buckles and bends
a bandage of rain
the shore. The sea watches,
murmurs peace man
or cries life sucks!
One after the other
they come seeking;
white camper vans
celebratory as iced
party cakes sprinkled
with cycles, paddles,
canoes, fishing tackle,
picnic hampers crammed
with yummy goodies;
coachloads of pixelated
tourists, heads turning
in syncopated rhythm,
weary in uniform
Ford Transits; tinted salesmen
swaying on hangers
in Vauxhall Astras.
The sea watches,
curious in turquoise
or flirty with plutonium frills.
Always too cold for swimming
beyond the no-man’s
land scarred with ruins
and new builds.
One after the other;
the vintage Harleys,
the butt naked
the goggling Euros,
the English salt
and vinegar families
all seeking the lights
of John o’Groats.
Cars have always played a positive role in my life so the inevitable news that petrol and diesel cars are to be banned in the UK from 2040 fills me with nostalgia. Of course it’s an essential step towards decreasing air pollution and global warming but the internal combustion engine will be missed by many of us. Technology keeps moving on with the advent of electric and self-drive vehicles (the latter being a terrifying prospect when I think how often my laptop crashes). The traditional petrol car has been a cool cultural icon for nearly a century, a symbol of personal freedom, style and aspiration. It has featured in many wonderful movies:- Rebel Without A Cause, The French Connection, The Italian Job, The Driver, Thelma and Louise, the list is endless. Can you really imagine an exciting car chase in an automated electric car? Would Thelma and Louise make their heroic stance against conformity and authority while sitting passively in a car with no steering wheel? Is this new technology a sinister portent of a future where citizens lose control over their lives?
I grew up in the sixties when petrol was cheap and motoring was a carefree, guilt-free experience. Cars were affordable even to many working class families and it allowed them to escape industrial towns to explore the countryside and the coast. Our first family car was a second-hand black Ford Consul. I remember the smooth, comforting contours. It felt safe and reassuring long before the compulsory seat belts, inflatable air bags and zero tolerance of drinking and driving that we take for granted today. We lived with a certain amount of risk and people didn’t stress about all the horrible possibilities of what might happen. That said, there were far fewer cars on the road and people were more respectful of each other. No-one had ever heard of road-rage.
Nearly every summer weekend we would pack up provisions and our little orange tent and head for the seaside together with numerous friends. In the cooler months we would go for long drives around the countryside and have picnics in the back seat or bravely shivering in a lay-by. We couldn’t afford garage repairs so my father maintained the car himself and took great pride in his immaculate standards. It was typical for many working class men to repair their own cars. Before the digital era and the concept of built-in obsolescence it was relatively easy to replace parts. Our Ford Consul lived to a great age and was eventually sold on. We replaced it with a two tone, blue and cream Humber Sceptre with curvaceous chrome trims and sculpted wings. My father was devastated when the bodywork was damaged in a minor scrape with a dry-stone wall. He took to his bed for a week and didn’t speak or eat. The car had to be scrapped because he couldn’t find a replacement panel.
Now I live in a remote rural area where once upon a time there was a petrol station in every village. Like the village shops, the petrol station was a focal point for the community, enabling human contact and the exchange of information. Buying petrol used to be fun. There were free gifts such as drinking glasses, (I still have one chunky tumbler at the back of my cupboard!), coasters, sunglasses, sweets, posters. As a little girl I remember being thrilled with a free kite. In the UK there were Green Shield stamps, paper tokens you were given with petrol purchases that you collected and glued into a book. The books were exchanged for gifts at a Green Shield Centre. Petroleum companies had jolly slogans such as ‘Put a Tiger in Your Tank’ by Esso. All that has gone. In the eleven years since I moved to this area the few surviving petrol stations have closed. The only remaining one is part of a large supermarket chain. We now have to drive over fifty miles to obtain fuel and you need to plan ahead. Life is becoming more difficult and more isolated. There are no local jobs selling petrol, work that suited many women and students as it was part-time.
