From the step of a bus

THERE ARE CERTAIN AREAS OF PUBLIC AND SOCIAL ACTIVITY that every man considers himself qualified not only to comment, advise or pontificate about, but to lay down dogmatically immutable laws, state plans of action and announce future policies that if followed would (he will assure the saloon bar regulars) produce profit for all and victory for some vague and ill defined target. Men who gaze into the internal workings of an open pocket watch with the fascinated horror of an hypnotised rabbit will, with the aid of a pencil and a captive audience, resite atomic plants, lay out huge industrial townships, transfer tens of thousands of their unfortunate fellow countrymen half way around the world for the greater good of industrial productivity and devise transport hells that not only would span the world even to the utmost limits of the bar room counter, but would populate deserts and jungles though at the same time turning the habitable parts of this earth over to the beasts and the birds. There are such men who would hesitate to switch on a television set without the supervision of some qualified woman, yet left to themselves would out-Napoleon Napoleon by sending armies flat footing across Europe, fleets of planes into other peoples’ broad blue yonders, and navies across oceans, up rivers and down canals to win undeclared wars for undeclared objects. Yet such is the fundamental simplicity of most of our human problems that in most part they are correct in their assumptions. For unlike the experts they approach these problems not from the experts’ wet-eyed view-point but from that of the social user and sufferer. Time and time again the Unit One of the human race has been sacrificed without apology for a drawing board mistake; and millions of men, women and children have lived out their short and miserable lives to enable an industrialist or a politician to prove a thesis or show the shareholders a profit and when the second generation experts have arisen to lay their dry dead hands on new “facts”, or with the wisdom of hindsight burning bright within the rims of their rimless spectacles, proven that all previous theories were the intellectual dross of their dear old dad, then they in their turn will expound heresy. Unless they accept the simple and fundamental truth that individual man must not be sacrificed for a mythical future for posterity and that the key and the test of all human activities is the well being of each and every individual. It is at this point that the saloon bar dreamer and the expert make common cause and reach a common failure. For whatever plans they conceive, whether drawn in beer or typed in triplicate, they are geared to their own particular social grouping and can only be put into operation at the expense of less fortunate people. But of all fields of social activity none occupy the user more than that of mass human transport. Here is the one social function to which they are forced by circumstance of employment or pleasure to be the daily victim. Each day in every town and city they stand in their queues waiting and waiting for the bus that never seems to come. They will crowd, in conditions that rightly we would not allow animals to suffer, into the Underground systems of the major cities of the world and they will vent their hate and anger on the lone and solitary bus conductor in the prison/warder relationship that this mobile Kafka circus creates. For here is the one person who can be forced by economic imprisonment to stand and accept their whines, their insolence, their bitter contempt, their intelligent observations or their stark babbling lunacies. Yet of all men the bus conductor is the least able to help them for like them he is the victim of a society that holds that profit and not social service must be the key-stone of every communal endeavour, for it is a system that panders to the bully among the passengers and the whining gutless sycophant among the employed staff. And men will stand in rain-swept queues and prove to their damp and indifferent neighbours that if such and such a plan were followed and put into immediate operation they would have a transport service that would carry them with ease and swiftness to their destinations. And they will huddle in the swaying bus searching for the small silver of their fare worrying and wondering if they will reach their place of employment on time and what excuse they can offer for their lateness.

And the object of their contained hatred forces his way through the bus as irritated as the traveller and hating the collective for its slowness and its insolence and the stupidity and the arrogance of the small but vocal minority. As the passenger is the prisoner of those who plan our society for their own minority well-being, so the conductor in his turn is the victim of this same abstract authority. Behind him stand an array of uniformed and plain-clothed officials that demand that he shall be held responsible for every single uncollected fare and even for the traveller who would, by accident or design, ride a hundred yards past his paid journey. For London Transport obey the oldest of bad employers’ weapons: to govern by fear and threats. Let a child of three be found on a crowded bus without a ticket and the bus conductor will be reported for an official interview with the Chief Depot Inspector. Let any person, by accident or design, travel beyond his paid journey and the conductor will be held responsible and asked to explain why he allowed such an incident to happen on “his bus”. That it is literally impossible for any man to know what ticket each person on a crowded bus is holding or where each person has booked to should be self-evident and a simple test could prove it. A crowded bus holds sixty one people, ignoring the fact that people are continually boarding and alighting, and the cold and clinical test is to have sixty-one people standing in a line. Let an official walk along that line and then let each individual name a fare of his own choosing. Then let that same official again walk along that line and correctly rename each and every one of the sixty-one named fares. It is, of course, a mentally impossible feat and London Transport, as ever other employer knows, is aware that this fact is self evident, but they work on the ancient and historically tested thesis that fear is the easiest weapon to control those you hire and that targets of work should always be pitched beyond the workman’s capabilities. Its outcome is that a man works like a rat in a Pavlov trap without any apparent supervision yet always with the knowledge that at any moment a uniformed official will check the bus or that at any time of the day and night he is under the unknown supervision of plain clothed officials travelling on these self same buses as fare paying passengers. It could be held that this is but the trivia of any discontented staff, were it not that within our present society a whole organization is built upon men and women doing what is a completely time-wasting function. For it is on the basis of what the conductor collects in fares that our transport service is planned or cut.

