John Walsh: Tales of the City

'In less than half an hour, I found that I had collected enough parking fines to paper the downstairs lavabo'
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The Independent Online

According to the new issue of the British Journal of Psychology (I get it for the monthly "So You Think You're Paranoid?" questionnaire), road rage is not, as we used to think, a democratic phenomenon afflicting ordinary law-abiding people just as much as teenage hard-nuts from Catford and professional getaway drivers from Staines.

The magazine interviewed 473 drivers (a mixture of young students, well-balanced bourgeois types, non-violent criminals and violent criminals) about what drives them most crazy. The discovered that, although most drivers are enraged by the same things - getting stuck behind a Belgian juggernaut, cyclists blocking their way, people taking up two parking spaces with one car, James Blunt on XFM radio - it is the hardened crims who overreact most violently and, as the survey puts it, "experienced elevated levels of anger in response to even the most mundane road situations ".

This is obviously good news. None of us likes to think that he or she is capable of becoming deranged with fury just because we're beeped at the lights on the Old Kent Road. The BJP describes such drivers as "highly aggressive individuals who are like ticking time bombs", and that doesn't sound like us at all, does it? Except, that is, when we're suffering from a new variant that I discovered the other day: Armchair Car Rage.

You're not, thank heaven, usually travelling in a car when ACR hits you. You're more likely to be at home, having your breakfast in the kitchen, spooning Honey Nut Cheerios into your innocent, matutinal gob and casually opening the post. It may be that you have just (as I had) returned from two weeks' holiday, driving a hired Renault Megane through the winding hill roads of south Tuscany without a care in the world, and there's a lot of post waiting for you. You gaze with resignation at the mobile phone bills, the mendacious offers of interest-free credit cards and the local pizza-delivery flyers, and discover a nasty letter from Lambeth Borough Council. It says your car has been photographed negotiating a yellow traffic box somewhere around Camberwell New Road, and in consequence you must pay a £100 fine.

Nggggghhhhhh! A hundred quid? A scattergun blast of Cheerios flies from your aghast lips. You go on opening the post. Thirty seconds later, you find another, almost-identical nasty missive, this time from Camden Borough Council. In don't-mess-with-me tones, it tells me I was seen driving in a bus lane in Eversholt Road, and in consequence, a fine of £100 is now payable. Bloody hellfire. Another £100? There's even more to follow, but I won't labour the point. In less than half an hour, I discovered that I've collected enough driving fines to paper the downstairs lavabo. For once, mirabile dictu, they're nothing to do with speeding offences (you may remember a spot of bother I had a year ago, that came to a climax in Court No 1 of the Old Bailey). They're all about bits of the road you can't drive on any more, not for a single minute, without fear of getting nailed by lurking cameras. In vain you protest that, for God's sake, the bus lane goes right to the end of the road and, if you're turning left, you cannot help but drive across it. In vain do you scythe the air with your hands and say, "But I was only in the bloody yellow box for exactly five seconds!" before realising that you are raining curses at a packet of cereal and a carton of Sainsbury's Be Good To Yourself apple juice.

That's when Armchair Car Rage overwhelms you. You sit there holding a sheaf of fines and summonses, appalled by the hounding of the blameless modern London driver; your teeth are bared, the backs of your hands are sprouting werewolf hairs, your breath is coming in thick pants, your lovely face is contorted with hatred. Your right foot presses down on the kitchen floorboards in a toothless parody of Kenneth Noye doing 90mph down the South Circular in pursuit of the guy who gave him a funny look at the lights. Your kitchen chair is briefly transformed into a boy-racer with spoilers, as you contemplate chasing whichever spineless council pillock it was who chose your brief sojourn in a bus lane for his evil attention. You can't, unfortunately, drive to his office and belabour him with a wheel-brace. All you can do is dream of one day getting your own back on all these CCTV scrutineers, these calibrators of teensy-tiny wrongdoing, these spiteful minnows in the borough ponds, endlessly nibbling at your automotive testicles as you make your innocent way down the Orwellian thoroughfares of London.

Cross-country runs breach human rights? They may be on to something

I was intrigued to hear that an education think-tank (the Co-Ordination Group) is bombarding schools with a booklet which claims that cross-country runs are a form of child abuse and "a breach of human rights". It may seem a bit far-fetched to draw an equivalence between torturing people with electric prods and making small children run for five miles in the cold and rain, but I think the group may be on to something. A truthful anthology of Worst School Memories would surely be crammed with grim recollections of those dismal afternoons pounding through woodland in short trousers, attacked by nettles, cramp, hailstorms, misery, bunions, dogs, broken laces, jeering youths (with sticks) and, at the end, red-faced sports teachers mocking your elegant running style and your pathetic tears. But if we allow that one unpleasant school activity can represent a breach of human rights, where do we stop? How soon will it be before it's decided that children also have the human right not to have to endure tapioca, folk dancing, algebra, trigonometry or the Nativity play?