The Routemaster

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The red double decker bus is one of the most beloved of London's icons.  You'd have to be living under a rock to avoid them (And if you are, I hope you're not paying more than £500 per month, because despite the high cost of rent in London you should be able to find a nice rock in Zone 2 within walking distance of a tube station for somewhere in the neighbourhood of £450/month, not including utilities of course.)

When I lived in London in 1988 I used to take buses a lot and back then a red doubledecker bus was almost always a Routemaster (Pronunciation note: the "route" in "Routemaster" rhymes with "hoot" and "toot" not "out" and "about".)  The Routemaster was first introduced to London's streets 1956, and is best known for its distinctive open rear deck.  The driver is completely isolated from passengers in his own little cab, accessed from a separate little door on the traffic side of the bus.  The design of the buses was quite innovative for the time, using lightweight aluminum* and aircraft building techniques honed in the Second World War. This meant that, despite being 3/4 of a ton lighter than previous models, the Routemaster carries 65 seated passengers vs. the 56 of previous models.  Its light weight also made it more fuel efficient and therefore cheaper to run.

A classic Routemaster, showing the driver's compartment

Because the driver was isolated in his own cab, a conductor was needed to issue tickets to passengers and generally make sure the level of mayhem on the bus was kept to a minimum.  Tickets were printed with a lovely little hand operated mechanical 'Gibson' ticket machine which hung around the conductor's neck and spat out paper tickets when the handle was cranked around.  This all seems quite charming now, but I do recall that it was a bit of a pain needing change for the bus all the time.  And the exceedingly open style made for a drafty, wet, cold ride sometimes.

However, all this was more than compensated for by the inestimable pleasure of being able to dash up to a departing Routemaster, grab the vertical bar and swing up onto the deck as the bus was pulling away.  Better still, you could hop off the back of the bus any time you wanted: in between stops, in traffic, when the bus was moving, whatever.  It was brilliant. Honestly, I can't think of anything that feels quite so perfectly LONDON-ish than hanging off the back of a Routemaster bus with the wind in your hair, waiting to hop off whenever the mood strikes you.  Preferably with Big Ben tolling in the background and a pint of real ale in your near future.

Alighting from a Routemaster the boring way, with it stationary at its appointed bus stop.

Naturally, anything so excellent could not last.  Despite the fact that the design was remarkably robust (Routemasters outlasted several replacement designs) the last of the famous breed were withdrawn from service in 2005.  Several reasons were cited for this: newer designs without the open rear deck could be operated by the driver alone, carried more passengers, and allowed better disabled access.  (Interestingly, the last route to operate with Routemasters was the 159 between Marble Arch and Streatham, which goes right past my house.)  

However, the TFL also recognised that a complete lack of Routemasters on London's roads would be a tragedy to great to contemplate, possibly resulting in riots, or at least frequent tiresome moaning about the good old days when the post came twice a day and the pubs closed in the afternoon and you could get a proper cup of tea and a first class stamp cost 13p and blah blah blah..."  They therefore contracted for the operation of "heritage routes" that would operate Routemasters in parallel with regular buses along short sections of two routes in central London.  Thus it was that I set out on a rainy Saturday to catch the #9 from High Street Kensington to Trafalgar Square.

The Number 9
The #9, arriving at exactly the right moment to pick me up, which is lucky indeed since it was indeed a very rainy day.

They don't issue tickets with the magic machine anymore, but the conductor did come up to the top deck to check my Oyster Card.  It was an uneventful but really satisfying ride.  The old Routemasters are such solid beasts.  There's no plastic in sight, and the staircase that winds up the back of the bus is just how I remembered it, though I suppose I can see why people these days might be a bit wary.  A tumble down those stairs would pitch you right out into traffic.

Taken from the top of the stairs of a moving Routemaster

I had the top deck to myself for a bit so naturally I sat right at the front for the best view through the rain-speckled, foggy windows.  I think it's almost a crime to sit on the bottom deck of a doubledecker bus.  Especially on a sleepy Saturday when you're on your way to nowhere.

