Welcome to another in our occasional series of blog entries. The pictures don't have anything to do with the text...we really cannot do justice to the scenery with mere words.
I’ve never really been one for car culture or coveted driving anything with more luxury than a functioning heater and radio, but I have just borrowed a lavishly appointed car to ferry Alison back from dropping off our Mazda for its MOT. It was a scary experience.
Firstly, I had to start the damn thing. What I had mistaken for a handy receptacle for my glasses turned out to be a port for the key fob which, once deposited, allowed the car to start…or didn’t. Not until I’d pressed the correct sequence of buttons and then, to my alarm the interior lit up like a Christmas tree, beeped, flashed and whirred in a fashion that would have delighted a toddler or someone called Wayne but terrified the bejesus out of me. Even the arm rest had more buttons than my own car needs to function successfully. Finally, it settled into an impatient humming sulk while I worked out that the handbrake was a switch buried somewhere out of sight below the steering wheel and required nothing more of me than a gentle prod to release 2 litres of finest Swedish engineering backwards at 70 miles an hour.
Until that hair-raising moment my attention had been focused entirely on trying to figure out which of the many gears would result in forward momentum. I tried all of them at least twice before we finally lurched forward in a series of crunching hops. I realise now that it is quite a good idea to acquaint oneself with the basic functions before setting off. Had I done so I would have known where reverse was, that it had 6 gears, not 4 as I’d thought for the first 5 miles of my journey and I wouldn’t have had to stop twice within ½ a mile of leaving home. Once to find out where the windscreen wiper control was (in the boot possibly) and once to try and turn the heating down from thermonuclear to merely tropical, all this while outside rain lashed down and the wind lifted sheep into the next postcode.
Once underway again I made good progress, even successfully indicating right by pounding every stalk on the steering column. I had wanted to turn left but after seeing the look on the face of the driver behind me I decided to stick to the direction the car had chosen, to his evident relief as he vanished in a cloud of dust.
Around 10 minutes into the journey I discovered the word ‘cruise’ etched into the steering wheel. Maybe it came equipped with its own guided missile system I thought, those canny Swedes pretending to be neutral and all the time arming their family saloons with enough technology to launch a pre-emptive strike on Norway and steal their fjords. While absentmindedly musing upon Scandinavian conflict I became aware of a slowly increasing warmth in the rump. I felt between my legs and the seat was reassuringly dry but alarmingly hot. I guessed what I earlier thought was the control for the radio had in fact been the seat warmer. I took the only sensible course of action and twisted, punched, pummelled and mashed every button, knob and switch within reach until the hairs on my posterior were no longer sizzling away in their own juices.
I had no idea how the climate control system worked. Every so often a puff of warm damp air would escape a vent in the dashboard and warm the empty passenger seat to my left or a cold draft would suddenly cool my left ankle until it got bored. I tried a likely looking knob with a red crescent fading into a blue one, but this only succeeded in turning the radio on. So now accompanied by Radio 4 and intermittent updates on the traffic situation in Glasgow I settled in for all of two minutes.
I could see the roadworks in good time, and thanks to their luminous coats also the two men with their STOP/GO boards standing at each end of a digger clearing goodness knows what from a ditch. There was no traffic following me and nothing approaching from the other direction for approximately 4 miles, so seeing me, one of them decided to switch from GO to STOP because they’ve had nothing else to do all morning. I jerked down through a few random gears to a dead stop; whereupon he switched immediately to GO. Of course he did…I was just thinking about how he might not be qualified to do a job where the essential requirement is the ability to hold a stick, when I stalled the car and had to go through the whole pre-flight routine before crawling past him and his smirking colleague, mistook 2nd gear for 4th and screeched off in a cloud of rubbery smoke. I tried stabbing the ‘cruise’ button a few times but sadly no one in a high vis jacket exploded.
Roadworkers can be an easy target so out of interest I looked up the statistics and now have a renewed respect for the UK’s 4000 or so high vis souls who are generally trying to earn a few bob while making our roads safer. In 2016, 347 incidents of road worker abuse were reported, but fewer than half of the 23 companies who belong to the Highways Term Maintenance Association were asked to supply figures, so the real number will be much higher.
Of those incidents, 267 were in the form of swearing, shouting, hand gestures and threats but the rest encompassed a smorgasbord of serious assaults that included; shooting, throwing of items such as screwdrivers, kicking, punching and beating, in one case with baseball bats. Not only that but accidental injuries and fatalities are also happening because drivers frequently encroach into coned off areas (over 150 times a month according to Highways England), all because we want to get home in time to see who’s been expelled from The Great British Bake Off. A study by Oxford University in 2016 placed road workers as the 16th most dangerous occupation in the UK, and some of the professions rated more dangerous include comparatively tiny work forces, like deep sea divers and bomb disposal experts.
I didn’t know any of this on my way home, although by then I’d mastered most of the rudimentary controls, so I was at least able to glide to a gentle halt at the first STOP sign for exactly the same length of time it takes to turn a pole with a round sign on top to face the opposite direction. Next time I’ll be sure to give them a cheery wave and smile of acknowledgment as I drive past. Or at least a smile, I’m not sure lifting a hand from the combined steering wheel/gearstick/heater control would be wise under the circumstances. When I eventually arrived home, there were whole clusters of switches that I hadn’t tried and lots of enticingly illuminated knobs remained untwiddled. Goodness knows what any of them do, I’m at a loss to account for anything short of a coffee maker that was missing from my journey.