On my morning commute today, I stopped to see the gathered press and crowd outside Boris Johnson’s house in Islington, who was greeted with some cheers and mostly shouts of ‘wanker’ on his quick dash to a waiting car that whisked him away for the first day of his possible ascendency to the premiership. Then, in a quintissentially British comedic moment, his car pulled up to the traffic lights at a cyclist-crowded intersection, who proceeded to shake their fists, berate and refuse to let him pass – only cleared away by police a few minutes later. Such a vitriolic reaction is expected in pro-Remain Islington – the home of the political establishment including Boris, Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn – this would be far less likely outside London.
Remain ran a terrible campaign that failed to appeal to peoples’ real daily concerns, instead thinking that a combination of complex economic statistics that no one understood and were difficult to verify, would rationalise the people into voting Remain. By default, this favoured the Leave campaign, who appealed to everyday examples of perceived personal powerlessness such as alleged EU powers to regulate banana bunches and immigration changing the country while Boris and Nigel – disingenuously – offered us our independence back. This was a truly great failure of the political establishment from David Cameron to Jeremy Corbyn and many on the left to truly understand both the political and social divisions within the country.
This is a symbolic divide between London and other large, cosmopolitain cities and the regions – between geographically close locations such as Labour-voting Hackney and Islington and UKIP stronghold town of Clacton-On-Sea. London and regional Britain appear to be different countries with distinctive concerns, experiences and priorities. Brexit confirmed a perception of London as a centre of unaccountable, dysfunctional economic and political power who care little for those outside – an attitude we regularly prove with an open, tolerated contempt. Birmingham is widely known as a terrible place though few of us have actually been. The North is supposedly full of loutish white trash based on football riots and Oasis. Unless the Guardian has done a travel section article on these locations and their bespoke raw food tapas bars, we do little to engage or understand them.
This isn’t isolated to Britain but a worldwide problem among many liberals and leftists from large, cosmopolitain cities who cannot fathom the depth of different experiences and problems of areas outside their immediate confines. Brexit and anti-immigration, Nigel and Boris – these are symptoms of a wider economic and political malaise in which political and economic establishment are gaining too much unaccountable power and tend to be synonymous with the most powerful cities. Many in London, New York, Melbourne, Auckland, Paris, Berlin and others need to take a long, hard look at themselves. Are the ‘common people‘ who we claim to care about only valuable to us to the degree that they think, act, read, listen to the same music, read the same books and use the same analytical frameworks like us? If this is the case, then we are merely elitists who live in in a not dissimilar bubble to the Boris Johnsons and rich kids of Instagram who we criticise for being out of touch.
Predictably, we spent today in a state of defensiveness from insinuations that Brexiters are obese, uneducated, racist chavs, tacky nouveau riche and inbred aristocracy or threats to move to Scotland. Now should be a challenge to try and understand why people outside London might be angry. This transcends fears about immigration as a means for those who want their voices to be heard to be taken seriously. Conservatives worldwide are more successful at this because they are less judgemental of peoples personal tastes and attitudes and are better at finding ways to unite disparate groups under promises of employment, security and consumer freedom. Socialist saviours such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders don’t matter if they and we cannot reach beyond our comfort zones and conceive of people beyond their alleged racism, sexism and conservatism as human beings. Political and social change won’t happen with a narrative of ‘everything is shit and your beliefs are stupid’ but through real dialogue and attempts to systematically address our problems together.
Brexit Britons aren’t stupid and their lives are meaningful rather than afflictions to be overcome but as valuable as ours. Former US Presidential candidate Howard Dean once spoke of the need to address the needs of everyone, to great criticism at the time. “I’m going to go to the South and say to White guys who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag details…. ‘We want your vote too because your kids don’t have health insurance either.” If attitudes do not change, then Boris Johnson is going to be perpetually surrounded by Islington cyclist flash mobs during what could be a long tenure as Prime Minister.
On the rarer occasions I visit the Shoreditch end of Brick Lane, I find myself in state of heightened irritability with many things I dislike being together in one place. Crowds of twenty-somethings who value expressing themselves solely through vintage fashion and overpriced food stalls serving ethnic variations on sliders. Last weekend, broad dislike of Shoreditch and what it has come to symbolise spilled over during anti-gentrification protests that culminated in the vandalisation of the famed and ridiculed Cereal Killer Café: a place where you can buy mainly American cereal for £3.50 a bowl and is synonymous with the high camp end of ‘hipsterism.’ Some protesters argued the publicity earned and symbolic stand against the dispossession of the poor as a result of gentrification were more important than the damage. Yet channelling the anger of symbols is detrimental to this cause.
