Thursday, February 26, 2015

Long Distance

The beginning of Steven Spielberg's best film, Duel, captures the magic of driving in America. I like the process of transformation, from driving along a busy 12-lane freeway, with dozens of radio stations to choose from, to finding yourself alone, on a deserted two-lane stretch of road, with only a crackling Christian channel for company, broadcasting a melodrama about an alcoholic adulterer who finds Jesus.

A sign announces that Davis City is five miles ahead and you feel a wave of excitement, as if the promised land is around the corner. It doesn't matter that when you reach Davis City, it takes 15 seconds to travel from one end to the other. The pleasure is in the anticipation.

Sadly, Great Britain's motorways don't offer quite the same excitement:

There will always be three or four lanes and the view will nearly always be the same . You may feel a slight frisson as BBC Radio Warwickshire's diminishing signal segues into a stronger one from Radio Leicester. I can't say I did.

I had to make a 400-mile round trip yesterday, along a purgatorial stretch of motoway that seemed to be designed to sap the human spirit. At one point I stopped at a service station, hoping to restore my equilibrium. That was a mistake.

Where was I? I still don't know. Everything was identical to another service station I went to last week. Working men in hi-vis jackets huddled around the counter of Greggs Bakery, whilst middle management types in shiny suits hooked into the free wifi in Costa Coffe and checked their emails.

The design of the service station aimed at a reassuring uniformity, presenting the visitor with familiar brands. There was no sense of being anywhere.

Later, I stopped at Newport Pagnell and went across this walkway. Most of the windows had been frosted, but a couple of clear panes gave a view of cars and lorries hurtling past underneath. The movement and noise beneath me contrasted with the curious stillness of the bridge.

Further north, I noticed that the Waitrose in another service station was identical to the one at Newport Pagnell, right down to the three boxes of Lindt chocolate bunnies to the left of the till. It reminded me of a question that our philosophy lecturer asked us:

"If I remove my friend's Ford Cortina and replace it with one that's identical in every minute detail to the point where my friend has no idea that his car has been switched, is it the same car?"

At the time, we all groaned and said no, of course not. What a silly question. But actually it was a sly introduction to epistemology, forcing us to confront the truth that reality was simply what we thought we knew. Was I in the same Waitrose?

But then I noticed that the sales assistant had a slightly different accent and was a little friendlier. It was like unlocking your Cortina and finding furry dice that weren't there before.

After hours of driving, I reached my destination. The prospect of having to drive home wasn't particularly appealling. Perhaps I could just live here, I thought, as I drove past rows of semi-detached houses. I quickly spotted my new local shop, which had three men drinking cans of lager outside.

Whenever I go anywhere, I wonder what it would be like to have a life there. If I'd made different decisions when I was young, where would I be now? More successful, or drinking lager outside a corner shop in the north? Happier or sadder?

It's tantalising to think how many paths are open to us.

My meeting lasted for five minutes. He was a nice chap and we both agreed that we'd play it by ear. There wasn't much more to say.


George said...

It was my impression, about 35 years ago, that we crossed most of the state of Missouri listening not only to the same radio station (the one belonging to the University of Missouri) but to the same song by Led Zeppelin. On the other hand, that would have required a very long-playing LP, say five hours to a side, so probably not. But it was a very long song, "Dream On" perhaps.

The radio stations do change, though now with XM satellite radio you probably can listen to the same station coast to coast unless in the narrowest defiles. And if you don't want to pay for XM, the domination of radio by a few chains such as Clear Channel can mean that you hear the same stuff--music and chatter--almost everywhere.

If you want uniformity in food and accommodations you can get it, taking the interstates Olive Garden to Olive Garden, Holiday Inn to Holiday Inn. Or, admittedly, you can get off to the side roads and take your chances, though it pays to be well informed.

zmkc said...

I just deleted a comment from you on my blog, by mistake. I do apologise; I don't understand how I did it, if that's any comfort - it may be because I'm really a robot. Feel free to do the same to me with this one

Steerforth said...

George - I took my chances. Once, I stayed in what was virtually a brothel, listening to a very ugly argument going on in the next room. Another time I stayed in a motel that had more mould than a Gorgonzola warehouse. After that, I discovered Motel 6 and revelled in the bland uniformity of clean sheets and working air conditioning. So it's not always vive la difference, I'll admit.

zmkc said...

