Mary Dejevsky: A shared value that can move all of us


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Look around you in any city street, and you can't but notice how many people, of all ages, are using a walking aid of one sort or another. With my (borrowed) stick, I'm one of them. The number and variety of walking sticks is astonishing: delicate patterned ones; clunky metal hospital ones; wooden ones, both polished and battered. Most of us go about our hobbling cautiously; we know the risks all too well. But planners and others in our supposedly first-world country could make things easier than they do.

A couple of years ago, Andrew Gilligan (he of the "sexed up" Iraq dossier on the Today programme) stirred up a hornet's nest by questioning, in print, whether it might not be better value for money to give every wheelchair-user free taxis than to spend many millions of pounds making Green Park station in central London stair-free. I think similarly uncharitable thoughts, when someone in a wheelchair boards a bus and the retractable ramp gets stuck, as it does.

But it's not only, or even primarily, wheelchair-users or those on crutches – as I was a few months ago – who benefit from lifts and escalators and ramps. The upgrade at Green Park will be a boon to everyone who is not fully mobile and unencumbered: anyone with luggage, a child in a pram, or heavy shopping. Until very recently, steps were the bane of my life. The London Underground was effectively an exclusion zone. Even if one station had a lift, changing lines threatened an interminable upstairs-downstairs ordeal.

You would not believe how many city buildings, expensively modified inside to be "accessible", have forbidding steps to their front entrance and no rail. Or the number of lifts and escalators that are out of order at any one time – brand new Heathrow Terminal 5, this is you. Or the number of mini-lifts (often installed in older buildings, presumably to meet new "access" provisions) that are kept locked, requiring you to make a great fuss before someone agrees to hunt down the key. Or the times when a porter directs you and your stick to the staircase, without thinking to mention that there is a lift. Or the vast distances that British airports and stations (the new St Pancras, anyone?) expect would-be passengers to walk. They've been designed to impress, not for ease of use.

Improved access helps everyone, including the millions who, for whatever reason, are just a bit less mobile. We who hobble become less of a hindrance to the agile, and are saved the embarrassment of having to beg for the lift to be unlocked. Suddenly we don't need special consideration. Much of northern Europe takes this for granted. Why can't we?

And a footnote (sorry). With the warmer weather, more and more people are wearing flip-flops in town. Looking down, I can't but wince, knowing the fragility of feet and the perils they face from other, more heavily shod, feet, from roller-cases, from children's bikes and scooters – indeed from my own carelessly planted stick. You may have aesthetic objections to flip-flops in cities – so do I – but the greater objection must be safety. Please, please, look after those feet. They are complicated creatures and, when injured, they can take a very long time to mend.

Where the wild things are – for grown-ups

A while ago, when I drove to work, I liked, traffic permitting, to take a short detour through Regent's Park. This was partly to enjoy the trees and the sense of passing seasons. But it was mainly, I admit, for a glimpse of the giraffes. When they were out of their giraffe house, which was by no means every day, you could see them munching languidly above the shrubbery. If you were extra-lucky, you could snatch half a view of the next-door dromedary, too.

I recalled these little diversions, listening to the philosopher, Alain de Botton, speaking on the BBC about his rediscovery of the animal kingdom now that he has young children to take to the zoo. I share de Botton's delight in the wonders of wild beasts (even if the zoo, as an institution, seems increasingly a relic of the past), and their therapeutic value for humans. But I agree with another point he made even more.

While appreciating the need for zoos to raise money, he criticised the way so much of their publicity, gifts and other materials is now geared to children, and how animals are given cutesy names and quasi-human backstories to endear them to a youthful fan-base. Hear, hear. Zoos were established as research institutions, and this, quite as much as improved visitor facilities, is what they need the money for. Let's have a bit more about this work, and a bit less about Maktoum the Cheetah.

I had intended to point out that, as the population ages, zoos will need grown-ups to buy tickets for their own curiosity and delectation, too. But it turns out that London Zoo got there first. For the second year running, it holds adults- only nights on Fridays through June and July. A pity, though, that these are marketed as "wild party nights" when you can "nurture your inner child".

The unacceptable face of 'getting ahead'

Parents are spending a total of £1.5bn a year, buying extra tuition for their little darlings, according to a survey by the insurance company, Aviva. It found that one in four families disburse at least some of their hard-earned cash in this way. According to one explanation, this is evidence of the new fashion for tough-love "tiger-mothering" – pushing your offspring to achieve more at an ever younger age. I rather suspect, though, that in the UK at least it predates Amy Chua's best-seller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by some way, and has more to do with parents trying to compensate for what they see as inadequate schools or undemanding teachers. But I also fear there is a hyper-competitive element, reflecting the exhortation you hear everywhere to "get ahead". A straight borrowing from the more socially competitive culture of the United States, "getting ahead" implies that others fall behind; that there have to be losers. Whatever happened to the more collegiate and less ruthless expression "to get on"? It should be ripe for a revival.

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