Monday, 22 August 2011

Parking mad

The worst thing about families, aside from the acrimonious games of Trivial Pursuit on Boxing Day, is the constant threat of hereditary inheritance. But I'm not talking about cystic fibrosis or haemophilia, I mean the obsessions and hang-ups that get handed down from generation to generation, like an ugly bone china soup tureen. This is about nurture, not nature.

In my family, it's an obsession with parking. More specifically, the cost and availability of it. Growing up in the countryside outside of Sheffield, I was raised with a fearful distaste for the local metropolis, viewing it the same way that Hobbits looked at Mount Doom, purely on account of a few tricky one-way systems and some expensive multi-storeys.

By the time I moved to London, I'd forgotten about my family's fixation with the cost of leaving the car unattended for a couple of hours. Until one day, a couple of months before my civil ceremony, I called my Dad to tell him that we'd secured hotel rooms just a stone's throw from our wedding venue. Expecting him to be excited about the prospect of staying in a brand new designer hotel with views of Tower Bridge and the Lord Mayor's building, instead I got: “Well how are we going to get there? ‘Cos I’m not paying bloody London parking prices.”

Suddenly, it all came flooding back to me. A lifetime of oral travelogues punctuated by an encyclopedic recollection of how much it cost to park the car. When my sister went off travelling for a year, we all made the pilgrimage to Heathrow in order to wave her off. But as we approached the barrier to the short term parking zone and the price board honed into view, I swear my Dad toyed with the idea of telling her to hop out and make her own way to the terminal, in order to save himself a few quid.

Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, nurture trumped nature and I found myself exhibiting symptoms of park-anoia. I used to have one of those UGC cards, that gave you unlimited access to the cinema for £9.99 a month. The problem was, our nearest multiplex had no car park, leaving us with no choice but to use the NCP next door. Realising that the £5 surcharge to park made the unlimited card something of a false economy, I started working out the exact running time of the films (excluding previews, ads and end credits) to see if a film could be crammed into a two-hour, rather than a three-hour slot. Sometimes, if enough minutes were left over, I’d even race through the neighbouring mall looking for an excuse to spend a tenner, so that I’d get a token for two hours’ free parking. In the end, it made cinema-going so stressful I had to cancel the card and start buying DVDs instead.

But there's hope for me. Because it turns out that this obsession with meters and single yellow lines isn't unique to my family. In fact, parking seems to be something of a national obsession, and could soon replace the weather as our default conversational setting. In a news story that appeared in the papers today, a new survey conducted by insurance company Churchill, has found that we Brits are very protective of our parking spaces, whether we own them or not. Almost fifty percent of people believe that they own the space immediately outside their home, with five percent even pulling a 'Boswell' and using traffic cones to preserve it.

This follows on from a similar survey in March that found we take out our frustrations on motorists who don't observe parking etiquette, with a quarter of respondents admitting that they've "verbally attacked" car owners who flaunt the rules. One of the most common irritants appears to be drivers who park in disabled bays without any visible impediments to mobility. Apparently, I'm not the only one who's sat in a Tesco car-park, loudly berating an able-bodied shopper for using one of those much coveted extra-wide bays right next to the store's entrance.

The good news is that even the most deeply ingrained behaviours can be changed over time. As with the majority of phobias, aversion therapy is the best course of action. So I faced my fears and drove into the west end recently, happily swiping my card to the tune of £12.50 for a couple of hours just off Brewer Street. Best of all, it's given my parents a new anecdote that I'm sure they'll get plenty of mileage from.

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