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Archive for the ‘motoring’ Category

I had a near miss, this morning. I was coming up to a mini-roundabout, another vehicle approaching from the opposite direction, a big car, ostentatious, with its ultra-bright HID “F*$k You” headlights on, even though it was broad daylight. I thought he was going straight ahead, because I didn’t see the blinking amber of his indicator light. So it was a surprise when he cut across my bows, so to speak, and cut across them really fast. I was lucky, had time to react, stood the car on its nose. He had time to react as well, with an offensive finger.

It’s possible he indicated. I don’t know. I’m finding with these really bright headlights, they fuzz out my vision and I can’t see anything else, especially not a relatively puny blinking indicator lamp tucked in close to the epicentre of that laser like HID blast. And that’s in daylight. Meet one of these monsters at night on an unlit twisty road and you’re heading for the ditch. Or maybe I’m just getting too old to be on the road, too long staring at computer screens, eyesight too wasted now to discern the important details any more.

Nah, the optician says I’m fine.

Anyway, those long promised robot cars are coming, and they’ll avoid awkward situations like that. The well heeled finger jabber with the HID headlamps and I will be sitting back, flicking on our phones, while the cars are doing all the driving and the talking to one another. Each will know what other is doing, adjust speed so they manoeuvre smoothly around one another without so much as a dab on the brakes. Maybe those big cars for rich folks will even have superior algorithms capable of gaming the traffic flow to their advantage. I mean, otherwise what’s the point of paying a lot of money for a car if it isn’t going to steal a march on those less well off?

This morning was just a commute in my old Ford Focus, an A to B, and fair enough, they can be a bit of a drag. A robot car would save me time, allowing me to eat my porridge while the computer did the driving, and presumably took all the insults on my behalf. But is that really what we want?

This evening was different, I managed to avoid near misses – true the roads were quieter when I backed the Mazda, my other car, out of the garage. The Mazda is not a commuter mule – I keep her strictly for fun. It was about half an hour before sunset and the temperature had dropped to nine degrees. The vinyl top was too cold to risk folding back, so I made do with the other pleasures afforded by this little car, and I just went for a drive, windows down, feeling the air, tasting it, smelling it.

She’s laid up most of the working week especially over winter, so I like to get her out and give her some exercise of an evening whenever I can. Already I’m anthropomorphising. Cars don’t need exercise like humans do, but it’s as well to keep the battery topped up and the oil lining the cylinder walls, and the belts all moving. Still, I like to think of it as exercise, and she seems to enjoy it that way too.

I have this scenic little circuit that I do. It was a beautiful evening, clear sky, deep blue above, fading to azure at the horizon. And it’s a wide horizon out here in the West of Lancashire, but you’ll miss it if all you’re doing is flicking on your phone, and that would be a shame.

In this car you don’t need to be going fast to feel the thrill of movement – yes, movement! You can take the corners without any degree of body roll, thread your way through a series of left and right-handers, flicking up and down the box as the note of the engine tells you. And at some point, she’ll get into her stride, and you in hers, and you’ll press the gas and she’ll respond with a rush. This is no longer driving. This is dancing on air. No A to B, more a silver fox in an old MX5, dancing in the last light of an early Spring evening.

It won’t be the same with a robot. They’ll never be able to dance for a start. They’re dead things. Nothing human about them at all. Nothing human either in just wanting to get from A to B, yet that’s mostly what we do these days. And when the whole world is robotised and we’re all lobotomised, glued to our phones, flicking mindlessly at all that rubbish, and those times we drove simply for the pleasure of it are but a dim and distant memory,…

What then?

in martindale

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mazda at glassonThe last Friday of February is the one that usually kicks off my year, and for the past four years I’ve been travelling to the little Lancashire port of Glasson to walk the same section of the coastal way from Bank End Farm, on the spectacular Cockerham Marsh. There’s an element of groundhog day to this outing, underlined by the uncanny similarity of the weather on each occasion – temperature just above freezing, clear skies, wintry sun , and a light but bitterly cold wind blowing in off the sea. Today is no exception, but there’s a difference in the air, a subtle nuance – call it imagination, call it superstition, but I have a feeling this run is coming to a close now, that next year will be different. It has to be. Everything must change if it is to remain true, and whatever does not change cannot be true, thus I’m picking up an element of fantasy to the day which, although pleasant enough, cannot be entirely trusted.

