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25 January 2007


The old man that crossed the road and the Reliant that lived up to its name

By Simon Munnery

Recently I’ve been travelling a lot by car. I am aware that this does not mark me out as unusual. Never before have so many travelled so far, so fast, and so frequently.

Never in the field – always on the motorway, always at the services, a stranger waiting to be served by a stranger. Amazing race without victors, the parade of chariots, the endless road: it’s a life sentence – if you’re lucky. The road – topologically there’s only one; if you can imagine a road that isn’t linked to any other roads then it’s not a road is it? It’s a runway.

Standing on a bridge over the motorway watching the endless stream of cars speeding in both directions I was struck by the urgency of it all: Is there so much that is that important?

Couldn’t they all just swap jobs? Send an email? All those tiny engines roaring: how inefficient is that? Lately The Guardian printed a sticker (on paper from trees) saying “Yes, this journey is absolutely neccessary”. I’ve not seen any actually stuck on a car, but then again I’ve not seen any bumper stickers saying “Yes, I am a wanker” either.

The paradox is this: Because we can travel large distances quickly, we have to. Because we have to, we do. Because we do, we can’t: Traffic. Strangely the only time people moan about traffic is when they’re in a car. “Bloody traffic” we say, forgetting for a moment that we are ourselves part of the problem we condemn.

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I met a bloke in a pub once who told me he was a road closer; he closes roads. It’s an unpaid job, somewhere between vocation and hobby. He puts up signs saying “Road Closed”. He’s not a terrorist, he’s an inconveniencist. He’s trying to overthrow capitalism – slowly.

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I don’t own a car any more, although I rent one on occasion – weddings mainly, which tend to be held in remote places inaccessible by rail: castles, Las Vegas, mountain tops. Why? Is it that by forcing friends and family to travel vast distances the bride and groom can gauge the affection with which they are held? All these people have come so far – for us: we must be special indeed. Or is it that by having the ceremony in a strange location in retrospect the whole event can take on a dream-like quality? Handy when it comes to divorce.

“…Until death us do part” you are required to say in the wedding ceremony – a tad unambitious surely for a church that claims to believe in eternal life, a tad earthly, practical. But once you’ve gone that far why not go further? “Until irreconcilable differences do us part” / “Until we are bored with each other” / “Until thursday week”…

Mostly I’m a passenger in other people’s cars, getting lifts to gigs; absurd journeys from London to Stoke-on-Trent and back in a night – the best time to travel, the only time the roads are as empty as they are in the adverts.

I knew a bloke in Melbourne who used to stride without looking across that city’s four lane highways with a shout of “Pedestrian city!”. I hadn’t the courage to follow him. There are so many dangers on the road: lorries, cars driven by idiots, cars driven by very sensible people swerving to avoid cars driven by idiots, cars driven by policemen chasing cars driven by idiots, idiots shouting “Pedestrian city!” in defiance of the facts.

Near Finsbury Park I saw an old man with a walking stick crossing the road at the lights. He was taking his time – he’s an old man; he’s entitled – but when he gets half way across the road a car hoots him. Perhaps the lights had changed, and the driver was in a hurry. The old man stopped, picked up his stick, slowly pointed it at the car and went “Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-ta” as though the stick was a tommy gun. He got a round of applause when he got to the pavement, seven minutes later.

Millions of years of evolution, thousands of years of culture, but when you get in a car the only way you can communicate with anyone in your immediate vicinity is by honking your horn; which is ambiguous to say the least. What does a honk mean ? “Get out of my way” “I’m letting you out” “The lights have changed, get a move on” “Oi, Terry”… It could mean “I’m having a heart attack, the central locking has broken, help, get me out of here”, so I always carry a hammer when I’m cycling.

When I was about thirteen I was a massive Bruce Springsteen fan, but I went off him a bit when I was singing to myself one of his songs – ‘Drive All Night’ from the album ‘The River’ – and started thinking about the lyrics. The chorus, sung in the standard Springsteen plaintive wail, goes “I’d drive all night – through the wind, through the rain…” and I thought “Yes Bruce, in a car. It’s not that hard is it? Put the windscreen wipers on, turn the heating up, you’ll be alright. Actually, don’t drive all night – get out, have a rest: think of the other road users.”

I’ve driven all night myself; two of us took turns driving an old Robin Reliant from London to Edinburgh. That was a journey. Early on we pulled up next to another car and the smiling passenger wound down his window; I though he wanted directions so I wound down mine – but as it turned out he didn’t; he just wanted to stretch out his arm and rock the Robin from side to side and laugh mockingly. It takes all sorts. Yes, but need it necessarily?

We left London at 4pm and proceeded up the A1 at our maximum speed: forty miles per hour – fifty downhill – in what was little more than a go-cart; the back draught of every lorry that passed threatened to blow us of the road. It proved a very reliable vehicle – it could be relied upon to break down. Every time we pulled into a service station – for fuel or to recover our wits – it would conk out; that is, it wouldn’t start warm. We had to push it from the pumps and wait.

My co-pilot bought speakers for his Walkman so we could enjoy music en route but to no avail, nothing could be heard above the din of the engine. Around 4am somewhere on the Northumbrian coast the window fell out and we were enveloped in freezing fog. We got there at dawn, and in celebration drove up Arthur’s Seat, the radiator whistling like a kettle, and felt like kings of the earth. We weren’t: we were idiots.