Pavement cafes are thought to encourage free enterprise and social intercourse; therefore they are barometers of improved living standards. Someone who can take breakfast alfresco, must, by definition, be 'freer' than someone obliged to sit indoors. This is a fallacy. People tend to forget that, before he became dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein lived in Cairo where he spent quite a lot of time sitting at cafes. It doesn't seem to have made him very democratic.
Now there is talk of bringing some French sophistication to London by having more pavement cafes. Well, I'm against the idea. And so would you be if you took a close look at what comes out of the backs of buses. It is totally unhygienic. What is so sophisticated about eating on the pavement anyway? I suppose it is not quite as disgusting as the sight of people walking along the street eating food straight out of polystyrene containers, but it is a close run thing. The only reason the cafe proprietors shove customers out onto the pavement is because they won't have to sweep up at night. They know the pigeons will clean up for them. Oh yes, pigeons love pavement cafes. What never ceases to amaze me is that the moment people come to London as tourists they instantly fall in love with the pigeons.
The other day some blokes were sitting at a pavement cafe at Oxford Circus watching a pigeon feed on some breadcrumbs when I arrived in my bus and squashed it flat before their eyes. I did not mean to do it, of course, and was surprised as anybody as pigeons usually fly away at the last moment. This one was so busy concentrating on food that it failed to notice the bus. The blokes at the cafe were incensed. They were hairy motorcyclists (their Moto-Guzzi was parked illegally nearby) and when I got out of the bus it became clear that they wanted to avenge the bird. 'You just killed that pigeon,' they yelled, moving in on me. I went and stood in front of the video-camera on the platform and they desisted. (It was only a bluff, as few of these cameras work). I explained that it was an accident and they eventually let
me off. All this for a pigeon. It is ridiculous.
I don't know if you remember this, but for the entire summer of 1988 Nelson's Column was covered with industrial sheeting while the pigeon crap was washed off. It cost a fortune to clean up the square. The authorities should have done away with the pigeons at the same time. They only allow them to stay to keep a seed-seller and photographer employed. Which means that in a few years time they will have to clean up Nelson again. I often wonder how people would react if Trafalgar Square was swarming not with pigeons but with rats.
Pavement cafes are just one more infringement of pedestrian space. I mentioned a week or two ago about pedestrians stepping in front of buses. Well, I do concede it is not always their fault. Sometimes there is nowhere else to go.
There is a man in Sloane Square who sells posters by spreading them out across the pavement outside WH Smith. Anyone trying to walk between the Underground station and King's Road has to squeeze past on either side. It takes them ages to cross a few yards of pavement. It only needs an old woman to come along with two of those enormous shopping bags they always seem to carry and there is gridlock.
Worst of all is the pavement-parkers who just leave their cars blocking the way and go off. They seem to think that as long as they don't hold up any wheeled traffic that's alright. But if some pedestrian happens to brush against their wing-mirror they appear from nowhere and demand 'Did you just touch my car?'.
That is why I'm always pleased to see the traffic wardens and wheel-clamping units in action.
A woman I know got clamped in the West End for parking on the pavement. 'Right,' she said angrily, 'that's the last time I drive into town.'
'Hooray,' I thought, 'the message is getting through at last'.
I didn't say anything, though. Under the circumstances it would have been asking for trouble.
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