I’ve lived in London long enough to wax, wane (and whinge) about the good old days. Case in point: the Routemaster. Elsewhere it’s known as a double-decker bus, but ask a Londoner about the post box red Routemaster and just watch him stiffen that jaw and blink away, instantly misty-eyed. Routemasters are off the road now — 50 years of service was deemed enough — and now that it’s been a couple of years since mandatory retirement, we’ve all forgotten how grubby, belching and smelly they actually were. What we remember was just how fantastic it was to hop on and off the back platform. Leaping off a moving bus made one feel like an action hero in a business suit . . . and giddy in the thought that this would never be tolerated by health and safety pinheads back in the US. In that first year, I used to take the #11 from the King’s Road in Chelsea to the office, near Liverpool Street station. The #11 is known by locals as The Tour bus, because its route follows some of London’s most famous landmarks — Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, the Thames, and St. Paul’s among them. I always made a point of going for an upper deck seat — the ideal being the farthest forward, right hand side as it made for an elevated, unobstructed view. There was nothing better than that seat on a Friday night. But this was a Wednesday, in fact. It was an unusually hot day and I was annoyed the batteries had died in my Sony Discman (this was the pre-iPod era). We were stopped at a light in Chelsea and as I stowed that useless piece of you know what into my briefcase, I looked aimlessly out the window. My eyes eventually rested on the Bentley below, stopped at the light and facing the opposite direction. As the scene slowly slipped into focus, I was jolted into the startling realisation that I was making eye contact with the Queen. Yes, THE Queen. And get this — when she saw me do a double-take — my eyes doing that Homer Simpson popping out bit — she smiled. And then gave me a little wave. I swear. When I told the story in the office the next morning, I described her majesty’s light blue outfit in detail (light blue gloves, light blue hat), but when I said she smiled — well, let’s just say there were skeptics.
But minutes later, the morning papers were delivered and there she was — on the front page of The Times from the Chelsea Flower Show and just as I saw her the day before — smiling and wearing light blue, including the little blue hat. Boris Johnson, our mayor, has promised an all-new Routemaster will carry passengers by 2011. Memories will take a little longer.