When I tell people that I live in Basingstoke (civic motto: “Where the livin’ is easy”) they are surprised. They are not shocked, they are not aghast but definitely surprised. As surprised perhaps as if I had said “My uncle Frank is serving a short prison sentence for receiving stolen goods”. I am a sophisticated and metropolitan human being, I have eaten at the Ivy, I know one end of a sun-dried tomato from another, so people who know me raise their eyebrows when I mention that I live in Basingstoke which apart from a fleeting mention in Ruddigore is only famous for it’s roundabouts.
The roundabouts are not the reason that we moved here from central London 7 years ago, the state of our local primary school in Bermondsey was the main driving force. Necessary proximity to my ailing mother gave us a general location but we quickly discovered that while we couldn’t afford to buy a house in pretty Hampshire market towns like Alton or Arlesford we could afford to buy a house 5 minutes walk (and 2 roundabouts) away from Basingstoke station. Basingstoke was a pretty Hampshire market town until 1961 when it was decided to ‘parachute’ thousands of London families into the town. Basingstoke became a ’New Town’ and the age of the roundabout had arrived.
By now readers will be thinking “is this man going to bang on endlessly about Basingstoke and its unexceptional history or is this piece going to get more interesting and is he going to tell us more about roundabouts?” The bad news about roundabouts is that they are not a British invention. They were conceived by a French engineer Alphonse Giratoire in the late 19th century. Giratoire moved in elevated circles, engineers were highly respected in Paris at that time unlike the UK today where they are treated with the mild contempt with which we patronise our train spotters. Giratoire realised that the ever increasing number of phaetons, broughams, landaus and other horse drawn vehicles with improbable names circulating round the Arc de Triomphe needed regulation. As an engineer employed by the city of Paris he was well placed to put his recommendation to the city fathers that in future all vehicles (with the exception of the Horse Artillery) should circulate in a clockwise direction. There followed a heated debate in the press with the secretary of the Paris Barouche Owners Society, Henri Chassis, who made the obvious point that with traffic driving on the right it would be logical for the circulation round the Arc de Triomphe to be anti-clockwise. This point has become blindingly obvious to generations of British motorists within a couple of minutes of their driving off a Cross Channel ferry in Calais. Foolishly Giratoire took offence at being corrected by an upstart carriage fancier and mulishly defended his position. At the same time strenuous objections to any regulation of traffic around the Arc de Triomphe were being made by the Parisian White wine delivery drivers, La Societe des Drivers Vin Blanc. Up to that time if, for instance, they had just made a delivery to the famous restaurant ‘La Tippe Astronomique’ in the Champs-Elysees and their next delivery was to the equally renowned L’Addition Grosse’ in the Blvd Haussmann they would simply nip around the corner briefly joining the Arc de Triomphe traffic but crucially under the new regime they would be going against the flow. To go legitimately with the flow could, in heavy traffic, take 6 hours and require a stop to water the horses. Paris became divided between ‘clockers’ and ‘anti-clockers’, the former wearing white rosettes and the latter red.
Before we come to the dramatic events of May 15th 1885 we should perhaps examine who it was that decided on which side of the road we should drive. The earliest records in France show an edict from Louis X (nicknamed ‘The Cackhanded’ by the general populace and ‘Lefty’ by his court familiars) dated 1316, which directed that, in honour of St Bernadette of Montelimar, haywains should always pass to the right of any oncoming haywain. St Bernadette, the patron saint of cartographers and left handed haywain drivers was a Roman martyr who was fed to the lions in the Coliseum. The lions swiftly despatched the unfortunate Bernadette and consumed her corpse with gusto with the exception of her left arm which was left in the centre of the arena. Nothing could induce even the most ravenous of the beasts in the arena to touch the left arm. The Emperor Nicotinus posthumously pardoned Bernadette and ordered that the arm should be preserved in the Coliseum ‘Museum of Interesting Body Parts’. The arm was later smuggled out of Rome by a one armed exotic dancer (her task made more difficult by the fact that she herself was missing her right arm) and can now be seen in the crypt of the Church of Our Lady of Cheerful Countenance in Montelimar and also, depending on who you believe, in the Church of St Ronaldo in Seville, St Trevors Church in Borehamwood and the Ripleys “Believe It or Not” exhibit at Niagara Falls. Why Louis X ordered that haywain drivers should pass to the right of oncoming haywains remains a mystery but it seems that Louis may have been a simpleton and just confused right and left. In England things were better ordered in that a clause clearly stating that “hayewaines and all other cartes” should pass to the left is to be found in the small print at the bottom of the Magna Carta.
And so to that fateful Sunday in May 1885 when the city of Paris ordained that the two theories of traffic circulation should be put to the test. The cream of Parisian society attended in their carriages and crowds from the poorer districts flocked to block the avenues and boulevards surrounding the Arc de Triomphe. Giratoire insisted that his system should be tested first and at the signal, the firing of a small cannon on top of the Arc itself, a mass of traffic started to move in a clockwise direction. Initially all went well until vehicles tired of going round and round and tried to leave by turning into one of the surrounding boulevards. As now seems obvious they immediately started to clash with vehicles entering from the same boulevard. Chaos ensued as enraged coachmen set about each other with their whips, all the while hurling insults up at Giratoire who was nervously pacing on the roof of the Arc. The Prefect of Police panicked and called out the army to restore order. The Horse Artillery, who were barracked nearby, were the first to arrive and plunged into the heaving mass of horse drawn vehicles in an anti-clockwise direction which made matters much worse. Rumours spread that the traffic experiment was an elaborate ploy to cover a military coup against the Third Republic and socialist roughs went at the artillery with a will. It was eight hours before order was restored.
Casualties were surprisingly light but nevertheless Giratoire was a ruined man and he went into bitter retirement at Ostend. Today Parisians still celebrate May 15th as the day of “Le Grand Circulation” by sitting in their cars in stationary traffic and hurling sexually explicit abuse at the drivers of neighbouring vehicles. Here in Basingstoke we wind down our windows and say to our fellow drivers in a breezy manner, “Turned out nice again ain’t it”.