This morning’s early morning fog over the Monterey Peninsula prompted my nostalgia for 607 trolley buses. Go figure: today is New Years Eve, and so is time for some Auld Lang Syne, or nostalgia for good old days. So, although I can recall some very frolicsome New Years Eves, I am getting off on old London buses…
Between 1959 and 1966, I commuted to Southall Grammar School, some 5 miles along the Uxbridge Road between Acton and Southall on the London Transport 607 trolley and later the 207, bus line. Trolleys were double decker buses powered from overhead cables- like those shown in a little nostalgic video here – see the bit between 0:57 and 2:22 for the route I traveled. The trolleys traveled between Acton, through the green fields and horse chestnut trees of Ealing Common, the busy shopping districts of Ealing Broadway and West Ealing; the calm fields beside the River Brent (with the magnificent nearby viaduct built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, supporting the Great Western Railway) and the mental hospital (“loonie-bin” or lunatic asylum) at Hanwell. After my own mother was committed to a mental hospital north of London, the Hanwell loonie bin was a sad memoir to pass every day.
Oh, right, – the Auld Lang Syne bit… This morning I vividly recalled chilly smoggy winter mornings, waiting for the 607 trolley. Eventually not one but several of them would come lumbering through the murk like a whirring herd of red elephants. In the early 1960’s the overhead lines came down and the lumbering trolleys were replaced by less-lumbering Routemaster diesel buses, on the same route but renumbered 207. They traveled in herds too, but could at least overtake each other.
The buses were staffed by a driver and a conductor. The driver lived in his own isolated compartment. The conductor was generally a uniformed man, equipped with a handle-operated ticket printing machine, and often an over-abundance of authority. Or so it seemed at 11 years of age.
As I got older and taller, the conductors got shorter and less scary. Being a conductor must have been a heck of a difficult job; scores of yelling kids poured on and off the buses along the routes, scrambling up the narrow stairs to the upper deck; shoving and swearing and, if we could get away with it, leaping from the stairs to grab the rear platform pole and swinging 360 revolutions around the poles. Pride of place on the buses was in the front seats at the top of the bus. Smoking was allowed there; although not for kids. Well, not little kids. We big kids could puff; and bluster; and yell brave insults at other school kids through the open windows; and throw paper airplanes. But it was forbidden to bang on the floor – the conductor was the only person allowed to signal the driver to stop and start the bus by stamping his feet. If we kids stamped on the floor above his head, it was an assured way to abruptly stop the bus; meet the pissed off driver, and be thrown off the bus.
I did a lot of my growing up on those buses, starting out as a shy little chap of 11, scared of just about any other kid who shoved himself onto the same seat as me. I progressed to cockiness and bluster, then to learn some tact and civilty, and eventually reverted to shyness of a sort- becoming a quiet reader. That was after my regular bus mates had had to leave school at age 15, and I had to study harder to ensure that I could manage to stay at school.
The 5 mile journey to Southall was unusually long for London school kids yet many of my Southall Grammar School class mates traveled long distances to the school too. The school was set in the middle of community that was gradually becoming rich with Asian immigrants. The school population was several hundred when I left in 1966, but there were only a handful of East Asian students. I gradually came to think I was part of an overt effort to populate the school with imported white kids so that there would be no room for the local Indian and Pakistani kids. It was that increasing discomfort when I was about 16 or 17 in realizing the racial disparity at the school, that eventually became a large factor in me wanting to explore other parts of the world to find less racial discrimination. Nowadays the school, renamed Villiers High School, is populated by many Asian children.