Dropped my car off for a service in Stirling, nice and early, at 8 am. And did I need a courtesy car? I usually say yes, but as on this occasion I had no commitments I left on foot.
Abandoning the car and becoming a pedestrian was a spiritual experience. The world may still be zooming around me, but I have slowed down into my own personal time zone, and the noise and haste are gradually losing relevance. I began to notice things. The walk from an industrial estate into the centre of town took me over a bridge, under an underpass, and across a piece of grassland. A path had been hewn along the most direct route and through a rough gap in a hedge. The path had nothing to do with town planning. It had just evolved through the spontaneous behaviour of people. There was something pleasing, and deeply nostalgic, about the ancient mossy stone walls, pavements, the smell of cut grass, the trees’ heavy summer foliage. I was reminded of my childhood, and of the freedom of going out to play. I found a coffee shop and had a flat white and watched the town gradually come to life. Then I took the train to Glasgow. I was happy to stare out of the window and watch the world go by, like Philip Larkin in The Whitsun Weddings.
In Glasgow, to continue with the public transport theme, I visited the Transport Museum, down by the Clyde, and wandered among the trams and trolley buses of my childhood. The subway exhibit was best. It’s a partly real, partly virtual experience. Glasgow’s underground is very modest, a single loop with 15 stations. Between stations you clatter and roar through the tunnel and feel the movement and vibration of the carriage and seem to get absorbed into the projected world of wartime passengers as they board and alight and indulge in banter, or rather “patter”, with the clippie. It’s the nearest thing to time-travelling. If they could add in that very characteristic smell of the Glasgow subway, the experience would be perfect. I was amused that visitors to this attraction tended to alight when the carriage came to a virtual halt at a station. I did so myself.
Then I took a walk along Dumbarton Road. And the patter continued. Glasgow is a city state. For all its changes, it remains the same. Exalted, maestoso Glasgow. It’s very quiet in Glasgow just now. The second fortnight in July is the time of “The Glasgow Fair” when traditionally the shipyards closed and everybody went to Saltcoats for their holidays. Something of this must persist, even if the destination is Lanzarote, because there’s little traffic. The place is almost serene. Yet the patter goes on. Somehow, Glasgow has retained a sense of community.
Maybe cars were a big mistake. The acquisition of a car was a big thing for my parents’ generation. Not only was the car a means to increased mobility, it was a symbol of social mobility. Our first was a Ford Anglia. LMS204. We took it to Blackpool. In these days to undertake such a journey you could actually write to the AA and request a route, as if you were planning a trek through the Hindu Kush. LMS204 nearly expired going through Shap.
Now it is beginning to look as though the mobility promised by the automobile is an illusion. What good is your Lancia Flaminia Zagato Spyder if you are stuck behind a 15 mile queue of lorries on the M20 corridor? Sally Traffic on Radio 2 talks up the torpid constipation of the M25 – “Mayhem, clock and anti!”
And maybe the concept of social mobility is just as illusory. Just as you graduate from your Ford Anglia to your Rover to your Jag to your Porsche (midlife crisis) and become more and more stuck in traffic jams, so might you get off the dole and slog away at the checkout and go to night school and get a diploma and enter a profession and still you find you are coping with some sort of interaction with another person only somehow along the way you have lost a sense of sympathy and identity. Somewhere along the way you have eschewed plain vanilla and become an exotic derivative. You have become an instrument in a scam, suspicious of this person by the wayside trying to hitch a ride from you in your Lamborghini.
After Dumbarton Road I turned into Victoria Park. I like to admire the fowl on the pond. I could very easily become a twitcher. Look at this beautiful family of swans. The cygnets still retain their dun plumage, but are nearly as big now as ma and pa. Pa takes to the air with much commotion in a protracted take-off run across the length of the pond. It’s like watching a 747. His landing is less successful. He overshoots and crashes on to dry land, vandalising a floral display, his pride hurt more than his physique. You don’t often see “avian error” in their world of aviation. The birds are entirely at one with their environment. Their long haul flights are extraordinary. Off to Antarctica for the winter and then back to this very pond. That’s some GPS. I’m sure they look down their beaks at us, snarled up on the M8, and say, “Homo sapiens? Flash in the pan. They’ll do themselves in pretty soon, if they haven’t turned the whole place into a tip first.”
Fowl solved the transport problem millions of years ago. For them, it just isn’t an issue. Meanwhile our middle class mothers carry on dropping off progeny from their Chelsea tractors to the preparatory school where they can make useful acquaintance and get ahead.
Sorry I’m getting lugubrious. Social mobility. I ask you. I know I’m sounding like a man in a pub with an opinion, but who is more useful to mankind? A hedge fund manager or a conscientious lavatory attendant? I have the highest opinion of conscientious lavatory attendants. They should be paid danger money. As one of them said, “The things that go on in here! Honestly, if somebody comes in for a straightforward ****, it’s like a breath of fresh air.”