Nosy parkers and home-made jams

An election might be taking place elsewhere in the country, but down here the big news is traffic wardens. We had a traffic warden in the local town about three years ago: nice chap employed by the police, hardly ever ticketed anyone. When he was withdrawn there were protests on the front page of the paper.

The two most contested issues in small towns and villages around the country are parking and rubbish collection. In the first house I rented out of London - pretty village, nice people - the next-door neighbour popped round on the first afternoon to clarify precisely where my parking space was, and when and where to put the bins out. Having lived in the middle of London all my life, I could see a dozen spare parking spaces scattered around; she could see only two - hers and mine - the spots those houses had always had, the way the village had for decades parcelled up the lane. Where no rules exist, people invent their own.

Sticky moment

And so it has been in my local town. You didn't need a traffic warden poking a camera in your face as they do in London. Without any real monitoring, there were some unwritten rules that governed where you parked. You didn't block the loading bay outside the supermarket. You didn't park on pavements for more than five minutes and you kept an eye out for anyone who might need to pass while you were.

Cars could use the motorbike spaces but only during the week (motorbikes only visit at weekends). I thought it worked; others didn't, and admittedly the traffic was awful. So now the council, squeezed by the recession, has introduced "civil enforcement officers" and actual charges for parking throughout all the little towns for the first time. It's only 20p for half an hour but it's a nuisance - all those little sticky tickets and what have you.

And so, parking is in the headlines again. One local trader warned of a return to "Nazi Germany" after big black-and-yellow signs were posted warning motorists that charging would start this week: "Yellow lines are there for a reason". This, the man complained, was "sinister" - which propelled him straight on to the front page of the local paper, with a nice big picture. "They look like death notices. The Nazis did this, pinning up notices on lamp-posts."

It has stirred up a lot of people, most of them warning about the devastating effect on trade in towns that are already struggling. I didn't
believe it would make a lot of difference - 20p is only 20p.

I am sympathetic to traffic wardens, where they are necessary. I once spent a day as a warden in Westminster. Certain things stick in my mind: the hat was itchy, we had to tap in our location every three minutes in that little machine they hold. I remember men in pinstripe suits stripping us with their eyes - Cherelle and me, the black and the white, in uniform - and a builder rubbing up against us on the street.

I remember somebody trying to run Cherelle over just as she was telling me what a pleasant job it was really. I remember taking her to lunch at Fortnum & Mason, and how charming they were about having two traffic wardens in the restaurant. And I remember the Ritz pretending it had special permission to park its limousine on the yellow lines outside the hotel, its driver producing a large, fake laminated permit with the Prince of Wales crest on it and something about the "City of Westminster" on the back.

Inhuman traffic

One incident in particular has stuck in my mind, partly out of annoyance that I have never quite been able to place the man in question.

It was lunchtime in St James's and Cherelle had allowed a van to stop on a corner, in order for the driver to help push someone in a wheelchair over the road. It blocked, for less than a minute, the route of a chauffeur-driven car on its way to one of those gentleman's clubs at the end of the street. The passenger lowered his window and yelled at Cherelle and me: "Why haven't you moved him on?"

I knew the man. I recognised him really well from Conservative party conferences - an older Tory, now some kind of lobbyist. I can still remember his face but I have never been able to remember his name. As a vignette of a type of Britain you might think was dead, it was pretty faultless - the "gentleman" on his way to lunch at his club, shouting at a black traffic warden and a van driver helping a disabled person across the street. (And at me, invisible in my uniform.)

I went down to the local town just now to see how it was coping with its new laws. There wasn't a civil enforcement officer or a pay-and-display machine in sight. And I've never seen the streets so empty. No traffic jams - no customers, either.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger