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Book review of Bus Fare: Collected Writings on London’s Most Loved Means of Transport, edited by Travis Elborough and Joe Kerr.  (Slogan: Tourists take the Tube; Londoners take the bus).


busfare2The first thing I did with this new anthology was to scan the Contents pages for anything by HV Morton. Happily there is: a piece from 1936 in which the reporter interviews a WW1 veteran who had chucked in a promising army career to drive buses and be closer to his family. Morton, at the height of his powers, delivers a touching piece where he captures the voice of this Londoner as only he could.

Next stop, Henry Mayhew. Tick. Other literary giants between the covers of this excellent hardback include Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford. And a poem by Kipling: perfect.

Contemporary writers include Will Self, who explains why Stockwell Bus Garage is London’s most important building, and elsewhere describes the denizens of that garage’s staff canteen; Peter Watts talks about the retired ladies who travelled every bus route in London and also a piece about the ‘Boris Bus’. London Historians stalwart Matt Brown has a brace of items, one of which explains how most of our buses came to be mostly red. There are articles by former London Transport Museum virtuosi Sam Mullins (The Bus During World War 1) and Oliver Green (London Buses in Wartime). Oh, look! There is Christian Wolmar (a great supporter of London Historians, just saying) on privatisation; and Iain Sinclair, most amusingly on the modern bus driver’s lot. Editors Elborough and Kerr both chip in with items of their own.

But the book kicks off with an excellent essay by Nick Rennison on the man who introduced the London omnibus (and indeed the word ‘omnibus’ in this context) from Paris: the marvellous George Shillibeer. A former midshipman and trained coachbuilder, Shillibeer spent some time in post-Napoleonic Paris before introducing French public transport innovations to London. His first route was from Marylebone to Bank using two buses. Unfortunately, his business wilted under the pressure of instant competition and dishonest staff, leading him to two desperate spells in gaol, first for debt and then later for brandy smuggling. These are the bare bones of a fascinating life. (My own meagre effort on Shillibeer is here.)

Horse buses were ubiquitous on the streets of London in no time, providing easy fodder for journalists and satirists. The early pages of this book provide plenty of fascinating comment from the Morning Chronicle (Dickens), Punch, The Times etc. Laws, rules and regulations by necessity sprang up early on. And just as with the Tube virtually from Day One in 1863, there was much amusing comment on etiquette.

Elsewhere there is copious thoughtful, whimsical, nostalgic writing about bus travel in London. The book is, after all, a love letter to this vehicle in all its forms. The Routemaster, of course, looms large.  In this vein are the images, which are particularly well selected, complementing the text perfectly. Photos, paintings, posters, timetables, portraits. There’s a 1980 picture of co-editor Joe Kerr himself in his conductor’s uniform on the back platform of a Routemaster; harrowing images of buses caught up in the Blitz; the ‘Windrush generation’, whose very presence in London was in no small measure due to staff shortages on public transport; my favourite, though, is probably King George V raising his shiny silk topper to the No 8 to Willesden.

This is a terrific anthology which no one would begrudge tearing the paper off on Christmas morning. But it is so much more than that. Anyone with the vaguest interest in public transport or the social history of modern London, or – most of all – fine writing, will love this book.


Bus Fare, 351pp  hardcover, is published by the Automobile Association with a cover price of £14.99.

 

 

 

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Stanley Gardner (1911 – 1991) was London Transport’s first ever heritage guide, known among colleagues as the Memory Man.

DSC09586bAbout a month ago I received through the post a large cardboard box containing hundreds of slides of pictures featuring historic London scenes, mostly taken in the 1960s. They were sent to us for safekeeping by the son of Stan Gardner who at that time gave public talks about London’s history. I pressed Stan’s son Graham for more information and just a few days later arrived an altogether smaller wooden box. Written on the lid: “STANS [sic] STUFF.”

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Inside Stan’s little box was a magazine: the London Transport Magazine of August 1954. It features Stan on the cover talking over the PA to coach passengers. On page 12 is an article which tells us that by then London Transport had nine trained “inspector-guides”. Stan observes that “the coach is often a regular family of nations with a dozen different races aboard”. But there are Londoners too. “Two of our regulars are London charwomen, who take each trip in turn on their days off.”

Stan Gardner.

