People-like-us Syndrome

I left my bicycle in the London Library’s bike-shed yesterday. The shed has a lock that can be opened only by library members, and so I didn’t bother to chain the bike to one of the stands. I usually do, but it was a Sunday, the library was closed and I figured the odds were that few if any other members would be opening and closing the door, potentially letting strangers in. During the week, I chain the bike when I leave it there, but I don’t bother to double-chain the basket, which detaches, the way I do when I leave it on the street.

Notice that I was only worried about strangers. I noticed that too, when I thought about locking/not-locking it. It never occurred to me that a library member would steal my bike. I mean, they’re London Library members. They’re people like me!

I make those kind of unconscious decisions all the time, and I’m sure we all do. It’s OK to leave my scarf on a seat, because only university members come here; it’s not OK to leave my book there, ‘anyone’ might come across it. There are in-groups and out-groups in my head. And for some reason, my in-groups (library members, shoppers at one specific — but not any other — farmers’ market, neighbours) have no dishonest people in them, no liars, thieves, cheats.

All the more shocking, therefore, when I read this morning that at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, publishers were losing up to 75 per cent of their stock to, well, looters — 75 per cent can’t really be called petty pilfering, can it? My assumption, automatically, is that some ‘they’ group — outsiders — came in and perpetrated the thefts. Because I can’t get my head around the fact that book people would steal. They wouldn’t, would they? Even though I know there are statistically as many liars, cheats, thieves among my professional cohort as anyone else’s professional cohort.

I know it, but I don’t believe it.

Stealing in motion, 19th-century style

Not that long ago, my neighbour’s car was stolen. Not a very unusual, or even a interesting story. He parked, he went into his house, went to bed, woke up, car was gone. Happens all the time. But until this morning, short of a dramatic, gangland-style car-jacking, I thought you could probably only have your car (or parts thereof) stolen while it was parked.

Wrong.

In 1828, The Traveller’s Oracle; or, Maxims for Locomotion: Containing Precepts for Promoting the Pleasures…of Travellers (which is one of the world’s great titles: I’ve always longed for a ‘Maxim for Locomotion’, I just never knew it) warned those who owned their own carriages that they needed to have them fitted with spikes at the rear if the household did not keep a footman: ‘Do not permit Strangers to place themselves behind your Carriage at any time, or under any pretence whatever’, it sternly warned. They are either climbing up behind to rob you , or they will steal bits off your carriage while you are on the road, taking the ‘Check Braces, and Footmen’s Holders’ (the lead-strings by which passengers notified the driver they wanted to stop, and the leather straps that the footmen who would normally stand on small steps at the rear held onto). These items could be removed by street-thieves while you were in motion  ‘in half the time that your Coachman can put them on’. Therefore, ‘unless you think that two or three outside passengers are ornamental or convenient, or you like to have your Carriage continually surrounded by Crowds of Children, incessantly screaming, “Cut! Cut behind!”’, the ‘Spikes are indispensable’.

It really makes our streets seem astonishingly tame, doesn’t it? No windshield-wipers stolen as you drive down Fleet Street, no children (sorry, Children) shrieking out as you pass them on Madison Avenue, ‘Tear off the chrome strips!’

Dangerous cars, or dangerous drivers? 19th-century style

In 1867, says the Illustrated London News, 170 people in London were killed by  vans, omnibuses, cabs and carts. Well, actually what it says is, 170 people were killed by ‘van-drivers, and omnibus-men, and cabmen, and carters’.

I find that striking. Today we say someone was killed in an ‘accident’, ‘killed by a car’. It is impersonal, passive. An ‘accident’ could happen to anyone, and it’s no one’s fault; the car, presumably, just suddenly took it into its little internal-combustioned head to leap out and attack someone.

The Victorians had it right: people are killed by other people, by the drivers of buses and carts and cabs, not by the inanimate objects they control, or fail to control.

I wonder if our attitudes to the inevitability of road accidents would alter if we stopped using inanimate objects as proxies for our own mad, bad or careless behaviour.

*Gets down off soapbox*

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