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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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.