Bernard Crick: Day of the Bollards, when traffic stood still

ONCE upon a time Edinburgh traffic moved, it really did, slowly but surely, long before the confusion and then the disaster struck. At first, on seeing their earliest arrivals only in small groups, most of us took little notice of them.

Some even thought that their comical red and white stripes and conical clown's hat shape added colour in both winter and spring (as the seasons were once distinguished) to the dour grey setts and Tarmacadam streets.

But then they began to increase and multiply all over the town. Some people grumbled but others grunted: "Grin and bear it, the streets and the drains must be repaired and the tram tracks laid." Or must they be? Most people asked, however, why dig up the roads and the drains at the same time? But knowledgeable people like myself answered: "To be finished by the Festival, of course."

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Yet the number of Bollards began to grow exponentially, as if of their own volition. Large groups of them appeared without any sign of roadworks nearby whatsoever. Slowly but surely they took over the whole of both the New and the Old Town. Only when they approached the few remaining inner-city hospitals did they stop short, as if from collective fear of infection.

They had, indeed, taken on a life of their own. By order of the council and the police thin tracks were bulldozed through the streets for people to reach the banks and the supermarkets so that civilised life could continue; but these clearings each night by the dawn became infested, congested and blocked. Soon even the wheels of the subcontracted bulldozers got fouled up and stuck in the strange, clinging, active substance.

Some motorists took the law into their own hands (a thing they had never done before) and tried to burn the Bollards by night, but the fumes, the stench and the screaming became intolerable.

Everyone quickly stopped ignoring or scorning the government of Scotland. We needed its help. But ministers, as if possessed by some quarrelsome gene or infection, each tried to hold the other responsible. Stewart Stevenson at Transport said that Bollards were not "licensed, wheeled vehicles", so not his remit (that was carefully phrased – he did not say "could not move", for plainly they could and did).

Stewart Maxwell at Communities and Sport stated that Bollards were not "a community" within the meaning of the Scotland Act 1998, and were certainly not Sport: debollardizing, he suggested, might better be a matter for education; catch Bollards young, teach them citizenship, persuade them not to congregate in the streets and multiply. Surely Maureen Watt at Schools would not dare to admit that even Bollards were ineducatable. But she, sensible woman, would have none of it. Indeed none would have anything of it. The First Minister was given two learned papers by Professor Ian Harvie, MSP, both groaning with footnotes: one on how the Australians had eradicated rabbits (well nearly) and the other on how medieval cardinals had stamped out the Lollards. Richard Holloway tried reasoning with them – we await the result. Wendy Alexander had demanded a referendum on the extermination of Bollards, but her party rejected the idea – and her.

Come the local elections, all the sitting councillors were thrown out as useless – only Greens survived and, much like Bollards, increased and multiplied. From deep ecological theory, they counselled "patience and time", for the Bollards, having filled the roads, were near to exhausting their margin of sustainable subsistence and survival etc. They would either wither away and die or migrate. The Greens were, most irritatingly, right. The Bollards did migrate, if only just down the road, sucked along by the irresistible sour smell of oil to Grangemouth.

But the refinery was no more prepared for this than for the strike. So soon the streets of Edinburgh were clear again, and the traffic still and quiet.

• Sir Bernard Crick is an emeritus professor at Edinburgh University and a former adviser to Home Secretary David Blunkett and Labour leader Neil Kinnock