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I Wish I Could Laugh…

October 18, 2011

…but that joke isn’t funny anymore.

A WARNING.

This is a post that will meander about a lot.  I am not sure that it will reach a conclusion satisfactory to *me*, let alone you, reader.  So you may wish to go and read something that is ABSOLUTELY certain of the point it wishes to convey, and enjoy the certainty, and (possibly) lack of Smiths lyrics.

Also, there’s some discussion about whether complaining about things like this is the way to go at all for the cycling community[1] – if you fall into the group that says “No, it is not, please focus on the positive side of things, as that is how to get more people cycling”, simply know that my bike riding means I can eat what I like without putting on weight[2], and have, so I am told, nicely toned buttocks. Also, in the summer, it’s a truly delightful way to get around.  And sometimes in other seasons too.  You may stop reading now.

A VAGUE FEELING OF UNEASE

I am fortunate to follow a great many amusing, fabulous people on twitter.  Discourse with them livens up my day to no end, and for that, I have been, am, and in so far as I am able to discern the future, will remain, grateful.

So, when one of them posted a little rant (a rantette, if you will) about cyclists, I was somewhat taken aback, as “cyclists” is a group I also count myself lucky to be part of.

The rant was along the lines of “I hate when cyclists do <THING>, which is illegal, can I kill them?”.

In an article more certain of its convictions, the author would describe this as a “betrayal”, a “snub”, a “slap in the face”, perhaps, dependant on the level of indignation they felt, either genuinely, or as a way of provoking the sentiments of their readers.  I can be honest with you, and say that a vague feeling of unease is the best description of what I felt.

The rant was couched in humourous terms, (more humourous than my clumsy parpaphrasing) after all, and who but a churl would take offence at a joke?  I will answer my own question here – and I ask you to imagine me raising a hand in acknowledgement.  Now, imagine that hand being raised hesitantly, with an expression alternating between certainty and confusion on my stupid face.  There you go.[3]

“IT’S NOT PC, IT’S THE HIGHWAY CODE, AND THIS STORY IS B*LL*CKS”

Not The Smiths this time – that’s a quote from Mailwatch about one of the Mail’s frequent non-stories.  Which brings us to the first problem with the rant; it’s not right.  There could be any number of <THING>s in there, because, in my experience, most people who have passed a UK driving test re-read the Highway Code *very* infrequently.  Maybe they might re-read it because they’ve asked the person in Smiths to find them the latest Clarkson, and while waiting, they pick up the Highway Code thinking it to be the HILARIOUS[4] “Alternative” Highway Code, (which is written by the same people who bring you “Top Gear”, I understand, hence its appeal to the Clarkson reader) instead.

Maybe they’re genuinely interested in the real Highway Code[5] – in which case, they could read it online, you know.  Or they could buy a paper copy along with the Clarkson, if they liked – just as long as they remember to keep them apart, as the publications are so diametrically opposed that they annihilate when placed in close proximity, like matter and anti-matter.

I once started a website called “The Folk Highway Code” devoted to popular beliefs about things cyclists shouldn’t do that were actually perfectly legal, and/or not discouraged in the Highway Code.  It sort of dried up a bit, because drivers began to endanger me without shouting poorly remembered bits of legislation and guidelines out of their windows.  I blame the prevalence of air conditioning in the modern car, and, perhaps milder summers, both of which seem to have contained the audible part of drivers’ irrational rage behind firmly closed windows.

In any case, imagine something incorrect about being on a cycle path, riding two abreast[6] or flashing lights, or something.  If you’re going to joke about killing someone for breaking the law, I think it’s only polite that you make sure they did actually break the law.  It’s even more polite not to joke about wanting to kill them, I say.

IT’S SO EASY TO LAUGH, IT’S SO EASY TO HATE

Not liking things, and not liking things that a lot of other people don’t like, is easy comedy.  I am not immune to its lure myself[7], but at least part of what I dislike about the “I hate cyclists…” “jokes” is the sheer, pedestrian (ha!) ordinariness of it. At least go against the grain.

Which brings us (are you still there?) to the second point – the power relationship is all wrong.  These jokes are almost always made from the point of view of the person with the power (generally, it’s a view from behind a windscreen, I’m afraid).  A glance at any local newspaper’s letters page will confirm that this is not an edgy, contrarian viewpoint.

There are probably exceptions, but comedy of this sort, to paraphrase Richard Herring, works best when you’re “punching upwards”.  A look at road casualty statistics, or at work done on the way the legal system treats road offences committed by different types of road user[8] will assure you, I hope, that the driver is punching downwards here.

