Thursday, August 25, 2011

Culture Share: England - The Routemaster

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: London Monsters discusses "The Routemaster," also known as the London double-decker bus.

The trusted red Routemaster with its rounded corners and open rear platform was for many city dwellers their preferred way of getting around London. As a youngster, I could travel from Leafy Barnes to Liverpool St Station for 60p and would spend an hour or so people watching as the streets passed by. Every inch of the ‘red elephant’ was carefully hand crafted with purpose, from the solid oak upper floor to the yellow bell cord summoning the driver your intention that you were about to vacate the bus at the next stop. The chord was truly democratic device, leaving passengers a way of communicating to the unseen driver in the cab at the front. The windows had chromed knobs that rotated and wound down the window slots for added ventilation, unlike the sealed Metro monsters of today.

Designed by Londoners for Londoners who travelled by bus, its oncoming growl summoned millions from their newspapers and novels as it approached. The wide front grinning grill and the bulky engine purring like a cat as people hopped on and off. Passengers were so close together that they were obliged to talk as though they were friends, usually about shared experience on topics that they shared: the state of the roads, the traffic and that ever-popular British subject, The Great British Weather.

The conductor, usually a cheerful Jamaican, would whistle a tune as we creaked and bounced our way along London’s famous landmarks: ‘Olympia, ‘Barkers’, ‘The Albert’, ‘Knighty Barracks’, ‘The Ritz’ and the ‘Dilly’, all names that rolled off the lips of the cheerful conductor as he rolled out tickets on the steel roller ticket dispenser, strapped around his hips and shoulders like one of those modern baby carriers.

The Routemaster was a really intimate space bringing people closer together than would be allowed today. The favoured seats were upstairs at the front, giving panoramic views of London’s streets as it weaved through traffic in a pre bus-lane era. Many boys (and a few girls) played ‘Bus Driver’ games on early trips around town. Other favourite spots were the back seat above the curved stairs at the rear, just the right size for an intimate couple with wandering hands and a taste for a hint of privacy. The rear window provided surreal framed images of legs and arms passing diagonally as passengers squeezed past each other in the confined intimacy of the rear steps.

Passengers were squeezed together on tartan benches who swayed in unison as the bus turned this way and that, stitching together the villages of London from Archway to Peckham Rye. Some of the Routemaster bus routes weaved their way right across the capital and took several hours. It was, for some cross-London travellers, a home from home.

This piece appeared in London Monsters (copyright 2011) and appears thanks to Simon Rogers, who lives in London. Any comments good or bad are welcome at:

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