Diary

James Meek

One evening in London in 2004, knots of people – mainly mothers with young children – gathered on the pavement along the northern end of the No. 73 bus route. As the buses clattered through Stoke Newington, their ancient engines straining to accelerate up the slight slope of Albion Road, the children waved. It was the last night the old double-decker Routemaster bus would do duty on the route and the mothers had taken their children out in the dark to bid the machines farewell. The light shone yellow through the passenger windows, the driver isolated in his cabin over the yawning mesh of the radiator, the conductor watching from the open platform at the back, his hand clasping the chrome strut like a mariner gripping the rigging.

The next day new buses, authorised by the then mayor Ken Livingstone, ran the route. They were nicknamed ‘bendy buses’, after the concertina joint in the middle that enabled them to twist their 18-metre length around corners. On paper they were an improvement on the Routemaster. They had more space for passengers. Unlike the old buses, they could accommodate wheelchairs and pushchairs. Where the Routemaster needed a driver and a conductor, the bendy bus only needed a driver. It was true that they made life difficult for cyclists, and they weren’t pretty inside. With their bright, stripped-down, health’n’safety interiors, being crushed inside one during rush hour or the 3 a.m. retreat from partyland was like being inside a cattle car designed by Fisher-Price. Yet Livingstone had every reason to think of it as a routine change-up of technology, the kind that has taken place in London countless times since the Romans stopped the Iceni bringing their two-wheeled war chariots down Watling Street for a weekend in town.

Livingstone was also entitled to assume he was in accord with a post-Thatcherite, free-market consensus. In this worldview it is the market that gets things done, and the office of London mayor is not the market. It is the grudgingly tolerated state. The market, in its competitive, Darwinian wisdom, comes up with a choice of buses, and the state is lucky enough to be allowed to choose. And in choosing, the state mustn’t allow itself to be guided by sentiment; entrusted with public funds, it must be guided by efficiency, with only a tip of the hat to aesthetics and history. Basically, the buses can be painted red, but all else defers to Gradgrindian analysis.

In this view – the Conservative view, embraced by Labour – the idea that the state might go to the market, tell the market it wants a bus the market hasn’t designed, and give the market money to make it, is heresy. Denouncing a product created by the market (the bendy buses are made by Mercedes-Benz) and bought on the basis of cost and efficiency; replacing it with ordinary double-decker buses; then spending taxpayers’ money to create an expensive new version of an obsolete vehicle is exactly what a post-Thatcherite Conservative mayor of London would not do. And it is what Boris Johnson, the post-Thatcherite Conservative mayor of London since he succeeded Livingstone in 2008, did.

As he runs for re-election on 3 May, he can say he did what he promised, sort of. Within three years of coming to power, he swept the last bendy bus off London’s roads. (In their heyday, there were four hundred.) At his behest, and in exchange for £11.4 million, a Northern Irish company produced a fleet of eight new Routemasters. The cost of these bespoke buses is disputed. An ordinary double-decker bus costs just under £200,000. The partly electric ‘green’ red buses London is introducing elsewhere cost about £300,000, and the new version of the Routemaster is, it is claimed, going to cost only slightly more. The fact that £11.4 million divided by eight puts a price tag of £1.4 million on each bus in the first batch of new Routemasters is, Johnson’s supporters say, an illusion caused by the economics of industry.

If you’re going to steal other people’s ideologies, steal big. By flinging fistfuls of cash at Ulster busmakers to produce empty space (the key difference between the Routemaster and other buses is that one corner is cut away to make an open-air platform at the back, enabling passengers – if they’re able-bodied and unencumbered by children – to skip on and off between scheduled stops), Johnson filched not one anti-Thatcherite obsession, but two: with technocracy, and with arts and crafts.

For decades, the left has argued that the British state should invest directly in industry. The country’s economic future is too fragile and important to be abandoned to the whims of the market, the technocratic argument goes: the state should step in, choosing promising technologies, fostering start-ups, stopping important British firms going bust or being taken over by foreigners. For decades, the Thatcherites have insisted that the state is incompetent to intervene. State economic planning is evil, the road to serfdom; the state is not in the business of picking winners.

Having sided with the lefty technocrats, Johnson went with the utopian socialists too. It was in the spirit of William Morris, Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin that those family gaggles of Routemaster fans came out to bid the old version of the bus farewell, in the belief that efficiency and the bottom line aren’t enough, that the artefacts a city holds in common must be made with care and beauty. In this vision the original Routemaster, sturdy, hand-built, distinctive, was a folk-antique.

