Routemaster: the end of the road

When the last 38 trundled into Clapton garage on October 28, it left the 159 as the last bus route in London to be served by the Routemaster – and that‘s only until December 9.

  • In less than a month, then, the sight of London’s most iconic bit of street furniture gliding over the Thames past Big Ben will be history. Two ‘heritage’ routes will still run north of the river – from Tower Hill to Trafalgar Square and from Aldwych to the Albert Hall – but only during the tourist-friendly hours of 9.30am and 6.30pm.

    Despite the best efforts of Transport for London to downplay the RM’s phasing-out, it refuses to go quietly. Dozens of mourners have turned out to mark the final voyages of the 18 earlier routes to be phased out while Travis Elborough’s new book ‘The Bus We Loved’ offers a chatty, discursive history of the vehicle. Lobbying efforts on the RM’s behalf have ranged from the long-running ‘Save the Routemaster’ website and its 12,000-strong petition, to a pamphlet from the Policy Exchange think-tank that unashamedly rides to the defence of ‘London’s best ever bus’.

    Arguments over pollution, congestion and ease of use remain contentious but such concerns hardly account for the visceral strength of feeling the classic bus arouses; it’s hard, to say the least, to imagine Londoners learning to love the bendy bus with anything like the affection the Routemaster inspires.

    One of the most striking tributes is ‘LastStop!’, a website set up by photographers Ralf Obergfell and Jet to showcase images gathered over this final year of the RM’s working life. Rather than taking an activist stance, the surprisingly moving site lets the images do the talking: accompanied by ethereal music, it revels in the RM’s classic look, but also forms a document of the bus in use, a record of its interaction with contemporary London – an interaction that depends on elements absent from the replacement models, such as the open platform and the conductors themselves.

    The photographers’ different experiences of the bus are telling. Londoner Jet had a personal connection but an unsentimental approach. ‘My grandfather – although he didn’t live in London – was a bus driver all his life,’ she says. ‘I remember as a kid going on his buses and getting a kick out of a: not paying and b: being able to talk to him about driving, like a little kid thing. I’m not a trainspotter – I don’t know that much about them – but the idea that they’re not going to be here any more made me go, “Actually, I am quite bothered about it.” ’Obergfell, on the other hand, grew up in Freiburg, Germany. ‘As teenagers we always looked over to England and London, being quite envious of the music, fashion and the design industry. It all seemed so rock ’n’ roll. That’s what made me want to move to London and the Routemaster was clearly part of that. There was nothing like that in Germany.’ So when he started the collaboration with Jet, after meeting her through the photographers’ collective Photodebut, ‘I approached it like a foreigner who has lived in London for 13 years, with a half-London, half-foreign eye.’

    When he started shooting en route, Obergfell was drawn to the RM’s unique design features: the smiling bug-eye headlamps and the solid, chunky heft of the ticket machine; the warm red leather and nicotine-yellow paint; the bulbous porthole of the convex stair-top mirror and the natural-looking metal knobs of the railings. Favouring lived-in textiles over wipe-clean plastic mouldings, natural colours over neons, curves over corners, the look has a welcoming feel that makes a Routemaster heaving out of the dusk like the arrival of a friend.

    The almost organic fluidity of the RM’s design chimes with the way we use them – what one recent contributor to the TO letters page, Simon Evans, nicely articulated as the ‘difference… between digital and analogue. The new bus acknowledges only two states – on or off. One or zero. Open or shut. Bus stop or not. The Routemaster, meanwhile, can conceive of intermediary states.’ The most obvious of these, of course, is the ability to hop on and off between stops but the open platform provides a more general sense of interaction between inside and outside, a free-flowing spatial conversation that both mirrors the city’s adaptability and offers a sense of empowerment. As Travis Elborough puts it, ‘Standing on the rear platform with the wind in your face, you could imagine that London really did belong to you.’ It also lets the conductor chat to cabbies at the lights.

    The conductors will of course be the major human casualty of the RM’s demise, taking with them the social fluidity that matched the fluidity of the buses’ design and relation with its environment. From ‘Duke’ Baysee’s harmonica serenades on the number 38, to the simple ability to help someone with shopping, the conductor’s presence is a catalyst for conversation – it’s good to talk. While Obergfell’s en-route shots capture moments of interaction between conductors and passengers, Jet – who mainly worked at depots – has collated a series of portrait shots that show conductors posed with their vehicles. There’s a sense of proprietary pride to many of them, the sort of affectionate mastery Gainsborough might have found in a man with his horse. The range of ethnicities is also striking – another part of the RM’s heritage, as its conductors were among the earliest, and most visible, of the capital’s West Indian immigrant workers in the mid-’50s.

    ‘LastStop!’ has proved a plumbline to the reservoir of emotions associated with the RM – one visitor to the website describes blinking back tears – and its creators are aiming to develop it as both an exhibition and a book. The demise of the Routemaster is more than the shelving of a bit of kit; it’s the end of a living nexus of social, environmental and design elements that has no obvious substitute. Perhaps one reason people resent its passing is that it still feels flourishing and current, its tank still full and far from the end of its line. To Jet, ‘it’s a funny thing to be into, a dirty old bus. What it really is is a clapped-out banger that just carries on going.’

    ‘LastStop!’ is at www.routemasters.co.uk, designed by Emotional Designers.

    Travis Elborough’s ‘The Bus We Loved’ is published by Granta.

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