Long road ahead to change in attitude

From: Robin Dow

Stocksbridge S36

Reading Mark Kahn’s letter, I felt that there was something oddly familiar about the words ‘If I had my way’, with which he prefaces some suggestions about what should be done by (and about) cyclists.

I soon traced the phrase to a passage in Three Men in a Boat ‘J’ displays a similar attitude, but first I should quote something he says earlier in the book.

Having said ‘I never see a steam launch but I find I should like to lure it to a lonely part of the river, and there, in silence and solitude, strangle it’, he goes on to declare that a verdict of justifiable homicide would be returned by any jury of river men.

The passage paralleled by Mr Kahn occurs a couple of chapters later where J is invited for a trip on a steam launch. After complaining about ‘a lot of wretched small boats continually getting in the way’, he says ‘If I had my way I would have one or two of them run down from time to time, just to teach them all a lesson.’

The natural dichotomy of attitude illustrated here being a matter of differing perspectives there seems little likelihood of the behaviour of either cyclists or motorists being changed by letters to the editor.

While Mr Kahn is absolutely right in saying that cyclists should obey the rules of the road, he seems not to acknowledge that even scrupulous observance of the rules leaves a cyclist with much greater flexibility of manoeuvre for negotiating clogged traffic than is available to the motorist.

As he contemplates the becomingly bronzed and manifestly fit and healthy cyclist, the motorist is naturally resentful as he sits putting on weight in his noisy, polluting and preposterously space-hogging vehicle, and the law very wisely prohibits him from having his way.

Mr Kahn’s concession that ‘there are good cyclists (just as there are bad motorists)’ though ostensibly epitomising sweet reasonableness, must be read in conjunction with his earlier remark that most of the cyclists he’s seen do not obey the rules. It follows from this that the good cyclists are - at least in his experience - in a minority, and by (literally) bracketing them with bad motorists neatly implies that the latter are also rare exceptions to the rule that in general motorists are beyond reproach.

This use of the ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ device doesn’t necessarily indicate deliberate rhetorical dishonesty, but the confusion of thought that it betrays doesn’t inspire confidence in the validity of the writer’s arguments.