I quite like the eeriness of motorway stopping stations - they don't seem very often to be identical, but they always seem to be of no place. I also like airports, for the same reason. Maybe it's because all my life I've been moved around so much that I've grown to think, semi-consciously, that the interval between one life and the next is always the most pleasant time - that interlude when your vision of what you're going to next is still bright and shiny. As to your philosophy teacher's question, I read that, when people who buy those autonomous round vaccuum cleaners - the ones that whizz around your house, supposedly, making everything dustfree while you're out - find that theirs has broken and take it back to the shop, they object if the shop person says, 'Oh I'll just get you a new one from out the back.' 'But no, we want little Freddie back, we don't want a new one. We just want you to make him better', the owners wail, (not always using the name Freddie, I don't think, but you get the picture)

Steerforth said...

Zoe - I've deleted comments on my smartphone more than once - it's so easy to do. One day I'll probably unwittingly delete my whole blog.

Steerforth said...

Zoe - I've just seen your longer comment. I've never enjoyed airports since 9/11, but railway stations are still full of promise and I'm probably happiest on a long train journey, watching the landscape slowly change.

I wasn't aware that some people felt so affectionate towards their hoovers, although I suppose if I think about it, I am very fond of my Miele and would pay good money to keep it going. I don't feel the same way about the kettle. I don't know why.

Chris Matarazzo said...

As you reference in your comments, it is also somtimes nice to take refuge in the bland and predictable. The mom-and-pop type of place is always a bit of a risk. After having gone to drop off my wife's car at a place someone had recommended to us (a filthy privately-owned hovel of a shop) and after having dealt with the rude, feckless twits who ran the place, I declared to my wife that I'd rather be generically and prescriptively fawned over by the corporate guys at the dealership and pay more money for repairs than put up with the unpridictable shmoes who have no script to follow and no consequences to suffer for their rudeness. At the same time, I once had a tremendous conversation with a fellow in an out-of-the way drum shop. I bought a cymbal from him simply because I felt I owned him payment for the wonderful conversation. So, we roll the dice. (And we apparently write blog comments in which it seems we are trying to caputre as many cliches as we can.)

Val , Kate, The Cute Kitten ,Razzy, Kepsey,Darwin ,Charon and Echo. said...

"It's tantalising to think how many paths are open to us"
It is isn't it. Your musings made me ponder...
I do see that the assurance of the power of the Moirai/Fates in Ancient Greece would help reduce the regrets of life/resign us to life as it turns out to be.
We use a similar psychology when My husband and I discuss what might have been if at different times of our lives we had taken alternate paths in life..different careers, education choices etc it's reassuring to realize that if all sorts of unconnected events had not occurred we would not now be together as a family 3,000 miles from his birthplace and 4,500 from mine... we are very lucky, and realizing that life however imperfect is good does help cushion the normal frustrations and disappointments that are inevitable parts of life..and if that doesn't work I just take the dog for a long walk ...
Motorways are however not a problem in this state ..two roads leave Anchorage (I don't mean just two main I mean literally two) One to the North and One to the South neither are wide or multi-laned and no chains of stores or services in sight!

Canadian Chickadee said...

I liked this essay very much.

I think one of the things that comes as a surprise to visitors to the United States is the sheer size of the place. The entire country of France is about the size of Texas, which is only one of fifty states.

Also, it's a surprise at how vastly different one part is from another, not just geographically, but politically and culturally Intellectually we all know this, but experiencing it first hand puts a different colour on things.

The difference between Western Washington (where we live) and New Mexico where our granddaughter attended university is a difference not of States, but of planets. Everything is different: the flora, fauna, the view from the windows. There is nothing in Washington to compare to the acres and acres of snowy white sand in New Mexico (White Sands National Monument), nor is there anything in New Mexico to compare to the Columbia River in Washington. Even the fabled Rio Grande is less than grand, because of the amount of water which has been siphoned out for irrigation.

I like driving in England very much, though we only use the motorways as a last resort. I suppose they are faster, but you miss so much: trees and fields and villages.

It's interesting that you say that when you visit somewhere new, you always wonder what it would be like to live there. I do that too. Perhaps for some of us, home (or at least the idea of it) is a particularly important part of our being.

Steerforth said...

Chris - It sounds horribly familiar. I began by assuming that an independent mechanic or dealer would have a greater incentive to give good service, but the reality is more like Russian Roulette. One man, warmly recommended by a friend, not only overcharged me for an incredibly incompetent service, but also pinched fuel from my tank. I quickly switched to the chains.

However, since I swapped London for a small town, I've noticed that the independents are honest and do seem to take pride in their work.

