How to get ahead in London

Thursday 23 February 2006

There’s a shallow dent the size of a pound coin on the front left fender of my girlfriend’s new car. She’s just come inside from another session of squatting in front of the parking bay and glaring at the indentation with furrowed brows, scrutinising the bodywork for any other damage. She swears the dent wasn’t there when she bought it.
(Regular readers may have gathered the accurate impression that she is a woman who takes cars seriously. Personally I am agnostic, fitting the definition of a poet as someone who cannot drive.)
Of course, it is not really a new car – she did not track down the late and mysterious Mucho Maas of the home counties for a shiny new Kia. A friend of hers was leaving the country and needed to dispose of his slightly thrashed Fiat Brava in a hurry. He was doing a postdoctorate in Plymouth, and so had done his fair share of driving at high speed around blind corners on those hedge-lined, one-lane backroads that zigzag across Devon and Cornwall. He was more than happy to demonstrate his skills to us when we went to visit.
Plymouth’s claim to fame rests on the number of illustrious former inhabitants who made a point of leaving it. Apart from Drake sailing out to take on the Armada, and the pilgrims leaving to settle America, much of the civic bric-a-brac erected for public enlightenment proudly reminds you that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle briefly lived there. He hated the place, and moved away as soon as possible, but it seems Plymouth has to take what little celebrity it can get and be grateful.
More recent history has done nothing to increase Plymouth’s allure. The place was bombed flat in World War II by German planes returning from raids on Bristol jettisoning what remained of their payloads. Postwar rebuilding was done with all the style and quality for which modern Britain is famous around the world. Plymouth today is a small, ugly city of bad 1960s architecture, littered with unemployed men with bad haircuts and eating pasties, so for me it was just like coming home to Adelaide and taking a bus out to Elizabeth.
There are two big things in Plymouth’s favour: the excellent gin, and everyone there talks like a pirate. In Cornwall, every day is 19 September. We went around asking older guys for directions all day.
It was in Plymouth that I first experienced that venerable British culinary stalwart, the inedible meal. A harmless-looking Italian-type bistro served me a carbonara consisting of a pile of overcooked spaghetti half-submerged in a milky broth, disrupted by clumps of bright pink spam. I should have been warned off the place by the fact that they had one of those collections of signed and framed celebrity photographs on the wall, except in their case there was only one “celebrity”: Gus Honeybun.
We agreed our friend would drive the car up to London en route to the airport in a few weeks’ time, and drop it off at our place. This was harder to achieve than it seemed at the time we planned it. Everything went fine until he reached the outskirts of London, and then attempted to navigate his way from Slough to Hackney without a map. His success can be gauged from the diagrams below, accompanied by his text messages reporting his progress towards the Bunker. For your convenience, Jeremy Bentham’s location in Bloomsbury is marked as a reference point.


6.30 pm: in hamersmith cu in 1 hr


7.30 pm: wo6ps at heathrow xrong turn c u so6nish

9.00 pm: ic wembley stadiun am i close??
We thought it best to take a tube to meet him at Wembley. The drive back to the bunker started out simply enough along the North Circular Road, but ran into trouble when we made the turn south toward the bunker. One of the amazing things about London is how you can follow the streets, diligently alternating left turns with right turns to keep on some sort of tacking course toward your presumed destination, only to find yourself driving in the opposite direction past the landmark you left behind half an hour earlier.
“This is hopeless!” I yelled. I’m constructive like that.
Our driving friend sighed. “Looks like I’ll have to get the street directory out after all.”

The bastard had a street directory, but preferred to drive in circles around London for five hours rather than admit defeat and reach under the passenger seat for the A-Z. We had no choice to kill him once he got us back to the bunker at last.

Mind you, he could have achieved this without our help. At midnight, about an hour into the journey home, he exclaimed, “Aha! That’s why everybody’s been pointing and waving at me! I just thought all the drivers round here were really aggro.” He pressed a button on the dashboard and switched the headlights on.