It was that perfect day.
People — a lot, but not too many; a sporting event — exciting, but not too important; London — beautiful, but…
Ah, you see, there it falls down. Because London was almost too beautiful. St. James’s Park had the kind of perfection that has God sitting back in Her lounger, caipirinha in Her left hand and a smug smile on Her face.
“See that? See the late evening sun angling through the trees and glinting on the water? See the cross section of humanity strolling companionably across the grass, coexisting peacefully in a way only dreamed of by even the most enlightened of world leaders? Yeah. I did that.”
Mother Nature pokes God in the ribs.
“Well ok then, you might have done a bit of it, but it was my idea.”
The ghosts of John Nash, Edward Blore and Aston Webb swoop down to remind them that without the tantalising glimpse of Buckingham Palace through the trees the experience would be much diminished and they would like some of the credit thank you very much. They pick up an olive each and swoop away again.
And so the long day wears on.
We were at an event called Freecycle. The idea behind it was one that, shorn of context, would have had Norman Tebbit smiling with quiet yet somehow sinister pleasure: to get us on our bikes. And so we did: 50,000 of us, apparently, all imbued with a faint but benevolent air of superiority and a feeling that surely it couldn’t be this simple. Was the solution to society’s ills really just a question of dispensing with the motor car and all its pestilential offshoots? For a while there, as we pootled along the Victoria Embankment admiring the view and the silence, I was seized with missionary zeal.
This, I thought, this is the future. Banish the motor car from central London. Force everyone to cycle or walk to work. Shoot those who refuse. It’s the future. Or, rather, The Future, because the really big ideas deserve capital letters.
Then I was cut up by a dickhead doing wheelies, and the dream was shattered.
Because the truth is that whatever form of transport you favour, you can’t banish the dickhead.
The dickhead might be bike-wheelie-guy, walk-blindly-into-oncoming-traffic-while-texting-girl, run-down-the-tube-platform-and-jump-onto-the-train-as-the-doors-are-closing-then-push-them-apart-just-before-they-crush-you-to-death-even-though-there’s-another-train-coming-in-two-minutes-man, or my personal favourite: stand-in-the-way-so-that-people-have-to-walk-through-you-when-they-get-off-the-train–before-you-can-get-on-woman. And myriad variations thereto.
The common factor uniting all these dickheads is, of course, that they are always someone else. You are never, ever the dickhead.
And it’s absurd to think that, deprived of their natural habitat (the motor car) the Lesser Urban Dickhead will miraculously disappear. No, they will merely disperse themselves and reform, somehow strengthened, to torment you once more. Just like the liquid metal terminator in Terminator 2.
Having said that, it would be safe to say that there were fewer LUDs on display than usual.
And it really was very peaceful.
After we’d cycled the loop we hung around in Green Park waiting for the racing to begin. A band played beneath a big screen, the sound disconcertingly out of sync with the pictures.
They were good. I’m not really sure of my genres, but they seemed to me to be playing a brand of Mimsy-Folk with Sub-Funk Stylings, cross-fertilised with lashings of Quasi-World-Guitary-Type-Stuff. Things were distinctly unpromising at first, but as soon as the girl with the flower in her hair put away the violin and started singing, prospects improved, and we gradually succumbed to a languid contentment such as can only be experienced on a warm afternoon in a London park when you’ve got nothing much to do but listen to Mimsy-Folk while waiting for a cycle race to begin.
The lead singer, apparently mistaking a few hundred people sitting on the warm Green Park grass for a crowd of half a million at Glastonbury, told us “You can get up and dance. Let’s do this!”
We respectfully declined his invitation.
Then he announced that, as a gift from the sponsors of one of the teams in the bike race we were all waiting for, he would be throwing free T-shirts from the stage into the assembled throng.
It was at this point that the true nature of the human soul made itself known.
Let’s remember that on offer were a few free T-shirts.
Not gold. Not the elixir of eternal life. Not even personally engraved iPhones.
T-shirts. T-shirts, furthermore, emblazoned with the logo of a company that most people had, until that moment, neither heard of nor given two hoots about.
Jiminy Cricket, you should have seen them. Women trampled their own children underfoot. Grown men sprinted Bolt-like towards the stage, throwing OAPs over their shoulders as they went. I swear I saw a little old lady trip a teenager with her stick and mouth the words “Back off, punk, if you know what’s good for you.”
As the supply of T-shirts dwindled, an exhausted collective whimper was clearly audible.
“Must. Have. T-shirts. Can’t…live…without…T…shirts…uuhhh…”
Eventually the bounty ran out, leaving the triumphant T-shirt-baggers basking in the glory of their hard-won spoils, and the bedraggled losers contemplating what might have been.
Our faith in humanity somewhat shaken, we collected our things and sauntered back to St. James’s Park to watch elite athletes cycle round and round. The atmosphere was redolent with that feeling that’s been in the air recently, a feeling that with enough effort we could make it feel a bit like the Olympics again. People smiled at each other in a non-London kind of way. The sun shone. Sanity seeped back into our souls.
The race was a good one, although we didn’t see that much of it. Laura Trott won it, as she does.
But best of all, it was free.