The beautiful Atlantean bus
The old pierhead bus terminus
The magical Ribble bus
Regimented penguins walked on these ferries. We would hang from that chrome rail shooting at outlaws.
The Liverpool bus was a wondrous thing. It came in red or green. So simple. The red buses were run by Ribble and came from faraway places such as Blackpool, Ormskirk, Much Hoole, Little Hoole or Preston. I loved the colour, especially on misty days, but the people on them spoke different, and looked different. The men wore tweed and the women wore strange hats, which to a small boy was off-putting.
The Corporation buses on the other hand were green and the people on them spoke like I did, which was all to the good. These Atlantean buses are still remembered with fondness – especially by my brother in law in Australia; but I preferred their precursor. These were also green. You don’t mess about with colour.
The driver was encased in the front and the entrance/exit was at the back of the bus and guarded by a conductor, who stood there all day, when he was not going up and down the bus collecting fares or talking to old ladies.
The beauty of the entry point was that it had no doors. Just a single chrome pole and you could leap on the bus as it was taking off and hang on with your head sticking out into the traffic. What fun we had.
The real beauty of the Liverpool bus was the people on them, talking to their friends, talking to strangers, talking to themselves, talking. I warned Bernadette the very first time she went on a Liverpool bus. Don’t make eye contact unless you want to tell a stranger your life story. She thought I was mad until she was halfway through giving an account of her schooldays to curious old man.
On more than one occasion I’ve heard how a student or stranger to the city, looking for an unfamiliar address has asked the conductor or driver for the nearest bus stop to it, and have found themselves driven to the very front door, the bus and its passengers having gone on a magical mystery tour to get there. It helped if you were young, female, and attractive.
And finally you reached the Pier Head, a place once exciting and vibrant but which is now little more than an antiseptic theme park. Then the buses piled up in their bays right on the water front, like gigantic green pigeons jostling for space.
If you were early, you’d see the Wallesey ferry come in and be treated to another sight, now sadly gone: a ferry its three decks crammed with office workers in pinstripes, some in bowler hats, all carrying umbrellas, earnestly perambulating in a clockwise direction, and stopping only when the ship hit the landing stage with a judder. Seagulls, giant green pigeons and regimental penguins, Liverpool had them all.
“I’ve lost me ticket. I’ve lost it. I’ve lost me ticket!” the boy, about sixteen years old and wearing a pale green jacket, jumped up from his seat, brushing down his bottom, his face torn in anguish. “I hope I haven’t sat on it – It'll have swallowed up.” It was the first time I’d ever seen or heard somebody overtly gay and gloriously funny. I’d heard about it but only in whispers.
In the early sixties if you wore deodorant you were ‘gay’. Somebody in theatre once came to St. Bonaventures. He wanted ‘volunteers’ for a production of Carmen he was putting on in the Philharmonic Hall. We were dragooned into it and did our stuff as soldiers on the stage in the school hall. Rehearsals didn’t go well. The man wore deodorant and talcum and we cringed when he touched us. I never made my debut on the stage, at least not then.
Whispers: the pub in Liverpool where the Beatles’ ‘Sexy Sadie’ worked; we’d heard about him before ever the song was written. Whispers: lesbians – never heard of them until the word came out that Dusty Springfield was one, and that broke a small boy’s heart. Whispers: Mick Jagger was changing his sex.
There was an obnoxious and prurient undergrowth of homophobia feeding on the insecurities of adolescence and designed to entrench the status quo. It took courage then to accept what you were, courage, too for others to accept that they should. Homosexuals were never shown as attractive; films showed then as in some way ‘creepy’, and the whispers soon came out that Dusty bathed her face in onion juice to preserve her skin. I mean, tell me anything better designed than that to quash a boy’s desire!
And despite all the whispers I never saw it coming.
It took place of course on a Liverpool bus.
I was coming home from an evening drinking. A middle-aged man sat next to me and in the way of things we soon began talking. He worked on a farm, and I was the young Trotsky in full inflammatory mode and skin-full of beer. We talked of workers and peasants, and by the time we reached Walton Church his hand was on my knee. We talked of Krondstadt, the Permanent Revolution, and by Warbreck Moor his hand was on my thigh. I was oblivious, convinced he was hanging on my every word. He would have been hanging on something else pretty soon except for the fact that the next stop was mine. The following morning, in replay mode I winced at what I never saw then. But boys grow up and learn that deodorant is good and that gays are both funny and generous and wise.
In many cases.