Richard D North

I add more value to a journey by reading than I do by rushing
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The Foreign Office has an extremely posh country house near Steyning in Sussex where the world's diplomats assemble to hear blethering by the great and the informed. The FO doesn't exactly run the place: it's a Next Steps Agency and more or less washes its face, not least by charging the punter a lot and paying its speakers nothing. Never mind, the scoff's great, and when I'm asked to perform there, I think of honour not dosh. So, the other day I slapped an extra dose of Gun Gum on the exhaust of the VW combi (whose muffler I can't afford to replace) and drove out of the Marches, across the Marlborough Downs, and on to the South Downs.

I put the route in these terms because I am trying to see the old names and the geology which lie still, and as real as ever, under the palimpsest of trunk roads, motorways, service stations and junction numbers which threatens to blind us to what a journey across England's beauty actually is.

A couple of years ago, I ran into Richard Mabey at the Royal Academy. I was feeling rather maudlin, and perhaps looked it. "Ah," he said - and the phrase clings to me - "You're in denial". He meant all my gung-ho enthusiasm for the modern world is a fake, and that I am as deeply, greenly unsettled as everyone else. I sort of agree. Mind you, when someone says you're in denial, it's very hard to deny it without compounding the condition one's interlocutor thinks he's identified.

When I am in really heavy traffic, I do feel the sheer weight of the folly of all the rushing about we do, and the smog and visual despoli-ation - not to speak of the global warming - we bring on ourselves.

And yet, at the conference, I found myself delighting in the counter- intuitive insights on display. For instance: cars will almost certainly be designed to produce a quarter of their present emissions within a decade or so. It even looks likely that they will match public transport in pollution- per-passenger mile. Or try this: many countries which subsidise public transport far more than we do have a rate of public transport use strikingly similar (though usually a little higher) to ours. Or this: the Brits have less road per square kilometre, or per person, than France or Germany.

By some series of quirks, the Danes and Italians have it in common that they use more public transport than other rich Europeans. This similarity is odd, granted that the Danes are obvious saints and the Italians are supposed to be car mad.

I am a heavy user of buses and trains, and proud of it. But then, I have no boss, and no diary gridlocked with redundant meetings. I schmooze no customers (I probably should). On the whole, then, I am - though broke - a time aristocrat. I add more value to a journey by reading than I do by rushing. I can afford to sneer at cars, and leave mine at the station.

But then I am brought up short. A smart friend of my wife's came down the other day in her startling black MGB, and I had a pang of longing. I used to own one of these slow but charismatic cars and loved it even more than the yob's Bentley - an XJS - which a friend at the paper once gave me. I would kill for a good Mercedes 280 SL rag-top. Don't tell me this is a boy's thing. The women of this village seem to love their 4x4s, and of four people I know with Merc dropheads, three are women. Even Mrs North was very miffed when - in severe eco-purist mode - I made her give up her MG Magnette, the thought of whose leather seats and walnut dashboard makes her mist over even 15 years later. She aspires very gently now to an Inspector Morse Jaguar. Still, she's a sensible woman and wouldn't trade in her horse for it.