A few years ago, I had a bit of a weird experience.
It started in the deep midwinter pre-dawn. Trudging to the bus stop along a dark, bleak country lane. In the gleam of my torch, I could see that the landscape wore a cloak of crisp white hoar frost – frost that crunched satisfyingly under my highly polished boots.
Standing at the bus stop, I was suddenly struck by a great feeling of déjà vu. I was approaching my sixties, and yet I was instantly transported back about four decades.
Back then, I was a teenager, embarking on my career as a trainee technician apprentice for Post Office Telecommunications, now known simply as BT
The winter dawns when I started my commute to work were as cold and dark as this particular morning. I used to make the ten-minute walk to the sleepy East Grinstead railway station, my breath smoking around me as I strode along.
The 291 London Country Bus would normally be sitting at the bus stop, pumping huge clouds of greasy grey diesel smoke into the pre-dawn air. The bus was always numbingly cold. I often thought it was warmer outside than in, but I would be wrapped up in my thick coat, wearing a hat, and woolen gloves that my Mother had knitted me.
At around about 0630, the scheduled departure time, the driver would, if he felt so inclined, pull off rapidly, causing the tired suspension to creak and rattle loudly over the rutted and potholed rural roads.
Lurching alarmingly through quiet country lanes, the bus would stop in hamlets and villages, picking up weary sleep-drugged passengers, reluctantly pacing like automatons into their working days.
Stopping in the village of Ashurst Wood, my friend Katrina would board the bus. Wearing her ubiquitous duffle coat, she would wriggle her ampleness next to me on the seat, her figure disguised under the acres of blanket-like material. I would press against her, feeling her form against my arm, the tantalising press of her prominent bosom sending hormones scurrying around my brain like sex starved mice.
She would openly flirt with me, as the bus wheezed its asthmatic way up Wall Hill, and then we would grip the seat handles as the driver, whom I assumed to be having a psychotic episode, would plummet crazily down the steep hill towards the country town of Forest Row.
Next, we would pick up Darlene, the frizzy haired Aussie who brightened my mornings with her sunny disposition and shortly after, Stuart and Will.
Stuart and Will were as unalike as could be possible. Stuart was tall, and impossibly thin, with long, lank hair, and a quiet disposition.
Will was his alter ego – shorter, mop headed and rumbustious – he was the life and soul of any party.
Pulling into Colemans Hatch we would pick up Gary, who was urbane, dapper and a total eccentric by the age of seventeen, who would converse loudly in a wonderful upper-class drawl.
The bus would then wend its way through Hartfield, where we would collect Lisa and Penny, both of whom were taking a course in Nannying and Nursing at West Kent College.
Into Withyham, and on into Groombridge, for yet another snails crawl grind up Groombridge Hill, the driver disguising our position with the clever use of diesel exhaust smoke.
Langton Green next and then the slow crawl through the western outskirts of Tunbridge Wells.
By this time the bus was happily filled with a cacophony of voices, all competing for priority with the barely subdued roar of the ancient diesel rattling away at the back of the elderly dilapidated contraption.
As soon as the bus came to a stop at Tunbridge Wells Central, it would be an utter, mad, maniacal dash to cross the road, and get down the steps and onto the railway station platform in order to catch the 0840 train to Tonbridge.
The train was always packed, and I don’t think I ever got a seat on it. Back then, the entire carriage was full of commuters, the majority smoking and reading their newspapers in silence.
This was a complete contrast to my recent journeys on the train, where the carriage was still full of commuters, but hardly a paper in sight. Everyone was either texting on their phones, listening to music players or tapping away on a lap top or iPad. And not a cigarette or e-cigarette in sight.
Once at Tonbridge, I would join the meandering human crocodile of students heading for the Brook Street Campus.
By that time, I would be on my 5th or 6th cigarette. Players No 6, or Guards – or if I was feeling delicate, Consulate Menthol King Size.
I can’t believe how much I used to smoke in those days. I must have reduced my life expectancy by a huge amount. I have been clean now for thirty odd years, and I’m probably saving not only my life, but about £4,650 per year!
And now, here I was, standing at a bus stop in the same weather, and at the same time of day. The point of origin is different, as is the destination. The bus is now a modern single decker, with a fuel-efficient engine, and is relatively quiet. My fellow commuters look the same though, tired, cold, and longing for their warm beds, from which they were rudely prised by an insistent alarm clock scant minutes earlier.
It does appear, however, that across recent contemporary history, all bus drivers have been selected because of their underlying psychiatric tendencies. It must be a recruitment requirement. This driver was either colour blind, or had problems with authority, as we jumped at least two red traffic lights en-route to Reading Station.
This time, I was in no mad rush – I had left myself plenty of time to get to Central London. The concourse of the station was already thronged with travellers, muffled up against the chill.
I attempted to issue my ticket at the self-ticketing machine, but to no avail. I then realised that I was trying to obtain a South West Railways ticket from a First Great Western machine. Oh, the joys of technology and rail franchising.
Having queued for a ticket, I made my way to platform 8, and awaited the arrival of the First Great Western 0758 “service” to Paddington.
The train was bang on time, and I boarded, to find that my reserved seat already had a corpulent, sallow woman sitting in it. As there were a number of other vacant seats, I dropped into the nearest available and re-read my presentation notes.
Ah yes…. My presentation. I had been wrestling with the finer points of my presentation, and had worked late into the previous night getting the order right, and fine tuning the PowerPoint slides.
“You are required to give a fifteen-minute presentation on what you perceive as being the biggest challenges faced by the faculty of Engineering and Mathematics in relation to delivering course content that combines high quality technical content whilst acknowledging and embracing cultural diversity and inclusion”
I was applying for the Senior Lecturer vacancy at one of the large London universities but my obviously simplistic interpretation on reading the advert, was that I would be passing on my extensive knowledge and understanding to students within my specialisation of Heavy Commercial Aircraft Operations and Performance – but it seems that I would also need to be much more…sensitive.
Sighing, I closed the lid on my lap top, and reviewed my fellow passengers. Most were hard at work on open lap tops, and a few were mumbling intensely into mobile phones. Only a very tiny minority were conducting leisure activities such as reading a book, or a newspaper.
This would appear to be the modern work ethos. Travel to work whilst working. Then put in a ten or twelve hour day, and then work some more on the commute home. Fourteen hours a day, and get paid for eight.
I think my Father’s generation were the last to enjoy their commute; my dear old Dad became a very well-read man after commuting for two hours a day by train for sixteen years, and he would read just about anything from autobiographies to science fiction. I used to benefit from his addiction as he would frequently wander in to my room and toss a book to me, saying “Read that, I think you’ll like it”.
I always did like his recommendations…
As a young lad attending college, and travelling by train, I used to spend the journey gazing out of the window, watching the English country landscape whizz by in a blur. Or engaging in fantasies involving some of the elegant ladies on board. I used to often enjoy reading the discarded newspapers left by fellow commuters, and would avidly soak up the latest news.
It seems that now, the young are disconnected from reality whilst connected to their phones, and commuting is now part of the working day, rather than a brief respite for those that work for a living.
How commuting has changed.
Welcome to the brave new world.
And yes, you are welcome to it….