Monday, April 16, 2007

A brush with death

In recounting my example of a 'bad China day' last week, I omitted to mention the key factor that briefly put me in such a bad mood - and probably thus pre-disposed me to suffering further 'disasters' throughout the course of the afternoon. (Is it, I wonder, that our state of mind can somehow provoke people into dicking us around, or is it simply that we interpret events more negatively and over-react to small irritations? Or is it - as I am inclined to feel when my paranoid streak takes hold - that 'bad luck' attracts more of the same??)

As I set out on my walk to the barber's, I was nearly knocked down by an electric bicycle that came hurtling out of a side-alley on to the main road - without looking, without signalling, without slowing down even slightly. It missed me by inches. I think I just managed to check my stride, and swayed, flinched out of its path at the last moment. I am now very highly attuned to these perils of the Beijing streets: I am constantly keyed up, on the alert for danger (when I go back to the UK or America, it takes me some time to get used to the fact that cars actually stop for you when you cross the road: for a few days, my brain reels in surprise every time it happens), relying more on my peripheral vision than looking straight ahead.

These electric bicycles are particularly challenging. They have become a big vogue only in the last couple of years. (I had heard that they were banned in Shanghai [Shanghai occasionally does sensible things like this - as much, I sometimes think, to flaunt its superior modernity as for the utility of the measure itself], but there were quite a few of them there too, the last time I visited.) They are almost completely noiseless. And they are, in size and appearance, almost indistinguishable from regular pedal-powered bicycles. If you notice one out of the corner of your eye as you are preparing to cross the road, it is dangerously easy to conclude that it is a safe distance away - "Heck, it can't be coming that quickly - the guy is freewheeling, for god's sake. And I can't even hear it yet: he must be far away." But these silent death-bringers are three times as fast as a regular bicycle. Regular bicycles are plenty dangerous enough, but these electric jobs you have to be very, very wary of. I have learned to double- and triple-check approaching bicycles, to gauge their speed carefully before stepping out in front of them. If the rider's not pedalling, that's the warning sign.

That doesn't help when they're coming out of side entrances, of course. If you STOPPED, and peered cautiously round the corner every time you crossed one of these alleys, you'd never get anywhere. So.... you take a calculated risk: you just walk straight across them, trying to keep your wits about you, prepared to jump aside if a hazard suddenly descends upon you.

Did I mention that the bloody things don't have brakes? Well, they probably do, but.... riders of regular bicycles never like to use them (Is it a thrift thing, are brake-pads expensive to replace?), and the same mentality prevails on these new monstrosities. People on electric bicycles regulate their speed by checking the throttle, relying on engine-braking to lose just a little speed when preparing to make a turn. I wonder how on earth they stop? Come to think of it, I don't believe I ever have seen one stop!

Ah, this reminds me of one of my little pieces of poetic silliness - inspired by a similar close encounter last year (though with a conventional bicycle on that occasion) while I was out on one of my morning jogs around the lakes. It started off as just an observation on the hazards presented by bicycles in this town; but, of course, it soon became linked in my mind with something - someone - else. Everything's a metaphor with me.

Traffic Accident

Beijing bicycles
Have no bells, no brakes
Or a rider incapable
Of comprehending their use

YOU ran a Beijing bicycle
Over my heart


Tulsa said...



Froog said...

I hadn't meant this to be about you-know-who. It started out as just a little comment on the deadliness of bicycles here. It was just that she was so dominating my thoughts at the time that EVERYTHING I wrote ended up being about her in some sense. (I remember many years ago reading a letter of Wilfred Owen's about the writing of his poem 'Miners'. He'd been on convalescent leave back in England and, reading about a mine accident, had decided to write about that, to give himself a rest from dealing with the subject of the War; but he found that irresistibly, inexorably the new poem became taken over by a series of metaphors about the War. Same thing with me here.)

This image did seem so apposite for her, because she gave the impression that she felt that something like a love affair was somehow external to her, something she couldn't (or didn't care to) understand: she didn't know where it was going, and had no control over it. I think she was deluding herself about that; I think she easily could have foreseen what she was going to do to me, and could have taken steps to avoid it, or at least to soften the blow. "Or a rider incapable/ of comprehending their use".

snopes said...

Unlucky in love again, sir? She wasn't a redhead by any chance, was she? I remember your predilection for that colouring.