A day-long street party has celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Beatles album cover everyone, but everyone, knows.
The festivities on Abbey Road drew thousands of fans, and camera crews from all over the world. But I have long felt the band that put a nondescript north London street on the global map should share top billing with the other signature feature of that photo: the zebra crossing. It's the crossing that makes the picture – and indeed that made the picture possible.
Alas, the zebra crossing is becoming a species more endangered than the beast. Yet, with its attendant Belisha beacons, it is one of the glories of what might be called British civilisation. I recently heard a widely-travelled foreign politician observe that the way a country treats its pedestrians shows you what sort of a country it is. The voluntary nature of the zebra, which presumes mutual respect between the car-borne and the foot-traveller, is something we are losing with each new Pelican crossing that is planted and connected up. The Pelican brings with it enforceable rules and the law; the zebra was testimony to an unspoken, but understood, code of behaviour.
Returning from almost 10 years abroad, I well remember standing at a zebra crossing, wondering why all the cars had stopped. And I still marvel at how many drivers pull up with an encouraging smile when I am with my husband – who walks with a stick – and we come within sight of a kerb. It's as though they see it as their good deed for the day. They feel good about themselves, and we about them.
As a driver, I try to be as generous. If only today's pedestrians were not so distracted by their iPods and mobiles that you can't tell whether they want to cross or not. Stopping to let someone across is a mutual thing: the beneficiary is supposed to signal a gentle thank-you, too. So far, I would say, we're just about holding the line. I have been nowhere in Britain anything like as terrifying as central Des Moines, in the US state of Iowa, where I stood petrified on a central reservation with three lanes of rush-hour traffic speeding past on either side, and no crossing point in evidence anywhere. Non-existent pavements in many US suburbs are more evidence of the assumption that you will not be moving around on foot.
Encouragingly, the traffic in pedestrian courtesy is not all in an adverse direction. Some US suburbs have recently been adding pavements, while one of the earliest signs of change in the newly liberated countries of East and Central Europe was a dramatic improvement in street manners, in and out of cars. Last year, I even noticed a similar trend in Russia, where observing red lights and lane discipline seemed to be passing from the exception – almost – to the rule.
Earlier this summer, the Russian Parliament upped ten-fold the fine for failing to stop at a zebra crossing, and launched a campaign to reduce pedestrian deaths; one in six pedestrians killed, according to the traffic police, are run over at marked crossings.
Mercifully, British roads remain some of the safest in the world. But they won't stay that way, if we lose the habit of civilised give and take exemplified by the zebra crossing.
A corporate case of cops and robbers
Could you repeat that, please? Exactly how many employees of the Metropolitan Police are NOT going to be prosecuted over misuse of their corporate American Express cards? Yes, I thought I heard it right: 1,183.
There apparently comes a point when there are just too many offenders to bring to book and the offence is dismissed as trivial. After all, we're not talking a multimillion-pound Mayfair jewellery theft.
And there are, of course, mitigating circumstances. What is delicately called "misuse" began in 2003, so a backlog built up. "Most" of the money has been repaid and, would you believe, three officers have actually been convicted; with two more facing trial. Someone ran up a debt of £82,000 – which puts into a rather different perspective the poor MP Sir Peter Viggers and the duck house he wasn't reimbursed for.
But the biggest mitigating circumstance is surely the decision of some panjandrum somewhere in the Met to issue more than 3,000 staff with credit cards in the first place and so put them in temptation's way. Even under the new, stricter system, more than 2,000 staff still have such cards. If you want to see a microcosm of the causes of Britain's debt crisis, look no further than New Scotland Yard.
Bogof with your unripened fruit
I'm delighted to learn that the days of supermarket "buy-one-get-one-free" deals will be numbered, if the warriors on waste get their way.
Such offers encourage you to load up with food you don't need; they discriminate against the car-less, because you can't carry all the extra stuff, and they distort the rational link between price, quality and quantity. "Bogofs" are just as bad as the acronym sounds.
But there is something I'm coming to regard as even worse – fruit labelled "ripen in the bowl". Unripe fruit is unripe fruit; it has been prematurely picked for the convenience of the wholesaler. Sometimes it ripens evenly; often patchily or not at all. You shouldn't have to pay a premium for fruit labelled "ready to eat". Unless it's edible, it shouldn't be on the shelves.