Final stop for an endearing classic

A lifetime of hopping on and off London buses is over. Brian Sewell laments its passing
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The one-man bus has at last usurped the Routemaster on route 9, ending a lifetime of my hopping on and off at traffic lights and at the precisely chosen moment on a corner when deceleration ends and the driver mischievously stamps his foot on the accelerator, not only to escape my leap, but to exaggerate the centrifugal forces enjoyed by passengers on the upper deck.

The one-man bus has at last usurped the Routemaster on route 9, ending a lifetime of my hopping on and off at traffic lights and at the precisely chosen moment on a corner when deceleration ends and the driver mischievously stamps his foot on the accelerator, not only to escape my leap, but to exaggerate the centrifugal forces enjoyed by passengers on the upper deck.

Playing cat and mouse with Routemasters has been a necessary urban skill, a matter of practised judgement in which the timing of traffic lights, the pace of traffic, the position of the bus in relation to oneself and one's ability to scamper this way or that according to the outcome of the equation, equals any manoeuvre commended by Napoleon or Clausewitz.

Oh the adrenal thrill of it. Oh the sense that somehow, innumerate though I am, I have achieved a feat of three dimensional mathematics, that my body, brain, instinct and expertise have combined to get me on or off a bus that, had I surrendered to common sense and prudence, would have left me to stand and wait for its successor, or whisked me far past where I wished to be.

Alas, no longer. Jammed in Piccadilly, balked by taxis in the bus lane the one-man bus is as much a trap as any glass tank by Damien Hirst, with or without formaldehyde, and to the passer-by of aesthetic inclination one becomes the fish, the side of beef, the butterfly or the bluebottle, unable to escape. Indeed, were I in charge of Transport for London, I'd emblazon every such bus with the titles of his works - No Fun, for example, or Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction, or, best of all, The Acquired Inability to Escape.

Ask the driver nicely, with pathos, with evident agitation, to be allowed to dismount between official stops and run to one's destination, and the Gauleiter Jobsworth's response is of the "Not bloody likely'' kind. And that's the bloody-minded thing about these buses - that one can be delayed for minutes at a standstill within yards of the stop with which the driver has already aligned his vehicle, and though not even a cycling Giacometti could squeeze between it and the kerb, the exit door stays shut.

The Routemaster was noisy, draughty and uncomfortable; the wind through its open windows ruddied the cheeks, standing passengers were jolted by the jerks in its transmission, and as they had been designed for a pre-war population of pygmies when the 6ft man and nine stone woman were exceptions to the rules of proportion, in its later years seats for more than two whole bums rarely accommodated more than three buttocks. I remember it for the smell upstairs on winter evenings, the smoke of Virginia tobacco, the perfume of cheap cosmetics, the reek of rubber from wet mackintoshes and the odour of bodies that bathed once a week combining to provide an atmosphere of pheramonic potency. And what characters the conductors were - disciplinarian, Devil-may-care, stand-up comedian, heart and soul of the party, joking about Harrods and the Royal Academy, garrulous, grumpy and gregarious.

Transport for London, instead of ridding us of the Routemaster, should have recognised its advantages and charms and made a virtue of them. They were chummy; they encouraged uninhibited communication between strangers, even if only of the "Shove up a bit, mate'' kind and they had the same egalitarian effect as putting a Mercedes driver in the back seat of a Deux Chevaux. For all their drawbacks they were fun. Ubiquitous in London, they stood as something peculiarly cockney, never, even in the leafy suburbs or comfortable Kensington, abandoning their part in a street culture that embraced pearly kings and queens, whelks and cockles, port and lemon, knees up Mother Brown and all the other urban sophistications that have disappeared from the metropolis.

In offering the supreme advantage of hopping on and off they were infinitely superior to any closed-door, super-heated, draught-proofed one man or bendy-bus.

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