If it helps, imagine someone triumphantly karate punching through a thin piece of expanded polystyrene, with “HIIIIYAAAAAAA!” noise and everything.  Were you impressed? What if I told you they were wearing a karate outfit and a headband, and had spent half an hour limbering up as you watched impatiently too?

IT’S TOO CLOSE TO HOME AND IT’S TOO NEAR THE BONE

This may not apply to everyone, so I apologise in advance.  Some people’s cycle commutes in the UK are a daily delight, in which they bask in the affection of other road users from door to door.  I have my doubts about this, but it seems a bit rude to scoff at it as a notion, as I don’t ride the same route they do, and surely the least I can do is take what they say at face value.

I ride a bicycle to work most days, and it’s a rare day indeed that a driver doesn’t worry me (sometimes multiple drivers).  Most of them that do cause me concern don’t do this out of active malice[9] – they’re just entirely indifferent to my safety, and sometimes, seemingly incapable of anticipation or reading the road ahead[10].

Although I do say so in the footnote, it’s worth restating that the majority of drivers will drive safely around me if it’s expedient for them to do so, a smaller number will whether it’s expedient or not, and a similar number won’t, for reasons I am seldom privy to.  The proportions change completely, and very much for the better, when cycling in France or Belgium, although there it seems to be the done thing to for drivers to regard fellow motorists as though they were mortal enemies, as anyone who has driven on a roundabout in a French town will attest.

So it doesn’t take malice to make the roads pretty unpleasant. I do not think it a logical leap to propose that the ADDITION of malice would not make things better.

Which leads me to the belief that I might see the joke if the VERY IDEA that a driver might kill me was so vanishingly remote as to be laughable.  In this distant utopia, the behaviours I see and experience every day would be viewed in a sort of CRAZY surrealist playground of the imagination.  “How funny!”, we’d chorus, “Imagine somone taking their anger out in a dangerous way on another road user!” and mock the unlikelihood of it all. Possibly we would do this whilst wearing futuristic silver jumpsuits, and drinking strange blue drinks from which we would ext
ract all our dietary requirements (but I hope not, with the jumpsuits at least).  Also, we’d play 3D chess, which I feel ambivalent about.  I’m not much good at regular chess, but I’m certainly willing to try the 3D version, and even if I am terrible at it, I don’t think that will be as harmful for my self esteem as seeing myself in a silver jumpsuit would be.

And, as I said before, the whole thing begins from the incorrect premise that the annoying behaviour is illegal.

Imagine a joke about being beaten up as you bought a bag of flour, made partially or wholly from imported cereals that had not been subjected to punitive tarriffs, thereby demonstrating your supposed opposition to the Importation Act of 1815.  “But the Corn Laws[11], as that legislative instument was known, were effectively repealed in 1849, by the Importation Act of 1846!” you’d cry in protest, as the blows rained mercilessly down upon you.  “DAMN YOUR EYES,” your assailants would scream hoarsely in response, briefly coherent despite their rage, “THINK OF THE EFFECT UPON THE REMUNERATION OF THE AGRICULTURAL LABOURER!”  Ridiculous, right?

That level of unlikelihood is not where we are with joking about drivers injuring cyclists for not doing anything wrong, I’m afraid.

 FOOTNOTES

[1] This is true.  It assumes a binary choice, in which the cycling advocate may do only one thing or the other, but the thinking runs along the lines of us stopping complaining about people who contribute to the poor image of cyclists held by a certain section of the public, and counter by simply being fabulous.  The method of being fabulous is much disputed, and only in some cases are you allowed to keep a fancy bike and cycle specific clothing, if you currently have such things.

In some ways, it makes sense, as it must be terribly irritating to have every nasty meretricious lie, or wilful misunderstanding of reality pointed out to you, pretend to forget it, and then have it pointed out to you again the next time you say more or less the same thing, perhaps to sell newspapers, or have a highly rated television programme, for example.

You know that thing about “the best revenge being to live well”? It’s a bit like that – imagine how different the “Death Wish” series of films could have been if this outlook on vengeance had been more widely adopted in the 1980s.

[2] This is also true.  When I began cycle commuting, I’d not done any exercise other than a couple of attempts at running (I hate running) for nearly three years. I rode to work 3 times a week, gradually increasing to every day once I felt up to it, doing an, at the time, eight mile each way journey.  (That may sound like a lot, but it was surprisingly easy, even in my tubby hopelessly out of shape state). Within three months, I’d lost a stone in weight, and was saving £60 a month on travel costs, for an outlay of £50 for the bike I was riding, an ’80s ten speed from the local classifieds.  The days of spending lunchtimes savouring two tuna sandwiches vanished, replaced by four sandwiches (THE EXTRAVAGANCE!) and sometimes, a bag of crisps. As well as elevenses, and an afternoon flapjack. There’s living well for you.

