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London, Bikes & Fatherhood

#1 30-xi-2013
Ben Watson


London’s an interesting place. It’s also a vexed, stressed and sometimes violent place, with people’s different needs and aspirations cutting across each other and creating many sites of conflict. And always there’s the seemingly inexorable pressure of big money, ripping down lovely buildings, destroying delightful street markets, imposing reproductions of antiseptic Manhattan in our midst (have you walked through the new St Giles?), creating great gilded palaces like the refurbished St Pancras station, beautiful at the front, but presenting a rear end (this matters to me, since I live in Somers Town, the residential area behind the great stations on Euston Road) which is like a cross between a nuclear power plant, a no-go industrial zone and a multi-storey car park (a lot of it actually is a multi-storey car park) where before their were delightful junk shops, tailors and carpenters (underneath the railway arches). Within this turmoil we do the best we can, eking out ways to make our lives liveable, even fun. And to have fun in the city, as more and more people are finding out, there’s nothing quite like a bicycle.

            When our first-born, Iris (b. 2005), was two, Esther (my partner) had the idea that a Dutch children-carrier bicycle might be a good idea. I’d been primary carer for eighteen months, and one day, dawdling with Iris in a sling (we’d never really liked the push chair, with its “meant-to-be-asleep” implication - when Iris got too heavy we put her in a tricycle with a “parent-pole” to push her along) on Crowndale Road near where we live, a middle-aged woman came across and said, Did I know about Coram Fields, a park in Holborn for kids and their carers? Needless to say, I didn’t. And what a discovery that was! This was the period when Sure Start provision in “deprived” areas was lavish (thanks, New Labour) and there were tons of “drop-ins”. Meet other parents, dandle babies somewhere warm and clean, have a cup of tea (“finding out what’s needed isn’t rocket science” as one mum put it to me). So I started hopping on the 168 bus and wheeling Iris-on-her-tricycle to Coram’s Fields; instead of the two drop-ins a week at our local community centre on Camden Street (which were great, thanks Elaine), there were now places to go all week. But why not cut out waiting at bus stops, and transport Iris on a bike? Almost completely unaware of what I was letting myself in for, I found myself on the train to West Wickham, where someone on eBay had sold Esther a “Bakfiets” from Holland for £600. Mission: learn how to ride the contraption, and cycle it home to Somers Town.

            Turns out the seller is Billy Sargent, high-ranking bike policeman (or as high-ranking as you can get if you are committed to bikes). His claims to fame (1) organising the raid on illegal-money outfits on Blackstock Road in Finsbury Park and (2) organising protection for the Olympic torch bearers in 2012 (which is why the police running with the bearers were wearing bike helmets even though they were on foot …). Billy wheels the Bakfiets out of his garden shed. It’s weird, a coffin on wheels with handlebars, pedals and brakes. Beautiful, the metalwork, pristine — shiny and red. A transparent plastic canopy with red trim to go over the wooden cart when it rains, turning it into a waterproof pod. Due to other commitments, Sargent had barely had a chance to use the machine. I ask him how you ride it. “The only way is to try …”, he replied. I got on, pedalled, cycled round Chamberlain Crescent, and was instantly converted. It was later, when Roman (my mechanic at London Green Cycles on Albany Street; you cannot mend a puncture, let alone change a bike chain with two small children requiring attention) took the wooden “boat” off the Bakfiets frame, that I finally understood. It’s basically a bike with a very long central shaft, equipped with connecting rods to steer the front wheel. It’s not a Christiania, the children-carrier from Copenhagen, a kind of tub-on-wheels with seats in it, which a parent moves by pedalling. The Bakfiets is a bike, eight gears,and you can get up quite a speed (I’d overtake Sarah Maguire on a Christiania taking her kids to school through Bloomsbury on a regular basis).

            My trip back from West Wickham that day was epic. I was using bike paths, but lost the thread round Catford station, and had to lift the whole bike bodily onto the pavement to avoid a charging lorry. I stopped for a pint at a pub in Forest Hill. Took advice from someone in a bike shop at Elephant Castle — “use the bus lanes” — and found myself going round the roundabout with all the traffic, not what I’d planned. But I’ve been a car driver myself, and with something the size of the Bakfiets it does well to think you’re a car. Stay in front, be seen. Don’t be bullied into the gutter by the speed merchants you’ll be overtaking at the next red light. My only “walk of shame” (Sargent’s phrase) was ascending Waterloo bridge. I was too puffed to pedal. Now I whizz with both kids over Waterloo Bridge feeling fit and proud. I see people working out in gyms and think, What is that all about? Get a bike, folks.

