Paul Johnson

Whatever else you do, don’t miss the bus!

Whatever else you do, don’t miss the bus!

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Americans grumble to me that the price of cabs in London is outrageous, and they are right. I tell them to take a double-decker red bus, but they look doubtful. Too complicated? Certainly, when I am in New York, I hesitate before I take one of those convenient buses that go up and down Fifth Avenue because the drivers are so impatient and sarcastic, and when I fiddle for dimes and nickels to pay them, call out, ‘Oi, oi! Hoy Foynance! Hoy Foynance!’ Reading Thackeray’s Collected Letters the other day, I see he had the same experience with a Manhattan streetcar (horse-drawn of course) in the 1850s.

I now take a lot of double-deckers, partly because I have a free pass, partly because the one good thing little Mayor Livingstone has done is greatly to increase their frequency, so there is now no waiting at stops. But he should not have abolished the old Routemasters, the best double-deckers ever made. His reason was ‘safety’; you could jump on and off between stops. But that was the whole point: that is precisely why they were so agreeable. Also, you could hang on the platform, gripping the chromium pillar, and feel the traffic whizzing by, although that was strictly forbidden. The feeling was almost as exhilarating as the old Renault buses in Paris, half a century ago, when you were allowed to stand on the rear platform and lean over the rail as it chuntered and whizzed up the boulevards. As Mrs Rodd used to say, the feeling in your tummy as the big Renault swung round the corner at full speed was ‘Blissikins!’

My belief is that the Routemasters were actually safer than their modernistic successors, which have such fierce brakes or such bad drivers, or both, that they stop and start with tremendous jerks, forcing you to hang on grimly. I have seen old folk flung to the ground by these paroxysmal and vellicating vehicles. Happily I have reached an age when younger travellers, seeing my ‘frosty pow’ (though actually my hairdresser, Deanne, calls it ‘champagne-coloured’), offer me their seats. Only women do it, I notice, never men; and the prettier, the more likely they are to offer. (Why?) Well, if I am on a convulsive Livingstone bus, I accept, though never on a Tube. I love to travel on a bus, peering into the faces, reading life-histories in them, exchanging banalities, Pinterisms and conversational bathos. If I were a skilled figure-painter, I would do an up-to-date version of George W. Joy’s masterpiece ‘The Bayswater Omnibus’, one of my favourite pictures (now in the Museum of London).

It was the French who invented the omnibus, in 1826 precisely. It should have appeared two centuries before, because Blaise Pascal got the idea then. Unfortunately Louis XIV was too busy shaking the dust of Fronde-ridden Paris off his absolutist feet, and setting up in Versailles, to do anything about Pascal’s brilliant idea. The Paris wheeze was so successful that by 1829 the main bus company had 100 vehicles on the road, carrying 30,000 people daily. On 5 April that year a man called Shillibeer announced to the chairman of the London Board of Stamps, the licensing authority, ‘I am engaged in building two vehicles after the recently established French omnibus, which when completed I propose starting on the Paddington road.’ The service opened exactly three months later, travelling to the City, and was an immediate success. A year later the Parisians used omnibuses, on their sides, as barricades during the comic-opera revolution to overthrow King Charles X, last of the legitimate Bourbons. I believe Victor Hugo wrote a sonnet on the matter. In the meantime, the Cockneys had shortened the term to ‘bus’, a word which had hitherto signified a rough sort of kiss. But how did you spell it? Harriet Martineau, the first woman economist and a sharp, fizzy and stone-deaf writer, put it into print as early as 1832, the year the Reform Bill passed, but spelt it ‘buss’. Compositors, an old-fashioned tribe, set it with an apostrophe or in double quotes — thus ‘buss’ or ‘busses’ — until the 1920s. The Morning Post refused to abbreviate it at all, on the rare occasions when it could bring itself to mention such a vulgar mode of transport.

The omnibus meant that countless working people, who had hitherto walked or jogged (like Trotty Veck in The Chimes), could now afford public transport. So the buses multiplied and that, in turn, led to traffic jams. The serious London jam, however, had anticipated the coming of the omnibus by a decade. The first big one I have noted occurred on Piccadilly on 29 May 1820 (the month, as it happens, Keats finished his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and Shelley began his ‘Ode to the West Wind’). Mrs Arbuthnot, the Duke of Wellington’s floozie, had never been in a traffic jam before, and left a description. She had been to Covent Garden to see Virginius by James Sheridan Knowles, starring Charles Kemble, Daniel Terry and W.C. Macready. ‘We left the place at 11 o’clock’, she wrote, ‘and in Piccadilly we got into a crowd of carriages caused by a party at Lady Charleville’s, and were kept there, unable to move either way, for above two hours; at the end of which time, when we were able to move, I was so tired I went home. I never saw such a quantity of carriages and never was so bored and provoked.’

The bus not only intensified and multiplied jams, since it was less manoeuvrable than private carriages, but hugely increased the noise of city traffic. People today think there’s nothing worse than motor traffic for making a continuous din, but they are wrong. The row made by iron-shod coach wheels banging over unevenly cobbled main streets was absolutely deafening. Eventually, after many experiments with different materials, the City fathers introduced a wood-block road surface which brought down the decibels (and rubber coach tyres, a mid-Victorian invention, helped) but London remained impossibly noisy until 1914. Provincial cities were sometimes worse. The Bristol coaches careered into Bath all day from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. It’s no wonder that the country-loving Anne Elliot in Persuasion found the place so disagreeable; indeed, Jane Austen herself did not like it either. In 1834 appeared the first steam omnibus, a thing rather like an old-fashioned traction engine, with enormous iron wheels and ten times the noise of a bus. Thomas Telford, the greatest transport engineer of the early 19th century, was so appalled by the noise that he proposed an entirely new road system for long-distance traffic. This would have avoided city centres with a high-speed national network built to carry steam vehicles of every kind. The proposal would have avoided the railway age altogether and moved straight by steam to the motorway age, thus saving all our old mediaeval towns and villages. But the idea was turned down — too visionary. I think of such missed opportunities as I sit in my double-decker, looking at the grinning, grouchy, grumbling, beamish, boisterous, braying, frosty, frowning, fuming, fulsome and funny faces of my fellow Londoners. There is nothing like a bus for taking you straight to the heart of life.