Did you notice that I haven’t footnoted that line about my buttocks? Well done.

[3] It may occur to you that I spend a lot of time sabotaging myself in this post.

[4] I’m being sarcastic here. “The Alternative Highway Code” may actually be hilarious – it’s also possible that it contains serious, considered proposals for making British roads safer for pedestrians, cyclists and people who take driving seriously.  I have never read it, thus falling into a trap of betraying my own prejudices about things Top Gear, and making a joke about not liking something, right before your goggling eyes.  “What right have you to lecture ME?” you might cry, indignantly. “I’m punching upwards”, I protest, “I talk about that later on in this piece!”  Imagine me looking a bit shamefaced, but not much, if you like, as I think the balance of probabilities re: hilarity/sensible suggestions favours me here.

Also, in reality, it’s actually very easy to find the latest Clarkson in WH Smiths, as they are the books with the word “CLARKSON” on them in big type.  There will be at least twenty of them. So it’s a bit unlikely that you’d have to ask for help if you really wanted one. In that sense of seeking help, at least.

The word “CLARKSON” is often printed in different jaunty colours, on cover and spine, I assume to help you ascertain which one you don’t yet have, or possibly to allow you to create pleasing colour effects by arranging the books in different orders on your shelves once you have collected the entire set.  Maybe people match them to the decor of their rooms?  I don’t think they do, although I may be doing Clarkson fans a disservice in assuming that they care little for interior decoration, or that they would only buy one of his books because it matched their sofa.  Maybe Kelly Clarkson fans do, if she writes books, and has the same approach to titling and distinguishing her different editions. I don’t think I can pursue that train of thought though; it seems like it would be a digression too far.  To be honest, I know very little about Kelly Clarkson, and I’m not looking her up because I don’t see how she can compete with the Corn Laws (see later).

[5] I genuinely recommend the real Highway Code (by which I mean the one published by HMSO) to you – broadly speaking, it’s an excellent document, with advice that could be boiled down to “Be Excellent to Each Other, and Leave the Partying On Until You Arrive Safely at Your Destination.”

Its cycling sections could use a little work, (given the parlous state of cycling facilities in the UK, the advice that they “may make your journey safer”, for example, is hugely optimistic, to the point that it verges on being entirely untrue), but overall, it’s an excellent, sensible book, and re-reading it and taking what it says “on board” will improve your driving and riding.

Whilst I’m recommending books, Joe Moran’s “On Roads” has a lovely history of the introduction of the Highway Code, among other fascinating things about the UK’s road network and culture, and is also well worth reading in its entirety.  You’d be missing out if you only read the Highway Code part, but it’s your choice, I suppose.

[6] Which brings me to one of my favourite jokes; “Were you riding two abreast?” “I wish! We’re just going to the lake.”  It works better said, than written, to be honest, because it relies on English language homophones.  You also need not to think too hard about the idea of cycling to a single, disembodied breast, which would be horrible, unless that bit from Woody Allen’s “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex” has lied to us, assuming that I have also remembered that correctly.  (I don’t know if that’s considered one of Woody’s better films – it’s no “Sleeper”, and that’s for sure).  Anyway, I think the joke is from “The Simpsons”, and is an exchange between (Police) Chief Wiggum, who asks the question, and Homer Simpson, who answers it.

It’s a stupid joke, when you really think about it, and maybe there’s a lesson in that for us all.

[7] I nearly put in a bit about “even” Michael Mackintyre and Peter Kay rejecting these jokes for reasons that highlight what I personally don’t like in their comedy.  Then I realised that doing that would either perfectly illustrate the irresistible lure of amusingly not liking things, or make me look like a hypocrite even as I hated (more accurately, sighed a bit and didn’t watch) their standup sets.  So instead, I did a footnote deconstructing the idea, in a transparent attempt to both eat my cake, and have it, which probably doesn’t let me off the hook on either score, and makes me look like a ponce in the process, DAMN IT ALL TO HELL.

I might also have got away with it because of the “punching upwards” thing, as Peter Kay and Michael Mackintyre are beloved, rich, successful national figures, and I am me.

You could also point out that going against the grain is precisely what I don’t do, given the subculture I mostly move in, and the prevailing ideology and viewpoints therein.  I cannot disagree with that specific charge, other than to point out that outside that small subculture, it is. So there.