            I’ll have to admit I was not the best road-user in the world at first. Taxis in particular obviously thought I was a danger to myself, my children and the public. And told me so. I, in return, considered the vehicles they were driving to be the real danger to life and limb, whereas I was a traffic-calming measure, introducing peace, humanity and sanity to the streets of Central London. At the age of fourteen, I’d jumped out of my skin when, with the arrogance of youth, I stepped in front of a taxi on Earlham Street, expecting the driver to slow down (cars did this in suburbia) — and he sped up as if to run me down. Tell the truth, he’d probably only revved his engine. But now I was prepared for all out war. What is it that entitles black cab drivers to behave persistently like bastards? However, as I started knowing my routes better, started knowing which lane to occupy, what the traffic lights do at particular junctions, the “wanker!” and “cunt!” shouts — confrontations which pour adrenalin into the system and make you feel sick all day — became fewer and fewer.

            Just one adjustment to the traffic flow could turn a slough of despond into a vale of flowers. I’m pretty much a manic-depressive anyway, but parenthood — suddenly needing to keep the emotions of two (then three) people on an even keel instead of just the girlfriend’s — is all highs and lows. I suddenly understood why people say “How are you?” when they meet, small talk I’d previously considered a complete waste of time. Parents say “how are you?” to each other and mean it — because disaster and anxiety and trauma are always on the cards. Parenthood makes you experience lows you never dreamt of. London, winter, two babies both needing nappie changes, add some money problems and uncertainties about the future, some disagreements with your partner about which school to go for — aaargh! There are a few highs you never had before, too, but I’m afraid the lows outweigh them. People who simply want to be “happy” shouldn’t have kids. It’s not “boring” the way family life looks to the adolescent rebel, but they and their subcultural heroes have a point —all that gooey love-and-flowers iconography is just commercial packaging. You have kids because you want to find out what human life is when viewed from the other end of the telescope. It’s endlessly entertaining, enfuriating, interesting. And if you add a bike it can even be fun. Bikes are low church, democratic, human: the opposite of the rigid status implied by the size and shine of your motor. To the cyclist hip to the cycle paths with a laptop cine-feed attached to her helmet, all that snobbery about the “motor carriage” looks hopelessly out-of-date — practically eighteenth century. Oh yes, the adjustment to the traffic flow which turned hell into heaven? They altered the rules and the pavement where Tavistock Place crosses Marchmont Street. Suddenly you didn’t have to fight with a queue of taxis streaking down Cartright Gardens to St Pancras station for a fare. Bliss.

            The Bakfiets opened up London for us like nothing on earth. Once you’ve established your routes and know your lights you can safely spirit the children to recreation grounds and parks and markets and venues all over the city in record time. You start popping up all over the place! You’re hardly ever stuck in the jams that give London car drivers frustration ulcers. And there’s the camaraderie of being part of a movement. Chats with other cyclists at the lights, special waves to anyone combining bikes and kids, and — when cyclists gather together for a protest, mourning those lost at a junction, or demanding a vote in parliament, or making a Critical Mass co;;ective cycle ride just for the fun of it — the Bakfiets crew gather together and cycle four of five abreast, like the pulsing heart of the movement. Riding like that is the closest I’ve ever felt to being royalty, I think (and the closest I ever want to get). Mordecai (b. 2008) first sat up unaided at a Critical Mass when it was gathering on the South Bank. He was lying on his blanket on the floor of the cart, and he just had to see what all those moving bell sounds were about …