Stan Gardner.

In addition to the magazine were a number of personal effects: London Transport badges, cloth and enamel; two enamel tour guide badges from the British Travel Association and the London Tourist Board; Stan’s PSV Driver badge; a button badge with the legend It Feels Good In London (and who can argue with that?). Best of all, I think, is Stan’s Record of Service Card. It shows that he was once a rifleman, army number 1773798. He served in the Royal Artillery from February 1941 to November 1944, and from then until May 1946 with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps.

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We have many guides among the London Historians membership. It is therefore a humbling privilege to have in our possession these personal items of an illustrious predecessor. We shall take great care of them and as soon as we’ve had a chance to go through the slides, we’ll report further. My thanks to Graham Gardner for trusting us with the care of his father’s effects.

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london underground david longWith this new book, prolific London history author David Long returns to the London Underground (an earlier work, The Little Book of the London Underground (2009), is a compendium of interesting facts, stories and statistics about the network).

This is the first book on the topic which I have read that focuses purely on the aesthetics of the system. Except in passing, you will find very little in this book about engineering, trains, timetables and the like. It is – as the title suggests – all about architecture and design. We learn about the two main architects of the 1900s and 1930s generations of stations, Leslie Green and Charles Holden respectively. We find out how the Underground’s “target” logo came into being. We read all about Edward Johnston, the typographer who devised the ubiquitous typeface on all Underground signage. And, of course, the draftsman Harry Beck, who gave not only London but most city transit systems worldwide the method of creating an easily understandable, diagrammatic map.

We Londoners like to grumble about the Tube. Despite its faults, most of us secretly love it and are proud of it; in our hearts we know it is a wonderful system. For despite its complexity, it is easy to understand and use. The credit for this goes to a handful of architects and designers who did their work almost a century ago. And at their centre was one man, the hero of the book: Frank Pick.

Pick was not an artist, a designer or an architect. He was, in fact, an administrator who rose through the ranks. But he had an instinct for talent-spotting and knowing what needed to be done. In the early decades of the 20th Century the tube system, comprising various different railway companies with different cultures and modi operandi were integrated into one unified organisation. Operationally, this was a challenge. But equally important was how this was presented to the public, how it was sold, how confidence in the system was built.

More than any marketing man or advertising guru, Pick understood the value of branding. It was he who set the standard for buildings, signage, advertising and posters – ensuring compliance and attention to detail to the nth degree. The result could have been disastrous except in the hands of a man of taste and discernment with natural  empathy for the age, a man both of his time and ahead of it. The result is that London’s urban transport system – including our red buses, of course – is one of the most recognisable brands on the planet. This book tells the story.

London Underground is richly illustrated with  hitherto unseen 1970s black and white photographs by Jane Magarigal which provide a nice nostalgic touch for those of us who wish the Tube still looked like it used to.

London Underground. Architecture, Design and History  is published by the History Press. List price is £18.99, but available for around £13.00.

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A quick slap-dash post while this is newsy, and perhaps matching the sloppiness of media reporting yesterday about 55 Broadway receiving Grade I listed status. Most of the reports I saw or heard touted it at the time of opening(1929), as being “London’s tallest building” when what they meant to say was London’s tallest office block, St. Pauls remaining London’s tallest for some time to come. The word “skyscraper” was much bandied, ironically I hope. No matter, I was quite surprised that it wasn’t Grade I already.

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Charles Holden (1875 - 1960)

55 Broadway is the headquarters of London Transport and sits atop St James’s Park underground station. It was built between 1927 and 1929 and designed by the legendary modernist architect Charles Holden (nb: great link). A few years later, Holden extended the record for London’s tallest office block when he designed another iconic building:  University of London’s Senate House.

But probably Holden is better known for many of London’s art deco style tube stations, particularly in the suburbs. He also designed the wholly subterranean Piccadilly Circus station with its circular concourse. All of this wonderful work was the result of his close collaboration with Frank Pick, the visionary managing director of the then Underground Group. The best part of a century later, we tend to take these wonderful public buildings for granted.

Coincidentally, and as luck would have it, the V&A (in conjunction with RIBA) currently have an exhibition of Charles Holden’s preparatory sketches for his underground designs. More details here. (scroll down a bit). The show ends on 13 February, don’t miss it.

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