Fathers’ Day

A short tale that doesn’t involve a wheelbarrow

It was supposed to be a wheelbarrow, my fathers’ day gift.

Instead it came, a small box containing a long, thin roll of canvas. The type is the screen-printed Gill Sans/Johnston that still characterises London Transport today (not “Transport for London” – neologisms make me barf) and the colours the same dissipated black and white that characterise vintage car number plates, blackboards and Ealing comedies.

Sure, there are other bus routes: 37, 65, 72, 93, 33 but, for me, the number 9 was far and away the best. So many things about it were better: the approach across a rickety railway bridge; the cavernous terminus building, far out of scale with the sleepy street on which it stood, and, of course, the bus itself was a Routemaster – long after every other route had adopted the soulless, health-and-safety dullard metrobus.

But the best thing of all about the number 9 was its route. From Avondale Road, the bus traipsed through Barnes, past Gustav Holst’s house, Olympic Studios and the Bull’s Head, up stately Castlenau and over Hammersmith Bridge – the masterpiece of Victorian kitsch.

First forays into London as often as not were to dirty, noisy Hammersmith – to the Palais, to the Cramps at the Odeon and to endless gigs at the creaking, death-trap tinderbox of the Clarendon.

Growing older I sat for longer and travelled further to scour stalls for bootleg tapes and Ramones tee shirts at Kensington Market.

Older and further again, the bus ground onwards along Hyde Park, past the museums and the vast rotunda of the Albert Hall.

Child fares on London Transport were a flat rate; the bus was slow but twenty pence would get you past Hyde Park Corner to the Hokusai at the Royal Academy, to the galleries on Cork Street, the Museum of Mankind and to the ICA.

Piccadilly, the Cenotaph, Trafalgar Square … to this day, I will still sneak into the National Gallery for a guilty moment with the ships in front of a Claude Lorrain.

Still the bus ground on, along the Strand, whence you can wander on a balmy summer evening to watch the buskers in Covent Garden, and finally to the Aldwych – where one day I would queue for hours for visas to places more-distant still.

Perhaps though, best of all was the sight of this bus sign itself. On seeing it, you knew your day was over; you could could climb onto the open platform, haul yourself up the curved staircase and rest your head against a juddering window – snoozing undisturbed all the way home.

The number 9 still runs. But the terminus is a just a bus stop, the signage a tart yellow and black and the bus a single-story, bifold-doored nasty that stops some way short of adventure.

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