When my daughters learned to drive, I suggested they take their tests in automatics as driving manual cars would soon be redundant. I worry about this. Not because I think I was wrong, but because I fear that gear-changing is yet another of those once commonplace skills which may soon be lost to technology for ever, like double-declutching or the ability to memorise more than three phone numbers.
As evidence of this depletion of tacit expertise, consider how the satnav has eroded map-reading skills in anyone under 40 – something which might explain why the Russian army sticks to main roads even when driving tanks. Since nobody uses printed maps any more, it has left people spectacularly ignorant of relative geography. One friend’s son recently left his parents’ house for London to cadge a lift to a concert. Nothing odd about that, except his parents live in Taunton and the concert was in Devon. I’m not much better myself. When asked to describe my route to someone’s house recently, other than naming a pub I had seen on the way, I was completely clueless.
Yet in my childhood, at least among provincial folk, the default when welcoming people to your home was to quiz them about their journey. They would then describe the route in granular detail. If your guests were from the West Midlands, this could go on for ages – not because the journey was necessarily long, but because Brummies form strong allegiances to roads the way other people support football teams. I once got in a taxi at Coventry station and asked to be taken to Warwick. ‘Do you want to go on the A46 or the A429?’ the driver asked. It was assumed everyone, even first-time visitors from Kent, would have a strong preference. If sectarian conflict ever erupts in the Midlands, it will be over something like this.
Eric Idle, who went to school in Wolverhampton, created perhaps the perfect Brummie road litany in the opening sequence of Monty Python’s Minehead by-election sketch.
Landlady (Terry Jones): ‘You must be tired. It’s a long drive from Coventry, isn’t it?’
Johnson (Eric Idle): ‘Yes, well, we usually reckon on five and a half hours and it took us six hours and 53 minutes, with a 25-minute wait at Frampton Cotterell to stretch our legs; only we had to wait half an hour to get on to the M5 at Droitwich… Then there was a three-mile queue just before Bridgwater on the A38. We usually come round on the B3339, you see, just before Bridgwater… We decided to risk it as they always say they’re going to widen it there… just by the intersection there where the A372 joins up. There’s plenty of room to widen it there, there’s only grass verges. They could get another six feet if they knocked down that hospital. Then we took the coast road through Williton – and we got all the Taunton traffic on the A358 from Crowcombe and Stogumber.’
My brother-in-law was once on a train that stopped at Birmingham airport. A bronzed man carrying an enormous backpack boarded and noticed another Brummie friend seated nearby. He greeted him and announced that he was just back from travelling around the world for 18 months. ‘Oh, this might be interesting,’ thought my brother-in-law. He was hoping to overhear the traveller’s tales, perhaps of pale hands he had loved beside the Shalimar, of seeing the sun rise over the Rockies, of enlightenment finally attained in a monastery in Tibet…
If the traveller had such stories to tell, his friend was having none of it. ‘Eighteen months? You won’t believe what’s happened since you’ve gone. There’s a temporary contraflow on the Hagley Road, and they’ve just put variable speed limits on the M42.’ We should record these road conversations before they are lost to us for ever.
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