Read the interview on A Shaded View
Mark Simpson on the motorway drivers we all love to hate
Statistically the safest roads to drive on, there’s nevertheless something about motorways that seems to bring out the very worst in drivers. Other drivers, that is. Never you or me, of course.
Some would argue it’s because there’s no motorway driving required in the UK driving test. But I think it’s because M-ways aren’t really anywhere. They’re a limbo-land of anonymous boredom where people’s darkest personality defects come out to play – magnified frighteningly by the horsepower they’re barely in charge of. A motorway is a three lane, high speed Rorschach test.
Here’s a list of some of those that fail it. Badly.
Everyone’s favourite M-way psycho, the tailgater is the driver who insists you admire their shiny BMW badge in your mirrors. Before you both meet a sudden, mangled, sticky end.
Responsible for the very worst motorway accidents by ingeniously turning the two second rule for the minimum safe distance into a two inch maximum one, on-the-spot fines of £100 and three penalty points were recently introduced to deter the tailgater (and also the lane-hogger). Though no one really expects them to work. Tailgaters live – and die – to tailgate. You just can’t put a price on sadism.
Diagnosis: Fuel-injected sociopath. With a penis smaller than the gap between your bumpers.
Overtakes you and then cuts you up, forcing you to slow down so as to maintain a safe distance. Hilariously, the bonnetgater will often actually decelerate after they’ve plonked themselves two inches in front of you. They’ve achieved their objective – making you taste their exhaust – so why waste fuel while picking their nose?
The worst thing about the bonnetgater isn’t their thoughtlessness towards other road users, who no longer exist once they’re no longer in the way. No, it’s because they turn you into an unconsensual tailgater. You’re on their bumper and you haven’t even been introduced.
Diagnosis: No sense of personal space. Or sense.
Decides that the minimum safe distance you’ve left between you and the car in front as you overtake traffic on the left is in fact reserved for them and overtakes you at 100 MPH – on the inside lane – to occupy it, while on the phone and eating a burger and smoking.
To get you in the mood, this charming manoeuvre is usually preceded by a spot of especially aggressive tailgating and light flashing.
Diagnosis: Probably a former chairman of an ethical Bank.
The Brake-Light Flasher
Hasn’t worked out that if you drive properly on a motorway, leaving a safe distance, and actually looking through the rather useful device called ‘a windscreen’, the accelerator is of much more use – and much less bloody annoying for everyone else – than the brake pedal.
Diagnosis: They’re using morse code to spell out: ‘I-NEED-A-RETEST’
The Outside Lane Kamikazi
Literally cannot leave a motorway from any lane other than the outside one – braking as they swoop across three lanes because they’ve left it far, far too late. Not because they forgot their exit but because they have to overtake as many cars as they can before they leave the motorway OTHERWISE THEIR LIFE IS A TOTAL FAILURE.
Diagnosis: A total failure
The Slip-Road Kamikaze
This is in fact the Outside Lane Kamikaze when they join the motorway. Instead of ‘giving priority to traffic already on the motorway’ and matching their speed ‘to fit safely into the traffic flow in the left hand lane’ as dictated by the Highway Code, they treat the slip road as an overtaking lane – or a pit-stop exit ramp.
Once again, they have to overtake as many cars as possible before swerving in front of you just before they run out of slip – and then finishing the manoeuvre with a masterful swerve across two lanes into the outside lane, sans indicator, natch.
Diagnosis: Still a total failure
The Dozy Racer
Accelerates while you’re overtaking. Can be a deliberate tactic of boy racers showing off their torque, but more usually a sneaky application of the throttle by someone waking up to the horrifying fact there are other people on their motorway.
An annoying dilemma. If you refuse to rise to the bait and don’t accelerate, pulling in behind them instead, they’re bound to slow down and you’ll find yourself in the same situation again. But if you give in to temptation and accelerate you may then have to keep up the same excessive speed as you find yourself both locked in a battle of pretending that you’re not racing.
Diagnosis: Passive-aggressive nightmare. Probably your ex.
