Way back in the 1950s my dad lived in a London bedsit, just round the corner from the Earls Court Exhibition Centre.
During the Earls Court Agricultural Show he was accosted by worried looking man with a flat hat, who spoke with a broad Suffolk accent, and might as well have had the words ‘turnip farmer’ tattooed on his forehead.
“Excuse me,” said the hat wearer, “but can you tell me where the high street is?”
“The high street?” said my baffled dad.
“That’s right,” said the rustic. “I parked my car there and now I can’t find it.”
I hope the poor man isn’t still hunting for his Morris Oxford fifty something years on, but being an ex-Londoner who now lives in the countryside, I had some fellow feeling when I started driving there regularly after a long absence. I really did feel like a hick, because things had changed on the roads there.
It had become quicker, busier, more aggressive, and on several occasions I was left flat footed by the locals. This came as a surprise, because not only had I started my driving career in the capital but used to cycle there, regularly negotiating the insanity of Marble Arch and Parliament Square with a bravado that today makes me shudder.
Recently, safely enclosed in my mobile tin box and heading for the loveliness that is South London’s Elephant and Castle, I almost felt out of my depth. Other road users gave no quarter, and one or two nutters hacked and carved their way from one traffic snarl up to the next with life-shortening aggressiveness that didn’t seem to get them very far ahead, but presumably made them feel better.
This was equal opportunities idiocy, which seemed to take no account of creed, age and sex. Elegant looking Toyota Pius-driving older women were just as keen to tailgate and force their way into my path as testosterone-addled young men in BMWs.
It took me a few days to tune in, rather than join in with this. I began to use the mirrors more, anticipate what was happening around me to a greater degree, think about cyclists with red traffic light allergies, suicidal motorcycle dispatch riders, pedestrians surgically attached to their iPhones stepping into the road.
I didn’t drive any more quickly, but soon my car was rarely in the wrong place, and to be honest, having to assimilate more stuff made the way I drove improve. Everything was happening more quickly, and I had to speed up my thought processes to deal with it.
City driving madness has made me safer out in the sticks. I’d recommend it.