The top deck, blissfully empty.  Because it's a popular attraction, the Routemaster on the #9 route attracts a lot of tourists.  It wasn't long before I was joined by a large crowd on the upper deck, including a nice enough Italian couple, one half of which conducted what sounded like a pretty credible running commentary that went like this: "Italian Italian Italian Italian Italian Buckingham Palace Italian Italian Italian Royal Albert Hall Italian Italian Italian Italian Italian Italian Italian Kensington Palace Italian Italian Italian Harrod's Italian Fayed Italian Italian Italian Picadilly Circus Italian Italian Italian" etc...

As the clever Italian man implied, the #9 passes alongside Hyde Park, taking in the Royal Albert Hall, the Albert Memorial, Hyde Park Corner, Marble Arch, and Green Park, before ending up at Trafalgar Square, where I alighted (alas, while the bus was stopped).  The other Heritage Route (#15) starts at Trafalgar and passes St. Paul's en route to the Tower of London, also a highly worthwhile trip.  As I was getting off at Trafalgar I took a picture of the conductor, who was a pleasant enough guy, but more accustomed to taking photos of other people with his bus, than having his photo taken.

Mr. Routemaster

Interestingly, the death of the Routemaster has a bearing on a very current political debate here in London.  There's a mayoral election in London next week, on May 3rd.  I'll actually get to vote in the election, which I'm kind of keen about. The two main candidates are the current incumbent, Boris Johnson (Conservative Party), and the previous mayor, Ken Livingstone (Labour Party, known colloquially as "Red Ken").  Ken Livingstone was the one who started phasing out of the Routemaster in 2004 for all the reasons I've already mentioned.  He's also the one who introduced the single-decker articulated "bendy bus" to London's streets.

Alternatively, Boris Johnson is partly known for his election promise to introduce a new, modern version of the Routemaster to London's streets.  These new buses do have the open rear deck and the distinctive rear staircase, but the rear opening can be closed off during slow periods, meaning that the bus doesn't require a conductor at those times.  The bus also has doors at the middle and the front, and an additional staircase, which frankly seems excessive to me.  However, I like the swoopy sort of design.  Three of the New Routemasters are currently in service on the #38 route from Victoria but sadly they aren't used on evenings and weekends, so I couldn't try one out on my Routemaster Day.

New Routemaster
The new Routemaster.  Not bad.  Ironically, when Johnson was elected in 2008, he started scrapping Ken's bendy buses.  Now Ken is threatening to halt the roll-out of the new Routemaster if he's elected on Thursday.  It's Busgate, I tell ya.

And there you have it, a little look at one of London's icons.  I'd definitely recommend a ride on an old Routemaster the next time you're in town.  It's a fun, cheap treat and a bit of a time warp.  Just make sure to get off while the bus is moving for maximum effect. (Note from the GSWPL Legal Department: Go Stay Work Play Live bears no responsibility for any injury of death resulting from following the above recommendation.) (Note from the GSWPL Fun Department: Do it do it do it!) (Note from the GSWPL Peer Pressure Department: All the cool kids are doing it.  Come on, you know you wanna...) (Note from the GSWPL Extraneous Notes Department: Sorry about this, sometimes I just get carried away.)

In other vehicularly-related news - I passed my driving test on Wednesday, which is an immense relief.  Though I was very very nervous, I did have the lovely Mohammed with me this time, so instead of a harrowing two-hour last-minute lesson-cum-Spanish-Inquisition before the actual test, I had a very empowering, confidence building spin around the Hither Green area with Mohammed, and still had time for a sandwich and a coffee before the test. And when it was all over, the examiner actually complimented me on my driving. Yay for me!

In other Pam-related news, we passed the 100-days-to-go-to-the-Olympic-Opening-Ceremony landmark a short time ago, which everyone I speak to has been mentioning incessantly, which is simply rubbing salt into the wound, thank you very much, because I eat, sleep and breathe that schedule.  The workload continues to increase, and evenings and weekends off are fast becoming a rarity.  This is not unexpected, but I've come to realise in the last few weeks that I need to start cutting out all extraneous activities, which basically means everything except work, grocery-buying, laundry and the occasional moment sitting staring at a wall doing NOTHING.  Running, socialising, hashing, and, err... blogging... they've all got to happen only when I've genuinely got the time and the brain energy and the desire simultaneously.  So while I'll continue to write when the stars align, please don't be crushed if new blogs appear less and less frequently.  Just know that I'm engaged in A Great Work, and please tune in on July 27th.

