In central London last week I found myself re-living memories of my childhood – and there was an added pleasure: I was allowed to make the sort of very English public announcement of which boyhood dreams are made.
The incident involved a new double-decker bus, one of those red, recently-introduced, London Transport Routemasters whose design is based closely on the old, now defunct and quaint, double-deckers on which I travelled as a child. Those journeys to and from school started when I was seven and continued almost unbroken until I left for university. As an adult, I have travelled mainly by pedal bike, motorbike, train and later car. For whatever reason, for years I have generally bypassed the bus.
For me, the hours spent on the bus with its platform at the back, its driver sitting isolated in his cabin tucked away over the engine at the front and a conductor wandering amongst the passengers in the middle, were very important. Often we got to know the conductors who became the public face of the bus world as they collected fares, made sure that passengers (we children) behaved ourselves, helped people on or off the bus, checked that no more than five passengers stood downstairs and none upstairs, and rung a bell twice in succession to tell the driver when to drive off. They also kept passengers informed with their brief announcements which included “Move right down the bus,” and the request, immortalised in the 1950s by the comedy duo Flanders and Swann, to “Hold very tight please!”
Journeying on those buses provided its own world of being with friends, meeting and flirting with girls from other schools, doing school work, or just staring out and dreaming and, in all this, a sense of independence. And then there was also the risk-taking fun of getting on and off the platform when the bus was moving. The conductor would do what he could do to prevent us, while friends would cheer us on (and off).
On that particular day last week my wife and I were hurrying to get to a shop at the other end of Oxford Street. A bus going in our direction slowed down as it approached a stop and without thinking we jumped onto its platform at the back. I had not made such a leap for over 50 years. When we sat down, memories of my childhood welled back. The staircase at the rear of the bus leading to the upper deck was just like of old; the conductor, smiling, chatting and guarding the platform was as before; the noise, the breeze, the smells coming from the street were unchanged.
But there were differences too. Almost mesmerised, I realised how the step up from the platform to the lower deck gangway had gone, how the bank of three seats on either side of the entrance had been replaced by two seats looking backwards, and how there was no longer a cubby hole for luggage under the stairs at the back of the platform. To notice these changes the bus must have been so important to me – and more was to come.
At the first stop, just as the conductor rang the start bell for the driver, he sang out loudly, “Hold tight please” and did the same again at the next stop. My ears pricked up. Here was part of my history, and for some reason I asked if I could do the call next time. With a smile he agreed. Self-consciously and following a nod from the conductor I shouted out the request, not once but twice, but mine came out slightly differently with that fourth word inserted, “Hold very tight please!” I don’t know whether that was the version I heard as a child, or whether it was the influence of Flanders and Swann, but no matter, shouting out the announcement to a packed bus that afternoon gave me a buzz.
We arrived at our shop and got down from the bus and back into a more real world of pavement bustle. The sound of my four-word moment of nostalgia continued to play in my ears, and still does.