It’s sad to see the derelict petrol stations at the side of the road. In recent years I’ve photographed the decaying buildings, old signs and rusting pumps. Grass and weeds are reclaiming the former concrete forecourts. I find them bleakly beautiful. Many of the old designs had an Art Deco influence. Will the new electric charging points of the future have the same sense of design? I fear not. The future is less concerned with aesthetics and humanity. There will be no-one to chat to about the weather when you plug your car in to an impersonal machine.
So I hope you enjoy my photographs of the bye-gone petroleum era entitled Ignition Switch. There are more to come.
And if you are a bit of a petrol-head or have any memories to share of motoring experiences in the past I would love to hear them. Please leave a comment. Times must change but sometimes you can’t help wishing they would stay the same!
On my first trip to the Far North of Scotland I broke the journey just south of Inverness. The guest house was spotlessly clean with candles burning in the hallway. My blue room had French doors opening onto a lovely garden with forest beyond. There was a crystal carafe of sweet sherry on the chest of drawers and a single rose in a glass. It was a perfect haven after my twelve hour drive in the storm. But by now my flu had worsened, I was coughing up blood and pale as a ghost. I slid between crisp sheets wondering if this trip was all a big mistake.
The next morning I woke up to sunshine. I watched deer grazing in the distance as I ate my breakfast, porridge and fruit salad. The dining room was full of loud Americans discussing a whisky distillery trail.
As soon as I got back on the road the weather deteriorated. It looked like I was heading north directly into an apocalyptic black cloud. The road followed a rocky coastline. The land was scarred with the ruined remains of former croft dwellings, a reminder of all the brave souls who had once lived in this barren country. History was forever present.
At the top of a precipitous series of hairpin bends I hit roadworks. There was a convoy system in place as one lane was closed. I waited and waited for the escort vehicle to arrive. There were no other cars heading north. A man in a dayglow orange jacket was holding up a stop/go sign at the side of the road. He staggered and swayed as the wind gusted at almost 70mph. He struggled to hold the red Stop sign upright. He struggled to stand upright. The long grass was blown flat. The sky was grey as concrete. To my right an angry sea churned at the foot of cliffs. The stop/go man and myself were suspended in the moment for what seemed like an eternity, the only two humans left in the world waiting for something to happen like in Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot. I felt I had been on this road forever. I felt like all my life I’d been waiting for something, for change, for a sign, for life to finally make sense.
I’m not sure when my attraction to the idea of The North first began. It was a strange fascination for a mythical wilderness on the margins of the world untainted by the corruption of civilisation. It felt like a pure place where I could truly be free. Of course I knew deep down this was nonsense but my dreams of The North maintained a hold on me I could not break. It felt like my destiny. Edgar Allan Poe wrote:-
“I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule –
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of space – Out of time.”
I love that phrase, “wild weird clime”. It reminds me of David Lynch’s brilliant film Wild At Heart. A land where anything is possible. A land where our pains are healed by the wind. A place where a troubled person could reinvent herself.
My first experience of The Highlands of Scotland was a four day car tour with my parents when I was twelve years old. We camped in a little orange tent. We lost our way somewhere near Glen Coe, ended up sleeping in the old Humber Sceptre as my father was too exhausted to drive any further. At dawn I woke up stiff and cold and was astounded. There was a magnificent water fall just a few yards from where we’d pulled over, obliviously in the dark. The air was fresh and clean in my lungs and I felt more alive, a thrill like electricity when I climbed out of the car and heard the rush of the falling water.
My father, however, was not impressed. I remember him saying over and over, ‘what’s the point of all this empty green space? Why don’t they build something useful here?” My mother did not react much at all. She always lived in her own head and could have been anywhere most of the time.
At the age of sixteen I had a boyfriend in Glasgow. I visited his family one summer. It was hardly a romantic wilderness but a tough council estate. We ate fish and chips and toast with marmalade for most meals. The people were lovely and welcoming. I discovered sex on the banks of the Clyde, whisky and the poems of Leonard Cohen (but not all at the same time). I enjoyed being free from the demands of my parents. This experience reinforced my positive associations with Scotland. I suppose it was inevitable I would move there one day.
Check out this interesting article for more about our cultural fascination with the north:-