Another anniversary last week – the fiftieth of the opening of the first bit of motorway in the country. I have a real love/hate relationship with motorways. As mechanisms for getting from P to R (because there’s usually a Q in between), they are brilliant. It’s just that, when you stop to think what you’re really doing as you bomb along (yes, yes, two chevrons apart and all), it is genuinely scary. After all, for all its in-built roll-bars and air-bag – itself a scary feature – a car is not much more than a tin can on wheels, capable of racketing along at speeds which would have frightened racing drivers themselves a couple of generations ago. And any one of the other vehicles making its way along the surface could go wrong at any given second. It’s like playing Russian roulette with a gun which has a colossal number of chambers.
Then there is the issue of what your brain is actually doing as you scram across the country. Everyone must be familiar with that strange sensation of having travelled (say) fifty miles, but of having no recollection whatsoever of actually travelling it. The radio and CD-player are all very well, and passengers even better, but how many cabins of the brain can your thought-processes occupy while still concentrating on the road?
If I have no passenger – usually the case – I start to practise mental arithmetic. Since I have met at least one other person who does this, I am fearless about admitting it. Say that I have to travel 400 miles. For most of that distance, I will be calculating, at intervals, the average speed of the car, and (since my mental arithmetic is a little impaired, not by age, I don’t think, but by the fact that the business of driving does actually use up some considerable part of the available space on my mental hard drive) also re-calculating it, since the sums go wrong. Trying to extract a sensible figure in mph when you’ve being going for two hours and 25 minutes is hard work, and involves complex fractions.
Another thing I do – my brother does this, so I am not alone, or else there is a very faulty family gene, or else again he’s doing it because I said I did it – is to set myself alphabetic or similar puzzles. For example, thinking of male or female names running from A to Z (too easy), or place-names in popular (or, what the hell, unpopular) songs, also running from A to Z – e.g. Amarillo (show me the way to), Bangor (the day we went to), Chattanooga (Pardon me, sir, is this the train for). By the time I get to ‘Phoenix’, I’m exhausted, and also scrabbling about for a Q. Why do we have the letters Q, X and Z? Some bastard surely included them to stop my little motorway while-away-the-time wheeze.
And of course there is that other pastime, police car paranoia, even if you’re being sensible and sticking to 69.5. Is it just me, or has there been an increasing spate of companies who design their cars to look like police vehicles? Whole columns of cars suddenly decelerate when up ahead they see what turns out to be a plumber’s van, complete with day-glo markings and what looks like a ready-to-flash beacon on the roof. And suddenly there is a collective sigh of relief and a queue of hesitant and slightly irritated drivers whips past the facsimile, parody police patrol vehicle.
Driving. It drives you just a little bit mad.