Listen to this article
I’ve never been a great one for the memoirs of famous sports stars. No doubt there are some gems but, largely, these rapturous and presumably mostly ghostwritten tomes seem full of personal growth jargon about chasing the dream, being the goal and believing in yourself.
So, ordinarily I would not have bothered with Mo Farah’s autobiography. While I have nothing but admiration for the man, he best expresses himself on the track and I know I would struggle with the running chapters, which in the end boil down to: “I trained really hard and then I ran as fast as I could.” But my attention was captured by a news story from his book, in which he described getting into a fight in Richmond Park with a pushchair-wielding couple who were blocking his path as he trained there, long before his gold medal fame.
We don’t know the full details so it is difficult to judge the incident. On the one hand we have all experienced the sanctimony of new parents; on the other it must be said that a division of panzers can be halfway across Belgium in the time it takes to manoeuvre a baby-buggy in woodland.
But his story resonated because it is getting increasingly difficult to do anything in London these days without someone angrily standing up for their right of way as if it were set down in Magna Carta. Were these ancient Richmond lands not indeed bequeathed to the British Olympic Association by Simon de Montfort so that joggers might safely graze?
For a nation famed for saying sorry when we’ve done nothing wrong, we seem to have got awfully assertive in recent years. It isn’t even a testosterone thing any more: for men or women, it’s become a default setting. From runners to rollerbladers, from bikes to buses, we’re damned if we’re getting out of your way.
Louts and road rage are hardly new but, for the most part, Brits were slow to rouse and desperately apologetic, even – indeed especially – when we were in the right. Time was when both runner and parent would have struggled comically to get out of each other’s way, because a chap instinctively stood aside. This was what it meant to be British; you gave way, said sorry and then seethed about it for hours before finally shouting at the children.
Not any more. An inordinate amount of city life seems to involve people angrily asserting their antecedence and then fuming for the rest of the day. It has become commonplace to lament the anger and abuse on the internet, yet its presence in the real world often goes unremarked.
As Mo’s memoirs show, even the tranquillity of the Richmond deer park is no sanctuary. Not only are there runners fuming at parents; motorists are seething at drivers who are going too slowly and at cyclists who are going too fast. And as for the deer, they seem to think that just because they’ve got their name on the entrance, they’ve got the run of the place.
Outside the park it’s even worse. People walk around as if they are Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver – as if any concession of ground is a humiliation. Cyclists are fitting cameras on their helmets for their confrontations with drivers and rage is the emotion of choice, be it road rage, cycle rage, or the fury we feel at tourists walking three-abreast and at pedestrians in an oblivious earphoned haze, deaf to those around them.
Not only are there people talking too loudly on phones but people getting angry at those talking too loudly. Even your seat on a train is a war zone. One new fad is an angry Tumblr blog dedicated to photos of men who take up too much space on the Tube. It is as if we are all so stressed and hurried and crammed in that every inch is worth a punch-up.
Or perhaps it’s all down to house prices. We know an Englishman’s home is his castle but with property so expensive, no one can even bear to surrender the spot they are standing on. This spot; this blessed spot, this path, this road, this realm, this angry England.