ROAD RAGE

`The car is a small madhouse on wheels, an extension of our paranoia. The rivals and enemies we dream about, we actually encounter on the road. Those people we read about who are bigger, better and faster than us, we see through our windscreens. All our nightmares, all around us'
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The Independent Culture
Beginning our Christmas Quiz early this year, to which cuddlesome creature were John Redwood and William Hague referring recently when they spoke of it being mercilessly "bludgeoned", "bashed", "clobbered", and "kicked in the teeth"? Was it a) the fox; b) the mink; c) the Asian flu bug; or d) Geri Halliwell? Wrong on all counts. The answer is: e) the motorist.

Queer, this sentimentalising of "the motorist", as though he or she isn't also a breathing human being with a breathing human being's need for peace, clean air, crossable roads and live children. Complaining that proposals to relieve traffic congestion are damaging to motorists is like objecting to education on the grounds that it penalises morons.

Never a "motorist" as opposed to a human being myself, I no longer drive at all. My life is the better for it. Were it possible to find a taxi in London after 10pm my life would be better still. Ditto a bus. Preferably a bus, but no bus ever comes. Don't talk to me about brave new tramcars with state-of-the-art ticketing, free newspapers and access to the Internet on every seat. The only reason people don't catch buses is that there are none.

The conductorless bus with keep-you-out, trap-you-in doors crawls along at snail's pace because the driver is too busy giving change and answering questions to drive. Another triumph of economic rationalism - more congestion with less service.

The London Underground we do not consider. The London Underground is our way of punishing tourists, particularly those from France. Is it not wonderful that the French won't touch our beef on the however-billion- to-one chance of it softening the brain, but descend willingly into the entrails of our capital though everyone knows you go mad down there?

It is Kafkaesque trying to get about London today. But to be Kafka waiting for public transport is still preferable to being Dante in the hell of one's own car.

I gave up driving a couple of years ago because the exasperation of being stuck in traffic was turning me into a psychopath. Road rage isn't the half of it. This was histrionic personality disorder. Apoplexy whenever a light turned red, homicidal mania if anyone behind me dared to sound his horn. A single honk and I'd be out of my car, shaping up for a fist fight. If the offending driver was verifiably smaller than me, or a woman, or, ideally, both, I'd think nothing of bending back her wipers.

Honked needlessly in Knightsbridge once by an elderly lady in a Hermes scarf, I leapt on to the bonnet of her Mercedes and jumped up and down on it like Mr Punch dancing with Daniel Quilp. That's the way to do it! Had I been armed and living in Los Angeles I'd have taken out the whole street. I wasn't safe. Think rabies. Think a mad dog at the wheel. Or just think yourself. It is not my experience that anyone else stuck in traffic is any calmer. The car itself is to blame for this. The car is a small madhouse on wheels. Forget the car as an extension of the penis. Leave the poor penis out of it. The car is an extension of our paranoia. The rivals and enemies we dream about, we actually encounter on the road.

Those people we read about who have more than us, who are bigger than us, better and faster than us, who invariably choose a better lane and always beat the lights, we actually see through our windscreens. All our nightmares, all around us. And there is nothing those charms and talismans we hang in our cars can do to calm us down. Crucifix dangling from the rear-view mirror; little Buddhist shrine above the dashboard; jingling baby-harnesses on the back seat; nodding teddy in the window; book of country rambles in the glove box - no use any of it: we remain locked in a schizophrenic hothouse of the mind.

But then, as friends of the motorist are always telling us, man must get from A to B. The great freedom anthem of our times - Man must get from A to B. And since this is a sacred liberty said to be under threat from the somnolent Department of Transport and the Environment, I decide to go from A to B myself, hiring a car from Hertz (that's A) and heading for junctions 12-15 on the M25, nominated by the AA as the busiest stretch of motorway in the country, henceforth to be known as B.

Just hiring a car is no longer easy. The central reservations clerk gives me a booking number so complex I could win a car remembering it for Cilla Black. Alpha alpha 966678012 foxtrot delta foxtrot foxtrot 66715377 alpha alpha delta 02. If they'd just say "f" instead of foxtrot they'd be doing you a favour. But we're in the world of the "motorist" now, where everything is designed to upset your equanimity. At the Hertz counter they ask me for a second address. Why?

"So we can contact you if you're not at your first address."

"I'm obliged to run two homes before you'll rent me a car?"

"A friend's address will do."

"What if I don't have a friend?" And so on, until I am sodden with the perspiration of futility, maddened by forms and questions, road-raging before I have even stepped into a car.

The pedals are too close together. I'd forgotten that that was another reason I'd stopped driving - my feet were treading on each other and getting dangerously entangled with the accelerator. Yes, I have big feet, but these pedals would be too small for a grasshopper. Why do I have to be reminded that I have big feet every time I go from A to B? Shame, that's why. The car exists to shame us.

And now, because I haven't driven in London for two years, I have forgotten how to get out of it. I am stuck in Mayfair trying to hit Piccadilly, but Piccadilly is one way until somewhere or other, but is that somewhere or other Old Bond, Albermarle or Berkeley Street? Going round Berkeley Square for the fourth time, someone honks me. Not a nightingale. A blue Roller. I electronically depress my window. "Got a problem with the fact that I might not know where I am?"I ask him. "Would it occur to you I might be foreign?" He is Middle Eastern himself. He gives me the one finger up the camel's bum sign. I enunciate the "f word". F for foxtrot. At which point I miss by six inches a blind person on a zebra crossing. I give him the foxtrot too. What the eye doesn't see, etc. An hour ago, on the way to A, I yelled at a driver who didn't give way to me on a zebra crossing. Now I am that driver, yelling at pedestrians. If I'd moved faster I could have been fighting myself on a zebra crossing.

Central London is, of course, logjammed. I turn on the radio, because that's what you are supposed to do in a car, and get Jimmy Young. No one told me Jimmy Young was still alive, let alone still broadcasting. I feel I have gone back in time. He is talking to a doctor about menstrual problems in general, pre-menstrual tension in particular. Is this meant to ease my stress? If I were a bleeding woman I wouldn't go near a car. But then women too must get from A to B. And thinking of B reminds me that in this traffic I am not going to make it. I am gridlocked in Mayfair, panicking that I will be late for my appointment with the rush-hour congestion on the M25.

Outside the Victoria and Albert Museum I get caught in the wake of a coachload of German tourists. Am I normally xenophobic? I am when I'm in a car, but am I when I'm not in a car? I can't remember. I have never not been in a car. I have no out-of-car persona. I track the Reisebus for miles, passing it finally on the Talgarth Road, where I am overtaken on the inside lane by an electric milk-float. Thinking he knows something I don't, I indicate and follow, only to find he has stopped to deliver milk. The Reisebus cruises past me.

I make it to B in time for the rush hour, though it was more of a rush hour where I was. It's dark now, the way you want rush hour to be, with the variable speed warnings seductively phosphorescent. Traffic moving relatively freely too, which means the car changes from extension of paranoia to extension of catatonia.

Motorway congestion is different from city congestion. You are less aware of other drivers. You fall into a sort of drowse, transfixed by the white headlights fanning out behind you and the red rear lights beckoning in front. This is how a lone fisherman on a riverbank must feel - safe from everyone.

Except that in a car you are physically cocooned as well. It is the last private place in an overwhelmingly public world, the nearest we will get to the lavatory at the bottom of the garden, where people once went to have a little time to themselves. Thus does the motor car perpetuate itself. The worse it gets on the roads, the more we seek the solace of our vehicle. This is the way the world will end - trillions of us fleeing Armageddon, one per car.

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