Spotted yesterday in Next’s home ware department, this delightful Penny Farthing cushion. The imprint of Middle England’s bottom is the ultimate acceptance of cycling in the respectable cultural mainstream. We’re getting there, folks!
I’ve been arguing for some time that the challenge facing cycling campaigners is less a practical one of explaining the technical features of effective infrastructure, and more a campaign to change perceptions and attitudes. Politicians might be shallow and opportunistic, but they’re not so stupid that they couldn’t find out how to build decent segregated facilities if they really wanted to do that.
The problem is not that politicians don’t understand what works, but that they can’t, deep down, be bothered to do the job properly. They don’t think it’s important enough, and they don’t think there are enough votes in it (at the moment, they’re probably right, though some leadership might be nice).
It’s great being photographed on a bike because it makes people think you are a man of the people when you’re not. (Dave, George, Boris…) But still, no economically successful voter would really want to ride a bike seriously, would they?
Which is why I agree with most of Edmund King’s recent comments, that cycling has a serious perception problem, akin, in some ways (see caveats below) to racism. Edmund King is a very canny leader. No spittle-flecked road tax rants from him.
I’ve been meaning to write something along these lines for a while. News stories come up all the time which reveal the damage done to our collective wellbeing by the misconceived and disproportionate status given to the car:
To deal with this threat it’s not enough to point out where, pragmatically, the road lobby is wrong (although we do have to do that). We also have to neutralise the imagery and iconography of the car, to counter the huge weight of positive propaganda created by the advertising and political weight of the motor industry.
I’ve made a particular effort to avoid the Belgian Dardennes brothers’ films for over ten years, after a misspent evening watching Rosetta, one of the most eyeball-scratchingly pretentious ninety minutes of celluloid ever to give art cinema a bad name. (You can now see the whole thing on Youtube, you lucky things, without having to track down an arthouse cinema, as I did back in ’99.)
Veering between having no plot and a plot so abysmally contrived you wish they hadn’t bothered after all, it confirms every casual prejudice about serious French (and Belgian) cinema. Its sole purpose appears to be to enable the audience to cleanse its indulged soul of middle-class guilt with bizarre (the fishing scene is to die for) and extravagant fantasies of working-class misery.
Here is a broadcast of BBC Radio 4’s Point of View programme by the philosopher John Gray, who argues that
the scientific and rationalist attack on religion is misguided. Extreme atheists do not realise that for most people across the globe, religion is not generally about personal belief. Instead, “Practice - ritual, meditation, a way of life - is what counts.” Central to religion is the power of myth, which still speaks to the contemporary mind. “The idea that science can enable us to live without myths is one of these silly modern stories.” In fact, he argues, science has created its own myth, “chief among them the myth of salvation through science….The idea that humans will rise from the dead may be incredible” he says, “but no more so than the notion that humanity can use science to remake the world”
(It’s not directly to do with cycling, but there is a bit of a cycling angle, if you bear with me.)
Several very ordinary, everyday examples of this religious instinct - the desire for ritual, for reverence, for contact with meaningful individuals - came to me while cycling round London recently. I used to live near Abbey Road, in north west London, and I was always amazed by the number of tourists who would ask me if they were near the Beatles’ famous studio and pelican crossing. (Usually they weren’t: it’s a long road. The fact they were looking for it from Baker Street to Swiss Cottage is testament to the crossing’s popularity, and London’s indifferent tourist infrastructure). There are lots of tourist-worthy things nearby - Lord’s cricket ground, Regent’s Park, London Zoo, Madame Tussaud’s - but no one ever asked me how to get to those.
There’s not much to see when you get there: just what you can see in the photo, plus the sound effects of cabbies impatient with tourists standing in the middle of the road. There’s even a webcam of the crossing, so you can see how little there is to see.
The point here is, of course, that many people still want a visible, tangible reminder of events or individuals which have given meaning to their lives. Sachin Tendulkar, the great Indian cricketer, recently published an autobiography with small quantities of his blood and saliva in the paper it’s printed on. It sold out. For centuries, religious believers have worshipped relics of saints: body parts, sometimes quite gruesome-looking, which possess special power. Atheists may dismiss this belief, but the popularity of the crossing and Tendulkar’s blood-infused book show that desire for this kind of contact and reverence remains strong.
Richard Dawkins and his tambourine-abusing evangelical opponents make the same mistake - the literalist heresy, it’s sometimes called - by reducing a complex moral, historical and cultural tradition to a set of much more limited assertions about the state of the physical world today. Even some paint in the road, and a wall of banal graffiti can be worth a long journey; or pilgrimage, even.
And what about the bike? It’s the best way to get to the Abbey Road crossing, obviously. Just cycle up and down Abbey Road until you are stopped by lots of tourists taking photos. And if, as John Gray argues, it’s not what you believe but how you live that matters, then what more could life offer than to be a cyclist?