On the buses

Red Routemaster buses in Oxford Street, London, in 2002
Roitemasters in Oxford Street

The Routemasters are like jellied eels or Hawksmoor Churches or those people who swim in the ponds on Hampstead Heath. They’re eccentric and they say something about London’s weirdness and complexity and also its attachment to worn-out ideas and things. History tells us we won’t miss the old buses as much as we think we will, though. They’ll go the way of smoking carriages on the tube (or that pub on the platform at Sloane Square tube). In a few years they’ll be a folk memory – and besides, the bendy buses are already acquiring their own myths which will smoothly replace Routemaster stories over the next decades (they’re so huge: they’re like two tennis courts joined together. You could film an episode of Strictly Come Dancing in one half easily).

Like most people, what I’ll miss most is the conductors and not only because both my parents were conductors on Routemasters in the 50s. In those days the conductor was very much the junior crew member. Lots of drivers from that period were war-scarred veterans who’d learnt to drive in a tank or a military ambulance or a truck and joined the buses on demob. These men were worldly and full of stories and they often took their young conductors under their wings. My parents still talk with a lot of affection about their various drivers from that period, men who brought the wisdom and stoicism of the battlefield to the buses and weren’t really bothered what jumped-up inspectors and managers had to say, what with having seen off the Nazis and all that.

They’re not all Routemasters, you know. We call them Routemasters now like we call vacuum cleaners ‘hoovers’. Stick your hand out and stop the next bus geek and he’ll tell you that there were loads of other brands of double-decker, half-cab, open-platform buses on the road back then and that, whichever one you worked on, they were all hard work. No proper heating, no power steering, no automatic transmission, nowhere to stow a pram or a suitcase.

Fifteen years ago I went down to the London Transport Museum and bought my Dad an old conductor’s ticket machine for his birthday. It was a thing of beauty: made from shiny aluminium, worn smooth by years of service. It was heavy and had a satisfyingly chunky action (“whizz-whizz-clunk”). Of course, when I gave the thing to him he said: “Never used one of these. This is a model G. Very unreliable. We used the D in my garage”.