My mother. There’s a person yet to appear on this blog. I usually shy away from discussing matters personal here – and don’t worry, I’m not about to break that ‘policy’. It’s just that she has a fabulous if confounding way of dropping amazing anecdotes into conversation – along the lines of "Oh there’s the steps outside the House of Commons that I had to scurry down to try in vain to retrieve some important parliamentary papers that I’d dropped into the Thames after one white wine too many in about 1963" (she worked as a PA to an MP at the HP in the early ’60s). I usually stand there amazed, as she casually creates these new layers of meaning upon the city I now live and work in, as if she’d of course told me a million times before.
Anyway, the latest snippet goes along the lines of, "Of course your step-grandfather’s brother died after an accident jumping off the back of a Routemaster." This in the week that that classic of transport design, the Routemaster bus, is 50 years old. It’s being gradually phased out, replaced by new single-decker Mercedes ‘bendy’ buses, which according to The Independent, "many Londoners positively hate." I actually like the new buses – they afford easy entry/exit at multiple points along the body of the bus, akin to the trams and trolleybuses in continental cities and modern British cities like Manchester and Sheffield.
The loss of the Routemaster is a real shame – their bulbous burly design was a staple feature of books for children, anthropomorphised into cheery, cockney denizens of the big smoke, and therefore painted into people’s imagined London for years to come. I’d always thought the ‘hop on, hop off’ platform at the back of the bus was a fabulous thing, both enabling a significant degree of agency for the user in terms of entry/exit points to the web London Transport wove, and adding a frisson of excitement to traversing the city. I used to romanticise this latter aspect – intone dreadfully with Ackroydian relish: "the city is always about danger, excitement, innocent death and so on and so forth" – almost, but not quite, pooh-poohing the number of accidents that Routemasters were involved in as a result. However, this new fact about a member of my family, albeit a thoroughly distant one, actually dying as a result of the hop on, hop off platform has woken me up to my crass view there.
I wish someone had taken on the Routemaster as a design project, and attempted to capture the spirit of the old vehicle whilst updating its layers technological for a contemporary city – in the manner of the VW Beetle, Mini, Nissan Figaro (automobile simulacrum) or indeed the London Taxi. However, assuming that idea had been thoroughly tested, I tend to agree with Peter Hendy, ‘head of buses’ at Transport For London:
"They’re fabulous old vehicles. It’s an iconic design – there is nothing else on the road now that was designed 50 years ago … (However) life moves on. It’s fine to have nostalgia but you want something fit for the job. And the Routemasters just aren’t."
One of the Routemaster design team, Colin Curtis, 78, agrees:
"We knew what we wanted for London. It wasn’t a case of going and buying what was built for everyone else – like they do now. We designed our own. It also had to be a nice piece of street furniture. But she’s got to go now. She’s 50 years old."
This doesn’t feel like agism – many of these rattling hulks are clearly past their best, lacking the nimble acceleration of modern vehicles, issuing smoky fumes and no doubt guzzling diesel. I do like the appreciation Curtis has of design beyond the edges vehicle itself – the wider context of the bus also having a role in what he describes as ‘street furniture’. I guess we’d call that experience design these days.
Unrelated: Mum also recently revealed that my great-grandfather worked on the London Midlands Railway in the early part of the 20thC – apparently as well as hanging around Clerkenwell fixing watches. This tenuous connection between my family and one of the key jobs of the 20thC – working on the railway was one of the British trades of the age – added a further layer of meaning to yesterday’s visit to the old Midland Grand hotel at St Pancras station. It was the luxury hotel built by the railway (also home to offices etc.) but essentially derelict for years and years – some photos to follow, I hope (though they won’t be as good as Urban75’s). It’s free, and open to the public and well worth a visit.
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