August 01, 2008
LEAVE BORIS JOHNSON ALONE!!! I'M SERIOUS!!!
By: Boris Johnson
Last Updated: 17/06/2008
I came out of my house the other week and saw that it was a perfect day for cycling to work. The clouds were high and fleecy, the sky was blue, the road was dry.
I hitched my rucksack, tucked my right trouser leg into my sock and was about to clamber aboard the King of the Road when I realised there was something terribly wrong with my appearance. I clapped my head. My helmet! I'd forgotten to wear the symbol of my new deference to correct thinking.
It was only a month or so since I had decided to capitulate to the pleas of the health and safety lobby. My wife was for it. My old chum Ken Livingstone was always harping on about it. And every day I would meet someone at a traffic light who would say, "Tut-tut, poor show, where's your helmet?" You should be setting an example, they would say. You're a public figure now, they would say.
In other words, they appealed to my sense of self-importance, and of course I started to think they might be right. How could I live with myself if people started to copy my helmetless insouciance and thereby put themselves in danger?
I imagined the bereaved mothers of impressionable children. I foresaw motions of censure. I winced, and got myself down to the bike shop. For £16.99 I was able to coddle my cranium with the latest superlite carbon fibre bonce-protector, raked like the skull of the creature in Alien.
As I cycled around, I felt a surge of bonneted righteousness. I was socialised; I was showing a proper sense of community, and that is why I turned around on my doorstep, and within another three seconds I would have gone back to get my helmet, and I would have fastened the chinstrap of social obedience... except that for some reason I didn't. After weeks of helmeted conformity, I had a spasm of rebellion - and it is hard to say exactly why.
Of course I accept the case for cycle helmets, although the only time I have had a serious prang in almost a decade of cycling in London, a helmet would have made no difference whatever.
I was negotiating Knightsbridge with extreme caution when a French tourist walked across the road without looking (you could tell he was French by the noise he made on impact) and, though I sprained my wrist, I felt the real lesson was about teaching tourists to look the right way. If I'd had a foghorn, it might have come in handy, or possibly a cow-catcher fitted to the front of my bike. But a helmet?
I have also brooded on the results of some study in Australia, which showed that making bike helmets compulsory deterred so many people from cycling that there was a rise in obesity - and more people ended up dying of heart attacks than were saved by the head-gear.
But what clinched it for me that morning, as I havered on the doorstep, was the sheer loveliness of early June. The sun was warm, and whatever the advantages of a helmet, it would make the head hot and scratchy.
Oh, never mind, I said to myself. No one will notice, I said, and just as I was starting to churn the pedals the Evening Standard photographer leapt from his place of ambush and click, my irresponsibility - my shame - was captured for all to see. "Where's your helmet?" he cried, and I confess that I emitted a small internal groan.
Here, then, is the political position. In my efforts to do the right thing, I have ended up giving offence to both opposing factions. As soon as I started to wear a helmet, I was denounced as a wimp, a milquetoast, a sell-out to the elf and safety lobby, a man so cravenly attached to his own survival that he was willing to wear this undignified plastic hat.
As soon as I was pictured not wearing a helmet, I was attacked for "sending out the wrong signal" and generally poisoning the minds of the young with my own reckless behaviour.
The situation, my friends, is a mess. I have been convicted beyond all reasonable doubt of complete incoherence on the question of cycle helmets - and complete incoherence, therefore, is what I propose to defend.
In so far as I am confused between the competing imperatives of safety and liberty, it is a confusion we all share. Look at the polls.
Last week, the public was asked what it thought of the Government's plan to lock people up for 42 days without charge. Yeah! said a stonking 69 per cent of the YouGov sample. Bang 'em up. Better safe than sorry, was the message of the electorate.
This weekend, the public was asked what they thought of my friend David Davis's heroic act of auto-defenestration, and his decision to call a by-election to oppose the 42 days measure. Yeah! said the public - 69 per cent of them, according to ICM. Good on yer, David, they said. You stick up for our liberties!
Now if 69 per cent of the public is in favour of 42 days' detention without charge, and 69 per cent are in favour of David Davis and his opposition to 42 days, it is a mathematical certainty that a large chunk of the electorate is hopelessly muddled.
We want to be protected from terrorists, yet we have a feeling that the state is everywhere eroding our ancient liberties - bossing, bullying, photographing us at every corner.
We need to be clear about the trade-off. The price of liberty is a small but appreciable loss of security; the price of security is a loss of liberty. In the case of the 42 days, the increase in security is obviously too small to justify the loss of a freedom such as habeas corpus.
As for cycle helmets, we should be allowed, in our muddled way, to make up our own minds. Sometimes we will go for hatless, sun-blessed, windswept liberty; sometimes for helmeted security.
The important thing is that we assess the risk, we make the decision, and be it on our own heads - or, in the case of my helmet, sometimes not.
Copyright 2008 - Boris Johnson