Wednesday 21 May 2008

The 71 Roundabouts

You'd think I would have learned my lesson. After traveling from Oxford to Cambridge by bus last year I did it again this week. It's a punishing trip, not dissimilar to the Middle Passage that ferried kidnapped Africans across the Atlantic. Three-and-a-half hours and only about 20 minutes of that are on roads of anything wider than two lanes. I wrote before about the nausea-inducing whipsaw motion the bus takes every time it goes around a roundabout. And there are lots of roundabouts.

How many? Seventy-one. I counted them:

There are big roundabouts of the sort that funnel vehicles onto and off of a motorway. There are tiny roundabouts, just card table-sized raised white circles on the tarmac. There are about 10 roundabouts in Milton Keynes alone. Or, rather, the bus goes around roundabouts 10 times. Some of them are multiple passes at the same roundabout, like a bull repeatedly circling back on a toreador or a pinball pinging between posts.

I don't begrudge the English their roundabouts. It's part of what makes this country great. I had an epiphany, though. Many well-traveled English people I've met talk about how they crossed the United States "on a Greyhound bus." They have fond memories of this life-changing journey, describing it as if it was something out of Bob Dylan or a Creedence song: This is the real America. I realize now that, though they may not know it (these things operate on a subconscious level), what they are reacting to is a bus ride without roundabouts. It isn't the sharecroppers' shacks sliding by in the Deep South or the Rocky Mountains marching majestically to the horizon or even the anomie of American ex-urbia that makes such an impression, it's the fact that the Greyhound isn't continuously lurching back and forth like a drunkard looking for a dropped coin.

Seventy-one roundabouts. Between them the bus would pick up speed and the rapeseed fields would flash by, their yellow blossoms making it look as if extra sunlight was pouring down from the sky. I listened to the people around me. A group of teenage apprentices behind me unwound after a day at technical college in Bedford. They were joking about their ineptitude--the roofs they'd fallen off of, the carpet they'd cut wrong--but under that self-deprecating veneer was a new pride. One boy told his friends about the tools he used, his own tools, not rented ones, tools he'd bought with his own money. "If they got nicked I'd be out of pocket well back," he said. There was a girl on the bus sporting a wristful of polished wooden bracelets. "I could make them," he told her. "I'm a carpenter. It's my job."

The boys traded drinking tales--the bartender who knew they were underage but served them anyway, the friend who bizarrely only drank top-shelf liquor, the vomiting, the hangovers.... When they talked about booze they were loud and boisterous, but when they talked about sex--about a girl they knew or wished they knew, about whether "she did or she didn't"--their voices dropped to a whisper. They talked softly for a while, comparing notes, filling in gaps in their knowledge, then the talk turned to football and they were shouting again. "I was playing this kid one-on-one," said a boy. "He says, 'I had a trial with Man United.' Man United must be hard up 'cause I won 5-1 and I'm useless at football."

The bus stopped at one village and a laughing woman with an arm in a cast got on. She nodded to a man weed-whacking his front garden. "He said you'd gone," the woman said to the driver. "I asked if the bus had come and he said it had. If I'd been talking to him you would have gone right by. It wouldn't have been your fault."

She sat down behind me and told the story to everyone around her, how she'd almost missed the bus and how it was her good fortune that she hadn't.


Anonymous said...

Give me a roundabout, any day. There is an intersection near my home where three major roads meet. Its a choke point for much of my end of Alexandria. I think it would be greatly improved if a traffic circle were put in, or, perhaps a congestion charge, yeah, thats the ticket! Kudos on your multi-tasking, John, counting the roundabouts and "earwigging." By the way, was there a pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray at any of the roundabouts?

Anonymous said...

Your Bother Said...
Finally a story without an agenda! Nice change of pace.

Sarah Laurence said...

John, you could write fiction. Thanks for taking us along for the ride and NOT filming it. I get queazy just counting the roundabouts: 71? Wow!

Candadai Tirumalai said...

Considering the traditional rivalry between the Universities one wonders if your bus journey was not an apt comment on the difficulty of getting from one place to the other. But you had the benefit of the conversation and the stories in them.