From London to Parris…

To: Matthew Parris, The Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1XY

Dear Matthew Parris,

I am writing in response to your article “What’s smug and deserves to be decapitated?” (The Times, 27 December 2007).

Whatever it is you’ve got against people who ride bicycles, to suggest that they deserve decapitation with piano wire is to step far over the often thin line that separates the wittily wicked from the plain nasty. Imagine an article that takes issue with Halloween in which the writer ‘jokes’ about giving trick or treating kids sweets laced with strychnine. Or piece against the war in Iraq that says British and American soldiers blown up by suicide bombers have received their just deserts.

The idea of cyclists meeting violent deaths on the road might make you chuckle, but I find it harder to see the funny side. Maybe it is because I know that every time I get on my bicycle I do face a small though very real risk of meeting a violent death myself. Maybe it is passing the spots where others have been killed, marked by floral tributes, bleached and withered by the sun and the rain. In London, where I live, around a dozen to twenty cyclists are killed each year, mostly in collisions with lorries turning left that have failed to see the cyclist on their inside. Earlier this month a woman by the name of Kate Charles was crushed under the wheels of a Tesco lorry in Brixton. In cases where the driver is found guilty of negligent or reckless driving, the punishment is invariably slight: a few points on the license, perhaps a short ban or a fine of a few hundred pounds. Custodial sentences are rare.

Indifference to the death and serious injury of people riding bicycles is commonplace and spiteful articles such as yours that seek to dehumanize people on bicycles only exacerbate the problem. There is a hidden assumption that people on bicycles are somehow ‘asking for trouble’, just as women rape victims are said to have asked for it if they were wearing a short skirt at the time of the attack. As for your idea that cyclists are all smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, insolent jerks, I have no idea what your evidence is, since most of the cyclists I know are charming, cheerful and considerate souls (and that extends to not dropping litter, although there will always be a few exceptions). If you think about it, the very act of taking to the road without a two-ton box of steel to protect you means that you are trusting enough to put your life in the hands of others, and you have sufficient faith in humanity to believe that they will not run you down. I am sure your own antipathy an acute case of Freudian projection, with a side order of envy each time a bicycle glides past while you’re stuck in a traffic jam.

Normally I would not write letter like this in response to yet another unthinking newspaper diatribe against people who ride bicycles. Over the year, the best of your writing has been distinguished by its humanity, thoughtfulness and rationality. That’s why this particular column was such a surprise. Perhaps you were short of ideas in the last few days before Christmas and having seen the growing popularity of cycling thought that a bit of low rent contrarian invective would fill some space. Or maybe you just wanted to provoke a reaction.

Having risen to the bait, I’d like to make you a proposal. I present The Bike Show, a weekly radio programme on cycling, art and society that is broadcast on London’s experimental art radio station Resonance 104.4fm. The show features ‘rolling interviews’ with artists, writers, poets, scientists, philosophers and others, all of whom share the belief that, as John F. Kennedy put it, “nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride”. Someone once said that journalists should write about what they know. In that spirit, may I invite you out on a gentle afternoon ride (town or country) so you can find out what all the fuss is about. I’ll even lend you my spare machine. How about that for turning the other cheek?

Yours sincerely,

Jack Thurston
The Bike Show

Update – 30 December 2007

I had assumed that piano wire decapitation was pure fantasy on the part of Parris. Turns out that it’s not. Chapeau to Treadly and me for compiling a list of real life incidents that I have reproduced below: