Mrs Garmin or Mrs Tom Tom?

In the early years of SATNAVs some family members came to visit. These are the relatives in our extended family to whom we are closest, socially if not geographically. They had visited on countless occasions during the twenty or so years we’d occupied our home and while they are not the most punctual of visitors they have travelled to stay with us enough times to know the route blindfold [as it were].

On this particular weekend we received a phone call from them to report progress on their travel. ‘We’re in Portsmouth’ they informed us. Portsmouth? Taking a route from their house to ours via Portsmouth would add a significant amount of time to the journey. ‘But this is the way the SATNAV brought us’ they said. Leaving aside the unlikely event of their losing their way on such a much-driven road we were at pains to understand why the device led them via Portsmouth.

Since then of course most of us have adopted satellite navigation systems in our vehicles, but while they are useful on occasion [especially for finding out-of-the-way campsites] they are not to be relied upon or obeyed without question. Husband, in his map-obsessed way likes to programme with co-ordinates whereas I prefer to key in an address. Both methods can succeed or fail and both are tricky whilst travelling.

For many years we’ve used Mrs Garmin, a stern-voiced martinet who was never able to back down in a stand-off, ordering us to turn the vehicle around for many kilometres past the junction where we’d disobeyed her. As she repeated her requests to take the last exit at the next roundabout or to make a U-turn she would appear to become more agitated, her voice more strident.

Another of her foibles was to lead us into ever smaller lanes until we’d be travelling on narrow cart tracks brushing the hedge on both sides, grass growing along the centre, whereupon the marked road on the screen would disappear altogether leaving the tiny, blue cartoon vehicle rotating in the middle of a large field. At this point the chequered flag was likely to materialise.

Mrs Garmin’s command of languages was also lamentable, her pronunciation of street names often so poor as to be unintelligible. ‘A-vay-noo Gay-nay-ral De-gole’ she would assure us as we followed some mystifying ring road around for the third time.

Sparky, the beautiful, electric wonder that resides in our driveway possesses his own, integrated directions lady. She has a gentile, cultured tone and is never hectoring or dictatorial, although she is at pains to inform me of the same speed cameras with repetitive attention to detail.

Mrs Garmin went on her grouchy way along with Jazzer the campervan when he moved on to a new owner.

Now we have a new van [Cider] and we have Mrs Tom Tom, a slightly nasal creature who is less authoritarian but also less attentive and misses the turning sometimes. She knows nothing about the nearest supermarkets and has a lacklustre display. You can’t win them all…

 

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A Potted Driving History

I learned to drive when I was twenty four. It was the mid seventies and I had all my lessons in the dark of a snowy winter in London. As my first test approached the instructor suggested I have some lessons during the day because I’d had no experience of driving in daylight.

I hadn’t needed a car for work, as I walked there. I was motivated by a need to be independent. I remember going to a party, staying late and having no means of getting home to my shared flat in Putney. A man I’d been chatting to offered me a lift back to my flat, which I gratefully accepted. Feeling I should reciprocate, when we arrived I offered coffee-an offer that was rejected. He didn’t want coffee, but he did want sex. I considered myself worldly as a twenty something-having been a student through late sixties hippy-dom, the freedom of ‘the pill’ and beyond into laissez-faire student territory, nevertheless I was shocked that someone would offer a lift and expect sex in return.

I needed two tests, failing my first [in Guildford] and taking the second only two weeks later [in Teddington]. Neither test venue was familiar to me. While waiting for the second test, with a new, female instructor we got a coffee and she proceeded to regale me with a tearful discourse on the subject of her messy divorce, an experience that I later conjectured as a device to avert pre-driving test nerves.

I got a car, a classy Austin A40 with a steering wheel so enormous that simply rounding a bend almost wrenched my arms from their sockets and only one door that would open; this was the rear tailgate. Entering the vehicle involved climbing into it and diving to the front seat-not a dignified manoeuvre. None of this mattered. I had my independence.

I got to like driving-I still do, but roads, traffic and vehicles have changed in the intervening years. Here in the UK there are few major roads that don’t become clogged with traffic for at least some time during every day. A few days ago, sitting overlooking the M1 motorway at Leicester Forest services the road seemed like some future dystopian world where colossal titans spewing noxious gas had taken possession of the planet and had multiplied until every vestige of space and air were exhausted.

I’ve also noticed that age strips some driver confidence away, resulting in fearfulness of the speed and aggression you find amongst traffic in large conurbations or on five-lane motorways. I am spooked by angry hooting, vehicles cutting across mine at roundabouts or pushing out from junctions in front of me. ‘Be my guest’ I want to squeak, ‘you go first-if your need is so urgent you must terrify everyone else to satisfy it’.

Symptomatic of today’s society? Perhaps. In larger countries with more space and in less populated areas driving can be reminiscent of my early driving years. This is often true for travel away from the autoroutes in France, although time must be no object. How will it all pan out? I can only imagine the vehicles nose-to-tail habit will progress to being conjoined-and then what? Oh of course-railways.

