On The Road, On The Border

Ballybay

Lying on the floor of a cottage by the sea, theoretically trying to sleep, feeling guilty about how little I’ve written in the last couple of days. It has been a great break though. An adventure in a lot of ways, particularly driving ways. I’m not used to steering by satnav, and kept missing my turning. I have literally no idea where I’ve been. Wandering around the back roads, I think I crossed the border with Northern Ireland about six times. You can tell because the quality of the roads suddenly drops. Not so long since it was the other way around; the British really seemed to stop trying after the peace agreement. I also ended up driving on motorway for the first time, something I wasn’t allowed to do before I passed my test. Shouldn’t have been doing out now either, I was going in the wrong direction.

Had my first flat too! Changing a tyre is quite exciting when you’ve no idea how to do it. The Japanese like puzzles, so they make it interesting. Along with the jack they give you a couple of bits of metal to see what you make of them. As it turns out, one levers off the hubcap, one undoes the wheel nuts, and if you fit them together and revolve them in a really rather surprising way, it turns the jack. All pretty straightforward really; I had it nearly figured out by the time I was finished.

Diary Of A Frightened Man 5 – The Zone

Picture the scene. I’m doing a practice run with my driving instructor. I am a cat-bag of nerves, slopping adrenaline, making error after error. The lessons of the preceding ten months, the intense practice I’d done in the last weeks and days, are coming to nothing. I was forgetting to signal, forgetting my mirrors when stopping and turning, riding the clutch, coasting… The inattentive habits I’d worked like hell to eradicate were all back, all at once.

Nerves were making everything seem to happen too fast to control. Who can possibly look in a mirror, make the correct signal, look in another mirror, depress a clutch pedal, let up an accelerator, select the right gear, apply a little brake, let up the clutch pedal gently but not too slowly, steer, look in every possible direction for hazards, and pay attention to where you’re going all in the correct order and in such quick succession that you’re actually doing several of them at once? Ridiculous. It can’t be done. And that’s just one corner.

Then the heavens open. And not in the good way where divine providence looks down and beams me out of there. That I could’ve used. As in torrential rain. Torrential by Irish standards remember; a country where we say it’s fine if it’s only raining a bit. Some of you live places where weather like this would constitute a national emergency. Visibility was suddenly non-existent, the heater struggled to keep the windows demisted but succeeded only in making the car unbearable, conditions became hazardous and continued into ludicrous. I am dispirited. It’s not enough that I’m driving like a brain-damaged chicken, I now have to ford a flooded road to even reach the test centre.

I think to myself, I did not pick a good day to book a driving test.

So what happened next was quite weird. But it is what often happens in these situations. You could call it correct fear. Suddenly the adrenal glands stop being an impediment and start doing their job of maintaining my balance on the tightrope of concentration. All the hours of practice come back to me now. Instead of everything happening at once, there seems to be time to do it all. It’s… almost boring. Intense yet slow, like a black and white film. I’m no longer desperately worried about my driving test, because I’m doing my driving test. I’m in The Zone – one of those rare times when you live completely in the present.And in the present, there’s time for everything.

It was not perfect however. I made one mistake so bad that as soon as we were through the tester started giving me a hard time about it. My heart sank. And then it began to dawn on me that if I’d failed, he wouldn’t be bothering to give me a hard time about one mistake.

I am a driver now.

Diary Of A Frightened Man 3

I passed! I passed my driving test! Well OK, it was just another practice run, but I practise-passed! After two abysmal practice-fails, that’s the best news I’ve had all week. I can’t describe how I feel.

Well actually I can. Tired. I feel very… tired.

I guess it’s relief. Fear of failure has been driving me for the last few days. Now it’s been alleviated a little, I’m as limp as a grounded weather balloon. Some coffee needed here I think. Also breakfast.

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

I took a long walk around the town of Tuam, shaking the nuts and bolts out of my skeletomuscular system. Had a coffee and a water and a croissant with bacon and cream cheese, and finally felt… still wrecked. But taut, springy. Like after a good workout. Then more driving practice for another two or three hours. Good, but not quite attaining the relentlessness of the day before.

The danger now is that, even on this exceedingly flimsy evidence, I’ll become overconfident again. My skills are still… marginal, to put it nicely. Passing the test is going to be hard. The more I do this, the more it becomes clear that driving well is a juggling act, an exhausting task that requires absolute full-on concentration for a protracted period. And though in time juggling can become second nature, that time is not generally “By next Monday”.

And I’ve got to produce that concentration while trying to make it look like it’s already easy. The proverbial swan – serene on the surface, kicking like a bastard below. So the next few days are going to be… like this I suppose. Exhausting. I want to be able to drive right, I am determined, I believe I can do it. But I wonder if determination and belief can really galvanise me in the same way that staring failure in the face did.

There is something to be said for fear.

Life In The Fast, Narrow, Dark Lane

Athenry North Gate 2009 09 13
You Are Now Leaving Athenry

Uhh. Just drove back from Athenry. The GPS did a great job, but it brought me by ways I knew not. A transaction based purely on trust. Our modernised country roads; beautifully paved and marked but still crazily meandering. Blind bends you round to find that they conceal other blind bends. In the dark. In the rain. A red dot following a purple line.

