I have been travelling a lot by bus lately, and rather like a naturalist who leaves his Land Rover behind and heads off to explore the local countryside and its flora and fauna, or a war reporter who forsakes the safety of his armoured vehicle in order to get closer to the action on the ground, it has given me an opportunity to encounter life up close on the front line: England’s front line.
Once you start taking the bus, you immediately come across one of England’s greatest institutions: the queue. I was in a bus station the other day, standing quite a long way away from the barrier where the double-decker to take me home was due to arrive, when I happened to look behind me. There, like a line of multicoloured washing, comprising many different garments and in many different sizes and stretching back several yards into the bus station, was a neat row of six or seven people. Engrossed in the newspaper I was reading I hadn’t noticed what was happening, but as I turned round and immediately bumped into an elderly gentleman who was standing just a few inches away, it quickly became obvious: I had unintentionally become the head of a queue.
That was a classic English queue, very much like the ones you can observe in hotels abroad when the English guests wait for the restaurant to open prior to breakfast being served, but while standing at bus stops I often find that there is a much more sophisticated, invisible example of the phenomenon. People might be sitting on the seats in the shelter, prattling into their mobile phones while pacing up and down the pavement, or standing with their shopping bags or briefcases anywhere within the bus stop’s wide catchment area, but as soon as the bus arrives everyone will instinctively know the correct order in which those present should board the vehicle.
I tend to use the same bus service each day, so have gradually got to know some of my fellow passengers. Of course, when I say “got to know”, I mean that I have established a “Good morning!”, “Good evening!”, “It looks like rain” or head-nodding relationship with them. However, surprising, unforeseen encounters can still occur from time to time.
A couple of weeks ago I was seated in the shelter at my usual bus stop in the centre of town, once again reading the newspaper and minding my own business, when I was suddenly aware of a middle-aged woman standing a few yards away. I had never seen her before and she wasn’t a regular on my bus, but she was muttering to herself and seemed rather agitated. “Excuse me,” she said, after a few moments, “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but do you know what 73 kilograms are in stones?”
I told her that I didn’t in the least mind her asking, but that unfortunately - and quite negligently on my part - it wasn’t an answer I carried around in my head. Seeing her disappointment I immediately remembered that my mobile phone (in spite of the fact that it’s the sort that you might find in a cracker at Christmas) has an application for converting various weights and measures. In no time at all I had the answer: “Just about eleven and a half stone,” I announced triumphantly. Presumably she would now have a clearer idea of whether the item that she was thinking of buying/installing/transporting was suitable.
She mumbled something again and still didn’t look happy.
“Was that good news or not?” I enquired gently.
“I don’t know?” she replied. “It’s my weight, and I think I might be too heavy for my height.”
I didn’t think it was appropriate to pass judgment, and short of holding an impromptu “Can you guess the weight of this lady?” competition with passers-by, there didn’t seem anything else I could do. Fortunately at that moment my bus arrived and, taking her secret with me, I was able to begin my journey home.
I suppose this willingness to share what would once be regarded as private, personal information with total strangers is all part of the modern world of the internet, where pictures and comments are posted online for all the world to see. I know that while travelling to and from town I have often heard people on mobile phones telling the person at the other end - and all the passengers on the bus - why they didn’t want to see them again, what a certain friend had got up to with another certain friend, the items that needed to be taken out of the freezer for the evening meal etc.
Just like the passengers, the bus drivers are a mixed bunch, and for every one that is friendly and helpful there is another one whose attitude seems to be that his job would be wonderful if he didn’t have to keep stopping every few minutes to pick up nuisance customers. Top marks, however, must go to the driver who, one morning, stopped the bus and threw a lad off after he had held a loud conversation with a friend in which just about every other word was an obscenity.
“I won’t have language like that on my bus!” the heroic driver announced to the shocked teenager. “When you are on my bus you’ll keep your voice down, speak with a civil tongue and behave in a civilised manner! You wouldn’t use words like that to your parents at home, so you will not use words like that on my bus!”
As the driver stared icily down the aisle, all the passengers gave him a round of applause. I found myself straightening my tie, tidying my hair, and, in a sudden panic, removing my foot from where it was resting on the back of the seat in front. Except for the muffled sound of the driver murmuring to himself, the rest of the journey was completed in silence.