Thursday, March 10, 2011

Off the Road

Two weeks ago, I was driving back from East Anglia in my dull, but dependable, Citroën Xsara Picasso, marvelling at the fact that it had never let me down in 81,000 miles. Like some arranged marriages, I initially had a strong feeling of revulsion when I bought it. It wasn't just the painfully slow acceleration, but also the strong smell of dog, which permeated every item of clothing I wore, however brief the journey.

But gradually the canine odours faded and I grew used to the car's stolid, philosophical nature. For this stage of my life - a father of two with an elderly mother - it ticked all of the boxes. The boot space was ample enough to smuggle a whole family through customs, whilst the seating was comfortable and spacious. I congratulated myself on my choice.

Almost as if in response to these fatuous thoughts, a warning light flashed on the dashboard and the car started to loose its power. Fortunately, the hills of Lewes loomed in the distance and I was able to freewheel downhill to a local garage, where I assumed that the car would be fixed and I'd be back on the road within 24 hours.

That was two weeks ago. During this time, the fault in my car has acquired the same mythical status as the Higgs Boson particle and I have begun to wonder if I will ever drive again.

In the meantime, I have been commuting to work by train. As the crow flies, it isn't a long journey, but the costs are double and it usually takes at least twice as long. How can we hope to lure people away from using cars under these conditions?

On a good day, my commute has been taking one hour and 40 minutes: one mile to Lewes station, a train journey involving a couple of changes, followed by another mile on foot. It would be tolerable if the line passed through spectacular scenery, but for most of the journey all I can see is badly-designed 20th century housing.

Even "funky", "happening" Brighton doesn't look that great at 6:55am:

The one positive is that I'm able to read, provided that nobody is disturbing me. Unfortnately I have a very poor attention span and will easily be distracted by mobile phones, attractive women, the number of abandoned footballs on the railway track, MP3 players and the headlines on someone else's newspaper. It takes me a long time to read a book.

To my great surprise, I haven't seen any Kindles yet. Perhaps my local railway line just isn't zeitgeisty enough, but after all the hype from Amazon I was expecting to come across at least one Kindle reader.

From a voyeuristic point of view, I love seeing what people are reading and don't look forward to the anonymity of the Kindle. You can tell a lot about someone by the way they dress, but it's their reading material that is most illuminating. When the soberly-dressed man sitting opposite me got out a Stephen Donaldson book, last week, I had a much clearer sense of who he was.

Sometimes people's reading choices are refreshingly unpredictble. I'll never forget the Mr T lookalike at Clapham Junction who was clutching a well-thumbed Catherine Cookson novel, or the "chavvy" girl with Elizabeth Duke jewelery and a Primark hoodie who was engrossed in W. G. Sebald's 'Rings of Saturn'.

Books instantly change my perception of people. The rather gorgeous woman sitting opposite suddenly loses her allure when she produces a copy of a misery memoir, whilst the shallow-looking city worker instantly goes up in my estimation with his copy of Maupassant's 'Bel Ami'. In a world full of e-books, I'd be limited to judging people on appearances only (I know that there's another option - don't be so judgemental - but that would take all the fun out of travelling) .

However, it would be a relief to be able to read a trashy thriller without anyone knowing. I love the anonymity provided by MP3 players (if I appear to be close to tears when listening to a piece of music, you'll never know that I'm actually listening to 'Two Little Boys') and would be tempted to buy a Kindle for this reason alone.

In the meantime, if you're on a train from Brighton and see a man pretending to read a very erudite book about Islam or existentialism, but who is clearly more interested in the seagull standing on a nearby chimney pot, that'll be me.


Jim Murdoch said...

When my wife and I were looking for a new flat we deliberately chose one on the outskirts of Glasgow to allow us reading time on the buses - we don't own a car because have you tried to find a parking space in Glasgow? Since I stopping commuting to work I have had to completely rearrange my reading schedule and it's too easy when at home to get distracted by other things. It's taken a long time to get my reading quota back up to what it used to be.

Steerforth said...

