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Driving on the Left


Driving in England is a sport best left for the man grown jaded with the old, worn-out things of this world and is ready to taste the golden apples of Paradise. Or more to the point: Who would have thought that a brief excursion to the United Kingdom for the purpose of finding out who REALLY wrote all those marvelous Shakespearean plays would prove to be, instead, a dangerous and embarrassing primer in British highway etiquette.

For anyone who has only driven in America and who has furthermore tended to regard the fashions of the Mother Country with a certain air of condescension, a first-time sortie onto one of Great Britain’s M-Roads can be a mortifying experience even if he manages to persuade himself that he has not bought a one-way ticket to perdition itself!

To put it more simply: Motoring about the British countryside is an experience best left for a stranger imbued with the feeling that it is somehow romantic to die in a foreign land, among the grandly preserved monuments of another age.

As for me, I had other ideas. I simply was not quite ready to summon the undertaker on the day I rented my economy sized Ford at Gatwick Airport. Or maybe I just didn’t know it yet. Anyway, after we were actually underway, wife Mary Ellen and I, there was little romance in it at all: only unmitigated terror and curses and wild palpitations that forced me to use up all my tranquilizers at a rate three times faster than the doctor had prescribed. I had listened only vaguely and with the air of one who knows everything as the girl at the rental desk asked if I had driven in England before and explained that there was a right way and a wrong way to negotiate the island’s “roundabouts.”

We roared out of the airport, off to the Cotswolds, of which we had read so much, thinking of the great cathedrals, the Old Norman castles, the medieval villages, the Roman ruins. I don’t know what happened exactly. But long before I ever even got to the highway I was had run smack up against a fence that said “No admittance,” unable to turn around or even to figure out how to manipulate the gears and in imminent peril of being run over by a transport truck when a pleasant fellow of about forty came jogging up behind.

“Ah yes,” he said, laughing. “You’re American, aren’t you?”

I confessed the awful truth. I also realized I hadn’t even got out of the airport yet. The new chap was quite a friendly sort. He showed us how to manipulate the gear-I think it was a sort of a secret button or something-and again laughed pleasantly as we swung about and headed off toward the nearest Roman ruin. I hoped it would be well marked.

In the rear view mirror I could see him waving us on, still laughing. Sometimes I have the feeling that he may be laughing still.

I figured it would be OK once I got onto the motorway. The only thing I knew for sure about driving in Britain, the most important thing, was that you must stay on the wrong side of the road at all costs (I know Britons hate to hear a damned colonist put it like that) nor must you fall into the fatal trap of believing that the speed limit signs actually mean what they say, as they occasionally do in America.

I did not come by that insight suddenly. But I had my first glimmer of it when we finally made onto the M-Road, heading north to Stratford, prepared to prove to the curators there, with evidence that would brook no argument, that William Shakespeare did not actually write the works of Shakespeare after all. I was breezing along at eighty-five kilometers or so (whatever that is in American English) when all at once another motorist came roaring up behind me madly honking his horn. What had gone wrong this time? Had I lost something? Had I been mistaken for somebody else? Was the fellow drunk? Angry? Looking for trouble?

“Oh, my god!” Mary Ellen suggested, pressing forward with all her might-hands jammed against the glass, feet jammed against the floorboard-to hold back oncoming objects. “Get in the other lane!” She tried to explain that I wasn’t allowing enough space between our car and the center line. “YOU AREN’T USED TO IT! DON’T YOU SEE THAT! DON’T YOU SEE!”

Well, I got on over into the other lane after I finally figured out which was my left hand and which my right, and promptly learned my first lesson of highway etiquette in Britain. The fellow wanting to get by shot on past not at eight-five or ninety but at a speed I reckoned at maybe one hundred twenty or one hundred twenty-five.

Was that all he wanted? For me to pull into the slow lane and stop holding up traffic? Perhaps. As he zipped past he politely tipped his hat as though to say: “A jolly good day to you, old chap.”