[8] Sorry to be a downer here, but it’s true.  If you’d like a slightly more frivolous take, here’s what Hunter S. Thompson said about that power relationship in “Hell’s Angels”;

The highways are crowded with people who drive as if their sole
purpose in getting behind the wheel is to avenge every wrong ever done
them by man, beast, or fate.  The only thing that keeps them in line
is their own fear of death, jail and lawsuits…which are much less
likely if they can find a motorcycle to challenge instead of another
two thousand pound car or a concrete abutment.  A motorcyclist has to drive [sic] as though everybody else on the road is out to kill him.
A few of them are, and many of those who aren’t are just as dangerous
– because the only thing that can alter their careless, ingrained
driving habits is a threat of punishment, either legal or physical,
and there is nothing about a motorcycle to threaten any man in a car.
A bike is totally vulnerable; its only defence is manoeuvrability, and
every accident situation is potentially fatal

Admittedly, he’s talking about cars and motorcycles.

It’s a while since I read the book, but I think part of Thompson’s argument was that the banding together of motorcycle gangs began, at least in part, as a form of self protection against the dominant car culture.  We can only wonder at how different things might have been if they’d chosen to do that by donning high visibility tabards and expanded polystyrene helmets instead.

Isn’t it odd that I don’t apologise for being a downer anywhere else? I was just re-reading all this, and I think it is.

[9] I’ve experienced properly dangerous malice (that I knew about) twice, I think.  Whether the other times I feared for my life were simply due to idiotic impatience and lack of driving skill, I don’t know, but I think it’s important to give people the benefit of the doubt.  I’ve also assumed that the times people did something dangerous whilst apparently shoutng the words “AAAARGH BLARRRGG BLAAAAAAARGH” out of their souped up hatchbacks as they roared past weren’t malicious, which may be an overly optimistic view to take.  “Souped up” is a term you can safely equate with “having several extra bits of plastic attached, and the exhaust made noisier”.  I don’t know whether any boost in performance, break horsepower, and all that kind of thing had been achieved also.

Once, someone shouted “USE SOME F*CKING <inaudible word(s)>” at me.  As I’d signalled my turn before they passed (I always do this, even when, as in this case, I am on the right of a right hand filter lane, waiting to turn right), and it wasn’t dark enough for lights, the inaudible part of their injunction haunts me still. What could they have meant? I will surely never know.  Again, I have no idea if malice, or a genuine desire to educate (in which case, they might have considered slowing, and speaking more clearly) motivated them.

In all honesty, you become a bit desensitised to things over the years.  To give  an example, look at Rule 163 in the Highway Code.  Now look at the space given when drivers overtake cyclists in real life.  The routine breach of this rule used to really worry me, but now I’m pleasantly surprised when anyone gives me more than an arms length gap while overtaking (it’s infrequent, but it does happen), and only really worried when they’re close enough for me to see my own face, screaming in terror, reflected in their wing mirror as they pass.

There are good reasons to give the amount of room shown in Rule 163, related to the needs of cyclists and motorcyclists to manouevre when avoiding defects in the road surface, among other things. No overtake at significantly below Rule 163 distance is particularly pleasant, and I doubt it’s encouraging to new cycle commuters, or people who think “Hmm, I’m only going three miles, and I am neither physically infirm or carrying large amounts of luggage, taking a car is ridiculous!” but there you go.

[10] The undoubted classics of this genre being the overtake to turn left across my path, and the overtake to reach non-distant stationary traffic.  People who are willing to wait usually end up overtaking me safely, or making their maneouvre without endangering anyone else anyway, to no discernible delay in their journey so far as I can tell.  I like those people, and there are probably more of them about than you’d think from reading this.  Surely it’s our tragedy that we remember the bad more than the good.

[11] Considering that I only looked this up so I could make a stupid joke, I found the history of the Corn Laws fascinating, encapsulating as it does the tension between agricultural landowners and the  emergent power of the mercantile class in the early to mid 19th century in Britain, both of whom proposed their self interest as being in the interest of the people, and the nation.  I remember being slightly aggrieved at having to do British Social and Economic History at school, which did cover the Corn Laws, rather than History about battles and kings – as ever, I can only look at my younger self and wish I’d not been so blinkered.  Although given the structure of our school system in the UK then, and its fairly strict division between Sciences and Arts/Humanities, it’s unlikely that I’d have been able to pursue that interest into further education, had I even recognised it at the time.

The Corn Laws are a passable parallell with the widespread belief that flashing lights are illegal, surprisingly, as flashing lights of particular types were permitted as the sole rear or front mounted lights on a pedal cycle by the Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations of 2005, which you could imagine as the Importation Act of 1846, if you wanted.  It’s a parallell that begins to break down once you look in detail at the social impacts, the way the Importation Acts reflected the change in power between a declining and ascendant class, and wider issues of protectionism versus free trade though.  Also, the Importation Acts say nothing about pedal reflectors, not unreasonably, as no one had invented the bicycle then (other than an antecedent known as the Draisienne, or hobby horse, invented in 1815, which had no pedals), so it’s not all one way.

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