Friday 28 December 2007

The road to hell

Today has been devoted entirely to recuperating from yet another classic miscalculation: the belief that the roads would be quieter yesterday than on Boxing Day. So I confidently packed my car and set off for Northamptonshire a little before lunchtime, after a fruitful morning writing abusive letters to the likes of Royal Mail.

It was an interesting trip for anyone listening to a car radio who is as tired as I am of the news always being about what is going to happen rather than what has actually taken place. Deaths tend to be the only exception to this rule (though in some cases, like that of the late Pope, the media try to keep one step ahead by publishing their obituaries before their subject has drawn his last breath).

Some way down the running order of the bulletin at the start of The World at One there was mention of a suicide bombing at a political rally in Rawalpindi after Benazir Bhutto had left it. By mid-programme, there were suggestions that she might have been injured, perhaps seriously. By 1.30, she was probably dead. Thoughts of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo sprang ineluctably to mind, with the added alarm of reflecting that if this latter-day Serbia does descend into chaos, it possesses a nuclear arsenal and is already the main base for Al Qaeda.

Fortunately I had lots and lots of time for deep thought, because I ended up in a truly colossal traffic jam on the newish stretch of the A1(M) north of Wetherby. Three lanes of vehicles achieving a stop-start 5-10mph. As a taxpayer, I was overwhelmingly delighted that the Highways Agency had spent my money so wisely, erecting a series of overhead gantries bearing ruddy great illuminated signs to advise drivers that there was a queue and that they should not exceed 40mph. A great help. Why would we be interested in other details like the cause of the hold-up or how long it was likely to last, whether expressed in miles or minutes?

I began wondering who all those people were, and how their journeys could possibly be so important that they would be prepared to put up with this. Thinking “is your journey really necessary?” always has one outcome for me, and I duly turned round and went back home when the opportunity finally presented itself. Five hours on the road covering 242 miles and consuming a tank full of petrol, never leaving the car and ending up precisely where I started. Why do people in Northumberland waste so much energy whingeing about the single carriageway A1 here, when in my experience the region’s main problem is being cut off from the rest of the country by the total inadequacy of road capacity in Yorkshire, particularly north of that point where the M1 and A1(M) converge?

Of course, it can be argued that there are plenty of roads available for all the cars in Britain. We just need to be persuaded that we really want to go to Sutherland or the Lleyn Peninsula at 3 a.m. in mid-January, rather than to London or Newcastle during a weekday morning rush hour. I am reminded of a conversation I overheard in the summer of 1994, when the splendid new opera house at Glyndebourne had just opened. An aggrieved dowager was reporting to her companions that she had run into the owner and been unable to resist giving him some customer feedback. “I told him that it was all absolutely wonderful, of course. But, Sir George, I said, when you have spent all this money creating such a wonderful building, why couldn’t you have provided some more ladies’ lavatories? And do you know what he told me? ‘The number of ladies’ lavatories is perfectly adequate, if only you wouldn’t all insist on trying to visit them at precisely the same time.’”

Well, I’ve certainly learned my lesson. I hereby resolve that I’m never going to try to drive to Northamptonshire, or to visit the ladies’ loos at Glyndebourne, ever again.

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