Monday, 5 December 2011

Asleep In The Back

I've had an extremely busy few weeks of late. My other half and I are in the throes of buying our first home together, a process with more stresses, trials and tribulations than I could possibly have imagined. I score a solid fifteen out of ten on the Naivety-o-meter. On top of all this, somebody told us that Christmas is on its way, giving us cause to spend money we haven't got buying presents that people don't want, and Xmas shopping has never ridden high on my pleasure-list.

We started on Saturday 26th of November, when we visited the Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fayre, an event I wish to discuss no further. But after a day of enforced generosity and unnatural philanthropy, we were exhausted. It did, however, give rise to a sensation that I've all-but forgotten about, and one which is worth expanding on.

The immense joy of being driven.

It was in a 2002 Renault Laguna, with a diesel engine. The car of my Girlfriends Parents, as it happens; they were kind enough to drive us there and back. But it could easily have been any other car in the world.

Being uninvolved in the transport process is something that happens to me with increasing infrequency. My name tends to come up at work as well as at home whenever somebody or something needs transporting either a long distance or in a peculiar timespan.

I write this, for example, while sitting in the drivers seat of a Mercedes-Benz Viano, waiting to drive six high-level employees of our Hong Kong operation so they can attend the franchise launch for the Porsche 991. My name came up for this as it did over a year ago, when I took a similar group to Mercedes-Benz World at Brooklands. It happens all the time. The C63 I spent time with last week wasn't just for shits and giggles; it was because one of our senior managers was visiting some corporate event and I was his chauffeur. It meant being obsequious for an evening, but it also meant I had an AMG to call my own for Six hours. Rough with the smooth.

This occasion was different. This time I was a guest, and guests are allowed to travel in quiet comfort. Nothing more is asked of guests other than that they stay seated. Nicola and I had carte blanche to sit back and close our eyes for the entire duration of the journey.

The conditions were perfect. It was early evening; this time of year it gets dark a little after four so it was properly black by the time we left Bury St Edmunds. The stereo was at that volume where it's too quiet to be heard if you wanted to, yet too noisy to forget about entirely. It did, however, provide enough of a rhythm to gently rock us to sleep. Further to this end; the ventilation fan for the interior was kaput, meaning the interior was slightly on the stuffy side of warm. You would have been hard pressed to find a set of circumstances more conducive to sleep. Add the gently undulating A14 and it's pretty much a done deal.

Sleeping in a car, whether parked or mobile, offers a different type of sleep to that which you expect when tucked up in your own bed. For much of the time you're not actually sleeping at all; you retain slight awareness of your surroundings and current position. It's an extremely pleasant sensation, a strange limbo between conscious and comatose.

We have, all of us, built in inertial navigation systems of varying effectiveness. It is not unusual for somebody who is genuinely asleep to suddenly awaken if the car makes an unexpected movement. I'm not talking about obvious things like emergency evasive manoeuvres, it's hardly a surprise that slumbering passengers are shocked to action when you pull an emergency stop out on them. No, I'm talking about when the psyche already envisages a certain route home, and is startled when it detects a deviation.

En route from London in the C63 AMG last week, a journey that my passenger had made dozens of times in the past, it was no surprise to see him gently dozing on the fully reclined passenger seat, despite the jarring, muscular suspension doing its best to pummel him in his sleep. But it was when the snoring was at its loudest that I found the the road ahead closed and a forced diversion in place. Within seconds of pulling off from the A12, as we rounded the sweeping curve around the obstruction and back down onto the main road again, he was awake, ready to accuse me of getting lost. When it was all clear that everything was in hand, he closed his eyes once more.

Likewise my journey in the back of the Laguna. Road journeys seem to pass so much more slowly when you're a passenger, and even more so when you're on the edge of sleep. The advanced technology in my inner ear, combined with some geographical gift found me recognising parts of the route even though my eyes stayed resolutely closed. I knew when we had reached the newly realigned and resurfaced Haughley stretch because the road noise dropped a notch or two. I knew that we were transferring from the A14 onto the A12 when I sensed the mild centrifugal force of negotiating a roundabout. And, latterly, I knew when we were within a stones throw of home and back on slow, single lane roads, because I could once again sense traffic passing us on the other side of the road.

In the Renault I only had the two options; sleep or stay awake. Conversation would have been the only entertainment at my disposal; I couldn't read lest the light from the back of the car be too much distraction for the driver; and the Stereo was loud enough only to be acknowledged, not enjoyed; again at the behest of he behind the wheel. This was all because this was the back seat of a normal saloon car. Hence I chose to sleep.

But Nic's Dad was only driving, he wasn't a chauffeur. His responsibility was merely to transport us safely from A to B in safety, not to carry us silently and smoothly and in the highest possible degree of luxury. Were he a chauffeur we probably wouldn't have been in the back of a 2002 Laguna. We might have been in something with rear seat entertainment, perhaps. Something where the rear compartment has sufficient isolation from the front to allow reading without stray light interrupting the concentration of the driver. Something with an amply stocked drinks cabinet, the better for helping the journey to pass in an alcoholic haze. Hic.

But I didn't care for any of those facilities, because on this dark journey through Suffolk, sleeping in the back was by far preferable to the sheer effort of trying to stay awake. As it went, I arrived home in a state of complete relaxation, and not without jealousy towards those who always get to be driven. 99.9% of the time I want to be at the helm, such is my love of driving. But during that tenth of a percent that the pleasure of driving is withheld, I must derive my joy from other means.

The Moody Blues once sung that Thinking is the best way to travel. Maybe it is, but in my mind sleeping is far superior; second only to driving.