* Ok, time to talk about The Great Aluminum / Aluminium Debate.  In North America, it's aluminum (Ah-LOO-min-um).  Here, it's aluminium - note the extra syllable (Ah-loo-MIN-ee-um).  This catches me out all the time, but is one place where I've kind of dug in my heels on the basis that the guy who first identified the element (Humphry Davy) settled on the name "aluminum" in 1812. 
But the same year, an anonymous contributor to the Quarterly Review, a British political-literary journal, in a review of Davy's book, objected to aluminum and proposed the name aluminium, "for so we shall take the liberty of writing the word, in preference to aluminum, which has a less classical sound." (Wikipedia)
What a poncey git.

The Games People Play: Place Your Bets!

Monday, April 16, 2012

This Saturday was the annual running of the Grand National horse race at Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool.  The National is a famous and simultaneously beloved and reviled event that excites comment even among those who never watch horse racing at any other time of the year. Far from a standard, somewhat dull, single trip around a boring oval racecourse, the Grand National is a steeplechase, meaning that the horses race over a series of fences and ditches. Considering that 40 horses and riders start the race, this makes for a mad, crushing, insane, extraordinary sort of melee that is exciting and terrifying at the same time.

For reasons that are not clear to your humble blogger, the Grand National is the one race every year that gets everyone out to the betting shops (Well not everyone, but loads more people than would every normally darken the door of a bookie's). Newspapers all publish the odds on each horse in the field and often print a blank column for people to fill in for use in office sweepstakes, much as we in Canada might do for a Grey Cup pool. According to
Nearly half the UK adult population have a flutter on the Grand National staking a total £300 million, at an average of £8 per bet and Grand National day is the one day of the year when women close the gap on men in the betting stakes – one in every three Grand National bets is placed by a woman. 
All this gave me an excellent opportunity to place a few bets of my own, which is something I've been wanting to try out for ages but haven't had the guts to pursue on my own. Even though you can't walk down any High Street in England without passing at least three bookmaker's shops, it's always seemed like a highly arcane and certainly dodgy kind of thing to me. Luckily, the occurrence of the Grand National this year coincided with the return of the Crossword Tutor Patrick from foreign exile, and Patrick has some experience with semi-scallywag-ish things like betting shops. Thus, I had a native guide to act as an escort, explain the system, and take pictures of me at the betting window. (None of which turned out looking anything other than blurry or weird, so too bad...)

We put a cap on our betting for the day at the princely sum of £6.00 per person, and each decided to split our money among three horses. And, to increase our odds even further, we bet "each way", meaning that instead of paying out only for a win, if any of our horses came second, third or fourth, they'd also pay out, though at a lower odds. An "each way" bet costs double a standard "to win" bet, but of course the odds are much better. For my £6 I got three £1 "each way" bets at a very friendly Ladbroke's on The Strand in the West End. Ladbroke's are one of the biggest chains of betting shops, and it turns out that they're not particularly creepy or scary at all. At least that one wasn't. This one had friendly clerks wandering around in bright red t-shirts emblazoned with "I'm here to help". (I think it was smart for me to try this whole betting shop thing for the first time on the busiest betting day of the year, when the shops are expecting a lot of inexperienced punters to come in to place their yearly bets.)

So Patrick and I poured over the charts and made highly scientific determinations of which horses to bet on, based on important things like whether the name was funny, and what colour the jockeys might be wearing. I chose the favourite, Sychronised, and a horse called Organised Confusion (which reminded me of work), and one called Calgary Bay (of course). Patrick put his money on Deep Purple, Sunnyhillboy and According To Pete.

Grand National
Our betting slips showing the name of the race, the bet (E/W stands for Each Way), the name of the horse and the total stake.  When you take these to the window you have to specify whether you want them "priced", which means the printout of your bet will display the odds as they were when you placed the bet.  If the bet is not priced, then any payout would be according to the odds at the moment the betting closed.  Since the odds shift around constantly until the start this could work for or against you.

