If only #cyclists had wings …


...  and everyone else could get their roads back 24/7. Better and safer all round. Clean air for them. No hills. No worry about ice and snow. No need for safety helmets Parachutes instead. Cycle as many abreast as they fancy. No red lights to run. No need to cycle on pavements. No curbs to hit. Racing allowed. No nasty lorries. No careless drivers. No prams and pedestrians. Cycling not just for mamils.

Pity about Icarus though.

KAFKA’S CYCLE in search of a publisher – A Sequel to Death of a Nightingale

I am about to publish a second book. I have just been confronted by doctors with my own mortality. At the age of 85 I can’t complain but, apart from anything else, I do need to make the point that the young make a great mistake when they dismiss the experience and the wisdom – yes, I claim a bit of that too – of their elders. The West has much to learn from the East here.

In my retirement I wrote my first book, Death of a Nightingale, under extreme provocation. I experienced the machinations of the Sunderland’s Local Education Authority when they attempted to close a particularly good special school I was involved with as its chair of governors. These machinations best stay in my archives. Fortunately, I was able to help the parents, teachers, carers, and the pupils themselves in their successful campaign to keep their school open.

However, the provocation went much further. The whole policy of closing special schools had started before the Warnock Report gave effect to it in 1978. A small group of ideologues had hijacked the State two years before that. OFSTED became the heavy mob implementing it. No-one was interested in the heavy-handed way it was being implemented, not OFSTED, not, the Local Government Ombudsman, not the Audit Commission. I hit the wall several times. Size 7 shoes had to be made to fit size 5 feet, and, even worse, size 9 feet, quite regardless of unexpected cost.

I was appalled. Hence, an unplanned, unexpected job descriptor, author. I wrote and staged a play Death of a Nightingale. A Public Service Union reviewer for Stage Magazine attempted to kill it! I published it in book form and on a website. Few have bought the book, but thousands have spent time reading my writing on my website.

Now, it’s the other way around. Thousands have spent time reading my blog and my articles in Linkedin. My stat’s have sustained me. I have recorded my collision course with the Local Government Ombudsman, the Legal Ombudsman, and with my lawyers, Bindmans LLP. This time it all started with the machinations of Newcastle City Council’s plans for cycle lanes for non-existent cyclists on Gosforth High Street. What made the whole thing more provocative to me was source of the policy along with the ring-fenced money to pay for it – from London, maybe even from Europe, at the time of savage austerity cuts elsewhere.

In a strange way history repeated itself and I was hitting the same wall as before.

A small group of ideological zealots had hijacked the system; here they installed the Bristol-based cycling lobby Sustrans to implement their auto-phobic cyclo-manic ideas. Electric autonomous cars out of their line of vision. While each one of my confrontations before and now was disconcerting to a degree, when they are seen and read together they tell a terrible story of the way bureaucrats keep making mistakes, fail to correct them, and try to perpetuate them right through to 2040. A truly Kafkaesque situation. A new book is the only way to tell the tale.

I needed an editor with powerful shears.

I turned to Jan Woolf who had edited some of my earlier posts under ispy into my book Death of a Nightingale. We are from different parts of the political spectrum. This was not an obstacle. She describes herself as Socialist or “Marxish.’ Me? I am still Liberal by instinct but in no way identify myself with the LibDems. Enough of labels. We live in a mixed economy in a highly complex world. We both question in political debate its sterile language, its over-simplistic slogans, its Tweets and its soundbites, as well as ill-considered, egocentric expectations. Autocracy and the abuse of power are our common enemy.

Almost every day we read of some new cock-up.We simply crave something that works.

PS Jan Woolf as my editor is a great good fortune. We climb the mountain from different sides of it. Her outlets for activism include Stop the War, The Writers Guild of Great Britain, and a founding director of the recently re-launched Left Book Club. The nearer we get to the top, the more we agree with each other.



Is there a democratic mandate for cycle lanes that gridlock traffic? Why I know Hampstead & Swiss Cottage in North London is not cycling country.

First a little story. It’s amazing how wrong, how stupid, how foolhardy, and how lucky you can be when you are young. Me!

