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Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Right Of Way

Okay, I realize my last blog may have ended on a down note. When we left our hero, he was a beaten man on a perilous promotional trail, a collision victim of public transport, days spent navigating murky UK weather, cold nights beneath a single-layer Travelodge comforter. It’s amazing what a little sun can do for your spirits. The past week and a half in and around London has been miraculously blue and clear, not a cloud in a sky. It’s equally amazing how quickly my pessimism/cynicism/realism has been replaced by a genuine optimism. Maybe it’s getting a full 8 hours sleep, or a return to boiled eggs, bagels and marmite in the morning, but there’s an extra pep in my step lately. I’ve been hitting the Piano with a renewed vigor, like a boxer coming off a knockout round. Such is the seesaw life of this self-pronounced artiste! But this would not be your typical, pontifical JV blog entry if I didn’t use my considerable writing prowess to whinge about something, specifically a British something.

As a native New Yorker, I consider walking in an urban environment to be an area of expertise, something of a birthright. I have been living in London for close to 15 months and still have no comprehension of pedestrian/car etiquette. This may seem a simple, trivial, even ridiculous matter, but I assure you, Right Of Way is a very complex thing here in England. The nation that made Darts a sport has also made the act of crossing a street a labyrinthine, mystical process. Just like Hercules’ Hydra, I chop off one of the beast’s heads only to find two grow back in its place.

Point in case: last night I was traveling through my Islington neighborhood to next-door Dalston in the pursuit of Vietnamese food. I was headed along Southgate Road, a major two-lane cut-through for drivers trying to avoid the congested Angel center. During the day, this street is pretty busy and with no crosswalks (they call them Zebras here), a force to be reckoned with for the average man-on-foot. During the evening however, the road is clear, allowing motorists to speed with no consideration for people, as I find London drivers tend to do (I have a theory this is because of all the twisting and turning. As soon as drivers see a straightaway, they gun it. I would too. Driving can’t be much fun here with all the sharp angles and speed bumps, or humps as they say. Not like I would know. I can’t drive).

Amidst my quest for Pho and Duck spring rolls, I was walking in the direction of traffic, crossing what I would call a side street, i.e. a small road leading off the main thoroughfare, one without a foot traffic light. Behind me, I felt the hum of a speeding engine, and twisted my head to see a car quickly rounding the side street, headed straight for me. To my knowledge, there are no clearly defined rules in this situation. I would like to think common sense prevails. In my mind, if I’m walking straight, it means I have the Right Of Way. If a driver, while trying to change course, sees a pedestrian halfway across an intersection (in this case the driver was coming at me from behind, making me, the pedestrian, blindsided), Right Of Way dictates the driver wait for the pedestrian to finish crossing before completing the turn. I was reminded again tonight, as I have been so times before, this is not the case in London. As Bill Hicks astutely observed, “In London when a driver sees a person crossing the street, they turn their wipers on.” If you, as a pedestrian, do not relent completely to an automobile, and thereby cause the driver to apply any degree of pressure to their break pedal, he/she will honk and gesticulate violently at you, perhaps shout something along the line of, “ For Fuck’s sake!” Before I came to this country, I didn’t know Fuck was proper noun, let alone something you can act in the interest of.

I hate to be the squeaky wheel. I believe that when you are a stranger in a strange land, you should do as the locales do, assume their customs as your own. To quote Ron Burgundy in Anchorman, “When In Rome.” But riddle me this: what kind of city gives cars the Right Of Way over people but not cyclists? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen cyclists in this town, smack dab in a bus lane in the middle of the morning rush, leisurely pedaling away with a jam-packed bus of commuters right on their tail. Bikers in London truly are the chosen people, self-righteous green priests of the environment who rule the road with an iron fist, delivering a swift and brutal judgment on anyone obstructing their path. The scolding you get for blocking a car is nothing compared to incurring the cyclist’s wrath. The few times I made the mistake of placing so much as my foot in front of a bike, my ears were assaulted by a cascade of slurs that would make even the most hardened sailors blush. These fetid tirades coming from the mouths of some the cutest, hipster women my eyes have ever seen. It’s enough to make this musician cry.

I dunno whether it’s the card carrying liberal, eco-driven mentality of powerful lobbying groups, or just they way they roll in London, but it appears bikes are indeed king, and we walkers are merely flies on the proverbial windshield, playing cards in the proverbial spokes. Last night was a reminder that while I live in this city, no matter how intrinsically bizarre they may seem to me, I must do my best to comprehend and obey the English rules of Right Of Way. But, from time to time, these Brits must forgive an instinct from deep inside my being to call out, in the words of quintessential New Yorker Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, “HEY, I’M WAH-KING HERE!”


fenix said...

london has its own rules, whoever is going fastest will survive!

the rest of england aint so bad really, the further away from a city the better, its not that the rules are in favour of the driver, its just that most people on the road tend to make up their own rules, which revolve around getting from a -b in the shortest possible time, regardless of how many bodies they leave behind!

Lion said...

Love your music Julian, and just started reading your blogs.

But . . .

I'm a pedestrian and a cyclist. When I'm a pedestrian I'm aware that I shouldn't block anything on the road and if I make a car or bike slow down I've broken a rule.

I'm also a cyclist and I don't swear at people. But I have to stop or move out of my way at least 5-6 times a day because pedestrians don't look as they cross roads (that I have right of way on) or see me but don't realise as a road user, I have the right of way.

Not sure why that could ever be described as an unusual situation.