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The Green Line

For some years at the end of the Fifties, I went to school on the Green Line bus. The Green Line, publicly owned like all London buses in those days, was a division of London Transport providing long-distance bus connections across London, typically starting out in a country town twenty to thirty miles outside the city and terminating in a comparably distant town on the opposite side of London. The bus I used, the 718, was routed from Windsor in the southwest to Harlow in the northeast, halfway between London and Cambridge.

The Green Line was distinctive in a number of ways. It was green, of course, not just on the outside but in the livery and finish inside as well. The buses were typically single-decker, in contrast to the conventional London buses of the day, and they had folding electric doors that closed with a swish. This feature also distinguished them from the open-backed double-deckers of central London and gave the Green Line buses a cozy, reassuring, and rather warm feel. Because they covered such long distances for a regular bus line—the typical Green Line route entailed a trip of over three hours end to end—these buses did not stop at most of the standard bus stops but only at occasional interchange points. Despite going no faster than the average London bus, they were thus nevertheless an “express” route and could charge a little more for their services.

The color and nomenclature of this service was not fortuitous. The Green Line buses invoked and illustrated a long-standing principle of London’s urban planning: their terminuses were strategically located athwart or beyond the “Green Belt” established around London in the early decades of the century. The latter constituted an early exercise in environmental preservation as well as in the provision of open space for public leisure and pleasure. The British capital in those days was thus carefully contained within a belt of open land: variously parks, common land, old-growth forests, undeveloped farmland, or open heath, all of it inherited from earlier royal or municipal or parochial property left in place so as to assure the preservation of the countryside of southeast England, perennially under threat from the unconstrained expansion of the Great Wen.

Despite the helter-skelter ribbon development of the interwar decades, and the even less appealing public and private housing projects of the 1950s, Greater London had been more or less contained within its belt of greenery; sometimes no more than a few miles deep, but enough to distinguish the city from the country and to preserve the identity and particularity of the towns and villages on its farther side. The Green Line buses thus reflected in their name, their routes, and the distances they covered the largely successful aspirations of a generation of planners.

I, of course, knew nothing of this. But I think I instinctively grasped the implicit message of these buses and their route managers. We, they seemed to say, are the moving spirit and incarnation of a certain idea of London. We begin in Windsor, as it might be, or Stevenage, or Gravesend, or East Grinstead, and we finish up in Harlow or Guildford or Watford, straddling London as we go (most Green Line routes passed through Victoria Station, Marble Arch, or both). Whereas the red Routemasters scurry back and forth across central London, their passengers leaping on and off at will, we Greenliners box the city, acknowledging its astonishing scale but asserting, in our distinctive routes and endpoints, its necessary limits.

I sometimes essayed those limits, riding the line from one end to the other just for the sheer pleasure of seeing woods, hills, and fields emerge at each end of my native metropolis. The Green Line “team”—there was a driver and a conductor to every bus—seemed distinctly sympathetic to this ostensibly pointless childhood exercise. They were not paid much more than the drivers and conductors of the red buses—none of the employees of the London Passenger Transport Board could boast much of an income in those days. When I started using their services, the bus men had only just come off a bitter and prolonged strike. But the “mood” of the Green Line men was quite distinct. They had more time to talk to one another and to the passengers. Because their doors closed, the interior was quieter than that of other buses. And large parts of their route were so very attractive, in that settled, comfortable way of the leafy outer suburbs of postwar London, that the bus itself—despite being upholstered in much the same way as all other London buses of the day—somehow felt plusher and more comfortable too. And so the driver and conductor seemed to me at least to take a greater pride in their vehicle and to relax into its routine more than other busmen.

The conductor, paid a little less than the skilled driver, was usually but not always a younger man (there were hardly any women). His function was ostensibly to keep order and collect fares; but since large tracts of countryside were often covered with relatively few passengers and stops, his task was hardly preoccupying. In practice he kept the driver company. The driver in his turn was part of the bus (his compartment integrated into the interior body) and thus often well known—sometimes by his first name—to passengers on his route. There was no question of the loneliness of the long-distance driver on the Green Line buses. Whether there was a question of class is another matter. Because the Green Lines cost more and picked up passengers from the suburbs as well as across the city, many of their patrons were probably a class or so removed from the typical bus user of those days. Whereas most people who took red buses to work in the 1950s would not have been in a position to commute by car even if they had wished to, a goodly share of the Green Line business in later years was lost to automobile commuters.

Thus whereas drivers, conductors, and passengers on the inner London buses were often drawn from the same social groups, Green Line commuters were more likely to be middle-class. This probably resulted in the reproduction on the bus of some of the patterns of deference still endemic to British society at large. It also made the buses quieter. However, the rather palpable pride that the Green Line teams took in their bus—they spent more time on it and were less likely to be moved to different services at short notice, in particular the drivers who had to learn long and complicated routes—compensated in some measure for these social hierarchies. The result was that everyone on the bus felt quite pleased with themselves, or seemed to. Even at the age of eleven I remember thinking that the bus smelled reassuring, more like a library or an old bookstore than a means of transport. This otherwise inexplicable association probably drew on the few public places that I associated with calm rather than noise and bustle.

I continued to use the Green Line buses into the mid-Sixties. By then I was chiefly catching them late at night (the last Green Line in those days usually left its depot around 10 PM), returning from Zionist youth meetings or a tryst with a girlfriend. The Green Line at that time of the evening was usually on time (unlike the red buses it ran to a published schedule); if you were late to the stop, you missed it. In which case I would be doomed to a long and cold wait on a station platform for the rare night train, followed by a cheerless and tiring walk home from some inconveniently sited Southern Railway station. Catching the Green Line thus felt good, a comfort and a security against the chill London night and a promise of safe, warm transport home.

Today’s Green Line buses are but a shadow of their predecessors. They are owned and run by Arriva, the worst of the private companies now responsible for providing train and bus services to British commuters, at exorbitant prices. With rare exceptions the buses avoid central London, being routed instead between the new reference points of British topography: Heathrow Airport, Legoland, etc. Their color is an accident of history, bearing no relation to their function: indeed, the green livery is now punctuated with pastel and other shades—an unintended reminder that neither the buses nor the service they provide stand for any integrated or common purpose. The conductors are long gone and the drivers, now insulated from the interior but responsible for the collection of fares, have no dealings with their customers beyond the purely commercial. There are no cross-London routes: those buses that enter the city terminate halfway across it before returning whence they came, as though to remind their users that this is just another bus service from point A to point B and has no aspiration to map or box or contain or in any other way identify and celebrate London’s remarkable scale and diversity, much less its rapidly disappearing belt of protective greenery. Like so much else in Britain today, the Green Line buses merely denote, like a crumbling boundary stone, overgrown and neglected, a past whose purposes and shared experiences are all but lost in Heritage Britain.

—This piece is part of a continuing series of memoirs by Tony Judt.

Letters

What Happened in May 1968? April 8, 2010

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