THE startling news on the Rialto is that the great city of Denver, Colo., has a public relations problem, at least as far as our district of London, England is concerned. This may come as a shock to them, particularly since it is not attributable to ``Dynasty.'' Not at all. Around a year ago the local authority of our district of Westminster informed us that we had been selected for the first experiment in traffic control using the ``wheel clamp.'' They made it sound as if we had won a competition. On our streets appeared white vehicles, looking like updated versions of the dogcatcher van in ``Tom and Jerry'' cartoons. On the side was the baleful statement ``Metropolitan Police Wheel Clamp Unit.'' Pausing only to brief Fleet Street and, cunningly, point out that it was not in the ``clamping area,'' they set to work. Every paper was full of pictures of this strange piece of metal referred to by one and all as the ``Denver Boot.'' Denver, they said, was whence this new social benefit hailed. Denver, they told us, was where it had been invented.
At first all went well. The Clamp Unit struck at the worst parking offenders in our district, which was the body of diplomats. We have about fifty embassies in the district and diplomats notoriously park where they like and don't pay their parking fines. (Incidentally, the US Embassy is notorious in that it does pay, which does more for Anglo-American relationships than any amount of state visits.) So all over town, diplomatic cars were being ``clamped'' to the loud cheers and hosannas of the citizenry. The Traffic Department basked, for the first time in living memory, in the approval of us locals. We even took time off to watch the clampings just as one gathers round workmen making a hole in the road. The diplomats, we felt, had it coming to them.
Alas, not for long. Our Foreign Office, on which our view is about the same as any red-blooded American's view of the State Department, let out a wail of horror. Do this, they averred, and British diplomats in, say, Brazil or Mongolia will find themselves being towed away or paying fines. Horror upon horror, they added. Now, so far as a quick Gallup poll conducted by this writer can discover, we were unanimous in this district in wishing to accept this possibility, which we decided we could sustain with the traditional stiff upper lip. But to no avail; the Clamp Unit were instructed to lay off the diplomats and go looking for other targets. They found them -- us, and they went to work.
Now it has been suggested that as a nation we are not what we were. But not in this case; we immediately did what all true Englishmen do in the face of oppression -- we wrote to The Times. I think the mildest letter referred to ``this evil design of a twisted mind.'' Every letter talked of the ``infamous Denver Boot,'' and it is here that I revert to the problem Denver PR has round here. There are children growing up today in our district who believe that ``infamous'' and ``Denver'' are one word.
Well, writing to The Times had its usual effect -- none. So the more spirited of us took to the mountains, metaphorically speaking, and began direct action. This was both imaginative and ineffective. The first man who worked out how to remove the wheel and the clamp, change the wheel, and drive off was prosecuted by the indignant Clamp Unit on a charge of stealing the clamp. Fortunately, in British law ``intent'' is everything, and he had taken the precaution of letting the police know where the clamp was -- in his garage -- and adding that they could have it back anytime they wanted. So he got off with a ``caution.''
The next freedom fighter was an artist. He worked for an advertising agency, of which we have many in Westminster, and he had at his disposal an art department. Obviously at the height of his powers, he surmised that if one's car is already clamped, the police won't do it again. Very logical. So he got his art people to prepare facsimile clamps in plastic, and every time he parked he clamped the car himself. So far, so good. Unfortunately, he also stuck a copy of the notice they put on the windscreen telling you not to try to drive away -- if you haven't noticed the clamp. And here he made his great mistake. Eventually, the wandering Clamp Unit passed his car already clamped and couldn't remember doing it themselves. So they stopped and had a look, detected the plastic clamp, and the game was up. While it is not illegal to immobilize your own car, they got him on the notice he had put on the windscreen. He had not been aware that all government notices are copyrighted and they got him for breaking the copyright. We all grieved with him when we read about it.
Well, our year of trial has come and gone. The Clamp Unit has made enormous profits from the venture and so far as one can see the only other people prospering are a business called the ``Clamp Club.'' They have a man on a motorcycle following the Clamp Unit around, and when you are clamped, the cyclist sticks a card under the windscreen with an offer to take you home, get the fine paid, and free your car and return it to you. All for an annual subscription, of course. The rest of us are just wandering about feeling broody.
So you see how it is about Denver. The name doesn't rate too high at the moment. In fact, if I were a visitor from Denver and was asking my way, I'd say that I came from anywhere else. Like St. Paul, Minn., or Skokie, Ill. Or even Plains, Ga. But not Denver. Not just at the moment. Unless, that is, you have worked out how to beat it . . . .