The Mazda was reluctant after a very cold few weeks in the garage, and very little exercise over winter, the engine catching only at the last minute as the battery faded to nothing. Then the ABS warning light remained on throughout the outward journey – brakes were fine, so most likely a problem with the anti-lock sensor. It’s a thing with Mazdas. There’s also a grand’s worth of repairs necessary to her bodywork if I decide to keep her beyond this year. I have the sense she’s reminding me of her mortality. It’s all fixable but she’s a second car, not my main driver, and all of this seems a bit extravagant and unnecessary, especially in the current oppressively austere zeitgeist. It’s a pity because I love the car like no other I’ve owned, and we’ve had some fun, but she’s sixteen years old now, coming up on ninety thousand, and she isn’t going to last for ever. That’s just another fantasy.

Still, for all of our antiquity, we pick up a tail on the way, a Mercedes SLK, brand new. This happens a lot. Last time, as I recall, it was a Maserati. These supercars growl up close, like predatory animals, glue themselves aggressively to the bumper, then, at the first opportunity pull out wide and disappear in a cloud of dust and noise, and all in order to prove their willy is bigger than mine. Now the Mazda is a lively little thing, but the sense of her is mostly internal. She’s also worth next to nothing. That she attracts such attention is laughable, not flattering, and do I really want us to go on being the foil for this particular kind of conspicuous consumption?

The Mazda sighs impatiently at such class-warriorish ruminations, rattles up to Glasson and deposits us on the carpark at the marina. Here we leave her to admire the view, the basin running like burnished silver this morning, boats nodding at their moorings. We tog up and set out on the familiar way, first of all calling in Glasson’s gorgeous canal-side Parish Church to admire the spill of light through stained glass, and to see if there are any good second hand books for sale on the stall at the back. Today there are none that take my fancy, so on we go.

cockerham farmThe walk first takes us south across sodden meadows as far as the lush fractal patterned marsh at Cockerham, from where we pick up the coastal way. Winter wet has left the meadows heavy, and they are slow to drain. Migratory swans pepper the green sward, settling there to rest, and forage. They are not gregarious birds and spread themselves out into introspective, moody dots of white, their grumpy honking a reminder to steer clear. We pick up the more cheerful sound of waders down on the marsh, mostly Oyster Catchers and Curlew piping. There’s a Plover doing acrobatics across the emerald meadow, pee-witting as it goes, and then as we cross the causeway we are treated to the most astonishing display – a vast murmuration of starlings rises from its roost around the farm and swirls a living spiral in the air.

Unlike other birds en-mass which we tend to view from afar, Starlings are an easier treat for the photographer performing it would seem for our pleasure at much closer range, and quite exhilarating . It’s a whirring buzzing chattering shriek of a thing, a pointed cloud swooping and soaring like a single living entity, drawn into strange, pulsing patterns and made entirely of tens of thousands of birds. I am so astonished that by the time I remember the camera, I manage only the weakest of shots as the birds move north.

plover scar lightThe Plover scar light, broken last year after being struck by a ship, is now repaired and looking like new. I try a few shots but the light is suddenly flat and I need a longer lens to do it justice. And the narrow passage across Jansen Pool, where I nearly had to swim in order to complete the walk last year, is now repaired so the path can be followed without risk to dignity. Then there’s just the last long quagmire of Marsh lane and its ancient line of hawthorns, twisted into fantastic wind-blasted shapes, and we’re back – another completed round of Glasson and Cockerham, on the last Friday of February.

Image5It remains only for us to take lunch in the Lantern o-er Lune, from whose brightly lit interior we shelter from the biting wind, and pretend it is a summer’s day. Tasty Cumberland Sausage Panini and a gorgeous salad soothes our lunchtime cravings. Over coffee we gaze out at the water, and we contemplate this particularly lovely and ancient part of Lancashire. Meanwhile the Mazda catches the sun. She looks ever so lovely out there, even shaded and lined as she is by the mud and salt of winter.

Okay, so here’s what we’ll do: We’ll get the ABS repaired first, then see if she’ll squeeze through the MOT into next year without the bodywork doing. It’s a good call, and she rewards us by putting out the ABS light on the way home.