Didn't you get travel sick reading on the bus?

I've never been to Glasgow (or indeed most cities north of the Watford Gap) which is ridiculous, particularly given that I managed to travel all around Chile. I intend to remedy that - hopefully this year.

Jim Murdoch said...

Not at all but it's best to get a window seat. I've also used an e-book reader on the bus (an old Rocket eReader about ten years ago) and no one batted an eye. Mind you it was the 6am bus and most of my fellow commuters were barely awake.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Sorry to hear your car is still in the car hospital Steerforth. I do hope they find a cure soon.

What interesting journeys you are having though, cost nuisance aside.

I have a black latex book case for bibles to protect my reading material as I am a terrible cover bender, but at the moment am reading my guilty monthly pleasure - a trashy psychic magazine, and yes, I'm suitably ashamed.

The book I am currently reading is called 'Hacking Work', an excellent tome about how to make work more bearable (until fortune comes knocking, that is). My least read was 'Brilliant Pitch' - another excellent non-fic book about pitching and presentations.

Know what you mean about judging people by their reading material. Other than that when I am fixated by a man on public transport, it's generally to fathom how on earth his jeans stay up rather than for erotic reasons!

Sarie said...

Oh yes, Two Little Boys! Gets me every time as well!

David said...

I commute car/ railway/ bicycle, and I have a dilemma because at the end of the summer, Chiltern Railways is going to introduce a new timetable shaving 10 minutes off its journey time - reducing it from 45 minutes to 35. That's nearly two hours a week of reading time lost, and I can't keep up with the books I want to read as it is. Why do they want to do that? I could make up some time by taking the Tube at the London end instead of cycling, but it's not a pleasant prospect and I'd miss the exercise.

Gabriela Von Bohlen said...

Oh no, there are also people like me, who keep a weekly book column in a ladies' magazine and have to read all sorts of books. I often read in the bus. I don't love Cathy Kelly, it's just my job.

moo said...

I live 9 miles from work. I've done the journey in 12 mins on a good day. Rush hour - 30 mins usually, unless there's an accident. I took the bus 5 years ago. It took 2 hours, with 2 changes and 2 x 1 mile walks. Train I did when I lent my car to the OH. 1 mile walk, 15 min train, 40 min walk.

I can run 9 miles in less time than the bus & train journeys took me.

Martin said...

It must be something about Citroëns. We had a trusty BX that ran faultlessly for five years, then everything broke almost at once.

You sound like a man, teetering on the edge of Kindledom. We received one as a gift, last Christmas. It's great for those free downloads from Gutenberg, but I have reverted to hard copy when I'm paying money. I want that book on my shelf, on show, in view, whichever way you want to see it.

Steerforth said...

Martin, you're right - I protest too much about the Kindle and I'm in danger of becoming like those telly evangelists who secretly visit prostitutes.

My house is full of books that I'll probably never read but can't bear to get rid of, so the Kindle would be the ideal solution.

Moo - it's both reassuring and depressing to realise that my experience isn't unusual. I'd love to be able to travel to work by public transport, but not if it involves speniding an extra £100 per month and wasting an additional 30 hours commuting.

Gabriela - I didn't realise that Cathy Kelly had reached Finland. We get Sibelius; you get Cathy Kelly. That doesn't seem like a good deal.

David - they should have 'reading trains', with an average speed of 30mph. Each carriage could be like a library: hushed voices only; no mobile phones or walkmans. Then it certainly would be better to travel than arrive.

Sarie - I'm glad it's not just me: "Did you think I would leave you dying..." always gets me.

Laura - you must be using the bus. I find that the most attractive people travel by train. I don't know why.

Anonymous said...

Remember to add the cost of fixing your car to the cost of commuting by car. There are lots of hidden costs of owning your own transport versus using public transport. Its not just the petrol...

Steerforth said...

You're absolutely right, but at worst it would make owning a car as expensive as public transport, which is quite wrong.

We need a carrot and stick approach, with a better public transport infrastructure and subsidised fares.

