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Sunday, 27 January 2013

A practical philosopher

Friday, January 27th., Fulham Park Gardens, London.

A few nights ago - we had been to the Empire, Sharpe, Mother, Sep and I - there was a gale. In the usual midnight altercation at Piccadilly Circus for the inside seats of omnibuses we had suffered defeat; we sat on the inclement top of the vehicle, a disconsolate row of four, cowering behind the waterproof aprons (which were not waterproof), and exchanging fragments of pessimistic philosophy.

Piccadilly Circus

We knew we were taking cold; at first we were annoyed, but with increasing numbness came resignation. We grew calm enough to take an interest in the imperturbable driver, who nonchalantly and with perfect technique steered his dogged horses through the tortuous mazes of traffic, never speaking, never stirring, only answering like an automaton to the conductor's bell.

Fifty-thousand horses were required to keep Victorian London's public transport running. According to one writer of the time, these horses ate their way through a quarter of a million acres of foodstuff per year, and deposited 1000 tonnes of dung on the roads every day. The disposal of large quantities of horse droppings was a major problem. Dung could make the roads hazardous and unpleasant when wet. Crossing sweepers made meagre earnings clearing a path for pedestrians to cross and dung carts collected and deposited droppings on vast dung heaps in the poorer parts of town each day. To keep a single bus or tram on the road for 12 hours each day a team of 12 horses was required, each one harnessed for 3 to 4 hours and travelling about 15 miles. The horses needed to be fed, watered, stabled and groomed, and tended by blacksmiths and vets. Caring for the horses represented up to 55% of operating costs and was even greater if feed prices rose (such as following a poor harvest). The LGOC spent about £20,000 each year on horseshoes alone.

Some drivers will gossip, but this one had apparently his own preoccupations. We could see only his hat, some grey hairs, his rotund cape, and his enormous gloved hands, and perhaps we began to wonder what sort of man he was. For mile after mile he drove forward in a Trappist silence till we were verging upon Putney, and the rain-washed thoroughfares reflected only the gas lights and the forbidding facades of the houses. Then at last, he suddenly joined the conversation.
"I've been out in worse," he said. "Yes, we gets used to it. But we gets so that we has to live out of doors. If I got a indoor job I should die. I have to go out for a walk afore I can eat my breakfast."
A pause, and then:
"I've driven these roads for eight-and-twenty year, and the only pal I've found is Cod Liver Oil. From September to March I takes it, and I never has rheumatism and I never has colds nor nothing o' that sort. I give it to my children ever since they was born, and now I'm blest if they don't cry for it."
He finished; he had imparted his wisdom, delivered his message, and with the fine instinct denied to so many literary artists, he knew when to be silent. We asked him to stop, and he did so without a word. "Good night," we said; but he had done with speech for that evening, and gave us no reply. We alighted. The bus rolled away into the mirror-like vista of the street.

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