Who says living magically makes no sense?

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mazda night journey HDR

It doesn’t feel like I’ve had the little blue car for long, but it’s getting on for four years now. It’s hard to describe how much pleasure I’ve had from driving it. I’ve discovered the roads have a sway to them not felt since my motorcycle days, the sunshine is brighter and, top down, the air is a dream of freshness, and all this is to say nothing of the places I’ve discovered with it – especially in the Yorkshire Dales, just a short hop from home, and a place for which the car seems to have been especially built.

For years now the remoter dales have echoed to the burble of its exhaust note, as the little blue car wandered with a tenacious grip and a surprising vigour, given its fifteen years. I’d thought it would last for ever. But then I noticed it was suffering from tin-worm in the back wings, and sills. A previous owner had already patched it, and quite neatly, but the sills are bubbling through again, and I’ve had an advisory on the MOT.

The cost for a decent repair is far in excess of what the car is worth. So at the moment it’s tucked up, looking forward to just one last summer on the road before the breaker’s yard. I couldn’t sell it on without pointing out the work that’s needed, which will surely put any casual buyers off. An enthusiast with a knowledge of welding and body repair might take it on, but at most five hundred quid is what I could, in all fairness, get for it.

Sadly this is the way most old MX5’s go. They are like butterflies, built for warmer, drier climes, not the persistently wet brutality of roads in Northern Europe, nor especially its salt caked winters. Rationally, it makes no sense to invest any more in it. I mean, goodness knows where else the rust might be lurking – the body shop talked of common issues with the forward suspension, further advisories on the MOT and costs in excess of five hundred at some point in the future.

It’s a thing to ponder over winter, and quite sad. She runs well, has only 86,000 on the clock, and might in all other respects have another ten years of pleasure ahead of her, but there we are. All good things must come to an end.

“I’d bite the bullet and get it done, mate,” said the guy in the body shop. “These cars are becoming classics. It’ll be worth it in the long run.”

Nice guy, and an infectious enthusiasm, but he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Oh, I know he’s right, but classic cars are holes in the road you pour your money into. They take all your love and patience, and repay it with an ever more temperamental drift into old age and irritability. But for a short while at least, heaven for me has been a little blue car with a roof you can fold down, and a twist of dales country road warming to dust, under a hot summer sun.

 

 

 

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The little roads of the Lakes are more demanding on the vehicle and on the nerves than those of the Dales. They zig-zag into the sky and follow tortuous routes, hugging the fells with steep russet and rock on one side, and fresh air on the other, not always fenced. The gulleys are deep. Drop a tyre off the tarmac and you’re going to struggle to get it back on. Do that at speed and you’ll damage the car, do it on the fresh air side of the road and there’s a chance you’re going to roll down the fell. Perhaps I exaggerate, but that’s the impression these roads leave you with, that you’d better be sharp about your wits.

They are among the most sporting routes for the recreational motorist, also for the motorcyclist and the cyclist. They are also “get-to” routes for the hillwalker, delivering him deep into the heart of the Lake’s more splendidly mountainous regions. They seem even narrower to me now than when I first drove them thirty years ago. It’s as if the fells are trying to squeeze them into impassable threads, erase them with the passage of time and harsh winters. They’re busier too, and cars these days are much bigger, much heavier, much fatter than they were. And basic motoring skills have been replaced with electronics that’s useless in these off-grid places.

Even with a proliferation of pull-ins for passing, you’re going to struggle at the busier times. You’re going to find cars parked in them, rendering the way impassable. Meet a blimp-like SUV coming the other way and it’s going to gawp at you like a zombified wildebeast, unable to go forwards or back, so you’ve got to remember each passing place as you pass it, and be prepared to back up, let these dumb creatures safely by, since they are incapable of working out how to do it for themselves.

I speak of course as the only perfect driver in the world.

Maybe I’m just older, but the narrow Lakes roads are not as much fun as they used to be, mainly on account of the usage they’re getting now. They’re also in poor shape. I took the Mazda over the little route from Great Langdale to Little Langdale recently, found the road frost-broken and deeply potholed. I bottomed the car in one hole, scraped the sill. Then I got stuck behind a bulbous Focus ST too, boy racer at the wheel, going at a walking pace, afraid to scratch his car. If you’re wanting to drive these routes, come early, keep your fingers crossed you meet nothing coming the other way and come in a well sprung, small car with lots of guts.

