Dawn patrol. At daybreak, a dapper figure in uniform checks his watch. He strides across the tarmac towards a scarlet-painted machine that stands glinting in the early morning sunlight, its engine idling . . .

I wonder what the Red Baron would have said if he'd gone out one morning and found a double-decker bus waiting for him instead of his Fokker Triplane? Would he have considered it too draughty and gone on strike? Probably not: I doubt he was in a union.

Bus workers are apparently supposed to be 'helping to defeat the signalmen' by providing an efficient and reliable alternative service. Oh yes?

The buses will never be more efficient and reliable until the rest of the traffic in London is brought under control. And making bus crews work longer hours for less money doesn't help either. Just wait till someone falls asleep at the wheel.

The latest move towards efficiency involves painting buses colours other than red. This is supposed to bring about a big improvement. More and more buses are beginning to resemble

ice-cream vans. Soon people will be saying: 'You wait ages for an ice-cream van, and then four of them come along together.' Who gave them permission to change the colour of buses? It's a diabolical liberty. London buses are supposed to be red, in just the same way that cabbies are supposed to be rude. It's traditional.

Tourists pay good money to come and photograph red London buses. French coach drivers aren't content until they've got a red scrape down one side. You can't just go painting buses different colours willy-nilly.

The truth about red buses is that Margaret Thatcher couldn't stand the sight of them, and so they had to go. This particular shade of red has a funny effect on car-drivers too. Red buses seem to bring out the worst in them. Everything goes smoothly while they're out in the countryside. They drive happily along new roads built especially for them through the middle of ancient woodlands.

Then suddenly they find themselves surrounded by black taxis and red Routemaster buses, and they realise they are now in enemy territory.

Normally polite drivers start carving buses up on purpose, because they think that's what they're supposed to do when in London. I read recently that an

individual feels freer when behind the wheel of his or her motor

car. Well, they've got a funny

way of showing it. I never see

anyone who looks as though they are enjoying driving. All I see are processions of grim faces lurching along in the traffic, reading the inane sticker on the rear of the vehicle in front.

The saddest cases of all are the people who drive into box junctions and get stuck.

It's the morning rush and I'm driving a bus through Battersea. I'm coming out of town, so the road is relatively clear, but the traffic going in is at a standstill. I'm on a red light. A trickle of cars moves in from a side road. The last one has nowhere to go but he comes out anyway. He stops in the middle of a yellow box. The lights change. He's blocked the road.

I move the bus right up to within a foot of his car and put the handbrake on with a crunch. He doesn't look at me but sits staring with glazed eyes through his windscreen. Many eyes are on him. Horns begin to hoot. A minute passes. At last he looks up at me.

I smile. I see his whole body relax. Only a bus-driver can do this.

Ionce met a guy from the

United States called Dave Ownlands. It turned out he was a native American, or Red Indian, so naturally the conversation came round to red buses. He told me that when in London he liked to camp out at Crystal Palace and catch the 2B into the West End. (This is true, by the way, and there is a camp site at Crystal Palace.) He came back every year and rode

the 2B into town: he was a big fan of buses with conductors on the back.

'What a way to travel,' he enthused.

It was with a heavy heart that I had to tell him that no longer were there any conductors going to Crystal Palace, and that they had got rid of the B in 2B.