A to B: How not to die on a bike in London

Hayley Campbell is inexplicably still living. She shares her tips on how to master this impressive feat yourself.

I’ve been a cyclist in central London for almost two years and I am not yet dead.

This is probably statistically rare given I am 20-something and female, and when thinking back over my first year it certainly feels like an unlikely outcome. Look at me typing on the internet. I could be dead instead of doing this but somehow I’m not. Either I'm invincible or I have learned how not to die. Since I burn myself every single time I make toast, I can assume the invincibility theory is bogus, so it must be the latter. 

I feel I should share my discoveries. If you’re going to jump on a bike and head out into London, these are the things you need to know that you won’t find in any guidebook:

1. The most dangerous person on the road is the suit on a Boris bike. Avoid him. He is the first move in every Rube Goldberg-esque pile-up. The last time the suit on a Boris bike was on a bike he was eight and he fell off. Now he’s loose on the open road and has no idea where he’s going but he’s a businessman and he gets stuff done so he’s going to do it anyway. You know what these people are like, you’ve seen The Apprentice. Grade A bullshitters. He goes the wrong way down one-way streets, he goes straight down the centre of a two-lane bike path. When correcting him you are summarily told to "fuck off" and reminded that he earns more than you do. (NB. This could also be straight up “Boris Johnson on a Boris bike”. Political.)

2. The second most dangerous person on the road is probably HGVs but really it’s a toss-up between the bone-crushing huge vehicles that glide over steel bike frames/fleshy humans and “the lady with the billowing skirt who obviously has not seen that documentary about Isadora Duncan”. Avoid both. The lady with the skirt will crash because she is i. attempting to tuck her skirt between her legs instead of looking where she’s going, or ii. her skirt will become entwined in the chain and she will fall over exactly sideways and become inextricable from her bicycle. She will take down everyone in a 20-foot radius and will blame everyone but herself.

3. The new cyclist about London will learn that there is a lot of buttcrack in this city. Miles of buttcrack hang out of London trousers every day of the year. Even February.

4. The new cyclist will learn (eventually, emphatically) that “bicycle maintenance” is not just a thing for other people. If something is going weird on your bike – wobbling or making a strange noise – investigate. This might involve taking it to a person who knows better and just coming clean, ignorance-wise. Do not think “it’ll probably be fine” because it definitely won’t be, and do not under any circumstances “MacGyver” a solution. If you do not sort this out properly your bike will collapse beneath you after something important snaps off (for instance) and you will smash your face in on an Islington footpath (for instance) and leave a blood-based Jackson Pollock street-painting behind when the ambulance come to take your concussed ass to hospital (for instance). Buy a book or do a google. Buy a tool or two.

5. Cherish your teeth and eat crunchy food while you still can. Avoid soup and porridge so that when you have to spend six months eating only soup and porridge you can handle it without turning to suicide. For instance.

6. Think about your crash position now before it happens. When it does happen, don’t scream. Teeth are surprisingly durable but only when covered by lips, and dental work is more expensive than you can possibly imagine. To put it in the terms that hit home for me: dental work is "two overdrafts and you have to phone your parents" expensive.  

7. Find a dentist who is endlessly weird-looking so you don’t get bored of seeing his face twice a week for half a year.

8. You can never have enough locks. Two, minimum. London bikes work like umbrellas in that you never actually own one, you just occupy it briefly in a time-share scenario. Love your bike but know it will eventually leave you just like everything else.

9. People in cars have no idea how long their car’s nose is and will stick that nose right out into the middle of your bike lane. Or whatever that thing at the front of a car is called. I don’t know, I don’t drive, I have a bike.

10. You will find yourself hating one of the finest inventions of all time: the wheelie suitcase. Dragged behind tourists in Bloomsbury, this suitcase is always left in the middle of the cycle lane long after the tourist itself has leapt out of the way. Tourists do not see it as an extension of themselves. The tourist believes they are not defined by their tour/carry-on.

11. Just because someone is wearing more Lycra that you does not mean they’re a more experienced rider, it just means they bought more Lycra than you. See also: artists with better tools, leather portfolios; writers with Moleskines. Do not follow this person’s lead on the road, they are lost.

12. Nurses treat you better if you were wearing a helmet when it all went wrong. Even if the helmet actively made your injuries worse, the nurse is slightly less likely to badmouth you to the doctor inspecting your face/remains of your mouth. Wear a helmet but know it’s for nurses, not your own head.

13. Black cab drivers want you dead. Once a year a black cab driver will scream out of a passing window a sentence along the lines of “I HOPE YOU FUCKING DIE YOU CUNT” just to remind you of their feelings. The last time I was in a black cab I actually sat in a puddle of cold human semen, so: black cabs, the feeling is pretty mutual.

14. Related: There is a man in London with "FUCK" tattooed down one calf and "TAXIS" down the other. He wears shorts all winter and even Michael Fish can forecast how he is going to die.

15. Nobody likes the guy on the fixie bike who balances at the lights. Put your foot down. We’re grown-ups. We’re not playing that game where the ground is lava.

16. On any given ride you will invariably encounter two women cycling side by side, chatting, taking up the entire road with their slow-moving floral basket machines. If you hang back for a minute you can catch one slapping the other in the face when they both indicate right.

17. Pedestrians never look where they’re going. Like, never. You will spend your first year marvelling at the confidence with which they stride into the road looking at their phones or run right out into intersections unexpectedly. You will spend the rest of your life dodging them and wondering when they’ll notice how close to death they just came. They won’t. My mum once gave me a piece of advice: “Assume everyone else is an idiot”. I can’t remember what it was for or about (maybe dudes, condoms) but I’ve repurposed it for cycling in London.

19. Your first year on a bike is terrifying but brilliant. You learn how London fits together. You realise you can propel your feeble human body from one end of it to the other for no money and get less fat doing it. A day of errands becomes an hour of errands. There are reasons bike couriers exist: it takes them a fraction of the time it takes someone in a car to do it, or someone on legs or in a bus or tube. Being on a bike in London is one of the most liberating things in the world: it’s as close to wings or a jetpack as we’re going to get until those scientists stop mooching about and make us some cooler stuff.

But at the end of your first year you will wear this expression almost permanently. Shocked and appalled, over and over and over and over. 

Unless you’re dead or your face is broken and you can’t make any expressions at all. All of which are possible.

This piece is part of A to B, the New Statesman's week of posts about transport.

The bike of Andrew Mitchell MP. Photograph: Getty Images

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

Getty
Show Hide image

Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear