I wrote last week about acting on wild ideas. My father was a judge. As the profession would suggest, he was the most rational of men and not given to frequent flights of the imagination. Occasionally, though, he surprised us – and perhaps himself too. The bus was a conspicuously wild idea and a brilliant moment of inspiration.
My teenage years were happily spent in the house my parents moved to from Edinburgh, after my grandfather’s death in 1958. It was, and still is (my stepmother lives there now) an attractive Georgian manse with a walled garden, a wood and a few acres of grazing around it. It sits on what must once have been a flood plain, encircled by high hills, in a particularly picturesque part of west Perthshire. At the rear of the house, a whitewashed single-storey outbuilding and two-storey former stable building form two sides of a small courtyard. At the time we moved there both were used for storage: bicycles, garden equipment, coal and logs, old furniture and so on.
Around the time of my fifteenth birthday my mother announced that she was pregnant. By that time my four-years-younger brother, Simon, and I were heavily into music. We played in a Scottish dance band with two slightly older local girls. The band was named, without a trace of irony, The Earners. We all came from Strathearn, but we also played for nothing. My mother drove us all over the place to perform at teenage parties. I played the drums, quite badly. Simon, aged 11, played a bass guitar which was almost as big as he was.
When we weren’t traipsing the countryside, something else was stirring in the Jauncey household. An electric guitar had appeared, along with LPs by Chuck Berry and John Lee Hooker and The Animals. The decibel count in the manse was rising and Arabella, our much younger sister, was well on her way. What was going to happen when she eventually appeared? The obvious answer was to convert the stables – but there wasn’t enough money.
What about a bus? said my father one day. My mother got onto the case and tracked down a decommissioned Glasgow Corporation bus. It was a classic red double-decker. She and Simon drove to a bus graveyard somewhere south of Glasgow. She handed over £100 and a little later the bus arrived at home. At the wheel was a Glasgow bus driver who was not used to the countryside and had driven the final 10 miles of desolate hill road in fear for his life. It must have been the only time a double-decker had ever travelled that particular stretch of road.
On its way up the drive the bus briefly got stuck under a branch, which we managed to haul out of the way with a rope. The battle scar remained, a large dent running down one side of the red roof. We parked it behind the tall north wall of the walled garden, over the top of which it could just be seen from the main road that wound down the hill opposite. There it slowly settled into the soft ground. We took all the seats out and moved in an upright piano. My grandmother made a great number of small pairs of curtains. The local joiner put an aluminium partition around the platform and set a door in it. And we got it wired up to the mains.
It would be fair to say that the bus became a legend in its own fairly short lifetime, although I don’t think we realised at the time quite what an impression it was making. Today I still occasionally meet people who remember it as having been the last word in cool. For us it was just somewhere to play very loud music, smoke cigarettes and later dope, and most importantly of all, snog. And when the racket got too loud or went on too late my father would pad down to the kitchen in the house where the main fuseboard was and throw the switch, plunging us into a sheepish darkness and silence.
For the first year or so we ran the engine from time to time, just to keep it turning. Later my father managed to interest a local farmer in taking it for one of his lorries. They got it off its mountings and almost out of the engine compartment only to discover it was an inch too wide for the chassis of the lorry. So the bus remained partially disembowelled, its vital organs rusting, until my second year at university when I came home one holidays to find it gone. A scrappie with an oxyacetylene cutter had taken what he could and my father had buried the rest.
We can’t have had it for more than four years, five at the most, but the bus epitomised our adolescence. It was where my parents effectively said go off and do all the things we don’t want to know about. It was where we experimented with being adult and certainly where my brother and I consolidated a lifelong passion for music. And although it never actually went anywhere it also came to symbolise the first stage of our departure from home. Had we acquired it complete with clippie, she would have issued us with tickets to the future. Perhaps my father had more imagination than I give him credit for.