But for all of that they’re very beautiful roads to travel, allowing for many an intimate contact with the sublime nature of the Lake District mountain landscape. It’s better by far of course if you can muster the energy to put your feet on the ground and haul your bones up the paths, get yourself in among the secret folds of the hills, but the little roads give you at least a taste of it.

I remember a week in Austria, surrounded by mountains on an awesome scale, like in a depiction of fairy-land. The following week I was in the Lakes, thinking it would seem tame by comparison, but I discovered all it lacked was the vertical scale, having lost nothing whatsoever of its visceral power. The impact of somewhere like the Austrian Tryrol is obvious in its scale and sheer vertical brutality, while the Lakes engages at a deeper lever.

The power of the Lakes is in part in its age. These are among the oldest of mountains. They are hard rock, worked by weather on a geological time-scale that’s as near to infinity as makes no difference to mankind. They are also worked by mankind who has beetled among them for ten thousand years. And their impact on the senses is in their compactness, so much beauty and drama, darkness and light, fell and field and lake, all of it encompassed in the graceful turn of an eagle’s wing*.

The road threads its way by Blea Tarn, a shallow depression nestled in the palm of the land, fingers and thumbs of crag curling skywards all around, then it dips into the Little Langdale Valley, affording its most spectacular views of a sublime loveliness. A hairpin-junction at the bottom grants the choice of ways: left for the village, and escape to the broader routes through Elterwater, or right for the long and equally narrow road up by Three Shire’s Stone, then Cockley Beck, Wrynose, and Hardknott, all the way to Eskdale if you’ve the nerve for it. Many drive these ways for the challenge, for the sheer exhilarating thrill and beauty of it. They are the ultimate test of confidence in yourself and in your machine, but I wouldn’t recommend it on a weekend afternoon, or a Bank Holiday.

The Mazda escaped its rough treatment on the Little Langdale road with only cosmetic abrasions, easily mended, and my love affair with open-topped motoring enables me to put this minor wounding into perspective. It was a pleasurable drive, somewhat spicy, a drive I imagine could only be topped on a thundering old English motorbike, or a fly-through by Tornado jet.

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It was not the best day to be visiting Malham. There was a hill-run or something and every parking place was taken. Runners, brightly attired jogged off up the fells and officials with their hi-vis jackets and windmill arms directed traffic. Thus my humble plans for a walk around the fabled cove were scuppered for having nowhere to ditch the car.

Malham’s the sort of place you don’t arrive at in passing. It’s a long drive in, and a long drive out to anywhere else, so walking from another venue looked like it was off the menu as well. But the sun was shining, I was in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales on the first warm day of the year, and I had the top down on the little blue car, so there was no way this could be described as unfortunate. I simply needed a fresh plan for the day and I decided on a drive.

I know, I’d already driven about sixty miles to get to Malham, most of that along the arterial A59. But driving like that’s hardly a pleasure – more of an A to B kind of thing, and not altogether healthy in an open-topped car. I’ve seen the A59 from altitude during a winter-time inversion, the length of it overhung with a sickly brown haze, which is why nowadays I keep the top on as far as Gisburn.

No, what I meant was a different kind of drive.

I took the little road from Malham across the tops to Arncliffe. Initially tortuous as you climb from the village, the road settles to a smooth narrow ribbon snaking through a fine, scenic wilderness, one where roadside parking is prohibited. The narrow upland routes, and the little passes of the Yorkshire Dales provide some of the finest driving you can imagine – single track roads threading across spectacular dun coloured tops, bristling with limestone outcrops bright white in the sun. It’s almost a lost concept, the pleasure of a drive, I mean as our roads clog up and everything becomes urbanised as the built world squeezes out the green, and that brown haze spreads to overhang and poison more and more of everything.

Imagine if you can, simply enjoying the feel of a vehicle in motion, the white noise of tyres over rough tarmac, snicking up and down the gears to catch her on the hairpins, the sweet vibrato note of the exhaust echoing from drystone walls, then the sudden cut to silence as you rattle over the cattle grid and emerge into an open wilderness. And there’s the scent of it – clean air, hills, grasslands, rocks, running water.

