John Walsh: Tales of the City

'This furtive, self-important person used to be called a traffic warden, but from today he has extra powers'
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The Independent Online

I've often wondered what a visiting alien would make of our local councils' attitudes to motoring. As the Department for Transport announces an increased number of offences for which motorists can be penalised, what would a visitor from Betelgeuse would make of it...

Alien: What is the reason for the yellow metal robots by the side of the road?

Me: They're speed cameras, watching out for cars that are being driven at more than 30 miles per hour, so that their owners can be punished.

Alien: And what is the function of all these monitors called Chroma-Vision?

Me: They're CCTV cameras, watching out for cars been driven in a bus lane, so their owners can be punished.

Alien: I see. And what exactly are "cars"? I assume they are an evil breed of dangerous invaders.

Me: No, actually. They are metal conveyances for moving people around the city as rapidly as the traffic allows.

Alien: How rapidly is that?

Me: About 11 miles per hour.

Alien: That does not seem terribly rapid.

Me: You should have seen the place before the Congestion Charge came in.

Alien: That "car" over there, with a yellow triangle around one of its circular legs – is that an important, high-up car, bearing an insignia?

Me: No, it is a car that's been rendered immobile for doing something wrong, and its owner must pay £120 before he can become mobile again.

Alien: It has been imprisoned? And what was its owner's heinous crime?

Me: It could be anything. He may have parked on two painted lines, or on just one line but at the wrong time of day. He may have parked more than 19 inches from the kerb, or in a spot reserved for diplomats or local residents. He may have put two pieces of money into a machine, realised he needed more pieces, gone to Starbucks to buy a 99p chocolate-chip cookie with a fiver to acquire some change, then returned to the meter and put more pieces of money in it.

Alien: And that is considered bad?

Me: It is a terrible thing called Feeding the Meter, and the miscreant must be punished until he howls.

Alien: Who is this furtive yet self-important person walking towards us?

Me: He used to be called a traffic warden, but from today he is a Civil Enforcement Officer with extra powers to punish motorists and take their money.

Alien: An enforcement officer? You mean a policeman, fighting crime and standing up for truth and justice?

Me: Not exactly. He works for the council, bringing them millions of pounds by taking money pieces from car-owners.

Alien: Of what does he accuse them?

Me: Of Parking at a Meter for a Minute Longer Than They're Allowed. Of Having One of their Wheels up on the Kerb. Of Waiting with their Engine Running...

Alien: Stop! These are absurdly puny offences. How can the furtive officer tell Earthling drivers they are wrong and he is about to take their money without him receiving what on Betelgeuse is called a punch in the feelies?

Me: It tests the restraint of drivers every day. In the past, wardens had to place a sticky yellow envelope on the glass front of the car to show the driver he was a bad person, soon to be £50 poorer. From today, they can just lurk in the street, noting down the number-plates of physically robust motorists to whom they do not wish to speak, and then send them a fine through the post.

Alien: And if the Earthling does not pay?

Me: The fine will double overnight and become bigger and bigger, until the driver cannot afford it at all.

Alien: This seems to be a rubbish system of pestilential laws, conducted by small, spiteful Earthlings to annoy anyone who possesses a conveyance and wishes to drive it or to park it. What do the organisers say of their new rules?

Me: A chap from the Local Government Association, name of Councillor David Sparks, was heard to opine: "Everyone hates congestion and delays to their journey and the new regulation will help councils deliver more effective parking management to improve traffic flow and make the roads safer for everybody."

Alien: How does a car parked by the roadside impede the flow of traffic?

Me: Search me.

Alien: How does a car parked by the roadside make roads unsafe?

Me: No idea.

Alien: Get me out of here, Scotty.


As the disruption at Heathrow – the lost luggage, cancelled flights, missed connections, missed weddings, computer breakdowns, sleepless nights, impromptu fights – continues into its fifth and sixth days, and the apologies of my distant cousin, the British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh, become ever more ineffectual, it's time to reflect on a simple truth: there is such a thing as bad publicity. Who now, in their right mind, would choose to fly BA? Wouldn't you sooner trust Air Turkmenistan or Air Tierra del Fuego than leave it to the bungling of the world's very-much-former favourite airline? You know airlines are in trouble when their name is turned into a joke – as when TWA became Try Walking Across, the Belgian company Sabena was held to stand for Such A Bloody Experience, Never Again, and Alitalia allegedly meant Always Late in Take-off, Always Late in Arrival. I fear BA may henceforth be thought of as Baggage Armageddon.