Val, Kate and Co - I've looked at your blog (Nature Notes) and the photos are beautiful. I know Alaska isn't everyone's cup of tea, but the spirit of independence and the remoteness have always appealed to me. You make a good point about acceptance - a more rational approach to living than obsessing about what could have been.

Carol - Yes, the variety of landscapes in the US is staggering. I remember throwing snowballs at somebody one day and driving through Death Valley the next. One of my favourite memories is of driving in the desert at night at 100mph, following a straight line of cats eyes, as if I was flying over a runway. There was a great sense that anything was possible and even if small towns like Merced were often an anticlimax, it didn't matter.

You're right about driving in England. It can be a pleasure if you avoid the motorways and stick to the back roads (and aren't in a hurry), as there are plenty of quirky old buildings along the way. It's surprising how many gems aren't listed in guide books. I visited a tower the other week that was a thousand years old, but it's rarely given a mention in any book.

Steerforth said...

I forgot to mention, re: Duel, I suppose the one advantage of Britain's roads is that you can't be pursued by a homicidal truck driver very easily, unlike Dennis Weaver's poor character, although some lorry drivers manage to be almost as dangerous without even trying.

One Polish HGV driver was recently caught on the M2 watching a DVD.

Brian Busby said...

There's a Martin Amis novel in which a character refers to a car as an "A-to-B device". Is it London Fields? Samson Young? I see these things in much the same way. It's not the journey, it's the destination - which is why these service stops don't offend. I have over a dozen to choose from in my trips to and from Montreal. Like yours they're soulless. What I like about them is that they're efficient and get me on my way quickly. No temptation to linger.

My only complaint is that all sit on sites of former service centres. Razed five of six years ago, they had what is best described as a 'sixties vibe, geodesic domes and all. If only they'd saved one.

Anonymous said...

dear Steerforth - now that I live in the US, I must say that I miss British motorways, with their reassuringly few lanes and proper signage. American freeways, especially here in urban California, are horribly baffling and stressful- so many lanes with angry people trying to overtake, and you're always a panicky 3 lanes over from the one you suddenly realise you need to be in to EXIT. I try to avoid them but it's sadly difficult to do. I do agree with you about the English service station places though - they are a vile parallel world of dreariness, nasty coffee and bad Cornish pasties. Italian roadside stops, though, can be rather nice - I've stopped at some where they have delicious prosciutto and melon and proper steaks cooked freshly for you in the café - can you imagine at an English one? I am new to your blog, by the way, and am so glad I found it. You write so well, and I loved your photos of the Long Man - grew up not far and reminded me of many weekend walks nearby...

Steerforth said...

Brian - As my journeys often end in a grotty industrial estate, it's definitely better to travel than arrive. If I'm seeing someone for the first time, I usually try and find a place of historic interest nearby so that if the meeting is a waste of time, I still get something out of it.

It's a great pity that those 60s service stations were knocked down. Is there a listed buildings scheme in Canada?

Anonymous - I certainly felt like you when I was in LA, which was baffling and slightly terrifying, particularly when I found myself in some rather odd neighbourhoods, but at least cities like San Francisco seemed a complete doddle by comparison.

The continental service stations are extraordinary aren't they and make me ashamed of what foreign lorry drivers have to put up with when they come here. The newest service station of the M25, at Cobham, offers a choice between McDonalds, KFC, pasties at Greggs or some greasy faux-Italian item at the equally fake Costa Coffee. At least the Waitrose concessions now serve healthy food, sushi and smoothies.

Glad you like the blog. Thanks for leaving a comment.

Brian Busby said...

Steerforth, in answer to your query about listed buildings in Canada… Oh, where to begin? Everything is a hodgepodge governed by underfunded federal, provincial and municipal bodies. Seems so little is covered, and yet I'm continually amazed to discover this or that building isn't protected.

Fun fact: The British Pavilion from Expo 67 still stands, while the Canadian is long gone.

Okay, not fun. Tragic.

Dale said...

Last year we were zipping round the UK and made frequent use of motorway services. The M&S food and the boxed sandwiches were mostly fresh and healthy if you chose carefully, and we often got the fresh fruit salads.

What I liked about the services was that the disabled loo was usually in the same place in each station, which made life easier.Except for one dumb place which had it down a stairwell and had had to add a wheelchair lift. Honestly, you could kick architects sometimes.