The TV programme A very English Scandal about Jeremy Thorpe, the widely popular one-time Leader of the Liberal Party reminds me. It also illustrates a point I have been making. How the System will go to just about any length to protect its own, even enlist the help of a friendly judge. I’ve been flagging up their friendly solicitor. After two days’ deliberations the jury cooperated, maybe an act of Christian charity to bring in a not guilty verdict? Shame enough? Then a blind eye should be an exception, not the rule when people cock things up.

Fifty years ago, I was one of Jeremy’s admirers. I was not alone. Ted Wheeler, his agent, once told me that on election night in North Devon, such was the wild enthusiasm of his supporters, it would have taken only a small spark amongst them to set fire to the HQ of the local Tory Party.

There were some good guys as well. I recall Jo Grimond, Clement Davies, Prof. Gilbert Murray, Salvador de Madariaga, John Arlott, Lord Beveridge, Philip Fothergill, Robin Day, Mark Bonham Carter, Lady Vi, Ludovic Kennedy, but, especially in the context of this story, the late Richard Wainwright MP.

If Jeremy was everyone’s idol – I still recall his making the annual appeal for funds at a Liberal Assembly – “It be milking time, it be” in his best West Country brogue, Richard was my guru, as straight as a die, a Yorkshire man, one of the best.

He organised the Great London Campaign in Hampstead. We were helping Renee Soskin, a local Liberal well worth supporting. I was in charge of the loudspeaker van. I shall come to the point of this memory quickly. One morning the car battery was flat. The loudspeaker had been busy the day before. The van was at the top of a hill. I thought if I could get it going down the hill, I could jump in and get it started. I took off the brake. I did not manage to get in. It rolled down the hill with me chasing after it. Here came the huge piece of good fortune. It stopped before it hit anything. Yes, Hampstead is hilly.

And after a great day’s campaigning making me feel very good at the time, a later realisation, the whole thing a drop in a very large ocean. Another realisation later, the Achilles Heel of the Liberal Left, naivete.  

A more recent memory, too. The New End Theatre, now a small synagogue, staged the rehearsed reading and, later, a month-long performance of my Play Death of a Nightingale. The theatre was situated near the top of Hampstead, in a narrow little street – one of many – just above and behind Hampstead underground.

There can few better killing zones for cyclists in London than Haverstock Hill, Rosslyn Hill, Hampstead High Street, Fitzjohn’s Avenue and Heath Street. Makes Gosforth High Street, Newcastle look positively benign. In both cases many side streets lined with parked cars, orphaned without a garage, with the main roads bottled-necked in rush hour traffic.

Pedestrians at risk too. A cousin of mine ended up with one leg shorter than another because of a speeding young cyclist.

Yes, I was familiar with Swiss Cottage and Hampstead when I read that in July a start was to be made to the proposed cycle superhighway cutting into this part of London to introduce cycle lanes there to promote walking and cycling.  A triumph of mind without matter or substance.

I read that Transport for London said its consultation on CS11 received 60 per cent support from more than 6,000 respondents. 60 per cent is impressive even if 7 per cent of them was only partial, but 6,000 respondents – ridiculous, 3,260 approving – derisory; out of how many who will be affected? Not even a drop in the Ocean.

I read “It is part of Mayor Sadiq Khan’s plan to see 80pc of journeys in London being made by foot, bike or public transport by 2041.” The plan is clear. Operation Gridlock. Add to the congestion by squeezing cycle lanes into busy roads. Ban diesel cars. Don’t provide charging points for the new generation of electric cars now only months away from reality. Charge motorists instead. Never mind the risk of death and injury from urban cycling. And everyone can then live in Lalaland. Pity if you are over 40 and don’t fancy falling off a bike or puffing up Haverstock Hill with your weekly shop.

Is there a democratic mandate for this?

Has there been any serious, professional market research to see whether this is what Londoners want? Are they all just waiting for a cycle lane before they buy a bike? Simple question. Or is this just auto-phobic, cyclo-manic zealots thinking that everyone thinks as they do, or damn well should do? And, serves them right if they don’t. Electric cars? Perish the thought. Autonomous electric cars? Perish that thought too. Pity if you fancy putting your name down for a Nissan Leaf. Tomorrow is yesterday.

Read my last article as well as this one.

As I keep saying, planners should factor human fallibility into their plans, especially their own.

Transport for London has over £1bn cost overrun on Crossrail.