Friday, 24 October 2014

Why did the chicken cross the road?

 A man should know his weaknesses.

Some of us have weaknesses that are hard to find. Fortunately for me, mine stick out like sore thumbs. In fact, I have Raynaud's disease which affects my fingers and toes, so for much of the year one of my weaknesses is, literally, sore thumbs. A particularly cruel weakness that brought a premature end to my dreams of being a homicidal hitchhiker.

There is a road running right through the town I live in. It's a busy road and ours is a small town. Someone decided it would be a great idea to build an enormous retail park that could only be accessed from one direction right next to a football stadium, train station and motorway slip road at the end of this road, a road that was already the main route into Bolton. This very morning, on my dog walk, I managed to get from the far end of town, walking along the aforementioned road, faster than the cars, vans and trucks containing red faced, panicky commuters that crawled and stalled along beside me.

Nothing calls for a smug strut quite like overtaking a frustrated ponce in a Mercedes, even if you did have to pause to pick up some dog-shit.

For those, like myself, that frequently have to cross this road, rush hour provides us with the carriageway equivalent of a ford, crawling traffic that we can pick out way through while struggling up hill with arms full of groceries. If events dictate that we miss one of these windows of opportunity then, rather than paddling through a relatively safe, tarmac ford we need to engage in a game of Frogger, our fear of being struck enabling us to unconsciously solve a number of ridiculously complex, mathematical equations in order to time our first step and angle our direction of travel in such a way that, if we rush, we might make it to the far side. I've yet to be knocked down, but I get to have some great arguments with drivers who choose to pull away from the kerb into the same narrow gap between vehicles that I've just stepped into.

This road wasn't designed for the amount of traffic, a lot of it very heavy, that it now has to contend with. As a result, the surface crumbles with unnerving regularity. Almost as soon as one section is fixed another needs work. The drivers hate the roadworks, having never entertained the concept of setting off a bit earlier, but, for the same reason we love rush hour, we wayfarers selfishly love the gridlock the cones bring with them.

In the eyes of some, our roads are there for the cars. Pedestrians can wait, "they pay no road tax" comes the cacophony of cries. True, but then neither do the motorists. They pay Vehicle Excise Duty, the proceeds of which go directly into the general Treasury fund and has done since the 1930's when road tax was abolished. That's how out of date that nugget of nonsense it. If the charge was for the upkeep of the roads that the car damages then ecologically friendlier cars couldn't be exempt.

We all pay for the roads.

Some drivers have argued that roads "...are built for cars". Really? How many Roman roads are there and how many Centurions drove cars? The car came along, closely followed by the tarmacking, much later than the roads.

There was a time, when cars were rarer, that horses, carriages, hand carts, children, shoppers and motor vehicles swarmed along the same stretches of cobbled streets. The car had to weave and honk and squeak and rattle along until free of the areas that we all live in, whereupon the driver could open up that throttle and career at breakneck speeds along the lanes until reaching the next populated area. In many places on the continent this is still the case, at least in heavily populated residential districts and shopping areas. I read, a few years ago, about a traffic calming plan that planted trees and positioned benches in the carriageway, replaced the surface with block paviers, did away with pavements and road markings and left the residents to reclaim control of road safety. There would have been some really quite horrific collisions if the cars had continued to race along the streets at thirty miles an hour, but they couldn't. And the fact that they were surrounded by people on foot that they couldn't stick two fingers up to as they cowardly sped away after nearly killing them brought with it a much more reasonable and courteous breed of driver. It cost a few bob though, perhaps all that was needed was some roadworks?

It sounds more dangerous, fleshy people and metally cars in such close proximity, the borders and safety barriers removed. But, as we've ascertained, the drivers aren't paying for the roads so why should they have been allowed to hijack them in such a way. To get places quicker? Remember I mentioned the concept of setting off a little bit earlier? Sorted.

So, could danger be the key to safety?

How much safer would it be if, rather than an enormous, cloud like pillow of airbag erupting from the centre of the steering wheel after a driver had gone up the arse of the car in front, a spike, coil of razor wire or pointed stick appeared? There'd certainly be a lot more careful drivers and everyone would wear a seat belt.

Every summer we hear of children who, whilst enjoying the lovely weather, drown in reservoirs when the icy waters bring on the cramps that they'd heard might happen but that they have no idea can be so paralysing. They sink to the bottom thinking "so that's what a cramp is, I had absolutely no idea it would be so debilitating". They've heard the warnings but, living in the relative safety of this modern age, they don't understand the danger. They can't imagine a cramp would cause them to become so helpless and so they drown. They've seen Jaws though. Pop a couple of great whites into every reservoir and pond in Britain. Sorted.

Smaller ponds could use piranha fish.

People get lost on the moors. People that have spent their lives in the city where there's always a doorway to shelter in or a cafe if they get hungry. They've heard the moors are desolate and bleak, but they got stuck for three hours in Stockport once, how much more desolate and bleak could it be? So they wander off the beaten track with their shiny, waxy waterproofs and stout walking boots on and experience the power of nature for the first time. The rain and the wind aren't covered by bylaws, they fear no health and safety executive and they care not a jot for us. The council hasn't ensured it won't get dark before the novice, and not so novice, hikers find their way back to the road that they left an hour ago and in the opposite direction to the one in which they are walking. Solution : Wolves. And bears. People don't always know how spiteful nature can be, but they know a pack of wolves could tear them apart. The reintroduction of these two once-native breeds would not only ensure people stick to the path (and beware the moon) but could also police the forests in which bad men bury bodies. Win win.