I always remember a nightmare arrival in Los Angeles where the ground crew put a forklift through my suitcase and sorting that out with formfilling and a new suitcase and repacking took 2 hours (no chairs or tables provided), and when we finally got out onto the freeway, someone had committed suicide in the middle of it and there was a 1.5 hour traffic jam.

We go to the UK from New Zealand via Singapore, Hong Kong or Dubai these days, to avoid LAX. Though on my last trip through Singapore last May we encountered a traffic fatality (motorbike crash on the freeway) at 5am. Our cheerful Chinese taxi driver said, tunefully, "Time to say bye bye".

Wayne said...

It's telling that the brief sf series 'Sapphire and Steel' ended with the two of them permanently trapped in a service station: 'this is the trap. This is nowhere, and it's for ever'.

Sandra Morris said...

One word.

Steerforth said...

Brian - That's disappointing to learn, but symptomatic of a culture of short-termism that seems increasingly dominant. Posterity has been replaced with concepts like "legacy brands".

Dale - I didn't realise about the loos. That's a positive and I agree that the M&S food is very good, but occasionally I'd like to sit at a table rather than in my car.

I agree about LA - a confusing layout, with an even more baffling connection to the freeway (although this was before satnav). If I ever go back, I'll try a smaller airport and drive.

Wayne - Sapphire and Steel was a very imaginative programme, but the Anglia production values were a bit ropey, particularly the absurd title sequence. I must see if I can find that episode on YouTube.

Sandra - I don't know why, but I hate it and have told blatant lies to get out of talking to people on Skype. I'm not too keen on phones either.

It's my problem, I know, but I think when you're establishing a working relationship with someone, you have to see them in the flesh and shake their hand, even if it's only for a few minutes.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

I have something to confess... I have never Skyped! Motorway service stations are of course Augeian non-places (and their loos never resemble the Augean stables).

Canadian Chickadee said...

We usually only use the M25 to get to and from Heathrow. The rest of the time, we try to stick to the B roads.

Mr. Chester said...

I think it's interesting that Duel makes you think fondly of driving in America. ;-)

There's a wonderful passage in Christopher Isherwood's novel A Single Man about the Zen of driving the freeways in L.A. I think he understands it so well because he is from England.

Your description of this trip sounds a lot like driving through California on I-5 to me. Though I-5 does end with a passage through the mountains as you enter L.A.

Wayne said...

Dear Steerforth

The incident I refer to in 'Sapphire and Steel' is in the final 5 minutes of assignment 6. All the episodes (assignments) seem to be on YouTube.

I agree re the ropey production values. However the very skillful use of music helped mitigate this. Assignment 2 is very powerful I think.

I had been watching recent episodes of Dr Who with my daughter. In exasperation with these I showed her the Sapphire and Steel episodes as an example of what you can do with sci-fi / TV drama if you put your mind to it.

Steerforth said...

Lucy - I haven't either. I've just watched other people and that was enough to to put me off.

Carol - That's the best way to use to M25. I always feel sorry for the poor old man who didn't realise that it was an orbital road and kept driving around it until the police finally stopped him.

Mr Chester - I know it's odd that a film about a homicidal truck driver inspires such a warm glow, particularly as I nearly was killed by a truck driver on the way to Bodega Bay, but that film is so of its time it's hard not feel a pang of nostalgia.

Today, Dennis Weaver would just phone the police from his car. End of story.

Wayne - Was the second story the spooky one with the WW1 soldiers? That's the only one I really remember. When budgets were lower, good writing often made up for it. Today's Doctor Who is a triumph of style over substance, with plots that make no real sense and incidental music that almost drowns out the actors' voices. I do like Capaldi though.

Dale again said...

Haha! Snap!
Whenever we watch old episodes of thrillers, crime dramas and their ilk on channels like Jones (I think that may be like your Dave channel in the UK - it does golden oldies) there's a point where my husband and I say in unison :"If they'd had mobile phones the story would have stopped here..."

I do so agree about Doctor Who. The writers seem to jump from one SFX to the next, with the story sketchily back-written so as to introduce the next visual treat.

Steerforth said...

Yes, the mobile phone has killed a lot of suspense, although there's still the no signal/low battery scenario.

But technology has made a number of classic plot devices redundant. Can you imagine The Towering Inferno today? The smoke alarms would all go off and prompt an orderly evacuation, followed by a timely reponse from the local fire brigade. And in Saturday Night Fever, Travolta's dance routine would go viral on YouTube and he'd be rich overnight, moving to LA within a week.