It is a poetic experience, and you can still find it here.

The little blue car is an old MX5, with 85k on the clock, a cheap roadster, picked up second or third hand. We’re embarking on our fourth season together now, seasons of ease and smiles. The little road made me smile, the purr of the car as it took the hills made me smile, her tenacious grip on the bends made me smile, the sunlight glinting off Malham tarn made me smile, the deep, sublime cut of Yew Cogar Scar near Arncliffe made me smile. There was a lightness to my being as I drove, having quite forgotten I’d set out that morning with the intention of walking, and had failed.

I paused at Linton, sitting in warm sunshine on the banks of the Wharfe, by the falls. There I ate lunch, lingered by the ancient stepping stones, lulled into a meditative calm by the wash of the river. A guy was fly-fishing in the midst of a mirror-black pool where the river swings wide and into shade. Then I drove home,… and it struck me again, coming back once more to the roar of the arterial A59, the unwholesome, diesel stench of it, and the contrast with the peace and the unhindered clarity of the Dales. It emphasised at what dreadful cost the built world turns.

Along the urban byways and highways, everywhere we look we see the imposition of our thoughts in our shaping of the environment. There are attempts at beauty in architecture, but too often also a waste of graffitied despair, overhung by this brown haze as hope dissolves to premature corruption. Only where the A roads do not yet penetrate, where the way remains narrow, can we still squeeze through, slip back into an earlier time, and to an England where the land lies less marked, less troubled by our troubled thinking.

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PS_20150130152500I was driving home and had pulled up to the line, waiting for a space so I could nose my way onto the roundabout. It was busy, it being that time of night we used to call the rush hour but which now lasts from 4:00 pm ’til 7:00. It was wet, dark, and I was tired. The traffic was fast, unyielding. I settled down to wait for a gap, but I was disturbed by the flashing lights and the honking horn of a van behind me. It yanked itself out into the neighbouring lane, looking for a squeeze past, much to the consternation of those drivers already in that lane. Just then, a gap appeared on the roundabout, so I moved into it and cautiously joined the flow. Then the van came by and I saw a fierce-faced man giving me the finger.

Had I been a bit overcautious in moving off and thus sorely tested his patience? I really don’t know. Had I zoned out for a moment? It’s possible. I had certainly done something to upset him, though I’m also minded these days it takes very little for the fingers to start flying.

My reaction? Self questioning, self doubt, and yes, a little hurt by the face pulling of this stranger whom I had so mysteriously offended, but mostly I was saddened to think such anger might be floating just below the surface of everyday life, that we have only to snag ourselves ever so briefly against the flow of this mad, mad world for teeth to be bared and that phallic finger to be jabbed.

It is the egoic face and the egoic phallus that confidently accuses the “other” of incompetence, of being a knob, whilst bestowing the mantle of perfection on the accuser. It is the same face and finger we see reflected in the public opinion columns of the online media where we quickly learn that public opinion, unleashed en-mass and anonymous, can be a very nasty thing indeed.

One of the great wisdoms of ancient Chinese philosophy is that we can only view the world as it truly is from a position of stillness. Stillness comes when we dissolve the ego, when we react even to shocking events in an unemotional way. Emotions, be they good or bad, come pretty low down on the evolutionary scale, and they hold us back – worse they imprison us and render us vulnerable to manipulation. It’s only through stillness we become aware of these things, that under the influence of strong emotions we are not truly our selves at all.

In spiritual terms, ego and emotional arousal disconnect us from the true course of life, they subvert our direction, our purpose, render us vulnerable to an adverse fate or simply to the meddling of others. While we don’t need to go so far as to subscribing to an irrational belief in such things, I certainly find life is sweeter and smoother, the less my ego has to do with it.

I imagine, in an advanced society, we would all rest content in the unassailable validity of our being, and would not be roused to anger when someone questioned what we said or did, or even if we were a little slow pulling onto the roundabout. On the other hand, in a retrograde society, dissent, or even a senior moment, is met with a torrent of irrational abuse, and then we’d better all watch out.

