Sunday 20 May 2012

Why a cyclist must write London's answer to The Wire

It was as I prepared to turn into a side road near my house that I saw the young man tearing the other way on a mountain bike. His eyes were fixed ahead, his head was hunched over the handlebars and he was pedalling with an intensity that instantly struck me as strange. It was as if he was following Lance Armstrong’s famous advice to Floyd Landis on Stage 17 of the 2004 Tour de France: “Run like you stole something”.

Gentrified Fell's Point, Baltimore:
insulated from the ghetto.
This young man, however, had stolen something – or got involved in some other kind of trouble. As he swung round the corner, I noticed the first pursuing policeman, pedalling just as hard on his mountain bike. A second officer came up another road, also on his bike, radioing frantically for support. Before I could see precisely what had happened, they’d cornered him and started making the arrest.

The cycling police chase is one of many incidents I’ve encountered while cycling that I’ve filed mentally for my great writing project – a TV series telling contemporary London’s story as comprehensively as the epic series The Wire told Baltimore’s. I’m constantly straining as I ride around to pick up the little tell-tale snatches of dialogue that reveal the story of the Londoners around me.

"That's all she said to me,” I heard one builder say to another outside a house on my street recently. “If I get arrested again and do jail time, my mum won't have anything more to do with me".

Guildford Road: neo-classical gems on one side,
brutalist social housing on the other - and
a cultural chasm down the middle
Yet one street - Guildford Road, in Stockwell - illustrates perhaps the key thing that makes London - and some other big European cities - different from Baltimore. On the western side of the road – where I sometimes cycle on my way to work – lie the plush houses, most of them worth £1m each, of Landsdowne Gardens. The Landsdowne Gardens estate, centred on a pretty circular garden square, is a celebrated jewel of Victorian neo-classical architecture. On the eastern side lie the brick and sharp angles of the Spurgeon Estate. The Spurgeon, built in the 1960s with undoubtedly good intentions, has become a bleak place, blighted by crime, where few people would freely choose to live.

Four years ago, someone stabbed a young Ghanaian man from the Spurgeon Estate on Guildford Road. Paramedics struggled – ultimately unsuccessfully – to save his life. News accounts quoted residents from the Landsdowne Gardens side who had looked at the scene across the street in horror. Their near-neighbour’s short life was slipping away from him just yards from them physically, but on the other side of a cultural chasm.

The Guildford Road phenomenon is the same one that brings me face-to-face with cycle-borne police chases hard by where I live my respectable, middle-class existence. Inner London has few ghettoes to match Paris’s banlieues or west Baltimore. Instead, we all live, rich and poor, black and white, all but on top of each other. We largely segregate ourselves by using different schools, going to different churches or using different forms of transport. But on the roads we interact with each other, at least a little bit. Cyclists – the only group travelling long distance but not shut off by the shell of a car, a bus or a train – do more of that interacting than most.

A cyclist on Colliers Wood High Street. It shares a postcode
with the all-England lawn tennis club - but this part of SW19
features Tamil curries, not strawberries and cream.
It’s certainly no conventional idyll of peaceful coexistence. There are some roads through rough estates that I no longer use late at night. I’ve had bottles, and some unidentified substance that left a nasty stain on a pannier bag, thrown at me. It wasn’t easy to see the funny side of having a line of aggressive youths, with appropriately mean-looking dogs, block the road, as happened one night on the square in Landsdowne Gardens. Some youths take joy in trying to knock an earnest, middle-class cyclist off his bike by running out into the road, pretending to throw something at him or using some other trick. When hatched, the scheme probably feels like a quick, easy victory over a member of the pompous liberal middle classes. Maybe it even feels like that afterwards.

Cycling's role in the lives of people living on some of the rough estates can be very different from the one it plays in mine. One Sunday after stopping on our ride home from church to buy a newspaper, my wife and I watched a young man ride his mountain bike onto the pavement by some run-down social housing. A youngster was waiting on his BMX bike. A package changed hands and both pedalled off fast in different directions.

The scene made me wonder how many of the pavement cyclists who cause such tooth-sucking and headshaking in some parts of London are actually resupplying drug dealers. I also pondered what would happen if, as some suggest they should, the police were to crack down especially hard on such cyclists. Would the headshakers be happy if the resuppliers started arriving in equally poorly-driven cars?

Mist shrouds south London seen from the City's
St Paul's Cathedral. But the world's leading financial
centre is only a short cycle ride from
some of Europe's worst urban deprivation.
The risk amid this undoubted tension is that one ends up thinking like the colleague I told about a particularly nasty confrontation late one Friday night in Clapham. “Was he black?” he asked me about the car driver who threatened me. He had been – but I said I didn’t think how people drove reflected their race. I don’t think it reflects their religion or social class or membership of any other group either. The incident reflected the attitudes of a “certain type” of African-Carribean man, my colleague retorted. In Paris, no doubt similar theories circulate about north Africans. When I lived in Hungary, there was no shortage of lazy assumptions about gypsies.

The prejudice is, perhaps, understandable. In a city where we know that our neighbours lead very different lives from ours, it’s tempting to jump to conclusions. There is surely some human instinct when confronted with a potentially menacing driver or roadside group of teenage boys to gather as much information fast as possible. We end up fitting people into easy – and meaningless – categories.