The Lorry Driver from Duel
Pulls out their eighteen wheel rig faster than it takes their indicator to flash once – while you’re just beginning to overtake. Will also sometimes tailgate you to pass the time, especially when you’re alone together in an average speed check contraflow at night, in the rain, dazzling you with headlights the size of your rear window. (Lorry drivers seem to know something the rest of us don’t about average speed cameras).
Diagnosis: Misunderstood gentle giants (PLEASE don’t tailgate me again!)
Passes the time by complaining endlessly about other motorway drivers and compiling whingeing lists of their failings – while hypocritically practising some of the very same outrages himself from time to time.
(A version of this article originally appeared on LeasePlan)
Mark Simpson goes on a road trip connecting four countries: England, Scotland, the UK – & Yorkshire
What’s so ‘Great’ about ‘The Great North Road’? Better known in our more impatient era as the A1?
Well, if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself in the south, it takes you to the north – or ‘The NORTH’ as the signage rightly has it. And unlike the more popular M1, it goes all the way NORTH – instead of petering out like a big Jessie near Leeds. And that’s the proper shining, horny helmeted, be-sporroned NORTH. Not the damp, camp north west of the M6.
For all its butchness, the A1 is also the most glamorous road in Britain, connecting the capitals of four countries – England, Scotland, the UK, and Yorkshire. The A1 is a metalled Union, starting in the English Baroque shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, flowing up the eastern side of England, past the Romano-Viking-White Rose splendour of York, once England’s second city, spooling up and over the much-contested border fortress town of Berwick Upon Tweed, and finishing with a flourish in the Caledonian heart of Edinburgh with the grand panoramic, kilted sweep of Princes Street.
True, along the way, you also have to go through Holloway, under Hatfield and past Stevenage, but glamour always has a price. For size queens out there, the A1 is also the biggest. At 410 miles it’s the longest numbered road in the UK.
Above all, the A1, still mostly dual carriageway, is a road with a view – on the past and the present. Not a virtual ‘M’ road built and engineered to connect industrial centres as fast and as boringly as possible, the A1 is a road that takes time to tell you a story. (Thankfully, plans to downgrade the whole of the A1 to motorway were dropped in 1995).
OK, very often the view it offers is the back end of two lorries labouring up a hill, one overtaking the other at a speed differential of 0.5 MPH. Or during the summer months, those suburban juggernauts of despair – otherwise known as caravans. But nonetheless, and despite all the by-passes and ‘upgrades’ to stretches of it, detouring the A1 from the old ‘coaching’ Great North Road route of Dick Turpin yore, it’s a road that still allows you to see or at least glimpse England and Scotland, instead of hiding it behind cuttings and another Unwelcome Break.
A lush, lowland Eastern England of market towns and fertile arable farms, grain silos and Cathedrals, country houses and garrisons – and, just outside sleepy Grantham… a roadside sex shop. Try finding one of those on the M1. Near Doncaster you zoom around Ferrybridge power station’s colossal steaming cooling towers, looming like concrete castles with dragons lurking within – a legacy of the rich coal seams of Yorkshire that helped fire the Industrial Revolution.
Just before the York turn off you pass a mile west of Towton, site of the bloodiest battle on English soil, where in 1461 the Yorkists triumphed over the Lancastrians leaving 28,000 dead and dying in the snow.
If you look to the West before Scotch Corner, site of the Angle’s decisive defeat of the Goddodin in 600, you might on a clear day glimpse the preposterous beauty of the Yorkshire Dales. As you head up through the land of the Prince Bishops and past Durham, its Romanesque Cathedral and final resting place of the father of English history, the Venerable Bede, is sadly hidden from the current A1 route. But as a consolation prize you might be able to fleetingly scope Lumley Castle, once the residence of the Bishop of Durham and now a luxury hotel where travellers can break their journey in turreted style.
Onwards to Gateshead, where Antony Gormley’s famous Angel of the North, welcomes you, wings outstretched over the A1 like a Norse god, braced forever against the wind sluicing in off the North Sea without the benefit of even a Geordie t-shirt. ‘The Gateshead Flasher’ as locals dub him, is a steely sign commanding you to start paying serious attention, man, pet.
