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The end of London’s vintage Routemaster buses

The vintage, refurbished Routemaster buses that are now being withdrawn - Credit: Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Transport for London has retired its fleet of classic Routemaster buses, which has been running on the number 15 route, the capital’s last running heritage service.

So, farewell then to the Routemaster bus – and while I fully appreciate that those of my readers who live elsewhere than the corporate death star formerly known as ‘London’, the fact remains that these vehicles were symbolic not just of the city but an entire culture. That this culture was largely bogus is neither here nor there – because let’s face it, most culture begins with fakery of one sort or another that once entrenched becomes indisputably real. Transport for London were operating a ‘heritage service’, the 15H, that ran from Tower Hill to Trafalgar Square, but what with the emissions issue and the lack of step-free access – plus the pesky pandemic – there was no longer any economic justification for a seasonal service aimed mostly at the tourist trade.

Of course, Britain’s Greatest Living Designer, Thomas Heatherwick, had a crack at repurposing the Routemaster for low-emission, single-operator era – but his version, while not displeasing to the eye, has suffered from predictable problems: the open back platform had to be enclosed for health and safety reasons, while inadequate natural ventilation meant air conditioning systems needed to be installed at considerable expense. Really, Heatherwick was engaged in a fruitless task: while formerly utile elements of all manner of things are often repurposed purely as design ones, to then further repurpose those design elements as functional ones suggests a particularly painful version of the reverse-ferret: the poor beast being compelled to ingurgitate itself through its own hop-on, hop-off back passage. 

A fair few of the Heatherwick pseudo-masters operate in my area, but without that back passage – or, more properly, platform – they aren’t anything special at all. Because it was all in the open back platform, really: that extraordinary stage upon which the tragic-comedy of my young life was acted out in real time and on a daily basis. I’d ride either the 104A or the 102 to school – the former route still used the earliest model, wherein the monocular effect produced by the enclosed driver’s cab being positioned above one side of the bonnet was more pronounced. I preferred these old Cyclopes, but when it came to launching yourself into mid-air as the bus swung round the bend into Golders Green bus station, either would do.

It was all about timing, of course: jump too early and your little legs wouldn’t be able to handle the impact, so you’d collapse – too late, and you’d miss out on the incredible sensation that you had somehow metamorphosed into the bus, as you maintained the same velocity all the way into the ticket hall, past the little gaggle of – hopefully admiring – girls, who stood gossiping outside the Bar Linda. In his monumental dictionary of English slang on historical principles, the great lexicographer Jonathan Green erroneously attributed the origin of these girls’ nickname to their propensity for supping Beck’s lager; but I was able to disabuse him of this: they were called ‘Becs’  (or possibly ‘Beccs’), by allusion to their mostly Jewish heritage, it being short for ‘Rebeccas’.

But I digress: the nostalgia here is for the erstwhile Routemaster – because the Bar Linda and the Becs remain to this day – and yes: I do think it’s a pathetically risk-averse culture that can’t afford its commuters the opportunity for such aerial gymnastics as they head to and from their places of confinement. And yes, I also think it’s a troublingly alienated society that prefers to isolate a bus driver for an eight-hour shift, rather than affording them the camaraderie of a co-worker. And it’s not just these transport workers whose lives are impoverished – ours are as well. Even the interaction required to buy a bus ticket from a conductor was enough to develop a personal bond, whereas technological advances imply that anonymity is our summum bonum

I could go on: waxing on redder yet, about how the Routemasters represented the apogee of municipal socialism and urbanity predicated on mutualism, rather than the current all-against-all in the battle to board the single-operator bus. Could – but won’t: younger European readers will have heard it all before about the cigarette-smoked upholstery, and the long tongue of ticket which extruded whirring from the jolly conductor’s chest – while older ones won’t need that much reminding either, since if there’s one thing our contemporary culture affords us, it’s multiple open platforms upon which to witness the tragic-comedies of our past. Missing the Routemaster bus? You can watch all seven seasons of the 1970s sitcom, On the Buses, for free on the ITV Hub.  

Of course, it being the 1970s, the show demonstrates a troublingly different culture to the one we’re used to now – replete with endless stereotyping by reason of sex, sexual orientation and ethnicity, together with plenty of ‘jokes’ revolving around the revelatory hilarity that women have breasts. Yes, I think that’s probably another reason why the Heatherwick buses never really took off, while the 15H had to go: there’s no real need to maintain or renew such heritage when everyone subsists in a permanent and nostalgic Now. 

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