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The Bus We Loved: by Travis ElboroughThe Bus We Loved: by Travis Elborough

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12th Sep 2006
The Bus We Loved.
To tie-in with the paperback release we have reissued Travis's feature he wrote for us about his book,The Bus We Loved, the story of the Routemaster bus. Now gone from our roads.

The Bus We Loved

The Routemaster bus is the quintessential London bus. Built in London, by Londoners, for London; the Routemaster was the last bus to be wholly designed by London Transport. Constructed from lightweight aluminium and utilising techniques developed in aircraft production during the Second World War, its design was revolutionary. First exhibited at the Commercial Motor Show at Earls Court in 1954, this red double-decker, platform bus became an icon for the capital and is now as familiar the world over as Big Ben, black cabs and beefeaters. (All the Bs, then. Buckingham Palace?)After close to fifty years though, this unique bus is set to leave normal service by the end of 2005.

There are no shortage of books about the Routemaster,many of which are very good. They are, on the whole, however, written by bus enthusiasts for bus enthusiasts. Which is fine, and it's entirely a matter of personal taste, but somehow most, in their keenness to catalogue variations in model, engine type, fleet number and route, fail to give a sense of the bus's place in London life, there is, for instance, usually very little in the way of historical or cultural context. People - designers, engineers, drivers, conductors, passengers, spotters even - tend to get edged out of the frame. Rather as if a wedding photographer were, complimentary fizz and sherry quaffed, to ignore the bride, groom and guests and devote all their time to snapping the cake, such books provide decidedly skewed pictures. They have often left me, at least, feeling that the real story, and the real bus, the one that I, and millions of Londoners, know and adore was elsewhere.

My book is then, I suppose, an unashamedly rhapsodical attempt to explain how this bus came into being, how it fits into London's history, why it looks the way it does, how it works, why we love it and, briefly, to ponder what its passing may mean for the city. Does its retirement mark yet another phase in the homogenisation - the Swindonification - of the capital? Or is it, simply, an old, inaccessible, and dangerous bus that we should all be glad to see the back of? After all, when the Routemaster was conceived London Transport was the world's biggest bus company, food rationing was still in place and much of the capital bore the deep scars of the Luftwaffe's bombing sorties. Those were very different times. Londoners bellies were full of suet and Suez not sushi. And they'd never had it so good.

By drawing on archive material and my conversations with those who helped design and build it, drivers, clippies, passengers, tourists, bus buffs and preservationists, I offer, what I hope, is a homage, a fond farewell, to this London institution and salute an epoch which could produce a bus that we could truly fall in love with. There are also of course, the odd, and perhaps for some entirely gratuitous, references to Cliff Richard, The Double Deckers, Hattie Jacques and The Who. And, erm, some lengthy footnotes on Reg Varney and the James Bond movies.