After we forked over the grand sum of £12, we wandered off to find a nice pub in which to watch the proceedings.  On the way we went through Trafalgar Square where they were holding some kind of "Happy Holland Day" festivities that seemed to involve wearing a lot of orange and eating french fries.  More interesting / terrifying to me was to see the big countdown clock in the square that's ticking away the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the Olympic Opening Ceremony.

104 days??? How the hell did that happen???

I certainly needed a drink after that, and we eventually settled ourselves at the Cambridge Pub where there was a reasonably sized screen, a respectable number of real ales on tap, and an empty table.  (Interesting aside: Showing most sporting events in pubs requires that the pub pay for a special license, but the Grand National is one of a very short list of events that is required to be broadcast "free to air".  Others include the FA Cup Final, the World Cup Final and, of course, the men's and women's Wimbeldon Championships.)  It seems quite a few people in the area had the same idea we did.

More pics
Everyone looking at the big screen.  Except that guy at the bar who might be checking his betting slips, and the guy on the phone at the back, who is probably just a loser.

Finally, after a bizarre incident in which the favourite, Synchronised, threw off his jockey during the warm-up and had to be rounded up and reunited with his rider, and after an odd amount of time spent stretching out the starting tape, they were underway.  And, as you'd expect from a free-for-all involving 40 horses and 40 riders and 30 fences, it was mayhem.

Grand Natl

Yes, horses fall.  Badly.  All the time.  

It really is crazy. As you can see from the above photo, it's an incredibly dangerous race. With so many horses and those crazy fences, falls are expected, and bad falls are standard. Though 40 horses and riders might start, fewer than half that number are generally expected to finish, and it's commonplace to see riderless horses galloping along with the rest of the pack on the course.  This year 16 of the 40 starters actually finished the race (in 1928 there were only TWO finishers).  And, worst of all, there are an average of three horse DEATHS every year at the Grand National, which makes me (and lots of other people) question whether it's really something that we should keep doing.  That's the really divisive, contentious thing about the race.  Organisers have recently redesigned some of the more dangerous fences, but horses continue to be badly injured.  This year two horses suffered broken legs and had to be put down, including Synchronised, the who had been favoured to win going into the race.  There really has to be a better way.

Nonetheless, it was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement.  My horses were all out of it fairly quickly, except for Calgary Bay, who at least managed to finish (though well out of the running).  On the other hand, one of Patrick's horses was involved in the closest finish in the history of the National.  Sunnyhillboy ended up leading coming off the last fence and looked like he had it won but an astounding surge by Neptune Collonge meant that our boy lost by, literally, about half a nostril.  And for the first time ever, a female jockey placed in the top three - Katie Walsh, on Seabass.  (The whole race is on Youtube, here.)

And so our hopes of a big payout were dashed (and when I say big, I mean £22.00). Instead, we had to content ourselves with a tube ride back to Brixton, where Patrick collected his generous winnings for the second-place finish.

Patrick and his fiver, patiently posing for a photo in the Brixton Ladbroke's, which was not nearly so nice as the one on the Strand where we placed our bets, and hence not really a place you want to hang around having your picture taken with a £5 note.

And that was my first Grand National.  I'm really of two minds about the whole thing.  It was fun to place the bets and exciting to watch the race, especially with that photo finish.  It wasn't until a while later that we found out that two horses had to be put down, which certainly put a damper on matters.  I don't know what the solution is, and people who love horses and racing obviously don't know either.  It's definitely a British institution, but I really don't know how much longer it can last in its present form.  It could be that the Grand National's days are numbered.  If so, I'm glad I had a little taste, though really I would have been more glad if Sunnyhillboy had a slightly longer nose...

Apropos of Nothing, revenge of the son of the sequel

Monday, April 2, 2012

Another completely random selection of thoughts...

Quirky Budget Day Traditions on Two Sides of the Atlantic:

The government presented a new budget last week and just like in Canada, where they've also got a new budget, the media coverage was er... extensive.  In Canada the budget is presented by the Finance Minister.  Here in the UK the minister responsible for all financial and economic matters is called the Chancellor of the Exchequer, currently George Osborne.  The presentation of a budget is all pretty familiar stuff, but there is one tradition here that is quirky enough to make it worth blogging about: the red box.

