The Curmudgeon


Monday, April 04, 2005

Invention's Deadly Daughter

A new plague is abroad upon the streets of London, beyond the perennial pandemic of pink jowls, glottal stops and sonically explicit spearmint mastication. The symptoms may be seen clustered on either side of the road wherever said road is painted with those peculiar black and white stripes. If there are two tall stripey orange-topped lollipops with electric boxes attached, so much the better. I have a theory that the electric boxes are the cause of the problem. The way they work is very simple; or in other words, if you happen to be a delta-grade semi-moron or less, rather complicated; but I shall do my poor best to explain.

One of the boxes, which is situated at elbow height, essentially consists of a button, a light-bulb and a cutout of the word WAIT. The other box, which is situated high up on the other side of the road, contains two light-bulbs, one on top of the other. The top light-bulb, which is usually switched on, is behind a cutout of a stationary red person; and the bottom light-bulb, which is usually switched off, is behind a cutout of an ambulatory green person.

Now, this is where it starts to get difficult. In theory, you press the button on the appropriate box, i.e. the one that can be reached without the use of a ladder. The light-bulb inside goes on, assuming it has not been removed, and the word WAIT appears in luminous yellow letters which should be more or less discernible behind the dirt. After a fairly long but not usually terminal period of time, the stationary red person across the road disappears and the ambulatory green one appears, to the accompaniment of a high-pitched bleeping noise reminiscent of a Kylie Minogue CD which has jammed while playing. This means that the traffic lights, which are in a box at right angles to the box with the two light-bulbs, have changed to signal drivers to stop their vehicles. Once the vehicles have stopped, it is usually possible to cross the road, over the black and white stripes, without making an interesting new dent in anyone's fender.

That's the theory. The problem arises when the various jowls, glottal stops and spearmint exhalation units which congregate at these "pedestrian crossings", or "zebra crossings" as they are often called in deference to the benign vegetarianism of the urban jungle, are completely incapable of operating the fucking things.

A new plague is abroad upon the streets of London; a plague of delta-grade semi-morons and their inferiors who lack the intelligence, education, training or conditioning to press a button and wait. One expects this standard of efficiency from, say, a British Telecom engineer or a Jehovah's Witness in whom realism has almost conquered duty; but the sheer size of the congregations at zebra crossings clearly rules out the possibility that these crowds are composed of such creatures exclusively. At almost every crossing one comes upon these days, there are liable to be up to a dozen pairs of jowls, of every age and gender, hovering with various degrees of annoyance or resignation at either end of the stripey bit, wondering why they cannot cross; and in almost every case, the button which would enable them to cross has not been pressed.

Of course, there are a few - generally young, male and unafraid of sudden and violent physical contact with fragile strangers - who will watch for a gap in the traffic and leap straight into it, green light and bleeps or no green light and bleeps. If not run over by the traffic, these builders of the future will blithely trample whatever bleary-eyed pensioner is standing opposite them on the other side of the road, and continue triumphantly upon their way. I have not yet seen one of these adventurous types hit by a moving vehicle, but the possibility of doing so one day gives me a little extra something to live for.

For the rest, as I say, I blame those electric boxes. Invention is invariably deadly, in that the lack of necessity is the mother of sloth. Give a delta-grade semi-moron food, and he will eat until he blimps. Give him leisure, and he will spend it complaining of boredom. Give him rapid and convenient transport, and he will lose the ability to walk. Give him enough rope, and he will forget how to tie a hangman's noose. And if you give him safe passage across a busy road at the push of a button, he will forget how to push a button. It's a good thing for the delta-grades that we're running out of breathable air, or they'd all be suffocating by now.


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