Within the last few years there has been a large influx of coloured and casual labour and it is thanks to them that much of the childish discipline of London Transport has had to be abandoned.

The pre-war bus crews were men who loved the lash. Highly paid, and cocks within their own working class areas, they took a perverse pride in their subservience. They were the men who loved to stand to attention, wear their gleaming white coats on the correct day of the year and who knew their well-paid place within their semi-military organization. But undisciplined labour from overseas has made a fortunate havoc of many stupid rules. The bare headed men and women, the coloured scarves, open necked shirts, brown shoes, the occasional punching of a passenger, skirts of their own choosing instead of the official uniform-wear, are small comforts that have been won against the employer and without any assistance from the official union by people who are indifferent to the prized humility of the old guard busmen. For the constant breaking of drear little rules have forced the employer to shrug off with an ill grace their impossible enforcement. That there is a lesson there for the union officials to learn is but wasted effort, for though the casually employed coloured workmen and women have done more to lighten the disciplinary burden within the last five years than the old time bus-men and the official union have achieved within the last fifty years, it would be idle to suggest that this debt is acknowledged. The old guard is still there, though in smaller numbers every year, forever seeking an official ear to whine into about the good old days when men knew their place, and when one had to collect fares looking like a busman. And they will tell old nostalgic tales of how, so many years ago, Old Piss-the-Bed was sent home for not wearing a white shirt or of how they beat a report by the quoting of an obscure regulation and how the governor winked at them as they marched smartly out of the office.

And they gaze with open contempt at their coloured workers and wonder in loud voices when all this riff-raff will be kicked off the job, and the job get back to normal, and the official leaning through the cubby hole will nod his head in sage agreement and talk of the need for discipline. The London Transport system is always referred to as public transport and by the continual use of that simple title people have come to accept it as a public service and to judge its failings accordingly. This is one of those abysmal jokes that even old Unit One standing on a windswept, rainswept street waiting for a non-running bus cannot drain out of his mental background. Yet the London buses are there, as is every other business big or small, for no other purpose than to sell to those who can afford to pay, and when there is no profit to be made they do the same as every other business clique does: they close shop. Like the small shopkeeper they close down their business when or where trade is slack and like the multiple stores they close branches or routes that are no longer considered profitable. Old Unit One standing at his suburban and useless bus-stop will grip his membership card of his local Conservative Ass. and tell the world, in a low and respectable rage, that the London Transport Executive have no consideration for the general public and Unit One is so right. Yet in a society that accepts the profit motive as its only dynamic and cares for its old and sick under duress, busless Unit One never asks himself the obvious question of why anyone in the social set-up which he approves for others, should waste time and energy running a bus for his paltry fare.

The small child without the price of a bus fare will have to walk and the old men and women will drag themselves on their aching legs for the luxury of public transport is not for them, no matter how many buses clog the road. For without a handful of copper coins the phrase public transport is a dismal mockery. It is indeed a mockery to label any industry that operates on a profit basis a public service. One can have little sympathy with the broad mass of the lower-middle-class who on one single day of every fifth year pledge their allegiance to the principles of personal profit, cut-throat competition for others, and the abrogation of any social service that does not benefit them directly, then spend the intervening four years and three-hundred-and-sixty-four days demanding that their means of transport should operate in their particular suburb as a publicly-subsidised social service along with their public lavatory, library, church and sewerage system.

One can have little sympathy with old Unit One but no matter how much one may dislike him and all he stands for with his personal greed and anti-social attitudes, except where his own personal comforts are involved, one cannot plan any social enterprise on a basis of hate or contempt. For no matter how much others may abuse or deride what one has attempted or achieved one must still plan for better social services not as a single and reachable goal but as links in a chain that alters with the new social conditions that each new social change will create. It was a supreme tragedy that the Labour government of 1945 failed to measure up to the task and the opportunity that history thrust upon them. It was not because they were the incompetents of the tory press, or the traitors of the communist press, that they failed; but that the whole of their background and training blinded them to their destiny and these nice middle-class Fabian intellectuals threw away a century of working class idealism in a worthless effort to prove that they could run a State-capitalist society as profitably as the individual industrialists whose broken and bankrupt industries they took over.

Yet already they held in their hands an industry that could have been the show piece of public ownership and public service and this was the London Transport system. This system could have been the cornerstone for the whole of public ownership as envisaged by the John-the-Baptists of the militant working class for the Labour Party could have pointed to its London transport system and said “here is the blue print for a new way of living”. With a Machiavellian use of capital in their first year of office they could have abolished the fares system and instituted a realistic scheme of workers control and management that others would have accepted as the fount of all other social endeavours.

Here was an industry free of the dead hand of middle-class control for all control was already in the hands of men with working class backgrounds, and though there is no virtue in this fact it meant that as every official was a minor career man already broken to the acceptance of working without challenging those who formulated policy, the industry would not have had to fight the blackmail that the medical politicoes did not hesitate to use in their battle against Bevan. A transport system operating for need not profit with only the cost of wage/maintenance to find.

Without its hoards of parasitic officials, as free to use or reject as the water in a public fountain. Operated by the men themselves and answerable to each local council. Owned and controlled by the community it would be regarded not as the harlot among our pseudo social services but an accepted and indispensable part of our social fabric.