Trolling Through Norway

I can’t recall the last time I visited a European country for the first time. [I say ‘European’ advisedly, owing to the fact that ‘Europe’ has come to mean a variety of things in these times; but here I’m using the word in the old, traditional sense-that of the collection of countries immediately surrounding our own, squidgy little UK.]

I have not ventured much into Scandinavia, except four or so years ago to Denmark, so this expedition to Norway is a new departure. I love to see new places. I want to know what grows, what people do, what their homes are like, what they like to eat and how they fill their leisure time. Here are some conclusions I’ve made about Norway so far:

  • The country consists almost entirely of rock, water and trees-with a bit of farmland and a few cities thrown in.
  • Owing to these constituents it is an obscenely beautiful place-that is for fans of snow-capped mountains, vast lakes, cascading waterfalls and gushing rivers. If your preference is for deserts, shopping arcades and uniform rows of parasol-clad beaches I suggest it is not for you. Go to Dubai instead.
  • The weather is a little capricious. It is capable of warm sunshine although this cannot be guaranteed. You might say the changing weather patterns are part of its charm.
  • In order to get anywhere by road you have to accept that tunnels and ferries are a huge part of the deal. There are nearly 1000 road tunnels and more than 100 ferry crossings plus numerous bridges. Some of the tunnels are spectacular in themselves, housing junctions and in one we encountered a fully-blown roundabout, all lit up in blue like a spaceship.
  • Pizza and hot dogs are ubiquitous and popular offerings getting an enthusiastic take-up by travellers and locals alike. This was told to me before departure by my friend Anne-Marit and she was not wrong! We have not ventured into any restaurants due to my next observation, that…
  • Food prices, while not as expensive as we had feared are dear, as is alcohol. Norwegians are bound by strict rules regarding booze. Fresh food items such as vegetables and meat cost the most but staples like bread are not so prohibitive.
  • Living roofs are everywhere-green swards peppered with wild flowers covering every building from barns to homes to bus shelters to public toilets to mail boxes-often entire communities sporting them-everywhere as are…
  • Trolls-probably too many, to be honest-

What else? There is a good deal of graffiti in the cities-but very little in the way of advertising hoardings-nothing along the roadsides or in fields. Most homes are constructed in wood [of course] and many are self-builds. There is a glorious profusion of wild flowers which includes lupins [at least-now in summer!] and the clover, in particular is enormous. Everyone speaks fluent English –and all are pleasant and welcoming! What’s not to love?

Weather or not?

                So here in the South of the UK we have been deluged by storms, wild winds and relentless rain since early December. Yet curiously, the press continues to feature the stories of fallen trees, collapsed roads and rail networks, homes without power , flooded buildings and drownings as if they were news. How many people are left who are surprised by the endless flood of stories and the deluge of videos on the subject?

                Elsewhere in the world, large tracts of land are drought and fire ridden or have been locked into a standstill by statistic-busting snowfalls and gigantic freeze-ups. Presumably their journos and pursuing a similar line of ceaseless weather reportage. Is anyone else suffering from weather news fatigue, as I am?

                Here on England’s South coast we have been battered and buffeted enough to have sprung some leaks and lost some roof tiles, a nuisance and an expense if nothing else, but of course you can only feel sympathy for those whose properties have been flooded and ruined for the second, third or even fourth time in one winter. This weather, they all agree, is unprecedented. I feel sure that the Australian home owners who have lost everything in bush fires must feel the same. Is there anyone left who is still a climate change sceptic? Whether you believe it is man-made or not, that it is happening cannot be denied.

                We in the so called democratic countries elect our ruling parties on the strength of their policies, do we not? But can there be an issue in the world that is more pressing, more urgent than climate change? I don’t think so. Yes, terrorism is a frightening prospect, economic depressions affect everyone and the world’s dwindling resources provoke anxiety-but all of these issues, I believe are connected to the increasing gap between rich and poor [yes-even terrorism] which is a direct result of climate conditions. The poorest peoples live in the places that struggle most with inhospitable weather, most in Africa. These are the places where extremist, terrorist groups are most likely to get a toehold and then a stranglehold, where a population is starved and impoverished and unable to respond or retaliate.

                And so what have the developed nations done? Have they got together to implement policies for world good? Have they agreed to share resources, work out ways to minimise damage, acknowledge that fossil fuels are not going to last forever, that sustainable energy sources are vital and that the needs of the starving, desperate peoples on the planet must be addressed by all of us? No. Some lip service has been paid. The UN has been meeting since 1992 and has still not reached any binding agreement. Have an expensive, lavishly serviced meeting of world leaders [all arriving in expensive, heavily guarded private aircraft], wring their hands a bit and go away again.

                The world’s populations will just have to shift. The peoples of the more advantaged nations will have to accommodate those whose environments have become uninhabitable. This will leave vast areas of the planet devoid of humans. What wonderful places they will be!