At Manchester City's magnificent Etihad Statium there are blue squares painted on the floor at every emergency exit. If you stand in one of these areas you will be asked to move along because you're "blocking the fire exit". Now, I don't know about you, but if a fire erupts and I'm stood by a fire exit I won't be blocking it for long, I'll be the first through. So, rather than barring people from standing there, encourage them. Just in case.

Knowing some of our weaknesses can be easy enough. We can't out-swim a shark, a bear will generally win in a fight with a man, fire burns and if we knock over a child while driving through a shared-street we'll be pulled from our carriages and kicked half to death.

Danger doesn't only make us safer either. It can be a lot of fun. Put a sprinkling of peril into your everyday life and you'll have a ball.

Fear can, in fact, prove rather productive. Need to get somewhere quickly on foot? Seek out that bloke that lives in that flat, you know the one, him with the facial tattoo and the Staffy. Now, make eye contact, lower your voice and ask him "What the fuck are you looking at?" before getting on your toes. Don't look back, that's when he'll catch you, just keep your head down and go for it. You'll be there before you know it.

(On a connected note, do you ever wonder if the people you meet from day to day think you're a twat? Get yourself a facial tattoo and you'll never need wonder again. You're welcome.)

Our nation has a record of waging illegal war, of going into a foreign land, all guns blazing, and securing vast wealth for those that are already vastly wealthy. If you want peace, find a way to reintroduce dinosaurs to the Earth. We'll be too busy shitting ourselves and battling those bitey bastards to bomb brown people in the pursuit of oil.

Oil, of course, was once a dinosaur itself, so the reintroduction of the long dead lizards would replenish the stock for whichever race evolves once we've finished killing each other.

If a dolphin gets injured he tells no one. He adapts his behaviour in such a way as to disguise his disability so that a passing shark won't cotton on and have him for dinner. In a similar fashion we too hide our weaknesses. We pretend we're not hurt when we are, that we don't care when we do or that it doesn't matter when it plainly does. We don't need worry about a shark since they're banned from the ponds and reservoirs in which we swim, we hide our weaknesses from those around us instead. Self preservation, tucking our metaphorical wound under our metaphorical flipper and whistling nonchalantly as we smile at the metaphorical shark passing by. But, like the dolphin knows that he picked up a nasty wound when he swam a bit too fast past a crowd of queuing cod and caught his cock on a coral reef, we know our own shortcomings are tucked away inside. 

Don't ignore them, embrace them, turn those negatives into positives.

We're scared of people knowing the real "we". We hate, we hold grudges, we bite our lips when we should be speaking and we back down when we should be more forthright. But think about it, yin needs yang, Tom needs Jerry and bravery needs fear. Without the other side of the coin we'd have no coin.

No potential for hatred leaves no potential for love. Being able to forgive is reliant on us having the need to do so. Biting your lip is sexy and backing down doesn't mean turning around, running away and losing out. A boxer backs off, sometimes because he's losing but more often to give him room to swing a haymaker. Tom would be fat if all he had to do was sleep and yin would be a quotation mark without yang. 

Fear is a strength in itself. We all need fear to keep us safe. Fear isn't a problem, it's cowardice that's a problem. As often as it reveals cowardice, fear reveals bravery.

There is a line that I used in one of the books in the Kissy Sizzle trilogy that I plagerised from my father. I had impressed my drama teacher with my performances in front of my friends and classmates in her lessons and had been chosen to play the lead in a short production she'd written. It was to be performed on the last day of term and in front of the whole school, the staff and a selection of elderly, local residents. At that stage in my life I still gave a shit what people thought of me and this led to an awkward shyness when the potential to make a bit of a fool of myself reared it's head. Shyness and that business we call show make an for an uneasy partnership and so, on the morning of the performance, I was terrified, so scared of what I was about to do that I was being sick. I didn't want to go to school and I told my dad why. I told him about my shaky hands, the panic inside and the churning in my stomach.

"Butterflies, son, just butterflies. They're there for a reason." he explained. "They're getting you ready. It's not fear, son, or you'd be shitting yourself instead of puking." He was never an overly eloquent man, unless it mattered. 

But when it mattered my father always had the right words.

"How do I get rid of them, dad?" 

"You don't, You can't. Just let the butterflies flutter by." He smiled. "Now brush your fucking teeth."

Incidentally, ignoring the praise of my drama teacher, who I was sure must be lying to save my feelings, and even though I absolutely loved it once I stepped into the spotlight, I never acted again. Recently a classmate got in touch via Facebook and one of the first things he mentioned as we reminisced was "That play you were in, you were brilliant". I reckon, if I'd had the confidence I have nowadays back when I was a spotty kid, I could've been the new James Bond. Especially with my dashing good looks.

We're not brave if there's nothing to fear and if there's no danger then we're not safe from anything. Being scared of the wolf not only keeps us from being torn apart amid a frenzy of tooth and claw, but also prevents us from dying of exposure on the side of a mountain as we frantically rub two sticks together because we saw it on a Bear Gryll's documentary once. Fearing the shark prevents losing a leg while also ensuring that we don't drown just because we ate a bag of chips on our way to the reservoir. 

And finally, to answer the question I posed in the title of this shambolic ramble;

I wasn't a chicken, I was just scared of being run over. And I needed to go to Asda.


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