A few of us were visiting over beers on an English seaside patio. One of the group seated at the picnic-style table was Renaissance man Gray Lightfoot – successful author and poet – a bus driver the rest of the week. I referenced Lightfoot being a bus driver-slash-poet. The others sniggered, thinking I just called him a piss-poet.“You don’t get the joke, do you?” one of the middle-aged adolescents asked.
“Of course I do,” I replied. “I just don’t have time for gutter humour,” I added indignantly, raising a hip to break wind.
While having a Canadian presence through writing circles and Amazon, Lightfoot, a UK resident, has British roots running a long way back – sixteenth century to be precise – his Cornish relatives having been mustered to keep the Spanish from landing (and no doubt beating them at football.)
A creative split-personality, Gray divides writing time between the fantasy-mystery Humphrey Boggart series of novels and contemporary poetry that’s rapier-sharp, insightful, and funny. He started the conversation claiming he has a hard time communicating with people.
“What are you talking about?” I demanded.
“See what I mean?”
We arranged to meet again at his more traditional place of work, and a few days later I find myself at sunrise, bleary-eyed, in Penzance. I keep a watchful eye on the sea for pirates, obviously. And unwelcome Spanish footballers.
Like the coolest carpool ever Gray pulls up in a bus. His display indicates, “Not in Service,” and I wonder if I should inquire about his health but instead I get a welcoming smile and thumbs-up from the poet behind the wheel.
“Permission to come aboard?”
I clamber in like the touring rock star I imagine myself to be and Gray changes the sign to indicate this morning’s terminus. Others board and greet him by name. He responds in kind – regular passengers on regular routes. From the bay, St. Michael’s Mount watches us like a chess-piece and as a train glides from Penzance station, we do the same from the portside bus loop.
Today we’re in a pristine, closed-top single-decker still smelling new-car fresh, or more accurately new-bus fresh. Behind the wheel it’s high tech, and a dashboard terminal pings with incoming driver-emails as we follow meandering road bordered in hedgerows and visit as best we can.
It’s surprisingly busy this early in the day, the start of the Penzance-Pendeen run. I distract Gray and he forgets to remind a travelling couple to disembark. Instead we make a new stop, Gray providing tour-guide instructions that not only get the two where they want to be but do so in the most agreeable, scenic manner. Their modest detour becomes a highlight as they carry on with thanks.
An older passenger, impeccably dressed and using a cane, asks for another customized stop to get him closer to his destination. Gray makes it happen. This is a community service in the truest sense of the word. I’m torn, loving being witness to this while getting angry remembering dickhead drivers back home. Not all, of course. Just some.
Standing next to Gray while he drives, I step aside as he makes change for passengers paying with cash. Then I look at the interior screen indicating where we are, which reads, “This stop is Cemetery.” Fighting the urge to check my pulse, I remember something Gray said previously. We were discussing mortality, as middle-aged poets do.
“When my time comes,” he said, “I want to go peacefully in my sleep … not screaming in terror like my passengers.”
With talented artist/painter/spouse Wendy, Gray moved to the West Country from Sheffield, where their children and grandkids still reside. He took a year off to write. The plan, to do so in Portugal – access to ocean and affordable fortified wine. Instead the two made their way to Cornwall, which, Gray recalls, “Felt like coming home.” The writing went well. And after a year it was time to once more incorporate traditional work. What were the opportunities in the area? Driving bus – rotating routes and times. Training followed and a dreamer … poet … bus driver was born.
I first saw Gray perform at St Ives Arts Club. Someone had ingeniously climbed the exterior wall of the old building and removed the T from Arts so at the time it was an Ars Club. I admit the seats were comfy – an agreeable venue for backsides.
On stage, adorned in a small brimmed, upturned fedora, his tone and cadence are reminiscent of punk poet John Cooper Clarke. Not mimicked but comparable talent from comparable experience. He even performed a Bus Drivers’ Haka, terrifying as a Maori warrior. He admits at one show he actually sprained his tongue – unexpected workplace hazards for a performance poet.
“Try claiming THAT on the disability insurance!” he laughs.
As well as regular gigs around England’s southwest, Gray’s now opened for powerhouse laureate Luke Wright – big crowds with folding money. As well as facilitating the Poets of Penzance, he’s been commissioned to pen new work for Penzance Literature Festival, which takes place each July, another feather in the fedora as the area’s disproportionately stocked with talent in every artistic medium.
As the morning route comes to its (first) conclusion we do a tight turn on a side road and Gray has a moment’s break before continuing. He points the way for me to carry on, down a narrow lane to Pendeen Lighthouse where I’ll trek the South West Coast Path for a few undulating miles to Zennor, a medieval pub, and another bus to deliver me to my own Ars Club performance.
“Alright, mate,” he says. And I realize this is our chance for a discrete hug as we won’t visit again for some time. It’s a fitting locale to part ways, a stretch of serpentine highway cutting through bucolic fields, lonely moors, and Stone Age sea views. Gray’s poem I’m in Love With The B3306 is his ode to this stunning road, one of many gems in his collection, A View From A Cab: The Poetry and Musings of a Bus Driver in Cornwall.
Previously published by the League of Canadian Poets.
Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of 2019 WIBA Finalist Gone Viking: A Travel Saga and Dromomania. His Indie Folk CD is Studio 6. Bill’s received awards for prose, poetry, songwriting, and been a featured performer at hundreds of literary festivals and mixed-media events internationally. His work is published in Canada, the US, UK, Europe and Asia. When not trekking the globe with a small pack and weatherproof journal, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, making friends, misbehaving and more often than not, riding the bus. https://www.amazon.com/author/billarnott_aps