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.

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Under Trump, American democracy will change – with the whole world at stake

We know that powerful countries don’t work well when nuance is cast overboard. Is this the collapse of the pluralist order?

In the weeks since 8 November, when Donald Trump won a majority of the electoral college despite losing the popular vote by three million, the culture of informed, participatory, representative democracy has taken one hit after another.

Before our eyes, the American republic, that most durable of representative democratic experiments, is morphing into something unrecognisable. At the federal level, the mediating, moderating institutions are withering away, leaving an abyss in the centre of US politics that Trump threatens to fill with a toxic appeal to race and religion baiting. Day after day, one reads reports of hate crimes and a surge in incivility – of Muslim women attacked in the streets, of swastikas painted on buildings, of Latino kids in schools being taunted about the wall that Trump has promised to build on the Mexican border. The Ku Klux Klan has rallied in several cities. “Alt-right” groups – some of which share members with neo-Nazi organisations – have held triumphalist events in Washington, DC.

Through it all, Trump has spent his time not trying to show that he will be a unifying president, not condemning this wave of violence, but instead holding his own rolling series of triumphalist rallies designed to shore up his personality cult.

Trump is only nominally a Grand Old Party Republican. His power derives not from understanding the ins and outs of party politics, playing by the long-established rules of a two-party system, nor from having studied the workings of the constitution, nor from any specialised legal or diplomatic knowledge. Rather, it stems from direct appeals to “the people”. Though a billionaire, Trump has fashioned himself as a far-right populist, a leader who speaks to the sensibilities of the mob with no time or patience for nuance.

He has enthusiastically endorsed “the torture” against terrorism suspects; collective punishment and executions; religious tests of entry for would-be immigrants; registries of Muslims; the jailing of his political opponents; clampdowns on free speech and on the functioning of investigative media outlets; stop-and-frisk policing strategies against minorities; wholesale deportation policies; and many other noxious ideas. He has deliberately coarsened America’s political language – systematically humiliating opponents and bringing his crowds down with him into the political sewers in which he thrives. His project is that of the classic totalitarian: make everyone and every major institution of state so grubby, so complicit, that, over time, they come to feel that they have no choice but to collaborate with an agenda of oppression.

We know that powerful countries don’t work well when nuance is cast overboard. Totalitarian projects garner support until they throw entire populations into disaster – into economic calamity, into spiralling conflicts and wars, into civil strife. Trump, as he makes policy on the hoof and hires a cabinet that seems to be made up of equal parts fanatics, conspiracy theorists, incompetents and generals, shows no sign of understanding this. He is a leader without internal limits.

Using his Twitter platform, in particular, Trump spent the weeks between election day and his inauguration wielding a wrecking ball against everything from environmental policy to gender equality regulations; from the “one China” policy carefully respected by leaders of both parties for more than 40 years to policies against expanded Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Three days before Christmas, he suggested that the US would be expanding its nuclear arsenal under his leadership.

This isn’t just dangerous; it’s beyond idiotic – a man who will soon wield unholy power over the lives of everyone on this planet intervening in the most delicate of policy areas with the bluntest of cudgels. The idea of making nuclear policy through 140-character tweets is insane, the stuff of bad late-night comedy rather than serious international diplomacy. And yet, intellectually, this is where America’s incoming leadership now resides.

Trump’s actions over these past weeks indicate that he is a person of staggering hubris, of thoughtlessness, of impulsiveness – and that, as he presented himself time and again during the election season, he is a boy-man, with the sensibilities of a teenager rather than a mature adult. He comes across as someone megalomaniacally confident that he can think and do no wrong; who wants to listen only to sycophants; and who is convinced that his brand of instinctual politics (the kind that has no need for dreary, real-world interventions such as daily security briefings) will triumph over all.

On the night of the election, the New Yorker editor, David Remnick, wrote an impassioned essay about what he identified as an “American tragedy”. But this doesn’t do full justice to the catastrophe that Trump’s election represents. His is a triumph of the will, as surely as was Hitler’s rise to power in 1932-33. He has ridden and will continue to try to ride roughshod over his opponents – both within the craven GOP, which has sacrificed all semblance of democratic credibility in pursuit of power, and in the Democratic Party and beyond.

Because he enters the White House as a conqueror rather than a product of years of politicking within the existing governing structures, he knows that he can appeal to “the people” – not all of the people but those white, conservative, mainly rural and suburban residents who make up the core of his support – to get his way.

Will Trump succeed in this mad re-imagining of what the United States is? There will be large opposition – on the streets, on university campuses, in the courts and in the state houses of liberal states up and down both coasts. In wealthy and large states such as California, where the cities, state legislatures and the governor’s offices are united in opposition to huge parts of Trump’s agenda, it is likely that on a day-to-day basis residents will avoid the brunt of the impact.

It is entirely possible that there will be a flowering of radical politics in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, New York and Boston, as well as inward migration from the heartlands of large numbers of political progressives and members of racial and religious minorities. Yet in more conservative parts of the country – in Texas, say, or Oklahoma, Mississippi or Alabama, or a host of other states dominated by reactionary political leaders – life for immigrants, the working poor, single mothers and Muslims (just to take a few examples) will become harsher. In many states, it is not at all clear that the political leadership will be willing or able to stand up to Trump’s mob.

It’s also far from certain that local police forces or county sheriffs will be able, or even particularly inclined, to stop the unleashing of pogroms. After all, these are places where law enforcement long turned a blind eye to lynch mobs directed against black residents and black-run businesses. It is not such a stretch to imagine a similar passivity in the face of anti-Muslim or anti-Mexican violence today.

Nor, on the international stage, is it likely that this troupe of political novices will be able to control the forces of resentment they are unleashing. Trump’s cabinet is full of Islamophobes who believe that the entire Muslim world is now America’s enemy. It is dominated by China-haters and climate change deniers. By the time Trump assumes the presidency, he will have done an almighty job of pissing off swaths of the world’s population.

The optimistic scenario is that the world turns its back on an inward-looking America, getting on with the serious business of international affairs while the pre-eminent superpower throws a four-to-eight-year tantrum. It is more likely, however, that there will be a scramble for influence as US soft power wanes and other powerful countries and non-state organisations seek to fill a vacuum created by the dearth of sensible American voices and policies. Such players could range from economic powerhouses such as China and Germany, seeking, or being forced to accept, a bigger military and geopolitical role, to resurgent powers such as Russia – as well as non-state actors ranging from terrorist entities such as Isis to techno-anarchist groups such as WikiLeaks.

As America’s image mutates, they will have a growing opportunity either to sow instability or to reshape regions of the world in their own image. The nightmare scenario is that Trump, relying on his instincts in place of the counsel of experts, seeks to shore up America’s declining influence through spasmodic demonstrations of military power – bullying and threatening one country after another, much as fascist regimes did in the 1930s. The consequences could be disastrous: US nationalism unleashed could plunge the world into conflict.

Thus we hover on the edge of a catastrophe: a great democracy that has come to be controlled by demagogues, ready to pounce at the slightest provocation, itching for an excuse to implement emergency measures against Muslims and others, convinced that its military might will cow the rest of the world into toeing the Trumpian line.

Sasha Abramsky writes for the Nation magazine and is the author of “The American Way of Poverty” (Nation Books)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era