I’m not talking about the Routemaster. I like the Routemaster – very much – but most of my life hasn’t been lived in London.
What I like is simply the humble bus with two deckers, which I’ve never seen in America. Their charm can be broken down into three key elements.
1) They are really quite dangerous.
I’m not sure I’ve properly made out the soundtrack on this clip, but I think it’s two American tourists horrified at the (quite routine) way the bus is being driven down some narrowish country roads. It’s going really fast; it doesn’t slow down for the bends; branches crack at the windows and the roof alarmingly. And on the top deck you always sway and lurch a little, making it all the more thrilling! When I was a child, branches lashed at the windows on the bus we caught home from shopping in town every week. I was terrified; I loved it; it was like a cut-price roller coaster. As these tourists demonstrate, you need to experience it a few times before you are quite sure the windows won’t break and you can just enjoy the ride.
Then there’s the more modest but still very real danger you have to contend with as a passenger getting up and down the stairs. (Ambulance-chasing lawyers are already in on this act.) It’s generally accepted that only the young and fit can make the climb, with the nice result that if I catch a midmorning bus into work, which is full of pensioners and buggies, I am often the only person on the top deck. Going down the stairs while the bus turns a corner is an exhilarating business, with gravity (is it? physics isn’t my strong point) often holding you paralysed halfway down. You’re holding both handrails at once; you’re balancing your shopping precariously in one hand; you don’t want to fall, not so much because it would hurt as because it’s a challenge that you don’t want your fellow passengers to see you fail.
2) You get a fantastic view from the top of a bus, especially if you sit in the front seat. It’s the time when you see building facades that would normally be way above eye level – here in Leeds, old painted adverts and ornate Victorian curlicues. You can look down on police patrol cars and see the numbers they have painted on their rooves for helicopters. And more generally you feel you’re the king of the road, swooping down it surrounded by glass. There seems to be a tacit acknowledgment that the front seat is the best for this reason, and those seats are always filled first, but people don’t like to make enough of a fuss to change to those seats when others get off. So this is another nice thing about it – it’s like everyone is having their own secret fun that they don’t want to acknowledge overtly, right there on the least glamorous type of transport there is.
Obviously, I am not the first person to notice this – in London people wax quite lyrical on the attractions of their favourite routes. I used to have a particular fondness for getting the number 159 home from Oxford Street, via Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and Westminster Bridge.
3) It’s all a bit louche up on the top deck. Forget the Mile High club – there’s nothing like a bit of heavy petting on the top of a double decker bus. In the days before security cameras it worked much better; in the aforementioned front seats you would be out of sight of the angled mirror that allowed the bus driver to see what was going on upstairs, so if you had the top deck to yourself you could do exactly what you liked until another passenger got on. Good on the last bus of the night, drunk…
Maybe it feels louche because, back in the day, you could smoke upstairs. Cigarette ends would litter the floor of Preston buses. Wasn’t banned until 1991, and if it was smoky enough, my Mum would venture upstairs, look at the smokers, and turn us back down again to sit on the safe and boring lower deck.