I had an argument with my engine oil cap before my journey out to the Chilterns last Sunday. I was only going 37 miles but for a Londoner who doesn’t get out much it’s enough to make me want to pack thermos, sandwiches, check RAC card and pack a sleeping bag. I was only going to Aylesbury. There was me, sensible, prepared, checking the water (which plastic-y looking barrel in the engine is THAT?), doing things to check the dipstick (how do I get the lid off? What do I do? Is that cooking oil in there?) and acting as if I was about to drive 600 miles to Inverness.
For many of us brought up on the outer edges of the northwest corner of London, the Chilterns was our first experience of real English countryside. Beyond the built up corner of southwest Hertfordshire, where the sense and impression of London still rippled through the villages and where you could still buy a copy of the Evening Standard, the swathe of greenness towards Buckinghamshire was a place of real country. It’s very beautiful – and we Jews feel at home there, which is odd for the English countryside. Why? I hear you cry. Because of the legacy of Nathan “Natty” Rothschild, people. He lived at Tring Park and improved the local housing and medical services, and was the first Jew to be made an English Lord. Coo. He left the Natural History Museum to Tring and the area has several Rothschild Arms pubs. So it’s all kosher. When I was growing up, the only way through to the Chilterns was to go through our village, through the next town, through the next and so on, watching villages and towns unfolding enroute. Then they opened the A41 and our village became more of a bourgeois enclave than it was before. Then we left the area and property prices soared 35% as a direct result. Before they built the A41 bypass, our high street was filthy and HGVs would rattle along past 16th century pubs, whilst the 17th century windows in our toilet would groan and shudder slightly, as if the reverberations from the road would make the glass fall out. The high street was awash with diesel fumes and you couldn’t cross the street. Although a bit mucky, the village felt useful. But for an operation that is meant to improve blood supply and circulation when it comes to hearts, the bypass actually resulted in leaving the heart of the village strangely without purpose. Human bypasses take the pressure off narrower arteries to feed the heart through other channels. Road bypasses aren’t about the heart; they are about solely about the narrow arteries. Inevitably, when it came to the village, the world stopped flowing through its heart and went around it instead, cheerily ploughing through green belt land. The village’s number was up : the world-renowned factory was closed and turned into rather peculiar flats, whilst the diminishing workforce was relocated to Birmingham. Magnifying the lack of purpose the village seemed to project, decadence arrived. For reasons that aren’t clear, the village newsagent turned into an art gallery featuring the work of children’s TV presenter Timmy Mallett. And now it’s very expensive and slightly self-satisfied. And very clean. And no one I know can afford to live there. And who wouldn’t want to live beside Timmy Mallett’s glorious etchings? Shame.
So, whilst our village was plunged into a weird, eerie 18th century solitude, we motorists zoom onto the A41 and are lost. There is no sense of mapping anything. You get on the A41, you stay on it – a pleasing, straight, green road to drive – and you pass no local sights, no shops, no towns, nothing. You cannot place yourself. You could be in any county in England and then suddenly you turn off and drop slap bang into the Chilterns. It’s disconcerting. One of the turn offs on this blissfully easy “Look! No Towns!” highway is Bourne End, the birthplace of one of The Bluebird’s favourite female writers ever, Rosamond Lehmann. Anyone who’s ever felt like the spare part in a glamourous party at the age of 17? Read Invitation To The Waltz. Anyone who wants to get to the heart of what it feels like to be an invisible mistress? Read The Weather In The Streets. Lehmann’s world is 1920s Buckinghamshire : dances, cocoa waiting on the hall table when they get home from them, wraps, Oxford, being educated in schoolrooms in houses, visiting eerie dipsomaniac dressmakers, hovering around the gentry and never quite being part of them, and, in her later works, Bohemian London, divorces, well-to-do home counties girls eeking out livings working as photographic assistants. She is wonderful at dialogue (the sign of a well- rounded, mature writer, I always felt). Her sense of getting to the heart of things is uncanny.
Ironic then, that this person who got to the heart of things has a turnoff from a road that isn’t at the heart of anything. I like the A41 bypass, but I similarly resent it. It’s nothing to do with the romance of motoring and more to do with how a journey can be marked, structured and how a destination can be prepared inside the mind. Humans need that; mental milestones that situate the mind and tell us where we are. In Dorothy L Sayers Gaudy Night, a murder mystery set at an Oxford college, the heroine, Harriet Vane, motors out from West London at dawn and each place that she passes through marks a memory or a different stage of her journey. Half way through her journey, writes Sayers, “she lunched in High Wycombe, solidly, comfortably, ordering a half-bottle of white wine….” . We can’t drive through towns anymore, and take the time to lunch solidly in High Wycombe, so instead we eat a clingfilmed sandwich and launch ourselves onto the bypass. It’s quicker, you see. We get to where we want to go with alacrity and ease. But there’s no journey.
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