by Hunter James
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. 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 the driver manages to persuade himself that he has not bought a one-way ticket straight to perdition.
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 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.
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. A professor named Brenda James (no kin, at least none that I know of) had recently produced evidence, the most convincing so far, that a British diplomat who never wrote anything under his own name, except for letters and such, was actually the author of all those plays. But everything in its place: 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 man drunk? Angry? Looking for trouble?
“My word!” 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 to be 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.
Or Maybe Henry James?
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!
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 areAmerican, aren’t you.”
Humbled, I again confessed the awful truth. A mere colonist. Disreputable accident of birth. 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? Which one? Brenda or Henry.”
“I don’t know a Brenda.”
“You mean Henry? Oh, yes, 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.”
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.
It really was the worst of times . . .
Second Roundabout in Burford
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.”
“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.”
Stratford-upon-Avon: To Be Shakespeare or Not To Be?
Thought I didn’t even mark that parked car, it was really quite a bother, all these roundabouts and strange traffic customs.
I had only wanted to see the ruins and get to Stratford-upon-Avon as quickly as possible so that I could explain to the curator that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have written all those marvelous works attributed to him.
I had long ago given up on Marlowe and Oxford. So it must be the new guy, the diplomat my non-cousin had discovered, a chap by the name of Sir Henry Neville, who had spent time in Parliament as well as in France and also, unfortunately, in the Tower of London.
I would convince the curator at last of the truth, and then he 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. The last joker who came here with that kind of 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.”
My wife was right.
All I learned was what I had been told from the first day: you’d better not betray any signs of tentativeness in England, whether on the roads or in the 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.
On the Road Again
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.”
By that time I had made half a dozen circuits of the roundabout.
Nighttime began to creep up on us.
Another half dozen circuits and beads of sweat beginning to appear on my forehead. “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 was really getting dizzy now. Maybe I would be stuck there all night. Like in some of those old movies.
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.
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 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.
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. 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.
Bishops Canning, doubtlessly full of quaint historic events and old legends.
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.”
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 okay 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.