Luke Upward Confronts Boris Johnson
Despite the generous terms offered by Juan Fordamoni of T-Wrecks Rentals, Upward spent more and more of his life as a pedestrian. This should have been no hardship, for Upward had eighteenth-century standards of distance, and thought nothing of walking twenty miles to a dinner party or even a modest selection of canapés. However, Upward was driven to righteous fury by the treatment of pedestrians in London.
At one of the most celebrated soirées of the amiable Marquis de Tarpaulin, Upward arrived so late that the Marquis had signalled to his sommellier, Fauxjelais, to open the inferior bottles kept by as a hint to the guests who had not recognized that it was time to leave. (Later in the evening for the social limpets the Marquis resorted to a formula taught him by Upward: “Now, we always like to share a few cold beers when we do the washing-up.” For this purpose the Marquis would don some rubber gloves in a marked manner. These were monogrammed and a Tarpaulin family heirloom. They were kept lightly chilled by Fauxjelais and on no account were to make contact with hot water or detergent.)
Anyway, Upward strode rapidly into the company, ignoring the attentions of the Marquis’s footman, Chiropodiste, and his surprisingly rakish butler, Rhett. To the superficial eye his deportment was as faultless as usual, but his friends noted his customary sign of profound agitation, a silk handkerchief which had strayed beyond the 15-degree angle permitted by the ICC.
Before anyone could greet him, Upward announced: “We pedestrians are the the largest group of transport users in London, yet we make the fewest demands on the city or the planet. Our footprints leave no carbon. Our reward is to be neglected and despised. We are treated as the dirt under the wheels of other road users.” A shame-faced Boris Johnson tried to edge past Chiropodiste to the exit, but Upward fixed him with an eye more glittering than that of the Ancient Mariner, a title which Upward had once wittily disposed on a goalkeeper who stoppeth one of three. Upward then delivered an extempore exordium.
“London’s pavements,” proclaimed Upward, “have become miserable minefields of chewing gum, fast food, drink cans, plastic bags, abandoned and sodden freesheets and religious tracts, and the torn up parking tickets of arrogant diplomats.” (A guilty rustle escaped from the ambassadorial guests at the soirée of the amiable Marquis de Tarpaulin.) “Above ground, they are the setting for a Darwinian battle for space, where people jostle and swerve to gain a temporary opening, where cigarettes, umbrellas, luggage and even push-chairs become weapons of war.” Upward paused for a second. No one else spoke or emitted a sound, not even the poets.
“If pedestrians capriciously desire to cross a busy London street, they are herded and corralled like factory-farmed cattle. If allowed to cross at all at street level they will be forced to use controlled crossings used as training apparatus for Olympic sprinters. Even so, these crossings clearly cause excessive delay to motorists on vital journeys, so pedestrians are either forced aloft onto some wet and windswept walkway or below into some dim, dingy dungeon, the domain of the down-and-out and the drug-crazed.” One of the lesser dramatists looked nervously at his fingernails.
“There is simply not enough pavement space for all of London’s pedestrians to share, and such as exists is constantly invaded and trashed. Pedestrians are a highly diverse group of people with very different needs and speeds. Some are walking for exercise or on business and want to move quickly. Others are shopping or gawping or lost, or are slowed down by luggage, children, visiting in-laws and other impedimenta. An ideal pavement would have separate lanes for each group – with the slowest lane for teenagers – but failing this, it should at least have enough space for them to avoid each other. This is already impossible and day after day, London’s pedestrian space gets smaller and smaller because other users decide to help themselves. Hawkers of tat… restaurants … talentless entertainers … charitable accosters and conductors of surveys … protestors… evangelists… anyone at all with a giant sack of waste. They all take up pavement space, at will. At any time without warning more pavement is lost to repairers or that modern oxymoron, the considerate builder.” A fashionable architect feigned interest in a piece of cheese and pineapple, part of the lesser canapés which the Marquis had served to his tardier guests. “Cars and vans park on pavements, bigger vehicles use them to cut corners, cyclists treat them as a free extra cycle track and bawl and bell at any pedestrian who has the nerve to impede them. And now our Mayor wants more of them. And where does he put his wretched bike stands? On our already shrinking pavements.” The clatter of an escaping cycle clip betrayed the presence of the Mayor, now the colour of a genetically modified variety of beetroot.
It was Upward, incidentally, who started the rumour that Boris Johnson has his suits hand-rumpled by a leading Savile Row tailor.
