Letter of the week: A much-treasured journey with a fellow bus enthusiast

Train controller Muhammad Zakaria Azmi with a collection of functioning bus door bells from the 1980s to the present.
Train controller Muhammad Zakaria Azmi with a collection of functioning bus door bells from the 1980s to the present. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

The value of some things that we keep increases with time, and so it is with friends.

I found one such treasure in 1995, in another bus enthusiast (Meet Singapore's bus enthusiasts, Dec 12, 2020), a friendship made possible by the unlikely response of an editor.

As a child in the 1960s, I was smitten with buses, especially bus tickets; I'd pick them off visiting relatives and friends, and shamelessly from floorboards, dustbins and the back of bus seats.

I would also note down all the bus companies - there were almost a dozen back then - and their routes.

As a teen, I thumbed through the pages of The Land Transport Of Singapore, one of the earliest pictorial books with a chapter on buses.

On a whim, I wrote to the publisher (Educational Publications Bureau, now defunct), wondering if it could furnish me with the address of a certain F. W. York, who seemed to have contributed many bus photos.

A few weeks later, to my surprise, thanks to whoever made the call, I had in my hands a home address in Britain.

Surprise No. 2: I got a reply from Mr Frederick W. York when I wrote to him.

We became what was then called "pen-pals", a term rarely heard these days.

Our letters were handwritten - mine a scrawl and his a work of art, letters exquisitely formed by a fountain pen.

Fred was generous, for he would always enclose a packet of bus photos from Singapore, Malaysia or Britain; an article he had written or come across; or some other bus paraphernalia.

More than anything, I enjoyed reading his English. How could something so mundane like buses inspire such writing, one might wonder? Passion.

Even my family would excitedly watch over my shoulders as I cut open the thick, brown envelopes with a row of stamps. As for me, I would reciprocate with articles from The Straits Times and some photos.

On one occasion, when I was not sure of the livery of the old bus companies, he went to the trouble of indicating on a paint catalogue which company carried what livery.

Once, I lamented how I was made to throw away my vast bus ticket collection as we kept moving from one Housing Board new town to another. He consoled me, and sent me several bus tickets in the next mail packet. He was of a giving spirit.

Over the years, we shared more than bus-related news. We became good friends, despite the distance and the age difference.

A couple of years ago, his work of art - his letters - became one of painful labour.

His eyesight was leaving him, and his health was deteriorating. The last letter from Fred was five pages long, written over three days.

A formal typewritten letter arrived in August 2019, from one of his sons, announcing the death of Fred.

While our correspondence spanned more than two decades, I met him only twice, once in Britain and once when he visited Singapore.

We spoke only a few times over the phone, and we never exchanged e-mail addresses. The act of writing on paper, with little chance of editing, makes you a careful, pensive and sincere writer. I will miss that with Fred.

As we start the new year, I would like to share what Fred has taught me.

Be passionate: Collect and document our history (don't throw away "stuff" because your mother asked you to!).

Be generous and share your collection and memories with the community and nation.

If Fred had not done so, today, the history of our land transport would be that much poorer.

Thank you Fred, for the love you had for buses and your fellow enthusiasts.

N. R. Nathan