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Tom Beaumont tells of life on the buses in debut book The Accidental Bus Driver

An expensive education brings all sorts of advantages, but Tom Beaumont's debut as author owes everything to his life on the buses, as David Whetstone finds out

Tom Beaumont, author of The Accidental Bus Driver
Tom Beaumont, author of The Accidental Bus Driver

Quite possibly – and it’s never safe to generalise, of course – Thomas (Tom) Beaumont, from Northumberland, is not your typical bus driver.

“Boris Johnson and I went to school together,” begins the preface of his book The Accidental Bus Driver, a summer must-read for all those planning a coach trip to anywhere.

Yes, Tom, who has steered buses along most of the North East’s highways and byways and also further afield, went to Eton. His uncle is Lord Allendale and his father was clerk of the course (and rather more influential than that job title implies) at Ascot racecourse for 30 years.

As a child Tom met the Queen, as you might expect since it’s her local track and home every summer to the Royal Ascot meeting when four-legged and two-legged aristocrats meet and mingle.

He was rather more excited to meet Lester Piggott who stayed for breakfast one day because he was due to exercise a horse called Gay Lussac ahead of a forthcoming run in a big race, the King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.

Tom, who wanted to be a jockey before he began to shoot up to his adult height of 6ft 5ins, remembers Lester was disgruntled with his pilot who refused to take off in thick fog to fly him to Great Yarmouth where he must have had a fancied runner or two.

Piggott, for all his apparent lack of charm, is etched in the memory. And the current Mayor of London?

“I don’t remember much about him, except for his blond mop which was readily identifiable,” confesses Tom in his preface.

“He was younger and far cleverer than me and in a school the size of Eton it was unlikely that a King’s Scholar with a future eye on politics and myself, who wanted only to head for the nearest betting shop, pub, nightclub or racecourse, would ever have much in common. But as life is full of surprises, amazingly we do.”

Both of them, he explains, went on to be involved with buses. Boris chairs Transport for London, took a bus to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and helped in the design of a new Routemaster. As for Tom: “I just became a bus driver.”

He doubts he was the first Old Etonian bus driver but allows that he “must be one of an elite few who have followed this career path”.

This is tongue-in-cheek. Boys who go to Eton, it is commonly assumed, are supposed to become Prime Minister (David Cameron) or Archbishop of Canterbury (Justin Welby) or something really big in banking or the law.

Tom wonders if he has under-achieved and says on the face of it he might have done. But he says while he might have gone into the bus industry accidentally, he doesn’t regret it due to “the continuing rich mixture of unconventional characters and situations” which gives hours of pleasure to an observer of life like himself.

It also inspired him to write and publish his book, a hilarious and often hair-raising account of a bus driver’s life.

“It has been picked up by the On the Buses fan club,” he tells me with genuine delight. “They have given me a marvellous review.”

When I tell him that his account, while absorbing and funny, didn’t make me feel particularly envious, he looks a little crestfallen. Tales of mechanical mishaps, awkward passengers, parties of travel sick kids and early starts on ice cold mornings make good reading but did not work for me as an enticement to change career.

“I hope by the end of the book you realise what a hero the North East bus driver is, not me but the people running it,” says Tom.

“They’re the most marvellous, humorous bunch of people.

“I think it was back in 1986 that the North East bus driver was the highest paid in the country. You had companies up here that were really proud of their buses and crews and there was a terrific camaraderie which you possibly don’t get in too many other places.

“To some extent that makes up for the long hours and misbehaving passengers.”

Tom reflects on his “amazing” childhood, of Eton where he was “very lucky and met up with some extraordinary people” and of home where, just 500 yards away, he had the grandstands of Ascot racecourse as his personal cycling track on non-racing days.

After school Tom went to work in the public relations department of the Tote (the Horserace Totalisator Board) under its colourful chairman Woodrow Wyatt. He remembers him as an “incredible boss” and also recalls some lavish parties. But all this might be for another book.

Tom got into driving because his mother, Jinny, ran a charity which transported medical supplies and other essentials to Poland before the fall of the Iron Curtain. He drove the trucks, garnering a fund of stories.

“Then we got given a bus by the marketing department of London Transport to take to Poland and I thought I’d better get a bus licence.”

Tom got his licence but the Poles never got the bus because it proved to be unsuitable.

After leaving the Tote, Tom worked as an express courier and then fell seriously ill which took two years out of his life. Back on his feet, he worked for a while for Leonard Cheshire, war hero and founder of the charity now known as Leonard Cheshire Disability, and then flirted with the fashion industry, completing a course at the London School of Fashion.

Then in 1996, when his parents retired to Sparty Lea in Northumberland, he moved to the North East with them.

Equipped with a licence to drive buses, another career chapter opened... which would lead to the chapters of this, his first book. At which point I should say that Tom promises that none of the material in the book has appeared on his Accidental Bus Driver blog. It is all new, including the account of how he met his wife, Pauline, while driving a bus that had been temporarily turned into a travelling art gallery.

She was the arts officer for Sedgefield. They were married in the Lake District and he took her on honeymoon to Armenia.

“I developed a fascination with the succession of Armenian buses rattling along the street,” says this dyed-in-the-wool romantic. “They were all listing at a 45-degree angle and belched acrid black smoke.”

The couple are still together.

Stories tumble over each other in Tom’s book and I get the distinct impression there are plenty more where they came from.

His niceness is mostly to the fore although Tom does share a few examples of the sweet revenge exacted by long-suffering drivers on their more trying customers and admits to having allowed some dull American trippers to believe he was the grandson of Scottish hero William Wallace (which, he gleefully recalls, would have made him “around 652 years old”).

I wonder if any of Tom’s colleagues have ever considered him a little, well, upper class to be driving buses around urban Tyneside, or anywhere else for that matter.

He considers the question briefly and says with a smile. “Mostly they’ll say, ‘You’re not from round here, are you?’”

The truth is surely encapsulated in one of his chapter headings: Gan On, Yer Posh Git.

Driving buses, it seems, generates a pretty strong ‘us and them’ mentality, that camaraderie Tom refers to frequently. When you think about it, what choice do they have? In a relentless, unforgiving world – one driver to 50-odd passengers – the men (and women) at the wheel have to stick together.

All bus drivers have their eccentricities and Tom’s fondness for a quick dip in the sea during a certain run through South Tyneside certainly fits the bill.

He was “considered a madman by the other drivers”, he admits cheerfully.

“There was never much time but I managed to time it to perfection on hot days, fitting in a swim, an ice-cream and a cappuccino in 45 minutes.

“Sometimes the sea would be so inviting that I would cut it fine and got back on the bus dripping sea water over the passengers.”

That said, who in their right mind would want to run a bank or the Church of England... to say nothing of the country?

Roll on, the accidental bus driver.

The Accidental Bus Driver by Thomas Beaumont is published by Vacker Berg Böcker at £12.99

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David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
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