In the last days of 2011 I made an expedition to the Inner South-western suburbs, in search of the aristocratic English women once common riding the avenues and squares of London SW1, SW3 and SW7. Happy to be out on my bike but also anxious that they may be extinct, priced-out by tax-exile oligarchs or replaced by descendants, with less confidence in public, who restrict their riding to static cycles in potplant-decked gymnasia?
I’m interested in these women as role-models for traffic-riding. They aren’t necessarily accomplished bike handlers, maybe not experts on the Highway Code, probably not students of dry text books, but they don’t have any problem negotiating with pushy motor-traffic of Victoria, Mayfair, Belgravia, Chelsea because they have a very clear idea who they are. Confidence in their own status enables them to claim a share of the common land we call streets. They know they own the road. Their cheerful conduct is easy for others to interpret and react to.
In England most social interaction involves class-politics; but this is no barrier to humbler folk, equipped with a bicycle, taking control of the space around them. We can trigger deference in others by cultivating the resolute and friendly style of the land-owning classes.
Before you can share something, you need to possess it. When you travel by bike owning the road is what allows you to be generous to those less fortunate or imaginative than yourself.
Sloane Square is dominated by motor-traffic but now betrays interesting signs of the new era of street design. The entrance to Holbein Place, which is clearly engineered for the random patterns of pedestrians. The slick surface and lack of kerbs are exactly the kind of disconcerting design that forces consideration not compliance.
The concept of shared space was covered yesterday on the Home Service of the the BBC a sure sign it’s coasting into the mainstream.
To emphasise the quality of the streetscape a solo steel-pannist played seasonal tunes behind a long white beard, just the kind of unforeseeable weirdness that make the streets of London so engaging. You can get the idea by opening this link in a new tab then reading the rest with the sound playing, ideally by a wet road with passing cars.
All this is – however – a distraction from our ethnological mission.
Checking the parked bikes outside Sloane Square tube station, in the corner of my eye a headscarf, signature headgear.
Now I can’t say for certain that this woman knows what her ancestors did in the crusades, to be honest I would expect a more country-in-town style of dress, but her behaviour was characteristic.
She didn’t try any counter-productive riding among the pedestrians, but strode with elegant deportment through the mêlée to the Sloane Square gyratory and took a bold position, away from the kerb, down in the roadway where anyone circulating could clearly see her.
She made a shuffling start, one foot on a six o’clock pedal, the other pushing back against the roadway in the manner of a Stoke Newington infant on a Draisienne. With that much social presence you can carry-off louche bike control technique. Her red tights matched the shoals of buses.
She didn’t need as much space as a bus – weaving through them and away into the mid-winter dusk – but she commanded at least as much respect.
We OWN THE ROAD.