Sunday, 24 August 2014
Romance of the road
Meanwhile: here is Andrew M Brown's paean to the highway in today's Sunday Telegraph:
"Ah, the joy of the open road. In all the fuss about rail fare increases the salient point I took out was that – contrary to what many London-based commentators assume – most people do not actually use trains for commuting. Outside the South East, they travel by car.
And that is understandable. Because trains are all very well: you can do your work on them, walk up and down a bit, have a full English breakfast, stare out of the window. You can observe other passengers, or disturb them with chat. Yet still, the car exerts a powerful emotional pull.
I noticed this the other day on a nine-hour round trip across the West Country, to and from a wedding. I was filled with a sense of the romance of the road. It is not only the thrusting sales rep in his dark glasses who feels this, bombing down the fast lane in his Vauxhall Insignia. I felt it too, in my Citroën on the M5. There I was, sealed up in that plastic capsule, all by myself. (It is best to be alone to enjoy driving – solitary, rather than lonely. The effect is not the same if children are in the back and the view in the rear mirror is blocked by beach equipment.)
I switched on Radio 2: nostalgic pop songs on the Tony Blackburn show. Music adds to the mood of dreamy euphoria. Which is why petrol stations sell compilations of “full-throttle anthems” and “seriously cool driving music”.
Catchy place names flash past on signs: Cullompton Services. Barnstaple 38. Driving may be hypnotic and repetitive, especially on the motorway. But it’s not completely mindless, like Hoovering, because the brain is engaged in the vital business of keeping the car on the road. It is spiked with that shot of adrenalin that comes from the essential riskiness of the task. “Whoops, I’m veering towards the central reservation.” Or there are those terrifying moments when you realise you’ve fallen asleep for a split-second.
The crucial point is that in the comfort of your car you can be whoever you like. You can float for a while in a sort of existential bubble all of your own. Too much of this sort of thing leads to trouble, of course. All that frenzied manoeuvring on the highway – the obnoxious bullying, pushing and shoving, tailgating – might actually be unconscious acting out of psychic conflicts.
That is the point of Betjeman’s breezily macabre poem, “Meditation on the A30”: “A man on his own in a car / Is revenging himself on his wife; / He opens the throttle and bubbles with dottle / and puffs at his pitiful life.”
Here, the driver is an inadequate, a resentful, puffed-up fantasist (“I’d like a nice blonde on my knee / And one who won’t argue or nag. / Who dares to come hooting at me? / I only give way to a Jag.”). We keen motorists don’t think of ourselves in those pathetic terms.
In any case, the bubble soon bursts. The woolgathering abruptly stops – when you see brake lights ahead and a centipede of vehicles bumper to bumper into the far distance. Last Saturday I turned off the motorway on to the A303 to find that it was as congested as a sumo wrestler’s coronary arteries. For 45 minutes I barely got out of first gear.
Delays like that are common. You’d have thought they would put people off driving. But they don’t. We forget the bad bits, because we love our cars too much."