I'd far rather commute by train, but not if it means sacrificing an additional 420 hours of my life every year.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't thought about the privacy of the Kindle as being a downside, but I can quite see that it is. Because I too like to know what other people are reading.

As for reading on the bus, when I was in school, I had no choice but to take the bus, change once, and on to the school. To be honest, I would have sold my soul for a set of wheels, but had no money at the time.

However, I did make one discovery: Thackeray's Vanity Fair is perfect for reading on the bus (or train, I would imagine). Since it was written as a serial, each chapter had roughly the same number of words -- a perfect length for the daily commute!

Canadian Chickadee

mtff said...

I have a Kindle. And the Kindle app for iPad (so Husband can read the book at the same time). It is a completely different thing from a book, somehow. I use it for travel, for books I know perfectly well I will only read once, and when it's too late to get to a shop and I desperately need something to read - it's instant. I know this is not such a problem for you, but I now live in a town where we have ONE bookshop with a limited selection. I still buy paper books that I want to own and I must say I retain them better and enjoy reading them more, but I don't regret buying the Kindle for a moment.

I'm so sorry about your car. I believe in public transport in theory, but I actually really hate taking it. Fortunately for my conscience - though not for the greater good- where I live, it doesn't really exist so I drive everywhere (they also don't believe in walking here).

David said...

I enjoy my commute, I am usually on the same train each day, with the same people (not that we talk much of course), there is a trolley service, I know which carriage to get on so I can get my cup of tea quickly.

It's sometime a bit crowded but as I'm usually cycling at the other end I'm in old clothes so I'll happily sit on the floor if there isn't a seat. And as I have said it is already quite quick. Chiltern is a good railway, they have spent money improving the service (doubles the track, bought new trains).

Anonymous said...

I hope your car gets better soon, Steerforth, but if it doesn't, I will look forward to more of your observations about reading and travel. I found this entire thread fascinating, although I'll now feel much more self-conscious about what I choose to read on journeys!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Christine, I will be a lot more self conscious about my reading choices when on public transport from now on! I don't often get the train, however, so perhaps I am safe from your scrutiny, Steerforth? I did once take Delta of Venus to read on the bus and felt far too self conscious to read the damned thing. I tried to reassure myself that no one was interested in my choice of reading material, but to no avail. And apparently, my paranoia was well founded!

I do agree with you that public transport is not often a cost and time effective choice, or certainly not enough to weigh heavily against the convenience of owning a car. I own a car but usually commute by bus to work. I enjoy being able to zone out when travelling by bus/train although I often listen to music or scribble in my notebook rather than reading.

Hope the car is better soon, it is a pain having to change your routine, but on the bright side it has clearly provided an opportunity for a different kind of contemplation on your way to/from work. I am glad I am not the only one who gets distracted by all the interesting things that might be found in my vicinity when I am travelling on public transport.

Steerforth said...

Yes Chickadee, a lot of the once-serialised Victorian novels are perfect for commuting aren't they? I love Vanity Fair - one of my top ten books.

MTFF - Is there still a bookshop called Earthlets in your area? I used to love it.

I'm must admit, I'm warming to the idea of a Kindle; mainly because I'm running out of space for books.

David - it's good to hear from someone who enjoys their commute. I used to love my District Line commute from Richmond to the Science Museum - I read a lot of good books.

I don't see any need to drive to work in London, but I didn't realised how tricky public transport can be in the 'sticks'.

Christine - I'm glad to say that my car has now been repaired, after nearly two weeks at the garage. Luckily, I wasn't invoiced for all of the labour costs, otherwise it would have been a four-figure sum!

Pinky - I wouldn't be brave enough to read Delta of Venus on the bus, although I suspect that many of your fellow passengers would have assumed that it was a science fiction novel (which might be worse!).

Yes, your paranoia was well-founded! I think anyone who loves books has a natural curiosity about what other people are reading.

It's really frustrating that public transport is so inconvenient and expensive - I'd love to spend my journey to work reading (or staring out of the window at seagulls).