PsychoGeography: #75: Clunk-click, every trip

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The Independent Online

Winnington Road is the parallel, nouveau-riche strip to London's Bishops Avenue, which is meant to be - in property terms - the wealthiest road in Britain.

Winnington Road is the parallel, nouveau-riche strip to London's Bishops Avenue, which is meant to be - in property terms - the wealthiest road in Britain. On the Bishop's Avenue, the faux French châteaux and sub-Lutyens manor houses are set well back from the serpentine bend of tarmac, behind screens of poplar and plane. But Winnington Road is in your face: the aggressive red-brick pediments and four-car garages of suburbia on growth hormone. I grew up about a mile from here, on the more downmarket side of the North Circular, but I went to school with scions of Winnington Road who lived in gaffs with gold-plated staircase rods and a Corby trouser press for every male child.

I also had my second car crash on Winnington Road: Ford Anglia piloted by a 17-year-old drunk hits temporary roundabout made from railway sleepers; car crumples like a tin can, roundabout deconstructs. My first crash was so insanely previous - as we Cockneys say - that it barely qualifies as a crash at all: 16-year-old delinquent, consumed by ennui and afternoon TV, nicks his dad's Austin Maxi - even though he can only drive at a theoretical level - and after a few wild circuits, wraps it around a lamppost. I was banned from driving even before I had a licence, which explains why I was the passenger in the Ford Anglia.

It may seem perverse to examine the world through the shattered lens of the car accident, but in an era when spatial amnesia afflicts us all (that embarrassing dinner party, were we in Nuneaton or Nantes?), there is at least this crumpled certainty: you tend to learn exactly where you are when you pull yourself from the wreckage; if, that is, you're fortunate enough to get out at all. There's more. The car crash, with its savagely mediated dichotomies: interior/ exterior, motion/rest, safety/peril, prosaic/ mortal, can lay claim to be the defining event of the last century. It was shiny and new, previously inconceivable, and with the pedestrian march of time, available to all. The car crash (unlike, say, saturation bombing or genocide) was also something people - albeit unconsciously - aspired to.

So, I can remember where and when all the car crashes of my life have happened, even though other important events have an irritating way of eluding me. It helps that I still drive some of the routes I was taking on the fateful days. The Chelsea Bridge fiasco, wherein I accelerated towards the rear of a northbound coach which was turning right on the bridge approach, only to discover that I was being undertaken on the inside lane, is a case in point. The sensation of that widening gyre as I slammed on the brakes and the wheels of the VW Fastback Variant (a rear-wheel drive car), locked on the damp, oil-slicked road, is still with me. Time and distance are equally retarded, my slow quadrille in my fat, steel corsage is at first entirely graceful, as I turn a full 180 degrees and slot precisely in between two cars in the oncoming lane. Then, sadly, they ruin it all, one by shunting me from behind, the other by obstinately shoving its fat arse on to my bonnet. Time schlupps back to its normal, wasteful alacrity, and I find myself shaking and weeping on the kerb while, preposterously, being comforted by one of the other drivers.

Three cars completely written off and no injuries besides one case of whiplash. Even at 25, with all of the impulse control of a gnat on ether, I could appreciate that I'd had a lucky escape. Although I drove fast after that I never again entered that awful zone of uncaring. Indeed, as the decades have spooled past I've become the victim of car crashes rather than their perpetrator. The ram up the backside by the corporate mobile-wielder coming off the Nottingham exit of the M1. What struck me most - besides her asinine 4X4 - was that she didn't trouble to apologise, merely offered her insurers' and fleet manager's numbers, as if all such encounters were corporate mergers rather than the responsibility of private citizens.

Then, most spectacularly, there was the wild boy who tore all three side panels off my car when I was driving to Heathrow to pick up my wife and infant son, with my two other kids on board. How I felt for him as he grimly contemplated the smoking corpse of his souped-up XR3i (which explains why he was doing 110 mph under the Chiswick Flyover). How I empathised when, fearful of arrest, he tore off his number plate and hurled it on to the central reservation, before roaring away in a spatter of smoke, his disembowelled exhaust rasping on the roadway. I'd tried to explain to him the true significance of car crashes, and how this place particularly, hard beneath Britain's first motorway flyover, deserved to be viewed as the locus classicus of the car accident. But, bizarrely, he wouldn't listen.

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