We see this in the senseless cesspits of the comments sections of online media – a constant cross-fire of low minded thinking, based upon the dubious fictions that are these days peddled as facts, and in the belief the high ground is owned by those who shout loudest and longest. I might express an opinion on world affairs, or on the weather, or even simply on the comparisons between a Biro and a fountain pen, but my opinion would be seized upon by those of an opposing view, not with the aim of exploring the validity of my thinking, nor seeking, by the sharing of facts, to persuade me of another view, but more, by the finger and the angry face, shut me down, to silence the discussion, because in even allowing the debate, whatever its nature or topic, the ego is challenged, and a population reacting permanently to emotional stimuli finds itself in a perpetual fight for imaginary supremacy.

Of course, in a world where facts are easily checked, easily verified, spurious arguments might be short lived, the liar eventually silenced by the obvious and unassailable truth. But we live now in a post-truth world, where inflammatory falsehoods are blatantly paraded by those in powerful positions as fact, while truths are dismissed as fictitious. We are no longer surprised by it. We expect it, we accept it, and by doing so risk abandoning hope of forming rational opinions on anything ever again. Whatever the headline, whatever the view expressed through whatever media, we must now pause and ask ourselves the question: what emotions are these words intended to manifest in me? At whom am I supposed to jab my finger?

The post truth world presents many challenges if we are to thrive, or even just survive as independent, thinking individuals. The emotional landscape of the future will be a tempestuous one as it reacts to bare faced manipulation, and there will be no safe media on which to rely for facts. There will only be the braying of the crowd on the infotainment channels, in the cesspits of social media commentary, and of course those crass, emotive headlines in the dailies.

But we can at least rest easy in our selves, and in our right to be, regardless of what fictions assail us. We ask questions if we must, but trust no answers that are nailed home by the finger. And in the mean time we endeavour to show kindness, while expecting none in return.

I also beg we all be patient with the guy in front, hesitating to join the Lemming like rush on the journey home.

Because it might just be me.

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snowyIt’s been a curiously unsettling week. Twice my commute home was disrupted by serious accidents and motorway closures, turning a thirty five minute journey into an hour and a half marathon, where the normal free flow of things was choked off at every turn, blocked, impeded, restricted, stymied. On the last of these occasions, having finally made it home, exhausted, I left the car on the driveway and set off across the village on foot to get my hair cut, but the ginnel I normally use was blocked, the path being dug up, the way impeded, restricted,… the alternative, a long detour.

I returned home and did not move from the house again until I had slept long and deep.

And in my sleep I dreamed of road closures, of blockage, of the wreckage of trains and vehicles piled high into monuments of destruction. Thus in its own way the universe reflects my inner feelings, feelings of being stymied at every turn, at my lack of progress in terms of psychological and emotional development, my confusion – one path after another blocked, the wreckage of false hope and dreams piled high

The ego will make way at all costs, even if it ends up going only in circles.

And yes I’ve begun dreaming again, unbidden, and ┬ávividly. I used to remember my dreams most nights and write them down in the mornings. It was a Jungian thing, interesting in the early days of my initiation into the way of the soul, but I was too much in earnest in my search for meaning, and those dreams, so lovingly recorded, remain to this day enigmatically opaque. Then for a long time I have not recalled any dreams at all – except suddenly this week I am dreaming vast landscapes, and vivid encounters with archetypal characters. Nor am I making any effort to recall them, yet they remain burned into memory, their feeling tones equally vivid and not a little disturbing.

Then there are the coincidences, trivial things yet astonishing in their persistence and their infuriating meaninglessness: I saw a dog on Instagram, a cute little fox terrier, and though I have never desired to keep a dog in my life, I was suddenly taken by the desire to keep one like that, and I would call him Snowy. Then within the hour I was watching a snippet from a banal TV game show, and the question was: what was the name of Tin Tin’s dog? Answer of course: Snowy.

Such things are only a coincidence if they happen once, but when they cluster they speak to me of other things, of something shifting, a curtain opening, the normal laws of time and space blurring at the edges. I am turning in of a night now expecting to dream next a mystical revelation. Except, I know from past experience this is not how it works. Stability will return, the old ways will open up again, the old grooves. I am left thinking I miss my turn each time, that I fail to grasp the symbolic significance of a motorway closure or even of a cute little dog called Snowy.

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