Tales of the City: I've seen the future, and it's expensive

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Every motorist will have been startled by the proposals from the shadowy Commission for Integrated Transport, that Orwellian bunch who – if their plans for world domination succeed – will monitor the future movements of all cars and lorries across the nation, track them by satellite and charge you for driving down certain roads and motorways. Driving from one end of London to the other could cost you a fiver or a monkey, depending on how congested are the roads you use at different times of the day.

Every motorist will have been startled by the proposals from the shadowy Commission for Integrated Transport, that Orwellian bunch who – if their plans for world domination succeed – will monitor the future movements of all cars and lorries across the nation, track them by satellite and charge you for driving down certain roads and motorways. Driving from one end of London to the other could cost you a fiver or a monkey, depending on how congested are the roads you use at different times of the day.

Since the 1997 election there have been nasty rumours of stopping motorists in the middle of town, fining them for carrying no passengers, charging them a toll for entering the City without good reason, and generally encouraging them to try the reeking River Styx of public transport instead. Some motorists, probably the selfish ones who like driving alone in the middle of town without being told what to do by the Department of Transport or the Mayor, will wonder where these "congestion charges" are leading. Will every road in London have its pay-per-drive cost displayed at junctions, enabling the penny-wise motorist to decide whether to turn left into Christchurch Avenue (£45) or perform a complicated three-pronged rat-run through the back- streets of Balham which will cost him a mere 27p? Will there be a sliding scale of charges for roads that, without actually being congested, are getting too popular? If you can practically guarantee that one of the last 10 finalists in the Pop Idol contest can be found hanging out waiting to be recognised halfway down the King's Road, Chelsea, on a Saturday afternoon, will it cost you an extra £10 to drive down it? And if more and more motorists get fed up paying premium rates for using the busy A10 to Hertfordshire, and discover a series of minor, uncongested alternative roads, will the cost of using those roads increase as they become more popular? And will house prices in Stoke Newington High Street suffer when prospective buyers realise they're doomed to start their car every morning in a £5 street, rather than a 25p mews?

I worry about such things. But what also concerns me is the imminent rise of the Commission for Integrated Walking. It was only 18 months ago that proposals were being put forward to put a check on the number of people walking in Oxford Street at Christmas, and to direct their steps into three or four special lanes. I can see with the utmost clarity the day when we will pay a fistful of pound coins and 20p bits to be allowed to walk down certain roads in the metropolis – initially because they're too crowded, then because they're too grand. Kensington Palace Gardens, the richest address in London, has already got surveillance turrets at either end, from which sneering militiamen glance at you coldly as you slink past.

I suspect the smarter roads around Holland Park and Gloucester Avenue and the cooler purlieus of Hampstead and Richmond will require a permit for you to promenade down them, unless you're wearing a Timothy Everest suit and have a special dispensation. Roaming bands of Pedestrian Squad policemen will confront you in Knightsbridge, demand to see your Class One sticker, and inform you roughly that you've no right to be any further west than Belgrave Square, even if you are wearing Oliver Sweeney shoes. Next thing you know, you'll be paying a special toll charge for going into certain shops, and another for spending more than 10 minutes without buying anything there...

OhMiGod. Whaddya know? It's already been invented. But no, phew, it was a shop called Voyage and it didn't work out. Any more than will the Commission's deeply flawed "spy in the sky".

When is a PC not PC?

I'm always defending my son's obsession with computer games by pointing out that they mostly require the cognitive skill and lightning reactions of a trained SAS man with a Mensa newsletter in his backpack. My admiration for the things subsided a little, however, when I read about Lads on the Pull, a new computer game from the Hampshire-based nDreams Limited company. Their game, as subtle and edifying as its title, awards aspirant yobs, winos and shagmonsters points for how much beer they consume and how many women they chat up in the course of an evening. For a PC game, it's stridently no such thing. The company prides itself on verisimilitude. As one executive explained, "It will simulate the effects of alcohol – after five pints or more, the women you meet start looking more and more attractive." You score extra points for a one-night stand. Fair enough. But will the game also simulate the puking into a skip at 2am, the peeing your pants on the bus home and the explaining to girls that, "No this does, er, not happen every time"? Or would that be taking virtual reality too far?

How my life became a fiction

Barefaced cheek of the Month Award goes to the author Daniel Trelfer who writes to me about the publication of his first novel, Vodka with Chocolate Chasers. Because I've written in the past about real life and fiction, and because of my, well, all-round loveliness, Daniel "thought it would be a nice idea to include your name as one of the characters in the book".

Well that is a happy thought, Dan, but what will be the characteristics of the J Walsh who appears in print for all eternity? I've already turned up in works of fiction as an elderly Irish tourist, a lecherous 21-year-old Oxford student circa 1775, and as a name on a delapidated warehouse sign swinging in the fetid fumes of the Isle of Dogs. Could you possibly improve on all those?

Mr Trelfer (and is his curious name the thinly disguised nom de plume of Mr Donald Trelford, former editor of the Observer?) obligingly tells all. This fictional JW is one of a group of travellers on a cheap safari, camping in the Kenyan jungle. He is "one of the more mature members of the group" (less of the "mature", matey), and when they're attacked by an enraged male buffalo, he stands his ground with the safari guide, while all the screaming young ninnies leg it to the tour bus. And then he... And then, says Mr Trelfer, he keeps the camp fire flames going to discourage the animal from laying waste to the camp.

Is that all? Sheesh. Is it too late to retaliate? I'm writing to the presumptuous Danny to suggest that it's time name-appropriation became a two-way process. If my name is going to appear, immortalised for all eternity etc, in someone's book, then I want to be doing something more heroic than building a flipping fire. I have the answer. All the obituaries of Bunny Senior, the great (real-life) Kenyan big-game hunter, told how he was once attacked by enraged water buffalo, how he ran out of ammo, grabbed the nearest beast's terrifying horns, swung himself up onto his back and rode him until someone shot the beast dead. That, I feel, is precisely what the fictional Mr Walsh would do when faced with danger. I urge Mr Trelfer to consider a re-write for the second edition. And perhaps we could discuss the sex scene in Chapter 10, where I encounter the lovely Araminta Foxwell.

Going anywhere nice on your holidays this year, Mr Samson?

I see Samson and Delilah are in trouble again. The famous painting by Peter Paul Rubens runs into controversy every couple of years. It's always being exposed as a fake, a copy, a "school of..." Last time, in May 2000, one Michael Daley, of ArtWatch, an organisation dedicated to the exposing of fake paintings, suggested it was "probably" a copy made by a pupil of Rubens's called Jacob Jordaens. Daley was concerned about the "blockboard" on the back of the work, and the oak panel on to which it was painted, and how it had been tampered with, sometime in the 1930s.

Now a scholar called Euphrosyne Doxiadis is adamant the picture must have been painted centuries after 1608/9, when the original was commissioned by Rubens's patron, Rockox. Other critics have long insisted it was done by a pupil of the great man.

Personally, I'm tempted to agree with the fabulously-named Greek lady – not because I know anything about Flemish-school brushwork or the bidding patterns of the princes of Lichtenstein, but because of the picture itself. I mean, look at that barber – bent over his work, busily cutting Samson's hair, he is a picture of concentration. But his hands are not 17th-century hands. He holds the scissors in his right mitt, while his left is mincingly splayed across his client's shaggy head, the little finger lifted in a gesture that's as camp as pink bunting. He is obviously saying, "So, going anywhere nice for your holidays?" This is a 17th-century barber from the Dick Emery school of effete hairdressers. It puts the exact date of the painting, if I'm any judge, at, ooh, 1966...

Comments