Sunday 22 November 2009

radio on

Another morning, another borderline-psychotic dash to work in my car. In the past ten days, since the train line stopped functioning after flooding damaged a bridge, this journey has taken anything between 23 minutes and 3 hours 15.

You never know.

I have a tiny silver cake decoration blu-tacked to my dashboard by the radio: GOOD LUCK it says, with a tiny shiny flourish.

The fragility of these transport systems. They kind of work but only through a high speed stop-start lurch along the very lip of breakdown. The infrastructure permanently strained to overload. It only takes one bit of grit in the mechanism - roadworks, an accident, a storm, an anomalous micro-second of behaviour - for the circuits and flows of mobility to grind down to inertia and gridlock. Even in its working, abundant stress fractures of different kinds are all too apparent.

Today, with the sky bright and clear, the usual array of fleeting encounters, little frictions, glimpses of events or the traces in their wake. All so utterly predictable in the unpredictable blur of it all. Small acts of kindness, or of lunacy, or violence. The radio on throughout: a mildly irritating companion, like a slightly tiresome relative who's just occasionally surprising or hilarious in amongst the whittering banter. Channel hopping in search of a song to sing, a small musical dream to slide into for a moment. A kind of ephemeral cinematic anaesthesia.

The sudden jaunty appearance of a little white car emblazoned with LETSBREASTFEED.COM ('You supply the milk, I supply the advice' on its back window). I make space to let the car switch lanes, and the driver flicks her side lights in thanks.

Past a couple of huge texts that have become landmarks. The graffiti on the railway bridge, big rough white painted letters, like a kid's writing, always makes me smile. The letters S O U R. Then the Chubb building, with its new sign several metres to the right of the old one, now faded but still only half erased: so it says CH CHUBB, like an uncertain, stuttering locksmith.

The spray of white paint on the road surface, as though a barrel of Dulux has fallen off a truck at high speed. Or Ralph Steadman has been run over, leaving a characteristic splash with a constellation of tiny spots at its outer edge.

A few minutes later, a dawning realisation that the other side of the motorway is deserted, nothing there, just bare tarmac - there's a road closure in the other direction, and all three lanes are blocked by emergency services and police vehicles. An arhythmic burst of flashing lights, then a crumpled yellow vehicle, its bonnet completely crushed like a fag packet; its front end comes to a halt at the bottom end of the windscreen, which is still intact. A team of people in high-visibility jackets in attendance around it as two of them try to free the front seat passenger. Oh god. A huge wave of traffic is building up in its wake, those at the front looking as though they are well positioned on the grid for the start of the race, but increasingly resigned to its indefinite postponement.

One minute chugging along on auto-pilot listening to the radio, dang-a-lang-a-ding-dong, the next all hell breaks loose, a sudden eruption, weirdly slo-moed by the adrenalin rush. The metal and glass rendings of accidentnoise, then silence.

Good luck.

A few miles further, a break-down truck carrying a car has somehow taken out some traffic signs - they have been mown down and snapped off, or are teetering at oddly comic angles as though they've been installed by a drunk. The driver sits in his cab on the hard shoulder looking forlorn, while the policewoman walks away from him back to her car, which is blocking the lane behind him. For reasons that remain a mystery, she's carrying a big yellow torch. More flashing lights twinkling in the rear-view mirror, then gone.

And the radio sings, "You're innocent / You think everything is possible / And nothing's gonna get you baby / Everything is touchable / Nothing's gonna beat you in this life / It's alright ..."

Three guys in a black BMW, like cartoon big city hoods. All shaved heads, black suits, no necks. The front-seat passenger is wearing shades and talking into a mobile. Serious dude with don't-fuck-with-me written all over him. He glances at me as they pass, and for a split second I see a little blue car like a dinky toy travel across his reflector lenses. Then he's gone.

The planes queuing for landing at Heathrow in the sky. The arced choreography of other planes banking over Surrey after take-off. A v-formation of geese fly above the road, then branch off towards the lakes. A blue-yellow-white train along the water's edge, heading back into London; it looks like another toy in the landscape. Then the gear shift of the M25 for a few miles: a lane-changing frenzy, stuff coming at you from all angles. I turn down the radio to concentrate. A loud click as a motorcyclist zips past and brushes my wing mirror, but it pops straight back into position.

A quick stop at the petrol station to get fuel, a paper, and a coffee. As I walk back to my car, glancing at a front-page picture of a miserable Steven Gerrard trudging off the pitch after yet another disappointing game, the pick-up truck lurches off the road and on to the forecourt towards me. I stand back and give him plenty of space. You never know.

In the distance, the incessant hum of the city's traffic rolls on. An omnipresent surf-like drone that Virginia Woolf once described as 'churned into one sound, steel blue, circular'. In a more martial and despairing vein, DH Lawrence suggested that it 'booms, like monotonous, far-off guns, in a monotony of crushing something, crushing the earth, crushing out life, crushing everything dead'.

In the end, 28 minutes door to door today.

Good going ...

And the radio sings, 'Do you want the truth, or something beautiful?'

Images by Ralph Steadman: British, and I shot the sheriff

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