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Ground Level 1: Danger – Cyclist At Work

October 15, 2010

I used to love cycling. As a student, and after, in London from 1977 to 1982 I cycled everywhere. It was a moneysaver, a sightseeing opportunity, and a spiritual liberator. After a few bad experiences I stripped my bike of anything inessential to make it unworthy of theft. It finally consisted of a frame, two wheels and a chain and, usually, me.

Of several epic journeys, my greatest pride was a marathon from Greenwich to Twickenham to see my friend Brian Willoughby play his guitar in a pub. The landlord was sufficiently impressed with my dedication to let me in free. The band, possibly displaying an underdeveloped sense of self-esteem, were simply incredulous that anyone would pedal that far to see them perform. In truth, I’d only gone to see Brian, whom I liked and admired, and who later sold me the beautiful Gibson guitar he played that night.

When the time came to look for work, my embryonic CV, in the absence of any real jobs to quote, placed its emphasis on education, work experience and ‘other interests’. This final section signed off with the nicely pretentious bullet point ‘exploring London by bicycle’, a line which survived my editorial knife for much longer than it should. When I left London my bike owed me nothing and I gave it away.

Where I had gone, a bicycle was uncalled for. But later, in the early 1990s, living in rural Nottinghamshire, I bought a new machine and substituted ‘exploring London’ with ‘discovering the countryside’ (although not on my rather more substantial CV). Around 1995 I suddenly noticed a changing trend in cycle custodianship. Where once people had parked their bike against a wall or chained it to a lamppost, now the fashion was to lay it out on the pavement, usually directly outside the shop the owner was visiting (or burgling). To me this seemed to invite passers-by, especially myself, to walk over, rather than round, the bike, but I took it to be a new sign of ‘coolness’, along with needlessly spacious trousers and a tendency to call people ‘man’.

Returning to London in 1999 I considered cycling again but ruled it out on grounds of sweat, danger, middle age and frustration. Now the new trend was cycling on the pavement. Not just randomly, occasionally, but as the general choice of thoroughfare, newly commandeered for two wheels. I resented sharing valuable pavement space with cyclists and started to challenge them, formulating reproaches that combined vigorous insult with expressions of disapproval at their dual qualities of selfishness and cowardice. Given the time constraints in which to deliver my choice observations, I would keep my sentences short, usually limiting them to two words, an adjective and a noun. Not actually sentences at all, then. Again, because brevity was essential, the noun usually consisted of a single syllable.

Walking down Clater Street, east London one day, a cyclist missed taking off the entire left side of my body by a mere couple of inches. Avoiding the temptation to exaggerate for effect, I conservatively estimate his speed at 20 mph (your honour) as I swerved out of his path. Even more annoyingly, he was singing as he flashed past. I turned and shouted the rudest from my repertoire of insults. Facing forwards again I noticed that a police car had silently pulled up alongside me, its window winding down and the long arm of the law beckoning me over.

Guessing that one or both occupants had seen the incident, and that it was fresh in their memory, I anticipated, if not congratulation, then at least an enquiry as to my wellbeing after such a narrow escape. On the contrary, the speaking policeman’s first comment was a reprimand on my vocabulary in a public place. His second was to advise me not to try to take the law into my own hands. Hands which were now a whole street away from those of the rapidly disappearing cyclist.

I countered that, rather than upbraiding me on my language, he might be doing something about the phenomenon of pavement cycling, a pastime which might seriously damage someone less nimble than myself. Nodding sagely, Bad Cop assured me that they were ‘onto it’, but that I should watch my behaviour ‘on the street’. I might be committing a public order offence. Reckoning it unwise to engage in further healthy debate with the law, I used open-mouthed silence to convey my doubt that sitting pointing the wrong way in a stationary car represented any genuine attempt to curb this burgeoning crimewave. But when I asked politely why I should desist from offering helpful advice to errant cyclists, the answer was clear and graphic. They might stop and knife me – ‘or something’.

Ah. So there we are. As Good Cop might have reported: to sum up, m’lud, my colleague proceeded in an orderly manner to advise accused confrontational pedestrian to avoid risking a stabbing by having it out with public pests and lawbreakers. Or something.

I could rant like a vox pop about the police wasting their time with the likes of me instead of catching real criminals. I even briefly considered vowing to clean up the streets, finding the nearest mirror and asking it: “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin’ to? You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” (Answers to questions 1, 2, 3 and 5: Yes. Answer to question 4: Obviously, no-one. Answer to question 6: You, exclusively.)

But really I’m thankful still to be at liberty, grateful to Good and Bad Cop that there’s no place on the streets for dangerous vigilantes and that there is someone like them around to protect people like me from people like myself.

From → Ground Level

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