Livingstone knew this mood once. In 2001 he said: ‘Only some sort of ghastly dehumanised moron would want to get rid of Routemasters.’ A few years later he did get rid of them, and Johnson reaped the political benefit. Livingstone might be forgiven for being blindsided by the cynicism of Johnson’s embrace of forgotten Labour values, were it not that both men are populists. In a contest between populists, power goes to whoever is quickest to set the purity of his ideals aside when he spots a winner. In this scheme, to use Dylan Thomas’s template, a cynic is someone you don’t like who is as pragmatic as you are.

The Routemaster saga isn’t necessarily a guide to Johnson’s baseline political beliefs. He increased bus fares by 44 to 50 per cent in four years, when inflation would have put them up by 15 per cent, and, by restricting London’s road-pricing system, encouraged car drivers to clog up the roads of Kensington and Chelsea, slowing the buses down. It’s hard to believe that a politician who defends the percentage-men of the City so earnestly is kept awake at night by the travails of the kind of people who take buses even though the Underground is quicker because the Tube has become a luxury product. Anything that smacks of engineered social change for the many seems to bring out the Tobias Smollett in the incumbent mayor. It was at a masked ball for bankers that Johnson characterised the Occupy London protesters as ‘hemp-smoking, fornicating hippies in crusty little tents’.

The expensive and so far limited attempt to bring back a version of the Routemaster won’t win him votes directly. Up in Stoke Newington, one of those districts between Central London and the suburbs where clumps of million-pound houses rub bricks with student rookeries and households on the edge of destitution, they rely on the 73: there’s no tube station. But even if Johnson’s ersatz new Routemaster were an acceptable substitute for the original, there aren’t enough of them to cover even one route, let alone the hundreds that spiderweb the capital. There aren’t any on the 73 route.

Besides, the prosperous lefties who came out to wave goodbye to the old buses aren’t Johnson’s natural constituency. The 1980s word ‘yuppies’ refers to a group too unconflicted about buying into consumer capitalism to be applicable to our era. It’s time to co-opt the expression ‘bobo’, or bourgeois-bohémien, as the French call the ambitious creative and media professionals exerting their owner-occupancy on Paris’s 10th arrondissement, for their counterparts in Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Lambeth.

Bobos for Boris? I don’t think so. But I’m not sure that’s the point of the Routemaster saga from the mayor’s point of view. Were it not for his lack of convincing gravitas in the face of serious events, his way of smirking when pronouncing the workaday gobbets of PC PR as if to say ‘You know I’m only saying this guff because I have to,’ Johnson’s delight in language and history would give him a superficial affinity to that line of elected reps, from Winston Churchill to Tony Benn, for whom, at times, eloquence and historical self-consciousness have seemed ends in themselves.

Yet there is another less exalted political figure the mayor recalls: Alastair Campbell. A journalist like Johnson, Campbell tried to shorten the old PR sequence that traditionally went from politician’s policy, through spin doctor’s presentation, to journalist’s story. Why not run Downing Street as if it were a daily newspaper, sometimes forced to react to events, but otherwise following up what other newspapers were writing, or trying to guess how the readers/voters were feeling and acting accordingly? Instead of nudging the media as they shaped the government’s doings into stories, why not act politically in a way that was already like a story before the story got written?

There’s something of Campbell’s policy editor-in-chief about Johnson, but with the stories reduced to an even simpler, more fabulous comic-heroic level, reminiscent of the family entertainments that dominate London theatres at Christmas time. On at least one occasion Johnson has evoked the theatre explicitly. Less than a year after the world’s dominant image of a London bus was of the No. 30 in Tavistock Square, ripped open by a suicide-bomb explosion that took 13 lives along with the bomber’s, Johnson was on the hustings, venting against a different kind of bus-related evil. ‘We should on day one, act one, scene one, hold a competition to get rid of the bendy bus,’ he said early in the 2008 mayoral election campaign. ‘They wipe out cyclists, there are many cyclists killed every year by them.’

In fact, no cyclist was ever killed by a bendy bus. But Johnson’s line got more attention than Livingstone’s subsequent recital of the truth. The Routemaster saga, for Johnson, was less important as a policy than as an expensive running pantomime with a vivid plot and clear-cut characters that the media could paste into white space. There was a lovely, wise old bus, and a nasty, cackling, once moustachioed socialist came and took it away and replaced it with a cruel bus, and along came Boris Whittington, who, with the help of the children in the audience, chased the cruel bus away and, in a shower of glitter and a sweep of harpstrings, brought the magic bus back.