A microcosm of my life in the last few days, even weeks.

Probably months.

I didn’t know where I was and I only thought I knew where I was going. But somehow, I got home.

A transaction based purely on trust.

Fox Vignette

Driving back through a storm, from dinner at a friends’ just a couple of villages away. Or an hour and a half’s drive, if you think you passed the house on your way there, drive almost all the way back home again, and be still so absolutely certain that you must have missed it twice that you do it all over again before finally consulting the GPS that has been running right in front of you all the time and realise that you are on the wrong road.

But that was the way there. Now it’s dark, and there are raindrops coming at the windscreen almost horizontally. You remember that “hyperspace jump” effect in Star Wars where the stars stretched out into lines? Looked just like that. I was driving into the storm, and the storm was driving into me.

Suddenly an animal dashed across the road in front of the car. A fox! A big one too. So hungry that it’s out hunting in torrential rain. And I in a nice waterproof tin box, heading home to a warm bed after a fabulous meal.

It’s great to be a human.

Electric Car Wars

Nissan Leaf at Tokyo Motor Show.
Fill it with your mighty juice

In an exciting clash of great British institutions, the Guardian’s George Monbiot has taken the BBC’s Top Gear to task over their review of electric cars. You can guess most of it – Top Gear promotes all that threatens safety and the environment, the Guardian takes life too seriously and should relax once in a while. Both these things are true.

Monbiot is wrong though. I watched that episode, and I don’t think it set out to grossly mislead. Yes, the Nissan LEAF running out of power in the city of Lincoln was staged. But everything about the program with the exception of the laptimes – and I’m not even sure about those – is staged. They drop pianos on Morris Marinas, any caravan they come near inexplicably catches light, and if they get an electric car you can be sure the battery will go flat. The programme is blatantly childish, and this is part of its attraction.

“But the point is that it creates the strong impression that the car ran out of juice unexpectedly,” claims Monbiot, “leaving the presenters stranded in Lincoln, a city with no public charging points.”

Well I for one did not get that strong impression. I saw it as Clarkson and May taking off without considering how they were going to charge up, like fools. It was silly, but it highlighted some practical problems with electric cars – problems programmes with an environmental brief are perhaps too happy to make light of in a different sense. To be out of charge in an electric car could make you long for the simple days of a hike with a can to a distant filling station.

Is there any real danger of that? When new, the LEAF has a claimed range of 160 km (100 miles). And though in practice you’d rarely if ever be charging from completely flat, a full recharge at ordinary voltages for Europe will take around 8 hours. (A figure of 11 hours under some conditions was mentioned on the programme, but that does seem to be misleading.) This isn’t actually bad at all. It means it’s capable of a daily commute of anything up to a hundred miles each way if you can recharge at work, which sounds like more than almost anyone would ever want. However it’s not allowing for the unexpected – which always happens. So for a comfortable margin of error you really want to be travelling only half that far, at least until a network of fast-charging stations becomes a reality.

But that’s still absolutely fine for about 90% of the journeys that cars actually make. So when the Top Gear team conclude that “electric cars are not the future” (and that that future is – somehow – hydrogen), they’re clearly wrong. Already a practical proposition for a lot of people, the electric car is the present.

The future is probably no cars at all.

Danger Is My Middle Name!

French Horn
Galway Traffic? You'll Need One Of These

Unfortunately, my first and last names are “Runsawayfrom” and “Likealittlekitten”. But I can get that changed by deed poll now. I have proved my manhood.

So what fine, brave, reckless thing did I do? Perhaps you should sit down, or else these words might make you stumble. Gentle reader, I drove in Galway City.

I’d been putting that one off. Encircled by roundabouts, fiercely peppered with student bicycles, crammed up a one-way system rumoured to be based on the French horn, Galway is famously difficult for the inexperienced. And I am certainly that. Though I have in fact driven in Galway traffic before, it was twenty-five years ago when there were hardly any one-way streets and no roundabouts at all. The good old days, before the planners ruined it. By planning for all the cars people went and bought.

My only real experience with the traffic circle therefore was in our ecclesiastical capital Tuam, where they’re mostly of the mini variety. You know, those marked-on-the-ground ones that you can drive straight through if you’re not in the mood. Did I mention I failed my test? Anyway the ones in Galway City are big, with two or – for one particularly confusing segment – three lanes. To someone ignorant of the simple principles involved, they seem impossibly dangerous. Six months ago, I was that someone.

It was OK, he said nonchalantly. Not easy, but not the ballet of knives it appears to be either. Mirrors are your friends. No wait, they’re not your friends. They’re your enemies. Watch them. Basically the town driving is about the constant swivel-headed vigilance. All you need to do is look in as many directions as possible simultaneously.

I did get tooted, but just once – not bad for a first time. I deserved it too, I cut someone up. And yet somehow I don’t feel too bad about this. Possibly because it was a white van.