I used to say that my father was the only man I knew who would slow down when he saw a green light. I put that complaint down, now, to late adolescent irritability, and the tedium of our slow daily commute from Windsor to London in the early 1980s, my father driving, with exemplary patience, through traffic jams and endless traffic lights. I remember a friend of mine – a driver, unlike me – pointing out that it makes very good sense to slow down. If the light’s green now, he said, it will very soon change to red. Better to be prepared.

Sadly, as we grow older, we become ever more aware of aftermaths. Anticipation stretches beyond the high point, to include the waning as well as the waxing of things. For the optimist, perhaps, the other way round as well, the waxing as well as the waning.

So I’ve come to dread the 21st of June, Midsummer’s Day. I know it should be a day for celebration, and I do my best to enjoy it, but I can’t help thinking it’s the start of another decline, as the days begin to shorten from the 22nd. Although the 21st of December is, by the same token, the beginning of better things, gradual loss is much harder to endure than gradual gain is to enjoy.

Weddings depress me, too. There’s so much hope. I can’t help thinking of them as unrealistically optimistic, full of fragile joy, to be followed by the inevitable decline into bickering and divorce. I can’t blot out anticipation and simply enjoy the moment.

(On the other hand, breaking with melancholy for a moment, I did enjoy my own, and I’m as optimistic as I was five years ago.)



The trees are coming into leaf in Prague, though the air is still cool and the sun isn’t shining warmly. Spring is the loveliest time of year, my favourite season, perhaps all the more so because I know the lights will soon turn red again, and, with any luck, green again, eventually.

Walking home from the metro I was reminded of Philip Larkin’s almost optimistic poem:

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Swings, Traffic Lights and Roundabouts

The roundabout was my undoing when I made my last, futile attempt to learn to drive some twenty-five years ago. Yesterday’s depressing report that suggests we need even more of them is the final nail in the coffin of my motoring ambitions. I know now that I’ll never be able to do it.

The underlying problem is that I can’t do more than one thing at once. I can concentrate ferociously on one thing, and switch, in the blink of an eye, to another, but two things at once just isn’t possible. My overall ‘throughput’ is good, but I do things in series not in parallel.

True, I can breathe and walk at the same time, but those are instinctive activities. If there is more than one thing I have to concentrate on at once, I fail. That’s why I could learn to play the oboe (one note at a time) but not the piano (two hands being directed to do different things). How can you tell one hand to do this whilst telling the other hand to do that?

I tried to get through the entire miserable process of learning to drive in just one week. It didn’t help that I loathed my driving instructor. He was an irritable man, and spending six hours a day with him for a week, was absolute hell. Actually, I think he loathed me even more than I loathed him. Perhaps the problem was that I simply didn’t enjoy being told what to do. From time to time he would seize control of the wheel or slam the brakes on using his own set of pedals, and he could never satisfactorily explain why.

In approaching a roundabout he would issue utterly contradictory instructions, getting me started on the ‘slow-down and stop’ process (down through the gears, one by one, up and down with the clutch, and then the brakes) and then, quite suddenly, he’d reverse his instructions. If there was no one on the roundabout he’d switch hysterically to ‘No, go, go, go….’. I can’t imagine ever doing all the ‘slow-down and stop’ things on my own, as well as looking out of the window and turning the wheel.

Finally, I got out of the car and told him to do it himself. He drove me back to the Driving School and I caught the next train home. And that was that.

The good thing about traffic lights is that they’re a matter of stop or go (amber is stop as you approach, go if you are stationery). You can see them from a distance, so once you’ve started the ‘slow-down and stop’ process you can reasonably expect to complete it.

So I prefer traffic lights and I’m horrified to read in this recent report that 80% of traffic lights should be entirely removed, and replaced, I presume, by roundabouts. Traffic lights, we are told, cost the UK around 16 billion pounds a year in lost GDP, assuming that they delay every journey by two minutes, on average.

The roundabout, we are told, is greatly more virtuous:

  • Greater overall throughput (16 billion pounds more throughput)
  • Lower CO2 emission levels (because of that ‘STOP-no, don’t stop – GO’ feature)
  • Fewer serious accidents (speeds are lower when accidents do occur)
  • Easier for pedestrians to understand where traffic is coming from
  • Prettier (often planted beautifully, and sometimes bearing welcoming messages such as ‘Swindon, You’re Welcome To It’)

There is much that you can read about roundabouts in Wikipedia. For example, that the French have the most (indeed 30% of all the world’s roundabouts), and that the British have the highest proportion to road surface (these could be useful cocktail party factoids to go with how to avoid that contraflow system near Hove).

Over the years I’ve learned to be a useful passenger, despite my not actually knowing how to drive (well, I know, but I just can’t do). I generally keep a watchful eye on the driver and I’m known for the useful advice I offer him or her from time to time. I can now pass through roundabouts without undue anxiety, thanks to decades of trauma therapy that followed my abandonment of driving lessons all those years ago. It’s ok as long as I’m not at the wheel. But I will always avoid Swindon and Hemel Hempstead if I can. These two towns are home to ‘magic roundabouts’, devices that are a level more complex than the simple ‘binary’ roundabout.


A ‘magic roundabout’ is a central circle with an additional ‘satellite’ circle for each approach road. Enter one at your peril. Elderly drivers have been known to get lost in these for decades.