Sunday, 13 September 2009

Like A Scooter Outta Hell - Hello

The Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, Israel's Security Fence, The Congestion Charge, they're all walls that divide people, although only the Congestion Charge is conceptual rather than concrete. Like a Mongol, an East German or a Palestinian, I live on the wrong side; the outside. Should I cross the line forgetting to pay my £8 outsider levy (which I've done a sickening amount of times) there's a whacking great £50 fine for the impertinence.

In 2008, Mayor Boris announced he would rescind the western extension of the Congestion Zone, which would make my life easier as my work is currently just inside this inner city sanctum. For some reason ‘the earliest it can be removed is 2010’. There must be equivalence to Murphy's Law going on that unpleasant things like price hikes can be introduced overnight, but if it’s something involving people paying less, it takes two years.

For some reason the leader of Transport for London have agreed that motorbikes and scooters have magical powers. Like a trebuchet at the Great Wall, or a pole vault at the Security Fence, [pictured] anyone on two wheels is allowed free egress. that my children move around with independence, I have decided to return to biking.

About twelve years ago I owned a motorbike, but it was ridiculous: my children were not only too little, but there were two of them and besides, the bike was far too powerful for my skills and I frequently frightened myself.

My plan is to buy a scooter, but feeling too rusty to just jump on one and weave off into the traffic, I booked myself into a short ‘proficiency certificate’ top-up course.

On Friday, as I looked around at the other people filling out forms in the scruffy office on an industrial estate near Wembley, I realised that the real joy of an excercise like this is not relearning all the defensive tactics of city driving, but being thrown together with a bunch of strangers, sharing a single purpose, for a finite period of time. The best thing about strangers is tht they are often pleasingly strange. I was aware that I too was not short of my own mental health issues. Last week, I had spent most evenings playing furious games of Snatch, an aggressive anagram tile game in which you nick your opponents' words by adding a letter to form a new word.

I still had anagrams on the brain when I was introduced to the little group of fellow bikers. there was Peter, an IT trainer, or, as he was to me: Peter-Pester-Repeats-Separate-Parakeets. There was Craig, a gardener who was a T short of Tragic and Enzo, an Italian model who would be mine if only there was an N to convert him to Dozen. I calmed down when I met to ConcepciĆ³n, a Filipina midwife, because that name wasn’t going anywhere. Arriving late, wearing a rainbow knit and looking as if he’d slept in a dumpster was Mervin, an urban druid type who whispered to me he was funding this course from the proceeds of hydroponically grown sensemilla growing in his mother’s attic.

The first hour was spent just re-acclimatizing ourselves to starting and more importantly, the art of stopping. I don’t know what had happened to Concepion in her non-biking years, but handling all those newborn babies had played havoc with her sense of balance. She had lost all hand-to-handlebar co-ordination and after tumbling into the tyre barriers for the 10th time, gave up and left.

The rest of our party was deemed sufficiently competent to take to the highway and follow our trainer, Reg-Rage-Grate-Target into central London. We zapped across the Congestion Zone border like Steve MacQueen in The Great Escape and went round Trafalgar Square one-way system a couple of times, passing the Anthony Gormley project on the fourth plinth as we did. As an excercise in 'people art' it is a curious thing. Every time I've seen someone having their hour up there they look a bit awkward and well, gormless. Rather than looking like voluntary living sculptures, they have an air of undergoing a punishment of gentle public embarrassment.

We returned to Wembley without incident, apart from temporarily losing
Pester while crossing Hyde Park. After lunch we set out again, and again Pester became detached from the party. We parked up by a hot dog van and grabbed something to drink while waited for him to catch up. Mervin, who seemed to see cosmic significance in almost everything, was telling me how he’d been stung on the neck by a bee as we crossed Oxford Street, having just passed a van with Honeydale Laundry on it. He interrupted his story to gasp delightedly, ‘Look man! A pigeon!’ As if he'd just spotted a bird of paradise.

By early evening we were ready to run through a quick solo test for our proficiency certificates and drew straws for the order we rode. Pester went first and came back looking glum. He had gone the wrong way down a one-way street. Tragic and Dozen and I all passed and then it was Mervin’s turn. He came back fuming, tearing off his helmet and threwing it on the ground. ‘That Reg is a fascist! He failed me! There was a frog in the road! I put my indicator to overtake it and then I forgot to turn it off. I was freaked man – you don’t kill frogs!' London is many things, but what it isn't is frog-filled. It was probably a leaf.

We bid each other goodbye and I headed off for another evening of Snatch never expecting to see any of them again, but to my amazement, the next day, in a completely different part of town, I saw Mervin mooching along in some sort of cape. I was on the opposite side of the road buy food at a farmers' market, but excited by such a chance encounter I put down my purchases and hollered at him. As I did, my tongue was ambushed by my Snatch hangover. Instead of ‘Mervin!’ To my horror, out burst, ‘Vermin!’ at full volume and I had to crouch behind a cheese stall until I was sure he had gone away. It all felt suddenly so Gormley plinth.