So I learned that much anyway: Life in the fast lane. For Britons only. Wanta compete? You’d better get it up to one hundred twenty five and keep in there. So I knew my place now. I crept along at a discreet eighty-five or ninety, a speed reserved, I suppose, for the sightseeing British public – what we call Sunday afternoon rubber-neckers in the good old U. S. of A.

I’m not sure what happened in Oxford either. I took maybe half a dozen trial runs around the city before actually entering the place. We decided to halt at a roadside inn to talk it over. That’s something else I learned in a big hurry. Make sure you’ve got plenty of shoulder-room before you leave the road. Pull off for a moment to swallow another tranquilizer and steady your nerves and you’ll find yourself in grass up to your head and maybe in a drainage ditch knee-deep in rainwater. Roads in Britain are made for driving, not for parking or amour rapide necking on the shoulders.

At any rate, we decided we had to get into Oxford and somehow get out again if only for the sport of it. That was when I saw my first roundabout. What had the girl at the rental counter said about roundabouts? I desperately tried to remember. Then I realized it wasn’t a roundabout. It was just another intersection, crowded now with cars waiting to turn in every direction, busiest intersection in all of Oxford, perhaps in all of England, with a lady Bobbie holding up a frantic hand that said: “Stop!”

I couldn’t stop. Suddenly I didn’t know where the brakes were. I didn’t know where anything was. I figured I must be in some kind of roundabout after all, and the only thing I could remember was what the girl at the rental counter said, when warning me against roundabouts: “Hesitate and you’re lost!”

“It’s not a roundabout!” Mary Ellen said.

“Are you crazy? What do you think it is then?”

“An ordinary intersection exactly like you would find in our own country. I knew you shouldn’t have had that second beer. Don’t you even know what you’re doing? I hope you haven’t had some kind of little stroke or something.”

“It certainly is no ordinary intersection. Why would they put something like that in a really swell place like Oxford?”

I raced on through the intersection, or whatever it was, scattering pedestrians, freezing traffic and narrowly dodging the lady Bobbie, before I found the brakes. I looked back and saw her picking herself off the grass and coming forward. “Ah,” she said, not unkindly. “You’re American, aren’t you?”

All Oxford screeched to a halt. The whole world screeched to a halt. I was waiting for it to start up again while she stood there pleasantly brushing herself off and saying again, in a sharper yet not unfriendly voice: “You are American, aren’t you.”

Humbled, I again confessed the awful truth. A mere colonist. Disreputable accident of birth. But, then, it could have been Ethiopia. I showed her my driving license even though she hadn’t asked for it. “Well, she said, at least your name is quite British. Are you related to the author?”

“A very poor relation, forgotten at the bequest.”

I don’t know why, but I held myself a little higher after that, even after confessing that we were no relation whatsoever, thinking at any moment to be led despicably off to jail.

She looked at me a little suspiciously. “Very well then.” I watched her as she held up her hand to hold all the other traffic in place while directing me through the intersection toward what I assumed was a rendezvous with a bailiff or hangman. She was a real sport about everything. She got me turned around and pointed in the right direction and held up traffic until I was safely on my way . . . out of town.

“We could have been in jail!” Mary Ellen said, not shouting. “We could have rotted in jail here and no one would ever have known!”

She had done graduate work in English history and knew all about the British tradition of democracy and habeas corpus and all the rest. It didn’t matter. Suddenly all of England looked like something we had read about in Dickens. We might as well have got ourselves on the wrong side of a revolution in Haiti for all the future we appeared to have at the moment.

In nearby Burford, a lovely place much too quaint and medieval for its own good, there was more trouble. I had gone the wrong way up a one-way alley and when I swung round I saw a car coming toward us with blinking lights. Real trouble for sure this time. No doubt the fellow had recognized me for an American, as had everyone else that day, and figured I was looking for a fight or something.

All I wanted was to find the way back to Main Street. The car kept coming, lights blinking. I swerved to avoid a collision while it was yet some distance away and then heard a dull, sickening clunk as I struck a parked car to my left.

“See,” my wife said. “Now we’ve got a real mess on our hands. I told that you just weren’t used to having so much of the driver’s seat between you and the left shoulder of the road.”

“STOP SHOUTING!”

“I’m not shouting. I haven’t raised my voice at all. All I’m saying is that you aren’t allowing yourself enough room because you aren’t used to it yet. How much damage have we done?”

“You think just because you haven’t raised your voice I can’t hear the shout in it? Besides, it’s these British roads.”

“If we could’ve just gone by train. Everyone says the Brit Rail trains are clean and up-to-date and very efficient.”

“Well, so are the jails.”

By that time the fellow who had obnoxiously blinked his lights came up to examine the damage. Pleasant chap. Only wanted to remind me that I was going the wrong way in a one-way alley.

“You’re American, aren’t you?” I had bashed in the back door of my rental car. The damage to the other car was insignificant-nonexistent actually. I had struck it on the bumper and it hadn’t budged. Not like an American bumper.

“Shouldn’t we leave a note or something?”

“It’s OK,” the newcomer said. “There’s no damage at all.”

I slunk out of the alley like a common criminal, still feeling that I had violated all the precepts of British traffic law by surreptitiously fleeing the scene of an accident, even if I hadn’t done any damage to the other vehicle. Two whiskys at the King’s Arms and some good conversation with the proprietor had a calming effect.

It was really quite a bother, all these roundabouts and strange traffic customs. You had only wanted to see the ruins and get to Stratford on Avon as quickly as possible so that you could explain to the curator that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have written all those marvelous works attributed to him.

You would convince him at last that it was really Marlowe, brought back from a feigned death and hidden away in an old castle all those years, and then the curator would nod and say “Ah, we and the whole English-speaking world will be much beholden to you,” and very possibly publish my findings in the local paper, all in the name of truth-and never mind that when the big news hit the street the town would be out of business faster than a ramshackle Old West mining town shipping off its last trainload of gold bullion.

By the second day I still hadn’t got the hang of the roundabouts. But I had found the curator in Stratford, like so many others, quite a pleasant chap. I explained my mission. He nodded, as I knew he would, and said: “Take all the time you want. Look around and enjoy yourself, but be very careful that you don’t find yourself floating head down in the Avon tomorrow morning. Last fellow who came here with that information . . . well, I’m afraid he did not come to a very pleasant end.”

A lovely stream, the Avon. Perhaps it could have inspired a Shakespeare after all, the way the grass ran right down to the water, the quiet currents, the trees set back at a respectful distance.

“Will you please promise me,” said Mary Ellen, “that you will not bring up the Shakespeare thing again today, at least not while we are in Stratford? You don’t want to be regarded as just another American colonist, but now you’ve done the very thing that will make it impossible for you to be thought of as anything else.”

She was right. I might as well be thought of as a Alabama redneck, who would at least have had some claim to a respectable tradition. Because, as former Alabama Governor George Wallace used to remind us, a redneck is somebody who works all day for his living in the sun and, unlike all those Washington bureaucrats, doesn’t carry around a briefcase with nothing in it but a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

All I learned was what I had been told from the first: that you’d better not betray any signs of tentativeness in England, whether on the roads or in an archives. When the curator finished with me, I was little more than a mop of dripping sweat, wondering quite seriously if he really meant it when he reminded me of how all the people who had come there making similar ridiculous charges found themselves floating upside down next morning in the Avon.

Back on the road, I remembered the old rule: Hesitate for a second and you might as well be swimming in shark-infested waters. Enter ever so tentatively into one of those roundabouts and the other cars will descend on you snapping wildly, like sharks hovering for the kill, smelling blood, nipping at your rear bumper, biting off your tail lights. So you just plunge in with half-closed eyes, holding your breath and pretending that those aren’t really screams coming from your wife after all.

“They say you can get stuck on these things and stay all night,” I said. “Or until somebody sends a rescue squad.”

“I wonder if this is one of those times?”

“What the hell do you mean?”

“It’s getting so dark. I really can’t make sense out of the directional signs?”

By that time I had gone made half a dozen circuits of the roundabout. “The road to Salisbury. You know which one it is. You had it all picked out before.”

“It’s just so hard to see. And the map is no help. I mean, if you can’t see the numbers on the road sign.”

Another half dozen circuits and beads of sweat beginning to appear on my forehead. “I understand everything now.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think these roundabouts were built for people who already know where they are going anyway. Anyway, we’re supposed to turn southwest. I guess we’ll just have to rely on the sun as our directional sign.”

“Sun’s almost gone.”

“Well, I’m sure as hell no good at navigating by the stars.”

“I think it must be the one at the top of the circle. Should we take a chance? At least, it looks as though it is pointing in the right direction.”

Cars were coming at us from every entrance, snapping at us, revving up their motors as they gathered to gobble up my last tail light and finish us off at last. Surely we could count on their apologizing for it in a most mannerly fashion. I was really getting dizzy now. Maybe I would be stuck there all night. Like in some of those old movies.

“That’s the trouble with this country. Not even a shoulder of the road where you can get off and think about things and maybe smoke a cigarette.”

“You haven’t smoked in years.”

“Thought it might be a good time to start.”

“Anyway, I love this country. Are you going to get off? It will be dark soon.”

“Yes. One more round and then we’ll just have to make a run for it. If the sharks don’t get me first.”

“They’re coming in awfully fast now. People getting off work, I guess.”

I took a chance and shot out of an exit that I had more or less selected by instinct, with only a little help from the dying sun.. I was really sweating now and needing a cigarette for the first time in thirty years. Somehow I got to where I was going, Salisbury, I think, and later up to Yorkshire and Chester, fighting the roundabouts all the way. That’s the part the guidebooks leave out. “Traditional England,” they call it, all those lovely little towns-and never a word about the devilish highways built to avenge themselves on any colonist idiotic enough to think he can solve the mystery of the British traffic system.

“Well, I do simply love this country. Even with the roundabouts. I told you we should have taken the train anyway.”

“You miss too much on the train.”

We finally made it on up to the Lake Country, where, on a hill behind Dove cottage, I found a smooth pebble which I immediately realized, by psychic instinct, had once been fondled by Wordsworth himself and perhaps inspired some of his greatest poetry. I brought it home and placed it above my desk, but I don’t guess psychic rocks work for everyone. We even made it to Edinburgh and gained new respect for Robert Burns, though our belief in the old folklore of the niggardliness of the Scottish race was almost instantly confirmed-by a young American at that-who adamantly refused to give us a drink of water. Not in a clean cup anyway. We could first buy coffee and drink it all and we could have all the water we wished – within reason.

“Coffee?”

“Yes. You can drink it, you see, and then I can fill your cups with water. No problem with that at all.”

“Not sure I understand.”

“Well, you see, they count the cups at the end of each day. I have to be responsible for every one. I can see you think its a bit crazy. So did I at first. But then it reminded me that we Americans are much too wasteful of everything. You see, I am only working her until I can get enough money to get back home to Colorado.”

Later, out on a little side street, we cornered a chap in military dress. “Ah, Americans!” he said. He smiled pleasantly and perhaps a bit sardonically while informing us that he knew our little game: “You’ve only come to talk to the locals haven’t you, to gather up local color? Cram it all in, in half a hour? Oh, we’re quite used to that, you see. Quite.”

The important thing for anybody coming to this part of the world, first-time visitor or not, is to go out and walk the Royal mile-all the way from Edinburgh Castle down through main part of the town and on out to a kind of parade ground, where, on the day we were there, a militia in traditional Scottish kilts was going through its paces. All along the famous mile I found myself nurturing a new sympathy for Robert Burns and Afton Waters and all things Scottish even though I was limping badly from an old knee operation long before the end of our excursion.

In the end you begin to get the hang of it. Traditional England has taught you a lot. You plunge headlong into the roundabouts, trying your best to bite off the other fellow’s fender for a change, having learned that this quaint custom is nothing more than a distinctively English version of Russian Roulette. On the open road you are OK because you have learned to keep the pedal to the metal and to hell with the speed limit signs and just don’t ever slow down at all, even for a sideways glance at Stonehenge, or try to pull off the road or do anything whatsoever except plunge ahead as fast as you can with both hands on the wheel, looking neither to the right or the left and pretending that your wife isn’t really screaming at you, only practicing for her next Little Theater role.

