King of the road

The Bus We Loved: London's affair with the Routemaster

Travis Elborough <em>Granta Books, 204pp, £

David Bellamy, opening an exhibition of plastic dinosaurs in York, said, "There are three things everyone loves: dinosaurs, crisps and stalactites and stalagmites." He could easily have added Routemaster buses to the list.

Even so, public transport being taboo in the mainstream media, you must pick your author carefully if you're going to produce a book on the subject. Travis Elborough is perfect. His name is good, for a start. It actually sounds like a make of bus. And the dust-jacket photograph promisingly establishes him as not the sort of boring, blazered buffer you would expect to write a book about buses. He is young and presentable, with - as though in acknowledgement of the subject matter - a hint of Jarvis Cocker-like nerdiness in his specs and scarf.

Elborough is not quite indignant at the phasing-out of the Routemaster from London's streets. His tone is more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger, and I would have liked him to have been a little feistier in defence of these "roll-top baths in guardsman's red" about which he writes so affectionately and wittily; in particular, I would have liked him to look in more detail at the question of why Ken Livingstone went from expanding the fleet in 2000 and promising to perpetuate the open platform (and so, the rakish thrill of the London bus experience) by designing new Routemasters, to presiding over their replacement by "bendy buses" from 2003.

The bus world swirls with conspiracy theories here. Was it European Union diktats about disabled access? The blithe belief that CCTV could compensate for the conductors once championed by Livingstone? The threat of personal-injury claims from passengers pitched from the back platform? Elborough mentions in passing an action by "an American lawyer" that sounds so nightmarish as to be the stuff of folklore rather than reality. Maybe it is impossible to probe these questions because Livingstone is utterly silent on the subject, in which case I'd have preferred Elborough to be a little ruder about our double-jointed mayor. But this is a very minor criticism of a book as smart and fit for purpose as its subject.

It is the amassing of technical detail that kills most bus books, so I was only too pleased to encounter Elborough's opening apology for the "laissez-faire attitude to the various bus types and subspecies". His shortcuts on engineering seem justifiable, and they are executed with verve: he asks us to think of one Routemaster predecessor, the excitingly named "B-type bus" of 1910, as "Cro-Magnon man to the Routemaster's Homo sapiens". In the case of the Regal Four, a single-decker designed by Douglas Scott ("master of the undulating curve") before he applied his skills to the Routemaster, we are asked to imagine "a Topic chocolate bar on four wheels".

Elborough puts the Routemaster firmly in context: a light, beautifully engineered, humane-looking bus, designed to com-pete in comfort with the ever more threatening motor car. Scott's interior colour scheme featured burgundy lining panels, Chinese-green window surrounds and Sung-yellow ceilings. "Even fifteen years ago," writes Elborough, "to travel on a Routemaster with the remnants of its original decor intact felt like being conveyed about the city in the lounge of an illustrious, if by now gone-to-seed, club."

The Routemaster was the last bus to be built specially for London, but the luxurious, languorous public transport culture that created it was already passing when the first ones hit the streets in 1956. In particular, staff shortages were dictating a need for one-man buses. Elborough regards the installation of automatic vending machines for tea at London Transport headquarters in 1960 as the sinister harbinger of this development.

The abandonment of the Routemaster, and the high design values it embo- dies, symbolises many worrying trends, among them the demotion of public culture; the tendency towards homogenised high streets, away from anything recognisably ours. One consolation, however, is that Travis Elborough has written what could be the first moreish bus book.

Andrew Martin's most recent book, The Blackpool Highflyer, is published by Faber & Faber

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