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The Routemaster Bus

'The Bus We Loved'

In 2005, Travis Elborough’s book 'The Bus We Loved' was published. It tells the history of the Routemaster’s invention, rise and decline, the people who worked on it, and its enthusiasts.

Travis Elborough
Travis Elborough
© Gail O'Hara
ICONS spoke to him about London's love affair with the Routemaster.

What's your earliest memory of a Routemaster? Is this where your love of them started?

I actually can't remember what my earliest memory of a Routemaster is. I didn't grow up in London, so my own affair with the Routemaster, as it were, really began when I moved to the city about ten years ago. I was living in Dalston, working at a bookshop on Islington Green, and used to catch these buses, these wonderful roll-top baths in Guardsman's red, every day. Their routes shaped my earliest impressions of London as a resident.

What do you think the Routemaster represents? Why is it a symbol of London?

Represents? Well, one of the people I interviewed for my book, a Routemaster owner who'd driven his bus to the G8 summit in Geneva as part of the Drop the Debt campaign, said that for him the Routemaster represented a kind of 'benign Britishness', a Britain of free speech, democracy, integrity and fair play. I can't help thinking there is definitely something in that. The Routemaster was, after all, a very civic-minded creation born out of same spirit of post-war optimism that saw the establishment of the welfare state and the NHS.

It's a symbol of London, for many, many reasons, not least because it was the last bus to be built and designed in London, by Londoners for London. They really were conceived as an attractive piece of 'street furniture' and, essentially, Savile Row-tailored for the capital's spindly arteries utilising technology developed for aircraft during the second world war. That mix of modernity and tradition, British engineering ingenuity and classic style are crucial to its enduring appeal.

What is it about the Routemaster you will particularly remember?

The original Routemaster (RM1) double decker bus showing: RM1 logo
The original Routemaster (RM1) logo
© TopFoto.co.uk/UPPA Ltd
That bell, with its school orchestra triangle 'ding-ding', such a comic, comforting sound, will be hard to forget. The conductors. No-one could pretend they had an easy job but I'll certainly miss barrelling down to Hackney with the sound of Duke Baysee's harmonica in my ears. And lastly, of course, the open platform at the rear for that liberty to hop on and off, in a way that seemed somehow to acknowledge all the spontaneity of life in the capital.

Do you own any Routemaster memorabilia?

I do have an old 'Gibson' ticket from my last journey on the 73, and one or two maps and battered Corgi toys I've picked up in junk shops over the years. To be honest, I'm not that interested; travelling on them was what I enjoyed most.

Were you surprised by anything you came across while researching your book?

There were loads of things, but I suppose I was particularly surprised by the cool reception the Routemaster received when it was first unveiled at the Commercial Motor Show at Earl's Court in September 1954. It wasn't considered quite 'now' enough which, in part, explains its longevity. Free of 1950s gimmicks, it managed to weather far better than any of its contemporaries.

Have you ever been on a Routemaster abroad?

No, although I am planning to take a trip to Lake Havasu City in Arizona to visit the old London Bridge and, hopefully, sample a couple of scoops of pistachio from the Routemaster ice cream parlour parked beside it.

What do you think of bendy buses?

It's difficult to have anything pleasant to say about a vehicle that has all the aesthetics of a Hoover attachment.

What are your feelings on the Routemaster heritage routes?

I guess it will be nice to see the odd one pottering around the capital, but I find the whole notion of heritage routes deeply unappealing. It's London as a cockney theme park, a pastiche for the benefit of tourists rather than Londoners.

Finally, what do you think the phasing out of the Routemaster means for London?

A London devoid of Routemasters is, for me, a London that nobody knows. (What next - a Crazy Frog ringtone for Big Ben?) Still, we were once a city of public hangings, trams and trolleybuses, and we survived their passing.

The Bus We Loved by Travis Elborough (Granta, £12).