I never thought being the son of a bus driver could be so fashionable. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, never stops telling us that he’s one, nor does Tory minister Sajid Javid and I understand John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow chancellor, is one too (although he doesn’t go on about it as much). I’ve recently seen two films about bus drivers – both of which I identified with to some extent – and also discovered that someone whose music has meant a lot to me over the years was also a bus driver’s son – Bruce Springsteen.
My dad drove a London bus, based at Upton Park garage, from the year before I was born (1964) until he retired in 1990. He hated it. Before that he’d had a succession of menial jobs, one of which planted a seed of asbestos in his lung which killed him about fifty years later (in January 2007). Dad always said he never intended to do the same job for so long, but he valued the hard-won security and conditions that are so scant for most workers now, including bus drivers. The money wasn’t great, but with overtime and my mum’s better wages as a teacher, it helped contribute to what was my very comfortable childhood. There were downsides. Shift-work meant dad was often absent, even including some Christmas Days (although on reflection, I’m not sure he minded that too much), but the hardest thing, even for a child, was seeing someone feeling trapped by his circumstances, something dad went through a period of blocking out with alcohol.
But despite doing a job he disliked and was even, at times, embarrassed about, I think dad also felt a strong sense of identity with being a bus driver which perhaps chimes with its current place in the cultural zeitgeist! Although it doesn’t have the same physical or social qualities as some other working class occupations, like mining or docking, there was a deep sense of solidarity based on strong unions and camaraderie, which may not be immediately obvious to outsiders. Dad would sometimes come home in a furious temper because a colleague had failed to abide by the lore of the road which required drivers to share the burden of passengers and look out for each other.
These things fed in to some of my earliest childhood memories of ‘bus trips’ to Margate, when families from the garage got together for a beano. Although dad never got involved in it (he hated sport too!), like many workplaces of the time, London Transport had its own sports ground (at Osterley) and many clubs and societies. I used to go to the garage with dad quite often where my treat (apart from sitting in the cab of a real Routemaster) was playing snooker or table tennis, followed by a visit to the canteen.
While providing a necessary public service bus workers, despite doing a mundane, unglamorous job, created an environment in which they demanded respect and the ability to live a life beyond work. Although passengers were sometimes a source of frustration – dad often joked the buses would run a lot more smoothly without them – there was also a strong sense of public service.
Threats to these conditions sometimes led to strikes which dad was always a strong supporter of. He avoided taking positions in the union, but he was always to the forefront of picket lines and eternally unforgiving of anyone who crossed them. Needless to say, he would have had one of his rages if the Labour politician son of a bus driver had encouraged strike breaking as Sadiq Khan has. The idea of a bus driver’s son becoming a Tory MP would have moved dad beyond anger. During his time, ‘One Man (sic) Operated’ buses were introduced – after a fight – and London Transport was broken up into smaller units. Dad said these things were intended to weaken the union, cut jobs and wages, atomise the working experience and lead to privatisation. Lo it came to pass.
Few of these issues are portrayed in Jim Jarmusch’s film ‘Paterson’ or Robert de Niro’s ‘A Bronx Tale’. The first of these features a bus driver who’s also a poet. On the face of it, that’s a romantic conceit, but one of the things that got my dad through the grind of his job was his love of the arts. He didn’t write poetry, but he could quote chunks of Shakespeare, had a deep knowledge of classical music and liked nothing more than going to the theatre, opera or a concert. By his own admission, he was an intellectual snob, but without any formal education, he’d absorbed the definition of ‘culture’ imparted by public libraries, the BBC and the Communist Party. By contrast, de Niro’s bus driver, with his young son sitting behind him on the route as I sometimes did, is a paragon of working class male orthodoxy, but this was also a part of my dad’s character. There was an upright respectability about being a bus driver which, as the de Niro character tells his son, contrasts with the dishonest money grabbing of gangsters.
A lot has changed since dad drove a bus, but some of the fundamentals haven’t. At the root of the current disputes in the transport industry is a refusal of workers to sacrifice either their conditions or a vital public service to the corporate gangsters who only want to maximise profit, even if it’s at the expense of our safety. I heard one RMT rep. say ‘we will not allow the railway to be dehumanised’. This is a critical point, not just for those who use public transport, but those who work in it.