Red boxes are the traditional cases used by British government ministers.  They look like little red briefcases, and are meant to be used to carry official government documents from place to place.
The design of ministerial boxes has changed little since the 1860s. Covered in red stained rams' leather, it is embossed with the Royal Cypher and ministerial title. The 2 or 3 kg boxes are constructed of slow-grown pine, lined with lead and black satin and, unlike a briefcase, the lock is on the bottom, opposite the hinges and the handle, to guarantee that the box is locked before being carried.

The colour red has remained the traditional covering of the boxes. The lead lining, which has been retained in modern boxes, was once meant to ensure that the box sank when thrown overboard in the event of capture. Also bomb-proof, they are designed to survive any catastrophe that may befall their owner. (Thanks again, Wikipedia!)
Fun, eh?  The most famous red box is the one used by the Exchequer to carry the new budget.  Unsurprisingly, it's called the Budget Box.  It's traditional for the Exchequer to pose for photos with the Budget Box outside of 10 Downing Street (the home of the Prime Minister and the UK equivalent to 24 Sussex Drive).  It is impossible to get through the week that a budget is presented without seeing at least 739 different photos of the Exchequer and his little red box in front of Downing Street.

Osborne Red Box
I will spare you the other 738...

And, for my 4 UK readers (Patrick, Anne, Paul, Jeremy... I'm talking to you) here is a fun Canadian budget fact: In Canada there is an inconsistently followed tradition that the Finance Minister will buy or wear new shoes on Budget Day.  There's even a Wikipedia article entitles "New shoes on budget day".

Jockey Wheels and Monkey Sprockets:

I'd like to take this opportunity, once again, to thank Cycle Training UK and Lambeth Council.  I've mentioned them both before, but their generosity regarding all manner of cycle training really deserves another nod.  Astute GSWPL readers will remember that I had two sessions of one-on-one cycle safety training in the fall, which made me eligible to take a full day bicycle maintenance course at no extra charge.  So that's 4 hours of on-road training and about 7 hours of maintenance training all for the grand total of £8.00.  I honestly still can't believe that.

I also can't believe how shockingly low the pressure in my tires has been, more or less forever.   That's just one of the things I learned last Sunday when I spent the day in a nice little workshop learning all about my bike.  It was a very small class of people - me and two other women, and a female instructor - which meant that we got to do much more hands on stuff with our own bikes than if there had been a class of 12.  I've already mentioned that I had an impromptu flat tire fixing lesson a few months ago, but we went over all that again on Sunday, and then got into some more interesting stuff.  I now know how to correctly apply a patch to an inner tube, and how to get my back wheel in and out without touching the chain, and I can replace brake pads and cables and adjust the brakes in two different places.  I can even make a stab at some gear adjustments.

Bike Hospital
Leila and Sarah, trying to adjust something on Leila's vintage racer bike, which was charming, but had lots of quirky old-fashioned parts that were making both of them sort of crazy.  My bike may be boring and heavy, but it's also pretty easy to fix.

I even rotated my tires, because the back one was terribly worn, especially considering I've had the bike for less than a year.  I must be cycling much much much more than I even have before.  Or possibly my tires, like the rest of the bike, are just kind of cheap and crappy.  No matter, the now-rock-hard tire pressure, plus a slightly higher seat, plus tuned up brakes, made the ride to and from work on Monday seem like a breeze.  I was cruising comfortably in gears I've barely used before and have cut about 5 minutes off my commute time.  I suppose the most surprising thing was how simple most of this stuff is.  The whole thing was ridiculously empowering.

As for jockey wheels and a monkey sprockets: one is a real bike part that needs occasional attention, and one is completely made up!  And I know which is which now.

Bike bits from the training room.  Not pictured: jockey wheels.  Also not pictured: monkey sprockets

The Zoology of London Road Crossings:

I've already mentioned zebra crossings, which are always marked with a Belisha beacon.  But since I've lately been forced to delve into the murky world of the Highway Code I've discovered that there is a whole zoo of crossings out there.  As a reminder, the zebra crossing is the one with the white stripes on the road and the magic flashing lights where you (theoretically) can just stride confidently into the road and everyone should stop. (Once again I'm compelled to point out that here it is pronounced ZEB-ruh.  Not ZEEB-ruh.) 

