The Bus We Loved

The Bus We Loved:
London’s Affair with the Routemaster
(Granta, September 2005)


‘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.

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 compete 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 décor intact felt like being conveyed about the city in the lounge of an illustrious, if by now gone-to-seed, club.”

The abandonment of the Routemaster, and the high design values it embodies, 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. A book as smart and fit for purpose as its subject.’

Andrew Martin (author of The Blackpool Highflyer) New Statesman

‘A London without Routemasters! For Travis Elborough, as for millions of commuters, the very thought seems barbarous. “There are few cities in the world,” he writes, “whose sense of self is so intricately bound up with the iconography of its public transport utility; possibly because it is (or was) such a beacon of order in a disorderly and haphazard metropolis.” Elborough sees the Routemaster as an example of the same post-war optimism in the virtues of planning as the NHS, new towns and the welfare state. He argues that they represented a vision of the future and a belief that things would get better after years of austerity and rationing.

Their colour was crucial in this regard: the bright red exteriors broke with the pea-soupers and greyness that had enveloped the capital for much of the 1950s. No wonder that they often cropped up in the polychrome riots of 1960s Pop Art. They were, Elborough says, “The Avengers on wheels”. Elborough’s book will please bus-lovers who want to read about different models and types of engine, as well as cultural historians who will surely be delighted to learn about the existence of a dance-music label called Routemaster Records. The book is also an informal history of migrant labour, especially from the Caribbean, and it doesn’t stint from recording black/white as well as driver/conductor tensions.

Elborough calls his book “more hagiography than history”. He’s being rather harsh; The Bus We Loved is a worthy addition to the recent canon of quality literature on British transport that includes Edward Platt’s Leadville and Ian Parker’s essay ‘Traffic’ in Granta. Like Adrian Maddox’s elegy to the greasy spoon, Classic Cafes, and Iain Sinclair’s forthcoming City of Disappearances, it also memorialises aspects of vernacular London imperilled by property developers and gentrification.’

Sukhdev Sandhu, The Daily Telegraph

‘Anything nice I could say about it has doubtless already been said and I don’t really do back-slapping, but really, it’s very good – very neat and delicate, positively reeking of nostalgia, in the best sense. Like a prized cheese – or is it a prize cheese?’

Ian Sansom, author of The Truth about Babies

‘Travis Elborough’s The Bus We Loved is a jaunty but thorough history of the much-loved (and very dead) Routemaster bus. Elborough, a former bookseller, understands the pitch: just enough technical detail, anecdote and cultural reference (Cliff Richard and On the Buses). His prose trots at a brisk pace. (Bite-sized chapters fit the stations of your morning commute.)… All the book needs is a set of detachable plastic wheels.’

Iain Sinclair, Guardian

‘A charming account of the capital’s enduring affair with its favourite piece of transport.’

Daily Mail

‘Elborough’s nostalgia for the sights and sounds that won’t come again is infectious. You don’t have to fall in love with the Routemaster quite as passionately as Elborough clearly has to feel a little more affection for it than for the behemoths of bendy-buses that are pushing it aside, or to feel that this well-told story is one that was worth telling.’

Times Literary Supplement

‘Elborough goes further than just mourning the demise of the lovely curvy Routemaster shape and its liberating hop on-hop off entryway. He interjects plenty of feeling and personal touch into the book, but his approach is disciplined: historical and sociological as well as anecdotal.’

Financial Times

‘A pocket-sized production as sleek as the vehicle it elegises.’

London Review of Books

‘A heartfelt elegy to the Routemaster, as it disappears from our streets and Satan’s squeezebox takes its place.’

Independent on Sunday

‘It’s a great treat and emphatically not just for the anorak brigade. A very funny piece of nostalgic commemoration.’

Publishing News

‘The author adds diligent research to his obvious enthusiasm. Interviews with drivers and engineers are interspersed with a wealth of detail on the evolution of the Routemaster. This book is

beautifully designed. You can almost smell the mustiness in the bus interior shown on the back of the book. Elborough is a deft writer.’

‘A delightful book’


‘Every now and then a book comes along which is a complete surprise, a pleasant one that is. If you expect a book detailing bus fleet numbers, body swaps and garage allocations then you’ll be disappointed because this book is much more than that. Readable for enthusiasts, Londoners, historians, tourists, anyone in fact.’

Bus and Coach Magazine