Monday, 22 October 2007

Citizen Canes--or "Look Ma, No Hands"

To paraphrase John Travolta (mouthing Quentin Tarantino's words): "You know what the funniest things about England is? It's the little differences." It's the way the English say "pressurised" instead of "pressured"(as in, "I was pressurised into changing my mind"). It's the way single nouns take plural verbs ("BMW have announced the closing of another factory").

There are two other, less obvious, things that I've noticed: Old people with canes and young people riding their bikes hands-free. First, the canes: A sizable proportion of the elderly here perambulate with canes in their hands. "Sticks," they're often called (the canes, not the people). At first I thought it was because the English were more likely to have health problems--poor diet from wartime rationing, years waiting on NHS lists for hip-replacement surgery--and were only able to get about with the help of a cane. In America, I thought, these people would be hale and hearty, not halt and lame.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think I have it backwards: I don't see as many people with canes in America because they go straight from walking unaided to not walking at all, or to scooting about in one of those little motorized wheelchairs.

I have no data to back this up. It's just a hunch based on several weeks' experience watching gray-haired Brits bent into the rain, firmly planting the rubber tips of their surrogate legs on the pavement in front of them. Then again, maybe it's a fashion thing. Maybe the British just like canes.

Or maybe as youngsters they fell off their bikes while riding with their hands off the handlebars. Not that I've seen anyone fall off, though I've seen plenty of young people cycle past, hands in pockets. Some move at a pretty good clip. Some pedal sort of languidly, with a cell phone raised up to an ear. (The British are addicted to their mobiles; most can't go more then 30 or 40 seconds without checking theirs to see if they've received a text.)

I've done a fair amount of research on the early days of the bicycle and being able to ride without hands was actually recommended by cycling instructors. (There were such people back then; newbies had to learn somehow.) Cycling was meant to be aesthetically pleasing and the reasoning was that hands-off riding forced the cyclist to pedal evenly, favoring neither the right leg nor the left.

I'm jealous. Ever since I was about 11 and wiped out while trying to look cool, I've kept both hands on the wheel, so to speak.

The scary thing is, it's much easier to drive a car with no hands than a bike. Not that I would ever do that. I mean, unless I was doing some really serious air drumming.


suburbancorrespondent said...

The elderly and infirm don't dare walk in the US. They would be hit by a car.

mark from alexandria said...

Maybe they felt pressurized into pluralizing BMW because they thought that (pardon my translation) Bavarian Motor Works meant that there were a plethora of motor works, rather than just the one.