If you know me, or have read any of my writing, you’ll know I was born and grew up in Northern Ireland.
I had a fantastically happy childhood, even though we were all meant to be living under the “Shadow of a Gunman”. Yes there was shit happening but it was just there. As much a part of our growing up as wearing thongs (flip flops to everyone else) and going down the beach was for people growing up in Australia.
Thing is, I was doing a talk last night, that turned into a 1 ½ hour one-man-show that seemed to go over quite well. Near the end of it I was asked a question, “Had I ever thought of writing a memoir?” and in the answer I said yes, but it would have to include the stories from growing up. I began to recount some and in the telling it became apparent that I must have grown up with some right nutters. (In the nicest possible meaning of the word.)
I knew men who would come round for cards and drinks and recite poetry of the longest form. Half-cut and probably unable to recite their own name half the time, they could still hit every syllable and maintain a perfect rhythm to turn this:
There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu,
There’s a little marble cross below the town;
There’s a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,
And the Yellow God forever gazes down.
(and the ten other verses) into a soliloquy that Olivier would have been proud of. But that wasn’t all the exploits that these men got up to. Quite a lot of them were Ulsterbus drivers and conductors. Back in the day when you had conductors. Remember them? And their round machines with cogs and wheels and settings and a little handle that you turned for a ticket.
Now some of these men are still alive and well so they’ll be no names mentioned here, but the Larne depot of Ulsterbus made Reg Varney and his mates “On the Busses” look like comparable angels. I’ll dig up some more of these stories when I do get around to writing a memoir but for now, it’s worth understanding that to drive a road in the North of Ireland called Torr Head you need nerves of steel and a very nimble, small, powerful and almost Rally-esque car. Google it on Google Earth and take a look at it in the landscape settings. The road isn’t quite single lane but it’s not far off it. It has grass growing in the middle ‘hump’ which gives you an indication of how often it is traversed. In a weirdly ironic and perhaps cruel twist it is signposted as a tourist route for unsuspecting foreigners (and English). It goes up and down like a rollercoaster. For added fun it has two conjoined hairpins that are only outdone in degrees of switch-back by the degrees of upward angle employed to grasp onto the side of the mountain. This is a road for Subarus and Citroën DS3s, for Peugeots and Mitsubishis. Not for a Leyland Panther, single Decker bus.
Not for one of them at all. Yet, on a memorable day one such brave team of driver and conductor took one such unwitting bus and put it up and over Torr Head. And the reason for this feat of daring do? Well, that’s complicated. You see, the Larne-Ballycastle run took a certain route that took a certain time. But, if you arrived in Ballycastle and while waiting for the return run, you happened to have a skinful of drink, so that your departure time was rather later than planned, the only way left for you to get back to the depot on time (and avoid the wrath of management) would be to take the alternative, more direct Torr Head.
So that’s what they did. They actually did it so well they got back early. Of course, they had no passengers. For the passengers, unaware of the change of route, had mistakenly stood at their normal bus stops waiting for the blue and white lines of the sleek, but not mountain goat, Leyland Panther, to come into sight. Alas, on that day they were not for travelling anywhere. As for management, they were just told it was a quiet day. “Sure it’s a bleak auld kind of a day. There was nay passengers there at all so there wasnay. Wouldnae credit it would yay.” Or words to that effect.
Ian Andrew is the author of the alternative history novel A Time To Every Purpose, the detective thrillers Face Value and Flight Path and the Little Book of Silly Rhymes & Odd Verses. All are available in e-book and paperback. Follow him on social media: