The Bus We Loved: London's affair with the Routemaster by Travis Elborough

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The London bus has long been a friend of the written word. Pouring touring authors in and out of taxis is all very well, but literature's true heart beats within those poets too impecunious to own a bicycle, smoking roll-ups as they await the conveyance which will take them up West. Also, unlike cabs or the tube, you can read without your eyeballs being shaken out or your concentration disturbed by unsolicited conversation.

Yet the Routemaster bus, as it approaches the end of its 50-year working life, is to be pensioned off without any apparent consideration of its unique appeal. A German company happily profits from the reinvention of the Mini yet the vehicle universally associated with London (somehow they always look out of place elsewhere) will disappear. That's a lot of "brand value" to discard. The new "bendy" buses with their multiple doors which now trawl the capital may have advantages for passenger loading (and fare dodging - apparently the route to Stoke Newington is now referred as the "seventy-free", at least by tabloid hacks), but let's not kid ourselves. They're a poor man's tram, for European towns too insignificant to need a proper light railway system, not for a true world city with its unique challenges.

Unusually for its era, the Routemaster was designed rather than engineered. Douglas Scott, an associate of flamboyant Franco-American Raymond Loewy, also created the Aga, another great British signifier. His bus was not only handsome but practical, with its curved surfaces which were much easier to clean (although no one realised until the time came), and elegant, uncommonly useful window mechanisms. Yet it was identifiably a refinement of the 1912 hop on/hop off model. Cheerful naysayer Andrew Braddock, formerly "Head of Access and Mobility" at Transport for London, considers RMs dangerous (on average, two punters, sorry, "customers", a year suffer fatal falls) and, incredibly, less iconic than San Francisco's wheezy old cable cars. (He's talking cobblers of course. Unlike the capital's hardworking red buses, the cars are strictly a tourists' treat, for no sane local would want to visit somewhere as naff as Fisherman's Wharf twice.)

In fact, what Travis Elborough is really commemorating in this book is not the RM, first seen on the streets in 1956, but the very idea that a public transport service warrants romanticising. The author admits as much in a wonderfully digressive footnote tracing the history of the London bus in entertainment, often mentioning Cliff Richard. He offers an inspired argument about Live and Let Die, 1973's instalment in the James Bond franchise, featuring a chase involving a double decker as an homage to On the Buses, which had recently trounced Diamonds Are Forever at the UK box office.

But until Mayor Ken's recent attempts to revive them (currently faltering slightly due to the new "extortionate flat fare" scheme and the necessity to pre-buy a ticket in Central London), bus services were in a long decline. His modernisation has only gone so far. We still can't buy the transferable ticket available everywhere from Berlin to New York. Then again, Andrew Braddock might admire European methods, but as Elborough points out, the Swiss had cashless bus travel systems years before women there were given the vote in 1971.

Appropriately this volume is something of a stop-start affair. Bewildering and unnecessary speculation about the lives and habits of long dead engineers and entrepreneurs slows down the pace, yet the author is far more eloquent when recounting apparently thoughtless acts of municipal vandalism. The shoddiness of our surroundings might even reflect behaviour. Punch-ups on newer models often result in panes falling out - installed from the inside, they're less secure.

It's a long way from Frank Pick's invention of the bus shelter, perhaps the most significant moment ever in the history of teenagers. And, without the Commonwealth citizens invited to staff this last two-man bus, London would be a very different, drabber place.

Clearly the RM will die. It excludes parents with small children, the disabled and shoppers. Its very existence openly scoffs at contemporary customs such as drinking heavily and seeking legal advice. But when it goes, traffic jams will be uglier.