Le Grand Prix des Chariots

The French call them chariots. So much less prosaic than our own trundling name – ‘shopping trolleys.’ The Americans are even worse: ‘carts,’ but the French have got the right idea.

They too, can imagine themselves as Ben Hur racing for his life, whilst whizzing round the isles at the local Carrefour; as Emperor Nero on stage at the amphitheatre in Naples as they select their frozen fois-gras; as Boadicea routing the Romans as they approach the home straight by les caisses

Well, okay. Perhaps not Boadicea. But to take your very own chariot around a supermarket seems a fine thing to do. It brings each and every one of us back to the ancient civilisations. The Greeks, the Romans, the Persians. The world of Homer. Of Ovid. Of Herodotus.

And I daresay that it is indeed that very yearning to understand more closely the great Classical texts that the young people of Greenwich congregate at that sacred grove, Shopping Cart Valhalla, of a Friday night to ritually explore the meaning of the Chariots of the Gods (no relation whatsoever, of course, to anything that may have been written by a certain G. Hancock. These chariots actually exist…)

As a keen anthropologist, I donned my safari suit and pith helmet to follow one such group, in the guise of Someone Not At All Interested So Don’t Mind Me, to witness their rituals and perhaps gain an insight into their strange – and some might say extreme – customs. To document their rites of passage and better understand the complex social system of the Youth of Greenwich.

The main part of their worship appears to be some kind of ritual sacrifice in the form of a race – perhaps for the young men of the tribe to prove their worth to the chieftains of the group.

My studies revealed there are generally two teams – a group of, say, six young men of mid teen-age, who harvest the chariots from Shopping Cart Valhalla* and bring them to the track where the race is to be held, a curious structure or ‘bridge’ that spans a major spiritual highway known by the local tribes as the ‘A102M’.

The other team, it became apparent, consists of strangers who wish to cross that ‘bridge’ – in this case, my own party.

The preliminaries are mainly displays of strength – sending the chariots from the top of the ramp-part of the structure down to the place where it bends, perhaps to see whether the youth in question has the necessary skill to make it bounce from the ‘barriers’ and continue down the second part of the slope.

All that is required of the opposing team, I concluded, is to prove their own nerve by climbing the attendant steps around which the ramps circulate. A nerve-shattering experience, as the trolleys clatter and clang their way down around the opposing team, each moment a test of the metal barriers to contain the carts; each moment also a test of the mental barriers within the ‘Foreign’-team. It is vital at that point not to indicate fear – or even interest.

The whole race, although ear-splitting from the trolleys’ point of view, is, however, conducted in complete silence from both teams. The former intent on sending the chariots to their doom, collecting them and bringing them back up for a second attempt; the latter merely aiming to cross the bridge without incident.

As the two groups tacitly agree to move to the second part of the ritual, a grand procession is made across the bridge. Team A silently pushing their trolleys across, surrounding Team B who look stolidly ahead, pretending nothing unusual is going on around them.

As the climax approaches, Team B realises what is at stake. They must, at any cost, descend via the steps only, as the battle for the ramp begins.

After the warm-ups – an ‘open’ race for empty trolleys – comes the freestyle finale, when young man after young man climbs into his own trolley and races the others in a nail-biting slalom.

They send themselves hurtling down the ramps at breakneck speed, weaving in and out of each other, executing fancy moves to impress the spectators, and, perhaps, Team B who are still steadfastly pretending that nothing’s going on.

At the end of the ritual, Team A collect the now somewhat-battered chariots, drag them back to the beginning to wait for the next Foreign Team to attempt to cross their territory. Team B shuffle away towards the great Temple of the goddesses B&Q, trying to look as though they saw absolutely nothing and they aren’t going to report anyone to the local constabulary…

Clearly photography was impossible. I, as part of the ‘Team B,’ collective, was expected to show no interest. Photographing this ancient ritual would have not only disturbed the wordless beauty of the custom but would have probably got me beaten up.

Instead, I bring you this tragic photograph of one of the chariots that didn’t make it to Valhalla and instead rests at Greenwich Pier…

*Interestingly, from an anthropologist’s point of view, the carts harvested from Valhalla tend to be, by their very nature, the older and weaker examples of their breed. They may have wonky wheels, or broken parts. Perhaps there is a race held elsewhere by fully-fledged tribe-members who are strong enough to tackle shopping trolleys in their prime…

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