By Parson Thru
I came to the library to work and, instead, found myself turning pages of a reference book about the Joint Undertaking that once ran York's buses.
Why not? Nostalgia?
The life around buses, perhaps. Or the buses around life. Totemic. Epochal. Everyday, familiar, here, then gone. Like a relative, pet or long-lost toy. The people, animals and artefacts that populate a world we can no longer reach; one with memories, both good and bad; ephemeral and fundamental.
I have memories of sitting inside them with my mother, rushing to take the seat behind the driver and watching, rivetted, through the window. The smell of old upholstery, cigarettes, transmission oil. Knees against the bulkhead. The light from yellow bulbs illuminating evenings that didn't extend beyond what I could see, hear and smell. And the sound – all encompassing – of gears ground, the squeal of brakes, engine note squeezed through a pea-shooter exhaust. That sound had an inside and outside, both quite different – childhood half-cabs turning right and onto the bridge from Rougier Street: the rasp.
In 1969, the world (my world) was changing: becoming more sound-rich, more colour-rich, more modern, more musical – all of this, more or less, outside the confines of a claustrophobic house. I changed schools in 1969. The bus took us to and from the junior school. The old half-cab, open-platform double-deckers. The ones that had been taking my mother and I into town on Saturday afternoons. The ones that took us in two legs to see my aunt, to sit in her conservatory beneath the elegant fluorescent light. We caught those buses to and from school for one year, and they were gone.
I had a friend. A good friend. Our mothers knew each other well. One of the earliest photographs of me is in their home, me sitting on the sideboard, taken by a professional photographer. My mother has it in her room now. I replaced the smashed frame a year ago. My friend and I used to walk up the street to where the half-cab double-decker buses used to stop and reverse to turn around. It was the terminus. There was no point in them coming any further. The town ran out. The crews used to let us sit in the driving seat or ring the bell from the platform while they sat smoking on the verge, or on the bench seats of the lower saloon in bad weather. I only remember the summers. They used to give us the end of the ticket reel, marked with a purple stripe down the middle. We kept those as our trophies.
Those buses disappeared in 1970. There were other half-cab double-deckers, more modern, more enclosed – they made different noises, were lower and wider. They had a rear-facing bench seat behind the driver – you couldn’t sit and watch him. I used to kneel up anyway, but always got told to sit down. Those buses vanished, too, some time after I became an adult and started work. Then one day all the buses vanished, to be replaced by funny little vans that nobody could get on to and no one used. The friend vanished, too, around that time. My aunt died more than ten years ago.
I flicked through the reference book. It was mainly pictures – grainy black and white. I knew quite a lot of what the text was telling me. As an adolescent, in this very room, I used to pore over special interest transport books, learning what I hadn’t known about those buses. I already knew, for example, that they were made by Bristol and that the bodies were made by Eastern Coachworks at Lowestoft, wherever that was. It said so on the radiator grille and on the cream painted roof inside. I knew that the later half-cab double-deckers were called Lodekka. It said that, too, on the front grille. In the books of adolescence, I learned that the older buses – the ones from barely-remembered childhood – were “K - Series”, either K5Gs, K6Gs or KSWs. Then came youth, beer, adulthood, marriage and children – oh, and work.
I’d come to the library to read and prepare for my seminar, which is tonight. I thought I might write a little, too, but there’s nothing coming just now. Instead, I turned the pages in the book and looked at all the photographs, read the legends. Slowly, I began to read the text about how the Joint Undertaking came about, how it operated, what buses were bought and leased and operated on what routes. How some were rebuilt in Harrogate and rebodied in Lowestoft. It gave the year of purchase and of disposal. It talked about the KS6B. I’d never heard of it, yet that was our bus. They were bought and introduced in 1951 in dribs and drabs, twos and threes, and added to during the 1950s. Earlier wartime and pre-war buses were withdrawn as they arrived. They were modern once.
In photos, it’s hard to tell a K5G from a KSW, let alone a KS6B, though a good adolescent can. Childhood memory reveals itself as an unreliable guide. I don’t believe I was looking out for notable differentiators such as radiator shape and window pattern. It was the smell. The sound. The closeness of my knees (and my mother’s) to the bulkhead. Maybe the shade of red that black and white photos can’t show. The smoky yellow light from sunken bulbs. They probably all had that – until the Lodekka, anyway. The text told me they were withdrawn from around 1968, but still formed a good part of the fleet through 1969 into 1970. New school. Moon landings. A sound that I now know was Billy Preston heard through the heavy production of Phil Spector. A baby began to emerge as a brother around then. My dad bought a car – a Standard 8, which used to catch fire and which lost a wheel on the A64; which rolled backwards down Garrowby Hill on the way to Bridlington or Filey.
The friend and I tried to get back together once in the youthful era of pubs, beer, motorbikes and girlfriends. It didn’t work out. Something had been lost, but I’m not sure either of us knew what. Maybe it was something staring up from those pages.