It is not a happy occasion when two buses meet, face to face, on a narrow(ed) city street, as happened one afternoon last week. Usually bus drivers are masters of anticipation, able to squeeze their buses like toothpaste from a tube (some of the Lothian buses even have stripes...sort of) and when they reach an impasse (unpass?), it is the other guy who backs down. Similarly, when buses join in at stops, nose to tail with barely space for a piece of paper between them, if the driver in front decides to settle down for a quick kip, the bus behind waits patiently for as long as it takes for the front guy to wake up and move off. They never, ever, reverse--not even for six inches--so that they can pull out. It just isn’t done.
On the fateful afternoon when the two buses virtually kissed on a constricted corner it was-briefly- a stand-off. The drivers stared through their windscreens, unmoving, squinting against the low glare of the late afternoon winter sun as they lightly fingered their steering wheels. It seemed appropriate that we were opposite an Italian Restaurant—we were momentarily in a spaghetti western: ‘The Good, the Bad and the Buses’. Our bus wore the metaphorical white hat as, smiling good-naturedly, our bus driver leapt out of his seat and into the street, directing the other driver so that he could reverse while our bus idled in the middle of the road. I wondered what would have happened if neither driver had been inclined to de-bus and sort out the situation. Is there a special bus-Sheriff who would come, sort out the snarl and instruct the respective drivers to get out of Dodge?
The incident led me to wonder whether this lack of enthusiasm amongst bus drivers is a matter of instruction or inclination; legislation or laziness. Heaven knows, as a species, we do not like going backward, being backward or looking backward—and not just because it is a pain in the neck. Reversals are almost never a good thing, associated as they are with u-turns, backpedalling and fortunes going entirely in the wrong direction. To reverse a decision is to admit that one was wrong the first time around, or worse still--uncertain. Reversing your thinking may result in circular reasoning, which make you dizzy. Reversing charges for telephone calls is never going to make you popular --though a reverse grab spin in a pole dance might and a reverse two and a half somersault pike with a twist could win you a diving medal, if not a concussion.
I suppose I may have just assumed that buses, like Margaret (‘the lady’s not for turning’) Thatcher, are simply not built for going backward (unlike figure skaters, who unlike most people, go backward at least half the time, giving them an unusual and uniquely balanced perspective on life. One wonders if any of them end up in the judiciary?). Could there be rules for buses that say they cannot go backward but, like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, keep going ever forward?
When I consulted Mr Goggle I discovered that bus drivers are as puzzled as I am. There are whole forum pages devoted to debate on the subject with more dogma, blind faith and doubt represented there in than in all the churches on Holy Corner in Morningside. Some are certain there is legislation saying buses must not reverse, or that buses must not reverse when there are passengers on board, or that they can only reverse when supervised (which leads to a discussion about who could legally supervise: a policeman? A traffic warden? The Fat Controller?). Some say that it was not law but regulation...or by-law...or innuendo. Some feel any notion that there are laws, rules, regulations, guidance or moral imperative is a nonsense—an urban myth. ‘Free yourselves and back up with impunity,’ is their feeble cry. Just imagine, in villages, towns and cities there are bus drivers unwilling, unable or just too frightened to back up. They must be hell with a trolley in B&Q on bank holiday weekends.
Finding no definitive explanation was a disappointing outcome. I had, it would seem, caught a tartar, which is (according to The Free Dictionary) ‘to experience a reversal of expectations’. Not so much ‘Great Expectations’ then, as ‘Small Possibilities’. To catch a tartar can also mean to fight a strong enemy or, more specifically, ‘to marry a shrew’. I cannot help but feel that this ethnic stereo-typing of the Tartars as bad-tempered, ferocious and unwilling to share their sweets is unfair (there must have been the occasional Tartar who was an absolute lamb?) and more than a little sweeping (not to mention sexist). It’s a bit backward, that kind of thinking...so presumably something bus drivers never indulge in.