Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Transports of Delight

A couple of weeks ago I was walking along the river, through Bristol's prestigious "impossible to get anything remotely resembling a glass of beer" quarter. On the courtyard in front of the Lloyds building (usually occupied by young men falling off skateboards) I stumbled upon what was obviously some kind of convention or flea market for bus enthusiasts.

You may think that "bus" and "enthusiast" is a contradiction in terms, and I may think that "bus" and "enthusiast" is a contradiction in terms, but the people who were walking around the convention writing down bus numbers in their notebooks were clearly very enthusiastic indeed about buses. And there are apparently enough of them for it to be worth holding a convention in Bristol. There were perhaps 50 or 100 buses: buses that didn't look much more ancient than the ones one waits for on Stokes Croft; buses that looked so old that you wondered why they didn't have horses attached to them. Mostly local and country buses; green buses and buses with regional insignia and heraldry. I venture to say that the fans of scarlet painted London Transport diesel engine 97 horsepower London buses have their own conventions, and laugh (ha!) at regional bus fans. (I am city kid. Buses are red and it is only in quaint places outside the Thames TV area where you visit elderly relatives that buses are green. I have heard that if you stand outside Cockfosters tube (where the London Underground comes to an end) you will eventually see buses turning from red to green, and do in part believe it.) Some of them wore the uniforms that bus conductors wore in the days when there were bus conductors.

I assume that an individual collector can't possibly own his own bus. Presumably, there must be vintage bus societies, and each vehicle must represent thousands of pounds and thousands of hours work by society members. I picture them packing up their sandwiches and piling into the society bus, and then converging on Bristol at an agreed time, like Hells Angels or the Caravan Club. (The last time I went to Bournemouth I discovered the phenomenon of the costumed marching band: a large group of local men in Spider-Man suits doing cheer-leader majorette type marching, followed by, as it may be, a group from Clacton all dressed as Buzz Lightyear or a group from Lewes all dressed as Vikings. Can you imagine a better excuse to visit a different English seaside town each month during the summer? Well, yes, so can I, but that isn't the point I'm trying to make here.) And of course, there were trestle tables on which people were selling antique bus time tables, back numbers of bus magazines, cigarette cards with buses on them, and old Corgi models of buses, many of which are much sort after by the sorts of people who collect corgi models of buses.

Now, I have always taken it for granted that someone, somewhere knows about buses. If I were making a movie set in Weston Super Mare in the 1950s, an admittedly remote contingency, I would expect to be able to give someone a ring and say "There's a scene where my hero is waiting on the sea front to meet his girlfriend off the bus. Please, what kind of a bus should it be?" Some people believe that history grows wild on the Internet. You can close history departments, fire the academics, give all the universities a restructuring they'll never forget, and when the BBC wants to make a lavish costume drama about the life of a kitchen maid at the time of bloody Mary, trivial data about Tudor dish-washing will magically fall from the sky. But I guess I'd been assuming that bus experts were a species of Local Historian or a sub-phylum of Vintage Car fanatic. But no. It appears that there are people whose whole life is buses.

I imagine they are just as bored with people who say that you wait hours for a bus enthusiast and then a hundred come along at once as I am with people (and I'm looking at you, Venue magazine) who can't see a meeting of strip illustrators without saying "Zap!" and "Kapow!"

At this point in the proceedings you would very naturally expect me to start using expressions about "getting a life", wondering whether these bus enthusiasts would ever "grow up" or if indeed they had ever "got laid". But in fact my reaction to a courtyard full of people wondering whether this 1/76 die cast ABC model West Midlands PTR Volvo TRA 5005 was in better condition than that 1/76 die cast ABC model West Midlands PTR Volvo TRA5005 was to cry out "Brother!" or at any rate "Distant cousin twice removed on my Auntie Annie's side!"

In my third favourite pub there is sometimes a group of people who spend the evening talking about their capacitors and their resistors. It turns out they are radio amateurs. Not even Citizens Band: I don't think C.B ever really took off in this country. Proper Hancock style Radio 'Ams. How can it possibly be fun to use home made radios (and Morse Code, for heaven's sake) to communicate with people from other lands in an age when electronic mail, and, I believe, telephones, are relatively common? There's only one possible reaction to this kind of stupidity. "Fellow geeks!"

There is literally nothing better in the world than a group of friends getting together to do something they like. When it's something that hardly anyone else likes, something which everybody else thinks is quite silly – something which in the cold light of day, even they realize is quite silly – that makes it even better. Rather noble. Rather Corinthian, if that's the word I'm groping for. I don't know why the 1972 Pagham – Littlehampton time table was so much less beautiful than the 1964 version had been. Why should I? They don't know that the 1996 invasion of Earth by the Mekon was only defeated because the human race bothered to practice redundant skills like horse-riding and sword-fighting which the Treens had long abandoned.

So. I hope you all enjoy your big game of kickabout very much indeed. But please – don't pretend it actually matters. And do try not to kill anybody afterwards.

You've done this one before - Ed

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Mike Taylor said...

... and that is why I will be going to Oxonmoot this year. Is anyone else going?

Gavin Burrows said...

or a group from Lewes dressed as Vikings.

You have not lived in Sussex in a long time if you consider groups from Lewes dressed as Vikings to be worthy of comment!

俊茹 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Phil Masters said...

Umm, yeah. I fully agree that geeks should have the honesty not to criticise other geeks for the stuff to which they themselves are prone. It should be very hard to pretend that our own areas of obsession are somehow more important or somehow should be more cool than anyone else's. And geekery often provides the foundation for serious scholarship in a field, especially one where the serious scholarship is spread a bit thin.

Though - while I know zilch about buses - I can't see that there's anything too strange about that area of geekery. Buses are big machines, after all, and big machines are almost always cool. Plus I can see an interesting social history aspect to bus studies.

But - I reserve the right to criticise any and all geeks (including the ones who share my own interests) for the general sins of geekery. Willful social incompetence and narrow-minded exclusive snobbery are silly at best, downright dangerous at worst. The fact that they occur among people close to me, socially, doesn't excuse them among people with slightly different interests. I might manage a bit more understanding because of the similarity, but understanding is not the same as justification.

And yep, that all includes footie fans, who are indeed just another bunch of geeks, with more lager and more social self-validation than most.

Chestertonian Rambler said...


Welcome back! (I say as someone vaguely interested in the English folk music scene and utterly incapable of affording the plane ticket to actually see them in person.)


"Willful social incompetence and narrow-minded exclusive snobbery are silly at best, downright dangerous at worst."

Narrow-minded exclusive snobbery...yes, when you really start seeing non-Who fans as an inferior form of humanity worthy of derision. But as to a low-level willful social incompetence, well, among the nerds I know at least there seems to be the same division of boorish idiots and friendly hosts as in culture at large.

The central fact is just that they found a space to belong, to enthuse, and to be a certain strange invented form of themselves that is rather exhilarating in its divergence from standard culture. And if they're happy, productive (albeit odd) members of society...why should they increase their outside-the-group social competence?

Phil Masters said...

Because it's rude not to?

It also tends to make life that much harder for the slightly more socially adept people who share their enthusiasms. They're condemned by association.

(The fact that social incompetence sometimes shades into things like sexual assault is another problem again, but mercifully a fairly rare one.)