Christina Patterson: What are these memorials to dead cyclists really trying to tell us?


Christina Patterson
Saturday 18 February 2012 01:00 GMT

The first time I saw it, I was confused.

I could see that there was no reason why a bike should be red, or green, or blue, and that there was no reason why the saddle and handlebars shouldn't be the same colour as the frame, and that there was no reason why the tyres shouldn't be the same colour as the handlebars, but I still thought it was quite strange that a bike should be white. And then I realised, because there was a piece of laminated card tied to the frame, that the bike was white because someone had died.

In the four years since then, I've passed it on every trip to the supermarket, and every bus to the Tube. First the wheels went, because if you leave a bike clamped to anything in London, even when it's white, and even when it's meant to be a memorial, the wheels will go. And then other bits of it started to go: the chain, and pedals and rack, so that now all that's left is a pile of rusting metal.

Just down the road, there's another one. This one is clean, and it isn't yet rusty, and it hasn't yet lost its wheels. This one's covered with flowers. The flowers will die, and maybe when they do, someone will take the withered bunches away. And maybe when the bike starts losing its parts, someone will replace the parts that have been stolen, and maybe when it starts getting rusty, someone will clean it up. Or maybe they'll just leave it, as the people who put out the other bike have left it, and maybe all the people who have painted bikes white, and put them on street corners, will leave them, too. Maybe London will soon be dotted with the rusting frames of bikes that were once white.

Maybe the bikes, which the people who paint them call "ghost bikes", are meant to turn into ghosts of "ghost bikes", too. Maybe when you walk past them, you're meant to think of the skulls that artists used to put in paintings of flowers and fruit to remind you that fruit decays and flowers die, and one day so will you. Maybe it's good to be reminded that one day you'll die. But the people who put out the "ghost bikes" don't say that they put them there to remind you that one day you'll die. They say that they put them there to remind you that someone else has died. Someone you've never heard of, or met.

They also say that they put the "ghost bikes" there because they want to campaign for "cyclists' rights". They think that chaining a white bike to a lamp post is a good way of telling other people that the cyclist shouldn't have died. They think that chaining a white bike to a lamp post might help to make sure that other cyclists won't.

If you're the person walking past the lamp post with the rusting frame, and someone told you that it was there to stand up for "cyclists' rights", you might be quite surprised. You might wonder why something that was meant to be about "cyclists' rights" was actually on the pavement. You might even wonder what "cyclists' rights" were. You might, for example, think that it was a great shame that the roads were so busy, and that there were so few cycle lanes, and that very big lorries were allowed to go down such narrow streets, but that if you did choose to cycle on roads that were busy, with no cycle lanes, and were hit by a very big lorry, then what happened to you wouldn't really be about your "rights". What happened to you would be about the laws of gravity.

You might want to explain that people who took big risks did sometimes get killed, and when they did, it was very, very sad for their families. But what was sad for a family didn't always have all that much to do with anyone else.

You might want to tell the people who painted the bikes, and put them out, that you felt very sorry that someone they loved had died, and that you could understand that they might want to find someone to blame. You could understand that they wanted the world to remember that person, and that they might think that a good way to make that happen would be to start a campaign.

But you might also want to tell them that accidents did happen, and when they did, it wasn't always somebody's fault. And that if you wanted to start a campaign, it was a good idea to know what you were campaigning for, and to present that campaign to the people who could do something about it, and not to the people who didn't even know it was a campaign, and couldn't. And that otherwise it might just look as if what you were campaigning against was grief, and chance.

You might want to remind the people who put the bikes out that there are plenty of ways of keeping a name alive. That you can carve a stone, or start a charity, or inscribe a bench, or fund a prize. You could remind them that anyone who's been loved will always live on in the hearts of the people who knew them. But you might feel you also had to tell them, though you'd need to do it gently, that to the people who didn't know them, a name is just a name, and rust, on an eyesore, is just rust.

My big Desert Island romance

Yesterday, while I was washing up, I fell in love. It wasn't quite the coup de foudre; more the slow burn. But by the end of Desert Island Discs, I could have sung it from the rooftops. I'm in love with James Corden. He's funny. Of course he's funny. He's had millions of viewers laughing like a drain. But what made me fall for him wasn't his massive comic talent, but his honesty. When he was asked about fame, for example, he said, "I rather like it." When he was asked about the media backlash against him, he said, "I deserved a little bit of a smack." And when he was asked about parties, he said, "I was only ever going out to find someone to stay in with." In the end, he found her. Lucky girl.

So feel-bad it's almost feel-good

On the night that a French film scooped seven awards at the Baftas, I watched a British film which won just one. The French film was, of course, The Artist, which is the kind of film that makes you want to dance around your bedroom in sequins. The British film was Tyrannosaur, which doesn't. Tyrannosaur, which is also very well written, and directed, and acted, is the kind of film that makes you think that the best thing for everyone would be a noose. It makes you feel so bad that it almost makes you feel good. It makes you feel that you should never, ever, ever, complain about anything ever again. // Twitter: queenchristina_

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