The statistical anomaly, that half the killings of cycle users in London, in 2013, were packed into fourteen days last month put the issue of motor-slaughter right up the agenda.
For a while no news or current affairs show on TV or radio was complete without a spot on the dangers of cycling. The resulting surge in demand for specialist commentary led to heavy squad-rotation. Not even the estimable C.M.Boardman MBE can be everywhere. I consequently got to spout opinions on BBC London Radio.
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Some of the calls from members of the public are suitably random and there are moments when I start to ramble but it’s nice to air lunacy in public. In a mad World sanity can be a dangerous affliction.
Three things to remember in these crazy times.
- People who travel by bike live longer.
- People on bikes getting run down is not – primarily – a bicycle story. It’s a story about the dangers of motor-traffic in public space.
- The most pressing short-term needs are, explaining to people who use motor-vehicles on public roads why those on bicycles need to claim time and space, and encouraging bicycle users to take enough time and space to be safe.
Perhaps the strangest elements of this sudden squall were the comments of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, also on Radio London?
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He seems oddly confident that the only significant reason a normal person would ride a bike is because they can’t afford to get around any other way. In the same interview Sir Bernard had already discussed the onward ramifications of the Andrew Mitchell swearing saga, which has a toff trying to ride a bike at its centre. He must have meetings with Boris. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t know senior police colleagues who use a bike to get to work.
Perhaps Sir Bernard is suggesting it’s poor people on bikes who get killed because they don’t have the social-presence of patrician fellow-travellers? Consider poor Francis Golding, run down where Theobalds Road meets Southampton Row, 08/11/2013, died three days later, a lauded professional, also plenty old enough to qualify for free travel on tubes and buses.
I don’t know Sir Bernard personally but feel safe to assume that he’s no mug. You don’t rise from a humble background to become the country’s foremost peeler by being dumb. Why did he spout nonsense?
The idea that cyclists are reluctant victims of want is attractive to authoritarians. People voluntarily on bikes reveal the limits of the dominant theory of post-Thatcher Britain; that the only things that really matter are earning and spending. When our rulers witter on about ‘hard-working families’ they don’t mean ‘work equals force times distance’, they’re not thinking about people who’d rather waste time refurbishing an old bike than earning cash to buy a new one, or growing vegetables on their home patch, rather than purchasing ‘cheap’ those trucked in from distant lands. Our rulers definition of ‘work’ is restricted to paid employment, they’re talking only about economic activity. As Mayer Hillman observed, bicycle travel is a free-lunch you get paid to eat. By gaining satisfaction from something that is free-at-the-point-of-delivery folk using bikes reveal that right-wing theory – however useful – is only a theory.
Andrew Gilligan has boasted about riding his bike while wearing headphones, Boris once referred to using a phone while riding as ‘a free-born Englishman’s time-hallowed and immemorial custom’. Despite this they can’t admit that – while naughty cyclists may be an annoying, amenity issue – it’s the routine use of motor-vehicles that kills cities. They have to go along with the prevailing analysis that cycling is the problem, motor-dependence the default. To do otherwise is heresy.
Last Friday evening as I tooled by Manor House a collection of plods were congregated around the lights, on what looked like Operation Safeway duty. As a person of dignity in later middle-age, going to London for a night out, I was wearing black shoes, black trousers, a black jacket and a black hat. My leather gloves were brown. I was in good time and ready – if given unsolicited advice by any public servant on the absence of colour in my costume – to point out that the 3 watt generator, mit Standlicht vor und hind, on my bike was working fine, that the (mitchellesque expletive deleted) Queen of England travels in a black car, that I’d been riding these roads since their mothers were virgins and if they want to change the law of the land, to make clownish attire compulsory for bicycle users, they’d best start a campaign in their own (mitchellesque expletive deleted) time, not waste mine. They let me pass unmolested, which was probably best for all concerned.
Sir Bernard’s flat Sheffield accent reminds me of a recorded voice currently ringing round the Design Museum in Bermondsey, Paul Smith CBE from Nottingham. The show “Hello, my name is Paul Smith” explains how one person can keep a handle on a global brand. It’s not about bicycles but they run though it like the pin-stripe in a sober business suit, a sober business suit with a flamboyant paisley-print lining. The show’s not about bicycles but they pepper it’s content as…
- …ubiquitous everyday conveniences.
- …glorious, poetic symbols of transcendence and human potential.
While Bernard Hogan-Howe’s comments are a futile attempt to turn the clock back to the days of the vanishing tribe, when a bicycle was a – best-forgotten – symptom of austerity, the Paul Smith show heralds a future where human-powered mechanical travel is the default, non-walking, mode, the logistical skeleton of a World infused with peace, freedom and joy.
Bernard and Paul have things in common. They both left school and went to work without higher education. Hard graft has taken them to the top. They retain their accents. The puckish Smith is a decade older yet seems more youthful. What’s his secret?