Of course you don’t believe a word of it, but it seems harmless, at worst. Getting elected isn’t just about winning votes, but about not losing votes as a result of your opponents’ suspicion that you’re evil. Dilute that suspicion with media-friendly storylines and they still won’t vote for you, but it won’t seem so important to them to persuade their friends, relatives and workmates not to vote for you. You are wrong, but not actually a menace to society.

When thousands of Londoners went on an incendiary cash-free shopping spree last year, because they could, because law and order was a cold law and a taunting order, Johnson got a taste of what it was like to be more than a figurehead and less than a leader. He was caught up in the ‘refuses to cut short his holiday/cuts short his holiday’ popular howl that no politician can resist. He came back from his Winnebago in the Canadian Rockies, the embers of torched family businesses barely cool, into a crowd of Clapham residents who focused their rage on him for having, as they said, left them defenceless against the mob.

Johnson’s reaction to the riots was interesting. The general trend of Conservatism since Thatcher has been to blame state control and personal moral weakness for the ills of society and to take advantage of the prescribed cure, privatisation, to diminish political responsibility when things go wrong. Johnson’s riot response has gone in the other direction: you might as well bring your powers up to the level where the things people are going to blame you for anyway really are your fault.

His considered response to the riots was to blame the city’s schools, and to argue that the mayor should have responsibility for them. As things stand, the mayor of London is in charge of surprisingly little. He has a fraction of the power of his counterparts in New York and Paris: schools, hospitals, welfare, council houses, water, drains, waste collection – control over these and much else is divided between central government, London’s 32 boroughs and private companies. Only recently did he get the beginnings of control over the strategy of the Metropolitan Police. Even now the Met is operationally independent. If much of the discourse about Johnson (and much of the sparring in the Johnson v. Livingstone 2012 rerun) is about transport, that’s because moving around London is the one activity most Londoners perform each day that the mayor does have responsibility for. Changes to the Tube are too incremental for mayoral glory, so it comes down to buses and bikes.

I was cycling through the East End the other day, wondering whether I could work into this article the fact that I once happened to see Johnson on his bike in Clerkenwell Road before he became mayor, how far I might go in describing his appearance, and how I would have fared in the Grub Street of the 18th century with such squeamishness, when a woman exclaimed close to my ear: ‘That Boris Johnson should be shot!’

‘Why?’ I asked her. She was an excited sixtysomething with her hair in a tight grey bun. Forgetting in my absent-mindedness that I was a London cyclist, I’d stopped at a red light.

‘Those bikes!’ she said. ‘They’re everywhere! They just appeared!’ I followed her trembling finger to Roman Road’s small Globe Town market square, which looks, faced by pinched panels of ill-proportioned concrete, as if a statue of Lenin was taken down the previous day. A squadron of London’s municipal bikes-for-hire was lined up in docking stations. Their shiny newness seemed to belong to another level of reality, as if a CGI imagineer had pasted them in.

My interlocutor darted across the road and disappeared before we could talk further. Shooting Johnson because bicycles for hire were ubiquitous seemed harsh; the point of the scheme, where bikes can be rented casually in one part of the city and dropped off in another, is that they should be everywhere.

I rode Parisian Vélibs and Montreal Bixis – the citywide bike-hire schemes London’s is based on – before the bikes appeared here. The combination of cheapness, lightness, speed, freedom and open-airness, that running-of-the-bulls frisson of mild danger, the fact that the only carbon-producing engine involved is your own heart and lungs, reinforced my belief that the bicycle is one of the world’s great inventions and the perfect form of city transport. I didn’t think it would work in London. I assumed that some combination of vandalism, miserliness, neglect and incompetence would make it a flop. I was wrong, although it is early days.

Unlike their French and Canadian counterparts the London bikes carry the logo of a sponsor, Barclays Bank, on the side. It may be that the talk of evil bankers has filtered down to street corners and the logo has picked up the badness of gang colours; that you wouldn’t think of vandalising a Barclayed-up bike any more than you’d run your house key along the paintwork of the local crack dealer’s tinted-windowed Range Rover. Or perhaps the logo of a British bank that got an $8.5 billion no-obligation handout from the American taxpayer at the height of the financial crisis is vandalism enough.