One down from the zebra crossing is the pelican crossing. No, I am not making this up.  Have a look at the Highway Code yourself if you don't believe me... it's gripping reading.  Pelican crossing are what the Brits call the ones where you have to press a button to make the little green man on the other side of the road come on.  Fairly standard.

Moving on from pelican crossings we have the puffin crossing.  They work the same way as pelican crossing except that the little red and green men are not all the way across the road, but instead are just above the button.  Puffin crossings are also equipped with "pedestrian detectors" that determine how long the keep the green man on.  Interesting.

Even more interesting are the toucan crossings, so named because they allow cyclists to cross at the same time as pedestrians without getting off their bikes.  So two can cross at the same time... get it?

Toucan Crossing
Green Man and green bicycle!  There are toucan crossings on my cycle route to work.

And finally, rounding out the menagerie is the very rare pegasus crossing, which I have not yet encountered in the wild.  Pegasus crossings allow controlled movement not just for pegasuses but also for any other of your hybrid mythical beasts including, but not limited to: griffins, manticores, centaurs, hippogriffs and minotaurs.  

Ha! Not really.  A Pegasus crossing allows people on horseback to cross the road, and have buttons mounted much higher up so you can reach them comfortably from horseback.  And of course they have little green horse-and-riders.

Pegasus Crossing 2

The Big Brother Effect:

The UK is, I think, the most surveilled society in the world. (Karen - am I right about this?) CCTV cameras are everywhere.  I've always known this in an abstract sort of way, but on Sunday read a statistic that said the average Londoner is captured on camera 13 times every hour.  That made me sit up a bit straighter (not least because I didn't want to be caught slouching from eight different angles).  I did a bit more digging and came across a very interesting article in the Guardian (which is a very popular paper that I might actually be inclined to buy and read, except the crossword is bloody impossible) about some research done in Cheshire and extrapolated out to the whole UK.  That research figured the number of surveillance cameras in use in the UK is more than 1.8 million, or one for every 32 people.  

I admit I did not actually take this picture, it's from Wikimedia.  You can tell I didn't take it because the sky is NEVER that colour here.  Though on Tuesday it was a pleasing shade of much lighter blue, and the sun was shining and I ate my lunch outside along the Lambeth Cut Canal, which was really nice.  Footage of my lunch break is probably already up on YouTube.

More alarming still is the fact that apparently a huge majority of these cameras are owned by private companies.  This was a surprise because I assumed (as, I think, do most people) that it's the government that's watching our every move with cameras outside buildings like the ones pictured above.  Instead, it seems most cameras are indoors.  In the sample in Cheshire of the 12,333 cameras counted a mere 504 were run by public authorities.  That's just kind of creepy.

Also creepy: this photo I took on my walk to the Tube:

Lambeth CCTV
A Lambeth Council CCTV Enforcement vehicle.  Apparently they roam around behind their mirrored windows taking photos of parking violations and people driving in bus lanes and such.  Then they issue the tickets, sorry - Penalty Charge Notices, by mail.  I'll probably be getting a £50 PCN for illegally blogging about an enforcement vehicle without previously applying for a Lambeth Council Social Media Dispensation Approval (Form 127-A)

Less creepy, but still interesting, is the fact that the Tube system has 11,000 CCTV cameras across the network.  This doesn't bother me much though, partly because it means that when people do stupid things on the Tube it's possible that they'll get called out by sharp Tube staff.  For instance:
Tube Driver:  Stand clear of the doors please.  Mind the closing doors.  (Pause)  Please keep clothing and personal items out of the doors.  Do not obstruct the doors.  (Pause, Pause)  The train can not move out of the station until the doors are clear.  Please do not obstruct the doors. (Pause, Pause, Pause)  Would the lady in the third carriage who has inserted 3 wheelie suitcases, a picnic basket and a schnauzer between the doors please remove them?  You are causing a delay to the service.
And that's all I've got for you this week.  If you're lucky, and the stars align, and I get a long weekend off for Easter I may get to blog from some exotic near-London destination.  If not, I'll just rant some more about my driving test.  Stay tuned!