This isn’t Cereal Killer’s fault. It’s success is a far greater reflection of our own shortcomings and priorities. Shoreditch relies on young professionals with disposable income who like living inner city and prize expensive irony. Cereal Killers’ gimmick skilfully appeals to our fetishisation of childhood memories through children’s cereal and yearning for exotic products we saw watching American movies. Shoreditch – like my own neighbourhood Hackney – has become romanticised as a place of an ‘edgy creativity’ that has captured hearts and minds in Britain and worldwide like Camden and Notting Hill before it. In that sense Shoreditch is a tourist district; London’s hipster version of Bangkok’s Khao San Road or Delhi’s Paharganj. There’s little difference between Cereal Killer or a Notting Hill film location tour capitalising on this. Rather than targeting what has already been transformed, protesters would be better served occupying an old pub closed for renovation to be transformed into a Weatherspoons chain pub in Walthamstow.
Protester concerns are more valid in gentrification being funded by monied new arrivals who reap all the benefits at the expense of the original inhabitants. This is best symbolised by the parallel but separate existences of newcomers and the born and bred; of council flats coexisting beside expensive, renovated former council flats. When rents become more expensive due to the improved desirability of the neighbourhood, many poorer original inhabitants are forced to move elsewhere. Ultimately though, dispossession from gentrification cannot be solved through trying to change our own consumer habits. Instead, collective political will must address the causes of skyrocketing housing prices synonymous with gentrification. The lack of affordable housing construction. No rent controls unlike in Europe. Unregulated investment property purchases financed by overseas speculators. The decline in social housing stock and the ‘help to buy’ scheme of tenants buying council flats at heavy discount with incentive to sell later at a huge profit. Currently there is a lack of will and, again, it reflects badly upon us. Though we support more affordable housing in principle, perhaps we’re reluctant to see any changes that might cause our own housing prices to fall or increase less in value after the money we have spent. While there is now a disincentive for political parties to promote real housing reform, this requires political bravely to do what is fair. Without such reforms, consumer choice ultimately favours those with more money. Inconsequential consumer choice only really applies to indulgences like vintage cereal.
This year, there has been a slew of high-profile incidents including well-publicised cyclist deaths, vigilante cyclist filming and shaming, and acts of violence. As a cycling commuter for more than three years, while vigilant for bad drivers, I’m far more aware and afraid of cyclists behaving terribly. During my morning commute from South Hackney to Bloomsbury, my mood always shifts from enjoyment when I leave Regents Canal to irritated stickler by the time I stop at the first set of traffic lights. Painted bike spaces at the front of the traffic lights provide relief from cars and are the best vantage point to spot the worst behaviour. Jumping to the front of the queue, using a four-way pedestrian crossing as an excuse to ride through red lights and frightened road-crossing pedestrians, taking off before the light has gone green, wearing headphones while cycling, careless overtaking and weaving through cars, cutting off other cyclists, and riding on the footpath.
Though we sometimes ideally see ourselves as more ethical commuters and therefore better than drivers, our differing motivations complicates this thinking. Sometimes it’s because it’s enjoyable, we get good exercise, it saves money, and helps avoid the hellish morning tube. As a result, our motivations lead to different individual behaviours – some worse than others.
The shameless acts of the worst behaved indicates to me that they’re motivated by pure entitlement. There are two common forms. One is money. Cyclists who can and have spent more on bikes and accessories tend to behave worse because many believe they’ve paid for the privilege. £2,000 bikes, £200 scantily-clad lycra paired with Olympic disqualification-level muscular shaved calves, weaving in and out of traffic with reckless disregard for other cyclists who are probably considered mole people in comparison. The sort of privately educated former cross country competitive cyclists whose mentalities don’t extended beyond each Map My Ride record as the equivalent of a new prefect badge. The second entitlement is gender. The majority of offenders – regardless of financial ability – are men. From the bearded man-children of the East to the city trader Mamils of the West and the Boris biking tourists of Bloomsbury. Whether in London or in Melbourne. The lack of warning bell or hand gestures in high-speed takeovers or even lack of thanks to polite pedestrians who allow them to pass/ leap into the Canal suggests that aggressive behaviour is a perfectly legitimate way of getting what you want.
Bad drivers show similar tendencies. Those in powerful, expensive cars are also more likely to act like pricks and men also tend to be worse. On our part, greater honesty by cyclists of our bad behaviour is a first step towards improving our reputation and would hopefully then lead to legal steps to control behaviour.
A realistic solution needs to address a lack of clarity about what a cyclist is. Too often we consider ourselves more like pedestrians when it’s convenient, Using the pavement, jumping to the front of the queue, or using a green crossing are reasonable pedestrian behaviours but not for vehicles. However, thinking of them purely as vehicles through licensing and registration is too bureaucratic and punitive. A more balanced definition is somewhere between the two where they should not co-exist together. Building vast networks of cycle-only pathways would reduce animosity through separating us. Enforcing civil behaviour between cyclists could include speeding limits enforced through cameras, law enforcement, and ticketing. For those who want to want to enact Tour De France fantasies in their morning commutes or can’t be bothered leaving home five minutes earlier, there’s always the road.