When Luke Upward paused in his extempore exordium on the miseries of being a London pedestrian, the atmosphere in the soirée could have been spread on the shards of broken Melba toast which were almost all that remained of the second-class canapés served by the amiable Marquis de Tarpaulin as a delicate hint to his dallying guests. Reduced by Upward from bluster to blush, Boris Johnson stammered some statistics about increased pedestrian-only spaces in the capital.
Upward turned on him the pitying smile which had so often infuriated his jealous rival, Walter Downer (who, incidentally, had managed to escape Upward’s harangue, disguised as a dumb waiter, and was skulking below stairs with the Marquis’s greasy garagiste, Saint-Chromeche.) “Pedestrian-only spaces… Et tu, Mr Mayor? You want to herd us pedestrians into pens and enclosures, to leave the rest of the city free for wheels. By ‘pedestrian-only spaces’ do you mean ‘shopping malls’? Because that’s what most of them are, and if you dare to walk through them without shopping someone will call security and your image will be stored for ever and circulated to airports and terminuses.”
“Termini,” whispered the Latinophile Mayor.
“Terminos, if you insist, since I used the plural word in the accusative,” snapped England’s premier man of letters. “Or did you mean one of those little alleyways that no one else wants, where you can’t walk without tripping over a pavement café serving food at twice its normal price for the privilege of eating it in slightly less carbonated air? If there is any actual pedestrian space in these places, someone will block it off with a shrub in a concrete pillbox to give the café patrons something to look at before their food arrives, cold.
“As for ‘pedestrian piazzas’? Puh-lease,” Upward continued, in a rare descent into contemporary argot. “Don’t mention them to me,” he warned the Mayor, who was by now far too abashed to mention anything, even in Latin. “’Pedestrian piazzas’ – meaning, I suppose, ‘pedestrian’ as in ‘dull, dreary, banal’, feeble echoes of some half-remembered Italian package holiday. They will have more dying shrubs in pillboxes, and probably a fountain which will turn into a permanent wet litter bin. Desolate places for desolate people – hopelessly lost tourists who cannot manage another step, office workers gobbling sandwiches and beating off pigeons because their firms are too mean to give them a proper lunch-hour – and people ejected from shopping-malls for refusing to shop.
“The only people in London who enjoy ‘pedestrian piazzas’ are skaters – who get banned as soon as they try to use them.”
Already chastened at the soiree of the Marquis de Tarpaulin by Luke Upward’s extempore exordium, London’s normally ebullient Mayor was forced to endure a caustic coda on the misery of London’s pedestrians.
“All our hardships,” continued England’s ambulant man of letters, “are made incomparably worse by the tall buildings you wave into the city, those tall buildings which nobody wants except the foreign potentates or letterbox corporations who own them, and their tamed creature architects.
“Tall buildings turn pedestrians into mice in their own cities, scurrying briefly from one hole to the next. They deny us our right to light and sky. All the space around them at street level they dwarf and dehumanize. They create their own microclimate of foul winds – either a miserable mistral which drenches pedestrians with rain or a swirling sirocco which blows dust and grit in our eyes. They increase the population pressure on our already inadequate pavements. All their inhabitants have to leave the building eventually and become pedestrians, however briefly.
“Some of these buildings even have the impertinence to charge us for the privilege of going to their roof – the only place in London where we don’t have to look at them.”
A great mind like Luke Upward could never stay within the circle of an argument if a more interesting tangent became available. A stray phrase led him to interrupt his extempore exordium on the miseries of London’s walkers.
“Speaking of letterbox corporations, as we were,” he remarked to a now totally speechless Boris Johnson, “Why should we allow them to own large buildings or anything at all? No one should have any legal rights in our country unless we know who they really are. No property rights, no contractual rights, above all no rights to any reputation. How can you have a reputation if you hide yourself behind several corporate veils? When I insult the owners of some execrable edifice I want to insult the real villains, not two men and a turtle in the Cayman Islands.”
London’s scarlet Mayor mopped his brow in relief with an ill-chosen handkerchief as Luke Upward continued his tangential riff away from the politically embarrassing topic of London’s pedestrian miseries. “Speaking, as we were, of letter-box corporations…”
“Non mea columba,” murmured Boris Johnson automatically. “Not my…”
“I know the Latin for pigeon,” said England’s premier man-of-letters, in the clipped tone which could freeze a Nobel prizewinner at a range of 400 metres. “As a pedestrian,” he continued, in a fleeting return to the original question, “I have cursed pigeons in 37 languages, living and dead. And, letter-box corporations are certainly your columba, Mr Mayor, or even your palumbes. Like pigeons, they dump all over London and their messes are a lot harder to clear up. Suppose you stopped doing business with them? No contracts to any concern if we Londoners don’t know who really owns it or runs it. Better yet, suppose you refused planning permission for anything owned by the shadow of a sham?”