            But do the children like it? With The Bakfiets, you’re positioned right over their heads. You can talk to them. They like that. An endlessly changing panorama is permanent eye candy. Iris was sure the Post Office tower (a name for the BT tower I keep because grew up before Tony Blair’s Era of Privatisation — I’m holding onto the old name until we renationalise the Post Office) moved as we passed underneath it, as if it were chasing us through the streets. Not stupid: it does actually look like that. Babies make you look like you’ve never looked before; they are the great art teachers, in my opinion. Iris also asked why the door was locked at a school we cycled by (All Souls, a bit too Christian for us), as the gate was usually open at Soho Parish by the time we arrived. Try explaining “9:00am” to a four-year-old, it challenges every engrained precept in your body (Kant was wrong, time is learned, not a priori, children think like hunter gatherers). When Mordecai joined Iris on the bench in the cart, sometimes they’d fight. Usually, for some reason, on Torrington Place, the main bike thoroughfare in Bloomsbury and often very crowded, with cars threatening to poke out onto the bike path from every side street. That was the worst. I’d stop each time and give them a lecture. What if I was in a hurry? You are never in a hurry taking care of children. Taking care of them is the main deal. “Better late for school than an accident” Esther would say as we left.

            And that is the deep connection between bikes and children. Rebellion against time and space as vacancies to be swapped for money. Transport as a pleasure in itself.  Capitalism forces us into a race against time which forever postpones life itself. “Life” becomes the ready-meal and the bottle of Cava at the girl-friend’s flat once you’ve cut through this pushing, anonymous crowd. Taxis drive like bastards because each hesitation, each delay, each politeness is money lost (I’m exaggerating, of course, there are courteous taxi drivers and I even have a friend, someone I met at Coram’s Fields drop-ins, who’s a taxi driver, name of Lorenzo). Quite apart from their role as lackeys of the wealthy, this time/money equation means the taxi-driver’s towards other road users has to be abusive. It’s not something a nice personality can fix, it’s the logic of the job (in Capital, Marx has some wise words about bosses: they do not choose to be monsters, but in competing with other bosses — “saving the firm” — they commit monstrous acts). Taxis wish everyone else off the roads so they could get there faster, score another ride, make more cash. Their pride is they hardly ever have a bump, they’re “safe”. However, this is like the competitive businessman who works within the law; he prides himself on not being a “criminal”, but he can quite legitimately ruin people’s lives with the sack, close down street markets, demolish old buildings, sanction sweat shops. If someone in a regular car drove like a black cab driver, they would be involved in an accident almost straight away. People expect taxis to stop abruptly, rudely cut in, rev their engines at pedestrians and cyclists. Taxis are armoured black boxes transporting the privileged through zones of fear. They are anti-environmental — and viewed from the point of view of how we could do things in the city, pretty mental too.

            Bikes, on the other hand, are about the pleasure of self-propulsion, a simple application of leverage and the tensile strength of metal to make us faster than the fastest runner. We are having fun! This enrages the “serious” users of the road, where “serious” means — making money of course, and securing yourself a position from which you can bid “them down there’ a contemptuous farewell. As Max Keiser puts it, people can’t attain freedom because they don’t want it, they just dream of making others their servants and slaves. And this is why Boris Johnson is now listening to taxi drivers rather than the cyclists. The “bicycling mayor” and the hire-bikes programme was a bid to gain popularity over Ken Livingstone (Chico, a cycling dad I know from Soho Parish school, said to me recently that it was when Livingstone criticised rich families in their 4x4s that his days were numbered). Boris is a Tory, and a bosses’ party-man is never going to oppose the money argument. But us cyclists do! And whatever the stunt operations demanded of the police by Whitehall, the less-well off will continue to get round London on their bikes — arriving at their destinations faster than rich people in their taxis, and keeping fit without membership of expensive and “exclusive” gyms. The car is the prosthesis of the competitive, anti-social middle-class family, who pride themselves on shopping at supermarkets for gourmet treats the others cannot afford, who demand smooth motorways and well-lit airports and “safe” anti-septic shopping malls in which the soul withers and dies. The car pollutes the air we breathe. It creates streets children can’t play in any more, atomising working-class families and destroying community. The bike, on the other hand, is democratic and convivial. As Sharon Borthwick points out, car drivers think they’re still at home, they wait at the lights and pick their noses. Bicyclists on the other hand swap jokes and news of what’s happening in town. The capitalist way leads us to wars for oil, ice cap meltdown, floods and hurricanes, lying politicians and criminal bankers (“the ruling kleptocracy” as Keiser puts it). Not to mention boring, pointless jobs and isolated families. Socialism is the only answer, my friends. On a bike.


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