The Bus We Loved: London's Affair With The Routemaster, by Travis Elborough

All aboard London's favourite bus for a trip down memory lane

By the end of 2005, they will be reduced to two thin red "heritage" lines, 16 buses offering a Routemaster experience for tourists to that foreign country where no barriers were considered necessary between conductors and passengers, or passengers and streets. The RM was the last version of a bus plan that evolved before the Great War and was sustained through London Transport's proud heyday. Therein lie the roots of the sentiment that now attaches to what, in Travis Elborough's puckish eyes, are "roll-top baths in Guardsmen's red".

The RM's place in Londoners' affections also has roots in the lost countries of youth. Elborough quotes Mayor Livingstone's telling remark that he thought Routemasters were wonderful when he was able to run and jump, but they seem a lot less friendly now. The RM offered a precious freedom within the forced choices of travel in London, but only if you were fit and free from burdens and children.

They must have seemed much friendlier when the design first appeared, more than 50 years ago. As Elborough explains, the RM was intended to match the standards of comfort in private cars of the time, and premised on LT's belief that Londoners deserved quality. Yet it was riddled with bugs, and a poor second in the postwar contest with the car.

Elborough tells the story with cheerful attention to detail, from the gearboxes to the "Sung yellow" ceilings and drivers' packed lunches from their all-providing employer. He is kind to bus enthusiasts, but makes fun of foreigners - the foreigners of the past, who didn't swear or hallucinate on the upper deck. And he is sidetracked by anything on screen that featured a bus, even though it was usually the RM's predecessor, the elegant RT with its Deco profile.

The heritage Routemasters will at least be owned by Transport for London, the nearest they can get to their natural municipal-socialist habitat. Routemasters were born to be burgundy and yellow inside, and red all over.

Marek Kohn's 'A Reason for Everything' is published by Faber

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