In the fast lane there’s a shredded, nervous wreck trying to get out.

                A situation at home prompted us to cut short our meanderings on the Med and make a dash back to the ferry and from there onwards. This involved two days’ of nine hour drives. We are accustomed to driving long distances for trips nevertheless it was, to say the least, tiring. The method we employ for driving many kilometres is to take turns of two hours and then swap over.

                At the beginning of my stint at the wheel of the van I always consider myself to be strong, competent, emancipated woman, boldly handling the vehicle upon the highways of Europe amongst the macho, truck-driving fraternity and international travellers of all kinds. By the end of the two hours, however I am usually a freaked-out, whimpering, cowering wreck who finds it necessary to stop, climb out and beg for the alternative driver [Husband] to reverse into a space that could accommodate a double-decker bus.

                Certain conditions inspire terror in my driver persona. For one thing, whilst motorways and dual carriageways are relatively calm, safe conveyors of traffic they become angst provoking nightmares when swept by crosswinds that buffet the van and threaten to tear the wheel from my hands. I’m happy to overtake trucks and lorries, but find it nerve wracking to be sandwiched between giant lorries overtaking each other. Often, during overtaking moves, fellow drivers approach aggressively from behind, headlights blazing in bullying reproach as the van fails to get by fast enough for them, despite the feeble driver’s foot being flat down as far as it can go. Nowhere is this behaviour more prevalent than in Germany, where a glance in the rear view mirror reveals nothing until you are half way round a lorry-then a vehicle appears from out of nowhere virtually stuck to your rear bumper.

                But the situations that induce the most panic by far are large, busy, unfamiliar cities in which the route must be located as well as negotiating the [largely unsympathetic] teeming traffic.

                I happened to be on my ‘shift’ as we neared our selected, overnight stop South of Paris, coinciding with late afternoon rush hour. Lovely.

“Please!” I begged Husband, “Tell me which lane”.

                He ruminated, switching from atlas to satnav and back again-“Um…left…no…right…no…”

I felt myself grow hot and an urge to empty the bladder as we lurched to a stop at a red light, in front of a long, impatient column of cars. From somewhere there was the ominous whine of a siren, and growing louder. I stared around to try and locate the source, finally, and with foreboding seeing the flashing blue light approaching behind us, the lines of cars parting to allow its passage. I was at the light, with nowhere to go, a stalemate as the police car blazed and blared in an insistent decree behind us. The driver in the adjoining lane waved his arms and shouted for us to move. At last a car stopped in its path across us and allowed me to drive through the light. Another five minutes saw us safe into the hotel car park, where I felt like weeping with relief.

I stopped in front of a space and climbed out, wobbly legged. Husband, of course did the reversing into a space thing.

In terms of late life career options, I suppose lorry driver would be somewhere down near the bottom of the list?

Sailing too Close to the Wind?

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So in this rapidly changing world, what will the transport of the future look like? What will fuel it? Will it be air, land or water based [or something else? Virtual?]? Who will travel? What will it cost? Will it be a luxury? Is it a luxury now?

                Indeed, will there be travel at all? Why will anyone need to?

                During a trawl for research into climate change, for a novel I’m attempting to write, I came across this website:

http://flood.firetree.net/?ll=48.3416,14.6777&z=13&m=7

It shows the extent to which the land will flood over progressively higher sea levels, which prompts speculation about the repercussions of such floods. We are already beginning to see the effects of flooding, with disruption to housing and transport. There must surely come a time when, as usable land shrinks, people will need to move higher. It may also be necessary to rethink the way we, and our goods, travel.

                On large waterways, such as the Thames, or the French Seine, barges are a normal sight, but in the future, when land is at [even more of] a premium, why not capitalise by restoring the waterways and even building more? For instance, looking at the flood map it seems that North Somerset and South Devon may shrink to the point where Cornwall is almost an island, making it a fairly simple operation to build a transport waterway between the existing Bristol and the English Channels.

                In thirty years’ time I imagine there will have not only been developments in vehicles and fuels, but in communications technology. Why, then are we going to be spending 33 billion pounds on a land-based transport project that may not even be needed? The intention to take traffic off roads is laudable, but who knows whether road traffic will be the same in 30 years time? It may all be electric, we may not need to travel so much, or maybe a completely new system will get invented.

                Maybe we will even be re-thinking our attitudes to goods transport. We may have to limit imports and exports, grow more [and a greater variety] of foods, make more of what we need, perhaps think about using less. Radical? It’s beginning to happen already.

                In the meantime I’d like to know who is going to be travelling up and down the country by railway on a regular basis and for what reasons? And how on earth this is meant to ‘generate’ wealth and business? If it’s only about shopping outlets at stations then there’s no hope, because how can that succeed where all over the country, high streets are failing?

                Any answers? Chances are that I won’t be around in 30 years, but I’m still interested to know!