“We should have taken Brit Rail!”

“I keep telling you: You can’t get to all the places you want to go by train!”

A good argument, except by the time I got back to Gatwick to turn in the car I wasn’t exactly sure where I had been. There were vague memories of Oxford and the great cathedral at Salisbury and the mysterious dolomite stones at Avesbury, and the ghost of a man, either a druid or a Capuchin monk doing obeisance before one of the rocks. And the Sunday morning that we found ourselves peeping out of a heavy fog in the old community of Bishops Canning. I would never have found the place at all if I hadn’t made the horrible mistake of taking my eyes off the road for a moment. Just lucky, I guess. Or perhaps for a moment looked upon with friendly eyes by whatever mysterious deity lords it over the United Kingdom these days. I’m not sure exactly how to describe Bishops Canning. Not a town, hardly even a community, a place so remote and forgotten that you couldn’t even find it in the guide books. I wondered how many Britons themselves knew about this remarkable place. One of the many villages we would never have found if we had gone by Brit Rail. I could think of nothing like it, except, perhaps, remotely, some of the old lost towns hidden away in Virginia, way back in the woods, with no markers to show you the way in-towns that if anybody other than the postman finds them at all it is only because he took a wrong turn somewhere.

As for Bishops Canning, I assumed that it’s only reason for being was the pleasant old Anglican church itself. Doubtless full of quaint historic events and old legends. Yet where was the time for us to explore them all? I stood there in grass up to my knees, with the thick fog hanging over me, and a flock of sheep munching contentedly as the parishioners gathered for worship. I watched them coming up the narrow path that had been mowed for their convenience, the rest of the churchyard having been left for the sheep or perhaps to camouflage the landing of UFOs, which are truly a big part of the folklore in this part of the world. How often, I wondered, had the redoubtable Thomas Hardy witnessed such a scene? Had he once walked these same roads, amid the tall grass and the heavy fogs and the flocks of sheep, watching the parishioners go in for devotions. Almost every page of Hardy hints of such a world, of fog and lonely moors and men and women caught up in the throes of an implacable fate.

We drove south into Dorset, Hardy’s own town, on the same day, passing onto the main thoroughfare past a copper bust of the great man, only to find that this most fatalistic of British novelists, once considered for an English peerage, had been something of a bounder among the people who knew him best. The talk was that he would go for long brooding walks in the English dusk, growling at the neighborhood children and sweeping them out of his way with his cane. Was that the real Hardy-or only the partly excusable behavior of a magnificent artist preoccupied with resolving some new, onerous and exceedingly complex turn of plot? Yet there is no doubt that he was a singularly humorless cuss. “All laughing,” he once wrote, “comes from misapprehension. Rightly looked at there is no laughable thing under the sun.”

Well, neither the technology of the motorcar nor the British highway system had got very far in Hardy’s day. He must have learned his lessons of fate and humankind in some more subtle fashion. From Schopenhauer, some say. Me? By that time, after more than a week on the road, everything had become something of a blur. But it would not be easy to forget the country where Hardy lived and wrote. Druids at their worship, those heavy morning fogs, sheep in the tall grass, witches going quietly about their work. Or for that matter the house back at Hampstead Heath where Keats composed his last great odes. Or the long walk along the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle and especially the friendly reminder of the curator at Stratford:

“Do you have relatives who would wish to be informed?”

You finally make it back to the airport to turn in your keys, knowing there will be hell to pay, looking absolutely terrified and shaking all over and wondering how you will explain all the damage to your rental car and wondering how much more training you will need before you can go back home and enter the Indy 500. Worst of all, I hadn’t even tried to drive in London yet. I felt like a weakling, a coward, a failure, a mere colonist.

There was a different girl at the counter this time; but she, too, was a real sport about everything. It was almost as if she had been expecting a wrecked car-would, in fact, have been utterly surprised if I had brought back anything else.

“Don’t worry. It’s nothing. We’ll take care of it. We’re very used to this sort of thing, you see.” She looked at me more narrowly. “You are American, aren’t you?”

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