It's enough to drive you to Nuits-St-Georges

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The Independent Online
I was on the point of telling you yesterday how I had ended up in a car on the top of a roundabout in Northern Ireland. Well, I was over in Belfast with the group Instant Sunshine at the Belfast Festival, playing two concerts at the Elmwood Hall (which, incidentally, is pronounced in Northern Ireland as if it were named after someone called L M Wood). One concert was in the afternoon and one late in the evening, and our sponsors for the event, the local milk marketing board, had decided to take us out for dinner between the two concerts. It is always a bad idea for performers to eat or drink much before a concert, but the chaps from the Milk Marketing Board were not really thinking of us - they were determined to get a good dinner for themselves and would not take no for an answer.

So we were whisked out of Belfast and given a slap-up dinner, at which the sponsors ate and drank mightily and we hardly touched anything, and on the way back our host, now full of wine, failed to spot an approaching roundabout in the dark and drove straight up the central grassy mound and stopped on top, with the car looking for all the world like some crazy bit of modern sculpture. There was a pause and then he turned round and said genially: "Sorry about that, but I swear that roundabout came a good 200 yards earlier than usual ..."

That is an example of what Claud Cockburn once called the kind of fey logic peculiar to the Irish. But everyone in the world drives with their own kind of crazy logic, crazy at least to the outsider. The Italians, in our eyes, tend to drive as if they are in the later stages of a grand prix race. I was once overtaken by an Italian, near Naples, in the middle of a traffic jam. The traffic had been motionless for five minutes. Suddenly it eased forward 10 yards. I was slow to react. In a flash, the man behind me had whipped past and eased into his new position, having gained all of two seconds and a lot of pride.

In an Indian city, once, I was being driven by a taxi driver with whom I would no doubt have had an interesting conversation if we had been able to hear ourselves over the incessant hooting which Indian drivers practise. The hooting rose to a climax at a big crossing which one policeman was attempting to control like an orchestral conductor embarking on a fiendishly difficult new contemporary composition. Suddenly he strode over to our taxi and pointed at the driver, who was patiently waiting for a way to clear.

"You have got a horn, haven't you?" he shouted at him. "Then use it!"

Extraordinary. But no more extraordinary than what happens in South America - in Peru, at least, which is the only Latin American country I have knowledge of - where red lights are treated as cautions, nothing more. You only stop at a red light if nothing is coming the other way. Otherwise, you slow down a bit, then go through. Contrast this with traffic lights in Britain which turn red and then stay red. Stay red for five minutes, maybe. Have you noticed that British drivers will wait for red lights to change long after they know they must be stuck, and yet they still will not edge out, preferring to hope against hope that they may still change?

How one squares that image of the ultra-cautious British driver with the new growth of road rage I am not sure, though I suspect that the tight- lipped control of one leads straight to the unbuttoned fury of the other. A nation that is used to sitting tight behind the wheel and fuming in silence has no mechanism for expressing rage. We don't have a set of gestures, a ritual of shrugging, hand-waving and fist-flinching to substitute for actual violence, so I suspect that when we snap we go straight from cold reserve to nose-punching.

How the French fit into all this, I am not sure, though I was once very impressed by their forethought at the Place de l'Opera in Paris. There is a particularly busy traffic build-up there, full of the chance of an accident, and I noticed that they had a big white van parked in one corner labelled "Blood Transfusion Unit", which I assumed had been placed there in anticipation of an accident.

Alas, I was wrong, a French friend told me. It was just taking blood donations.

"If it had been waiting for an accident," he told me later, "it should have been a Wine Transfusion Unit. Most French people do not know their blood group, but we all know our wine group. I, for instance, have a card in my wallet in case of accident which says: `This man is Nuits-St-Georges positive'."

I think he was joking. Good heavens. Does this mean the French have a sense of humour after all? But that is another story.