The Mayor’s handkerchief fell from his flaccid fingers. Upward used it to remove some dust which had insolently attached itself to his faultless brogues, and handed it to the Marquis de Tarpaulin’s rather troubled junior footman, Bunyan. “I will have them send you a replacement in a better shade of mauve.” He made a minute adjustment to his own, which had begun to hover near the maximum permitted angle of 15 degrees.
“Much as one deplores letter-box corporations, one must admire their directors. Two men sharing a desk in some fevered flyspeck of a tropical island can manage hundreds, even thousands, of different companies with billions in assets. I read the other day that Stinker Murdoch’s business empire makes all its major profits in the Netherlands Antilles. One chap sipping Curaçao all day in a back office, and he carries all those other loss-making dimwits in newspapers and television and whatever. He must be a genius. I wrote to Stinker saying he should promote that chap, and do you know, I never got a reply?
“They never listen, these media titans. I told Robert Maxwell to drop dead in 1986 when he did a lap of honour with Oxford United after the League Cup final at old Wembley. I thought for a second he was going to take my advice. Think where he would be today if he had keeled over then on the turf.”
By now Luke Upward’s admonitions to the rubicund Mayor of London on letter-box corporations were causing him even more discomfort than his extempore exordium on London’s pedestrian misery. When Upward paused momentarily to wave aside the offer of one of the lesser canapés served by the amiable Marquis de Tarpaulin, Boris Johnson tried to divert him to the original topic by promising him a Working Party on London’s pedestrian problems.
“A Working Party, Mr Mayor? Well, it certainly could not be a Walking Party or the members would never get to their meeting in time. For London’s pedestrians a Standing Committee would be more appropriate.” Upward guffawed heartily at his own sally and the Mayor responded to his “Ha-ha-ha!” with a deferential “Hee-hee-hee.”
“If you are serious about helping London’s pedestrians, Mr Mayor, we have no need of Working Parties or Standing Committees or even a Taskforce. I will give you a list of three things you could do tomorrow by decree.” England’s premier man of letters gave a discreet signal and the Marquis’ raffish butler, Rhett, shimmered up to him with some crested notepaper and the Marquis’ very special Mon Dieu fountain pen. In the exquisite handwriting which inspired the legendary Hermann Zapf to create his Virtuosa typeface, Upward dashed a few lines on the paper below the Marquis’ family motto “Bois, Buvons, Payez!” He then folded it, and passed it to the Mayor.
“Ban pedestrians from using mobile phones?”
The calm voice of England’s premier man of letters silenced the expostulating Mayor as a giant grasshopper might silence the lesser of two weevils. “And why not? Motorists are banned from using them in motion. They are an almost equal menace on the pavement. Pedestrians using mobile phones make sudden stops and unpredictable turns. They abandon all lane discipline. They cause frequent collisions. They are especially dangerous in the hands of backpackers – the heavy goods vehicles of the pedestrian world. When operated by teenagers, already the slowest pedestrian traffic, they block entire lanes of pavement and induce older walkers to attempt risky overtaking manoeuvres.
“There are powerful further motives for a ban. For one, mobile phones have made it impossible to tell whether another pedestrian is dotty, or worse still, a writer. If you saw a chap talking to himself on the pavement you could put him down as one or the other and try to avoid him. But now he’s probably talking into some kind of mobile phone. ‘Hello, I’m on the pavement. I’m on the way to the bus and then I’ll take the bus to the station and then I might be on the train but if it’s cancelled again I’ll take the bus back to the coach.’
“And that’s another thing. Mobile phone users are so boring. Pity the poor spies having to record them all.” (Upward had the fantasy that all mobile telephone conversations were recorded by the security services, not knowing of the very strict government guidelines which limit such interceptions to very naughty people and the very naughty people who talk to them and the very naughty people who talk to the very naughty people who talk to the original very naughty people).
“Do you not find it curious, Mr Mayor, that governments now record everyone’s conversation at precisely the time when nobody has anything to say?”
The Mayor shrank back in the direction of away, upsetting the remains of an iced swan. In the resulting tohu-bohu he escaped to his emergency bicycle. The remaining company at the soirée never heard the other two items on Upward’s to-do list for London’s pedestrians. In the interests of public transport and literature alike, I call on the Mayor to publish them now.