, written by Peter, called The Last Bus, and this song resonated with our audiences as it was a shared experience, the anguish of knowing that you had a long walk home. Before we had access to cars, we had to carry instruments and amps on public transport, and I wonder what the conductors thought when we would pile on, carrying guitars and clambering upstairs. On many routes, 10.20pm was a common cut off, which would be very early for people nowadays. I think there were later buses at the weekend, but even when we went to Leeds Poly for the discos, concerts, or just for drinking and playing snooker, it was fairly imperative that we caught the last bus. There was a great sense of achievement when you took your seat and you knew that some of your friends had missed it, even if it meant your leaving the concert before the final encore.
The double-decker bus even made it onto films with Cliff Richard in ‘Summer Holiday’ in 1963, as a group of young people drove in a bus to Europe. I remember seeing the film and it starts in black and white, but changes to colour when they arrive on the continent. Another series linked to the double-decker, was the TV series ‘On The Buses’. This sitcom ran from 1969 to 1973 and starred Reg Varney. It was very popular at the time, but much of its content would now be frowned upon as inappropriate.
But before long the bus experience changed. Modern buses with folding doors and only a driver took over, and the magic and challenge of our youth disappeared. To add to this, we got access to cars, either by owning them, or by borrowing mums’ or dads’ cars. This was a sure sign of growing up, becoming independent, and no longer being at the mercy of timetables and drivers that wouldn’t stop because they didn’t like the look of you. Cars were much more personal and allowed romance to blossom, whereas there was nothing romantic about a snog on the upstairs of a smelly bus.