Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Not reading on the M6

At the weekend I did not get on a bus; I got into a car to drive a significant distance--to west Cornwall, in fact. In one headlong dash, you might say. Rather than being just a long drive, this is a bit of an adventure for me. Since moving to the city driving a car has taken on a certain novelty value, so infrequently do I take to the wheel. There is a slight issue in that I tend to forget that driving is a participatory exercise--I forget I am not on the bus; that I require to pay some attention to what I am doing (my car is small and blue, in case you wish to manage your risk).

 For the last few years (actually only the past two or three weeks but it has felt like forever), it has been relentlessly grey and discouragingly chilly in Edinburgh--a bit like living in a refrigerated gym-sock, in fact. But the morning I left the sun was coming up as I passed the Devil's Punchbowl, the light all like golden syrup pouring over the hills while torn bridal veil wisps of mist melted away in the low places and dissolved between the trees. It was glorious, heart-lifting, fantastically dramatic stuff, and I would like someday for someone to explain this remarkable bit of geology to me--particularly as I nearly drove my car into it (see earlier re. lack of attention).

 You might ask why I was driving past the Devil's Punchbowl when there are more obvious (and quicker routes) to the M74 and The South. All I can offer in my defence is that I am a sucker for a scenic route and feel illogically drawn to the town of Moffat--I think it is the fantastic hardware store on the square and the way it turns its back on the motorway, so close it runs over its skirts.

 Motorways are, of course, another world altogether, and particularly motorway service areas-- artificial backwaters on a (usually) fast-flowing river fraught with potential hazards. They make me feel a bit like Stanley must have felt on coming upon Livingstone in Ujiji, finding a recognisably familiar reference point in a largely alien environment. (In motorway mythology I suppose Stanley would be Starbucks and Livingstone would be Costa, but the two of them would never have met, those particular concessions never seen in the same place at the same time.)

 I suppose in many ways service areas are dispiriting places, all stained concrete and despair, but if you are in the mood to sit and observe you will find plenty to catch your attention. Dramas both small and large are played out there: the tight-lipped parents handing children over for custody visits over Happy Meals (why hasn't Macdonalds been done under trades description for assigning an emotion to a cardboard box of ersatz foodstuffs? They cannot be 'happy meals'; they cannot even be 'mildly amused meals'...), the white van man staring tiredly out the window whose face is transformed as his phone beeps and he reads a text. The stunned, the sleepy, the happy, the sad; unconscious rudeness, indifference, good-nature, bad-temper, casual acts of kindness--all human life is there.

 As I stood waiting to pay for my petrol (or liquid gold, as I now think of it) and water somewhere south of Birmingham, the man at the next till was buying soft drinks and crisps. "If you pick up any of those other crisps over there instead," said the nice woman at the till, "you'll save £4." The customer seemed unwilling, or unable to take in the information, so the nice woman tried to explain again and yet again, that there was a special offer and just changing one brand of crisps for another would save him £4. The man drew himself up, pointed out the window to the forecourt and said, "do you see that car over there? That's my car. It's a Bentley." "I know dear," she replied patiently, "but we don't charge extra for that."

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