The bike-hire scheme is a success, although, like the new Routemaster, it’s a small-scale affair of bright colours and curvy outlines – an iPhone app of a policy, half-tool, half-toy, distracting attention from Johnson’s failures in respect to the generality of everyday cyclists, whether in the high death toll (16 cyclists killed in London last year against none in Paris) or the farce of the ‘cycle superhighways’. These involve painting over the green of existing cycle lanes with Barclays blue, then extending the blue strip along the edge of a busy road where bikes have to share space with convoys of buses, which have no choice but to block the superhighway each time they pick up passengers. A London cycle superhighway is to bikes what a motorway would be to cars if they had to share it with tractors.

I can’t say for certain what my apparition on Roman Road meant with her call for Johnson to face a firing squad. I suspect it was simply a heart’s cry against the speed of change in the city – London’s remorseless plasticity. Indeed, the spread of the bike-hire scheme east of Shoreditch was disconcerting in its suddenness. I went away for a few days and when I came back there was a rank of municipal bikes in docking stations on the canal bridge near my house, where before there had been a blank stretch of pavement.

I live in the East End of London, in Bethnal Green, off Roman Road. It’s about halfway between the towers of the City and the site of the 2012 Olympics; or, to provide an alternative frame of reference, a mile down the Regent’s Canal from where the headless torso of a TV actress was found floating at the beginning of March, and two miles up the canal from where a Russian banker was gunned down a couple of weeks later, just as the first cherry blossoms were opening. These violent punctuations to the life of London, perceived by the rest of us as the surreal theatre of the after-crime – the flapping ribbons of candy-striped tape, the forensics men in white boiler suits, the slow grouse-beating line of the Bill scouring the ground for cartridge cases – seem to stand in ephemeral contrast to the permanence of the body of the city, in its brick, concrete, glass, steel and asphalt skin. And yet it is the murders that are eternal and the city that changes, and these rhythms have little to do with the four-year cycle of mayoral elections.

In implementing the bike-hire and cycle superhighway schemes Johnson was only bringing on a programme that Livingstone initiated in his time as mayor. If you look west from where I live there are vast towers in the City that weren’t there when Johnson became mayor; there’s one that wasn’t there in January. If you look east, you see the Olympics site, a version of occupied Baghdad’s Green Zone that has been implanted since Johnson’s victory. The Orbit sculpture rears up in the haze, 115 metres of heavy metal entanglement, like the result of some Fly-style teleportation screw-up involving a rollercoaster and a helter-skelter instead of a man and a fly. Johnson had nothing to do with creating these things, most of which will outlast his tenure and him (the Green Zone’s security barriers, we hope, excepted).

This isn’t to say that mayors aren’t capable of doing useful and damaging things for London; just that the most useful and damaging things they do are not the things they’ll ever be held accountable for. Right now, on Johnson’s watch, teams of bureaucrats are working on dull, complicated, news-cycle-unfriendly matters like long-term plans and frameworks – the outlines of what gets built where over the next generation, one of the few areas the mayor has control over.

Livingstone’s tenure as mayor saw him endorse a London of skyscrapers, but the mayor in charge at the policy’s fruition was Johnson, in office when the unearthly thousand-foot spire that is the Shard soared up from the riverbank. If the grandiose plan to build a new London airport on an island in the Thames estuary is realised, it will be a different mayor who gets the credit or takes the blame twenty years from now. Will anyone remember or care that Johnson became the project’s great advocate in 2012?

When historians look back on London in 2012 they may see the event of greatest significance to be not the Olympics, the topping out of the Shard, the mayoral election or indeed anything to do with the mayor, but the beginnings of a deal to make the City the main centre outside China to deal in China’s currency. Sitting in the East London estate agent’s where I found my flat last year, I overheard a conversation between a Chinese businessman shopping for property in Bow, the excited agents and the businessman’s English fixer, an elderly man in a somewhat shopworn blue blazer who did not seem to speak Chinese or, indeed, the language of the property market, and appeared to be struggling with his role as the Asian investor’s guide in the labyrinth of London. ‘Mr Li is surprised,’ he said at one point, ‘that the rents here are lower than in his native Shanghai.’

Even more, perhaps, than the capital’s appetite for foreign money, the most powerful changes affecting London, dwarfing all others, slow, invisible and momentous, are the extraordinary swings in the city’s population, falling from 8.6 million in 1939 to 6.7 million in 1988, then adding more than a million up to the present day – the gradual appearance in London, in other words, of a new city the size of Britain’s next biggest city. And because as many people migrate from London as migrate to it, this increase is down to more people being born than dying. There’s not much the mayor can do about that. But we’ll have to be able to get those pushchairs on the bus.