Parris, je ne t’aime pas

Was it a bad head cold? A bit of a hangover? Or just the post-Christmas blues?

Who can say, but Matthew Parris was definitely in a grinch-like mood when he wrote in the Times that cutting the heads off cyclists would be rather a jolly idea.

Now, I thought Parris – not to hold against him the fact of his former career as a Tory politician – was a rather sympathetic chap. Hear him on the radio – presenting Great Lives, for example – and you get the impression of a civilised, sensitive and humane individual. Not at all the type of person you’d expect to relish the prospect of stringing some piano wire across the road to decapitate cyclists.

This has created a bit of a storm – with scores of complaints to the Press Complaints Commission. The columnist now claims he wasn’t being serious, but the piece that sparked the controversy was remarkably bad-tempered:

“Does cycling turn you into an insolent jerk? Or are insolent jerks drawn disproportionately to cycling?”

Cyclists are charged severally: with being litter-louts (casting snack-wrappers and energy-drink bottles into the hedgerows around his country seat); with being inconsiderate and rude (riding two or three abreast and being mouthy when challenged); with being polluters (our bicycles and lycra kit must “be poisoning entire provinces of China”); and, worst of all, with being insufferably smug.

I won’t dispute that all of the above is partially true: cyclists don’t always behave impeccably, and I’ll own that a tendency to self-satisfaction is one of our abiding sins (though really, if you ride a bike, why wouldn’t you be pleased with yourself?). But the misdemeanours for which Parris would like to behead us are all also true – and on a scale so much greater – of motorists.

Just witness the tons of trash tossed out of cars that line our roads, the daily incidence of road rage and mindless aggression of drivers, the emissions that are changing our climate and the particulate pollution that kills the elderly and those with breathing difficulties, the environmental cost of the global motor industry, and motorists’ utter moral blindness to the social and human costs of their car-use and bad road manners. But are these “crimes” for which anyone deserves summary execution?

Of course not. For one thing, we have laws and regulations against the worst excesses of destructive behaviour. For another, there is a quiet majority among cyclists and motorists alike who are not reckless or selfish, who try to set a good example, and who mitigate in whatever way they practically can the effect of a miscreant minority.

Confronted by a blizzard of complaints, Parris has today offered a grudging and backhanded apology of the “I was only joking” variety, which seems a lame excuse for a prejudiced rant in very poor taste – especially since it includes the barbed implication that it was only the literal-minded stupidity of humourless cyclists that made it offensive:

“I offended many with my Christmas attack on cyclists. It was meant humorously but so many cyclists have taken it seriously that I plainly misjudged. I am sorry.”

Withdrawing the piece and deleting it from the site would be a more meaningful reparation. Or should we, in turn, ask:

“Does being a newspaper columnist turn you into an insolent jerk? Or are insolent jerks drawn disproportionately to being newspaper columnists?”

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