Such stereotyping is hardly the kind of behaviour that cyclists appreciate when they’re on the receiving end. I’ve occasionally had drivers tell me when I’ve complained about their rule-breaking that, for example, they “see cyclists run red lights all the time”. Few seem to grasp that I have as little responsibility for other cyclists as the driver has for, say, other delivery van drivers, motorcyclists or white people.

The perpetual struggle of life in a city is to live beside groups that we may find alienating or strange and remember that each member is as much an individual and precisely as real as we ourselves are. It’s also the city’s joy. I remember my excitement on first coming during a ride that took me past Willesden Junction on a cluster of shops serving London’s Brazilian community. How refreshing to live in a city so rich in different ways of doing things.

It's also a personal protection measure to remember that not everybody's book reflects his or her cover. That’s the lesson of an incident one recent morning as I pedalled away from the Invisible Visible Boy’s nursery school in a plush corner of Clapham. The couple in the car's front seat had looked instantly like the kind of people I like – a couple in their sixties looking outwardly kind and driving a smart but sensible Audi estate. Yet my sitting in front of him on a road over a narrow bridge clearly enraged the man. The moment I was over, on a road section far too narrow for the maneouvre, he squeezed past me, far too fast, leaving inches to spare.

I had pictured the couple as resembling my wife’s parents or the other kindly, country-dwelling grandparents to whom my friends introduce me at church. My stereotyping led me to move over, trusting them to drive safely. For a different-looking couple, I might not have. In truth I knew no more about these people than I do when I look over my shoulder to see what I assume to be a menacing-looking African-Caribbean man. The good fortune is that my trust cost me no more than a nasty scare. I could easily have ended up crushed under the car wheels of a man who, no matter what we might seem to have in common, thought his petty irritation justification enough to risk killing me.


  1. At least it has to be better than Pacific Blue, which was an attempt to do Baywatch on police bikes.

    1. I've actually felt desperately sorry for London police cyclists ever since I saw a bunch of their bikes being fixed at Brixton Cycles. They're given these desperately, heavy lumbering mountain bikes manufactured partly (for reasons I don't understand) by Smith & Wesson. It's a wonder they don't all get hernias.

      On the other hand, I've sometimes seen police cyclists hearing by radio they need to head somewhere fast, turning on their sirens and heading off with the city traffic scattering before them. That has, you'd think, to be a real blast.

  2. In my individual, visible way, thanks for a nice post. It is a reminder that our outsides are an imperfect guide to our insides.

    1. Thank you, Steve A, for your kind and supportive words from the country to which I will shortly be moving...

  3. And, of course the other way around ...
    Between here and my local (a less-tan 5-minute walk) around the block containing the big girls' school and the old parish church, there are raised beds outside the school, and a footpath segregated from the (20 mph-limit - with gentle humps - safe to cycle over) road.
    The number of times, after dark, I've encountered cyclists without any lights trying to barge through said path really annoys me.
    One of these days, one of them is going to get my cane through his spokes.
    Or courier or other cyclists in the City, knocking people down on pedestrian crossings - who do they think they are - BMW deivers?

    1. Dear G. Tingey,

      Thank you for your comment - but I think you may be a little confused about the purpose of this blog. It's intended to promote reasoned debate, rather than the unreflective anti-cyclist whingeing that can be found on so many other parts of the Internet.

      I never ride on the pavements (sidewalks, American readers) except where it's allowed (that said, there are plenty of people who'll scream and shout at one for doing that, since few people read the signs). I disapprove of people who do so.

      I'll take it as read that you've checked whether cycling is permitted in this area and that it isn't. But you'll see in the blog that I raise the possibility that many complaints like yours stem from drug couriers' use of bicycles to resupply roadside drug dealers. If these are the people you're encountering, you are, as I say in the blog, confusing a social problem with a cycling one.

      If these are miscreant commuter cyclists, meanwhile, I accept it's irritating but wonder about your reaction. Collisions with cyclists accounted for six deaths from 2008 to 2010 in Great Britain - 0.08 per cent of the total, and well below cyclists' share of the traffic. However irritating the cyclists, it's the motor traffic that really threatens you and you'd be rational to be more irritated about motor vehicles' excessive speed, failure to attend and so on, which I don't sense you are.

      Finally, no matter what the nature of the cyclists' behaviour, I'd warn you off your plan to inflict criminal damage on the bikes and assault the cyclists with your cane. It's a criminal act that would be particularly foolhardy against drug couriers and reprehensible if the people involved are using a shared-use path. It also seems inequitable if you're not planning to employ it against the motorists who, in every part of the UK, pose a far greater danger to pedestrians than cyclists.

      I hope this clears things up.


    2. You DID notice my comment about BMW-drivers?
      I also cycle - I went to my local Land-Rover dealer on my bike, for a couple of spare "bits" today.
      I cycled in part of the Lea valley on Saturday.
      What gets up my nose are idiots - whatever form of transport they are using.

  4. In the section on drug dealers using bikes, how did you overcome the urge to write "pedalling peddlers"?

    1. Martin T,

      It's because my mind runs in overly straight lines, if the truth be told. I thought of the foot soldiers as couriers and the Mr Bigs (who travel exclusively in SUVs) as the peddlers. So I missed a chance to amuse you and other members of my long-suffering public.

      I apologise.


    2. Or should that be peddling pedallers? I'll get me coat!


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