My sister sent me a link to this article in the Observer, which asks if cycling has “finally” become a natural part of British life. As with most newspaper headlines that ask questions, the answer is, of course no. One of the things the article mentions is how much better cycling is in more civilised countries like Denmark and Holland – even France and the USA have a culture of treating cyclists with respect.
I often think about why this might be. Why is it that cycling, a hugely popular mass-participation activity, gets such short shrift when it comes to British public policy?
We were in Whitstable yesterday. Like the decent people we are, we used the Bank Holiday special Park and Ride and took the bus into the town*. If there’s a Park and Ride, I generally use it, because I am keenly aware that many towns, cities, and villages in this country (and in France, for that matter) are blighted by the presence of cars. The streets are too narrow, the buildings too old, there are loads of pedestrians, and the constant drone of insistent traffic is the ultimate spoiler. People who insist on driving into tourist destinations, jockeying for the limited space, are anti-social.
The kind of people who insist on driving their cars through the narrow streets of tourist destination are the same people, of course, who make life difficult for cyclists all over the place.
We are living in the end times of the motor car, I think. The popularity of Top Gear is explained by that. Top Gear is the last, decadent thrust of car culture into the bosom of civilisation. Its reactionary politics, its not-so-closeted racism, its vicious intolerance of difference, its championing of boorish self-centred behaviour: all these things are connected to its celebration of the dinosaur internal combustion engine.
That the British have a problem – not with cycling – but with cyclists, is all down to the problem we have with class. If America, the country that invented car culture, can respect cyclists, why can’t the British? The difference is our obsession with class, the need to feel better than others. As soon as someone gets behind the wheel of a motor car, they get a superiority complex. They undergo the usual personality change, and, in control of their own personal fiefdom for once in their lives, they like to lord it over other road users. There are degrees of this, of course, and just as not all men are sexual harassers, not all motorists are aggressive sociopaths. But just as all women have suffered some form of harassment, all cyclists have encountered a motorist who seems to actually want to kill them.
I’m glad that Top Gear exists, because, like The Daily Telegraph, it gives you an insight into a certain mind-set. When you witness Clarkson chundering about Welsh people, or gypsies, or bus lanes, or teachers, or cyclists, you are viewing a synecdoche of the underlying attitudes of an enormous number of people, attitudes you should be aware of every time you take to the road. Clarkson is just King Cunt. We will never be Copenhagen, or Amsterdam, or even France, until British motorists stop thinking they have more rights than other road users, including pedestrians and cyclists. Lorry drivers, bus drivers, white van people, are all as guilty.
Even my wife commented (from the passengers seat) the other day, when she saw an oncoming cyclist in the middle of a single track road. “Get over to the side,” she said. I had to gently explain to her that a cyclist has the right to position him or herself wherever it is safest – the edge of the road generally being the most unsafe place to ride. All I had to do, in my car, was slow down and move aside – stop if necessary – to let the cyclist past. But too many drivers consider it a personal affront and humiliation to have to do this. I’m in a car, they think. My car cost way more than that bike, which makes me better than them. Why should I give way?
King Cunt Clarkson is on his final warning. The problem the BBC has is that it gave him a sweetheart deal which includes 50% ownership of the Top Gear brand. I suspect (or should I say hope) that the next time Clarkson opines that some group of public servants should be shot, or uses a racist slur he learned at his boarding school, it will be the end of both him and the brand. End times.
*The price of the Whitstable Park and Ride was extortionate, which is stupid and wrong. If it’s more expensive than parking in town, you’re defeating the object. In Strasbourg, we pay a couple of Euros for four return tram tickets and a parking spot. Parking in Whitstable cost six quid. This is just punishing people who are trying to do the right thing, which just about sums up the sickness that afflicts Britain.