For after you skirt Newcastle’s Western suburbs and fly over the mighty Tyne – with or without fog on it – towards Morpeth, you enter the enchanted Middle Earth of Northumberland, where the A1 frequently narrows and slows to a single lane the better to allow you to enjoy the timeless, undulating landscape, and permit you perhaps to catch a glimpse of mighty Alnwick Castle, seat of the Duke of Northumberland and easily most photogenic star of the Harry Potter movies. A little further on, bold Bamburgh Castle, ancient seat of the Kings of Northumbria. And just beyond, holy, lonely Lindisfarne, where St Cuthbert, patron Saint of the North, got up to whatever it is saintly monks get up to.
Over the Tweed and just over the border you can enjoy Scotland’s own very abbreviated Amalfi Run as the A1 snakes you along the top of cliffs overlooking a shockingly blue North Sea, and on to the glittering Firth of Forth, with the brooding promise of the Highlands beyond – if it’s not raining horizontally again.
But keep your eyes peeled at all times for the anti-Sassenach speed cameras.
Just south of Dunbar the A1 takes you right through – and over the bones – of the bleak battlefield where in 1650 Cromwell routed the Scottish army loyal to Charles II, who had been proclaimed King of Scotland in defiance of the Commonwealth. Next year of course the Scottish vote on whether to divorce the English and end the 306 year-old Union. If it’s a ‘Byazz!!’, then the A1 will become a truly international road again. Possibly with border posts, passport checks and maybe even the occasional border skirmish and raid just like in the good old days.
Call it what you will, and ‘upgrade’ it as much as you like, The Great North Road is the axis by which Scots and English, invaders and defenders, Romans and Britons, Vikings and Saxons, rebels and loyalists, Catholics and Protestants, Rugby Leaguers and Rugby Unionists, have sought to impose their will and their map-reading on these British Isles.
This piece originally appeared at leaseplan.
Gibraltar, otherwise known as ‘The Rock’, is the full stop to the sentence of Europe. It has been besieged no less than fourteen times. The Ancients thought it was a pillar holding up the end of the World. In the Middle Ages Jews fled here from the red-hot instruments of the Spanish Inquisition. Aeons ago, the last survivors of the ancestors of Homo sapiens also retreated to this toothy promontory of the Iberian peninsula, lasting a few, increasingly lonely, thousand years more in the dark caves that abound here, before being finally snuffed out by Progress.
Even today, rare and exotic creatures survive here that have long since become extinct elsewhere in Continental Europe. Off one of the narrow, steep, cobbled streets, down some worn steps, there’s a dark cellar bar, that holds out against not only the Twenty First Century but much of the latter half of the Twentieth. This is the domain and refuge of the last of the Sea Queens, Lovely Charlie, landlocked in the last corner of the British Empire.
The brick walls and vaulted ceiling of Charles’ domain are completely covered in battered Royal Navy Ensign flags. All of them have personal messages scrawled across them in Secondary Modern hands: ‘To Lovely Charlie, from the lads on HMS Sheffield – We think you’re magic!’ (dated 1981, the year before it was sunk by an Argentine Exocet in The Falklands); ‘Donkey Nob Was Here – 1979’’; and ‘Royal Marine Commandos do it in boats – 1989’. Signed photos of sunburnt, laughing young men with cans of lager in their hands and their arms around each other’s shoulders cover the wall next to the bar, together with postcards from Hong Kong, Belize, Brunei, Germany and Kuwait.
Tonight however Charles’ Hole in t’Wall bar – the finest bar on the Seven Seas – is completely empty, except for Charles himself, a well-preserved, handsome middle-aged man with glittery ear-studs and immaculate hair, sitting at the bar, and his snoozing big black labrador, heavy eyelids sagging. ‘Well, come in, luv,’ he says, happy to see a face. ‘Sorry it’s so quiet tonight. The Fleet’s out. Mind, it always fookin’ is these days! Are you a matelot? ‘No? What’s that you say? You’re looking for one? Aren’t we all, luv!’ he laughs, and gets me a bottled beer.
‘It was best when the frontier with Spain was closed,’ he reminisces, in his effortlessly camp but strangely butch Gibraltarian English, comically spiked with some coarse, regional Brit expressions he’s obviously picked up from his clientele. ‘When Franco shut the border in 1967 that was the beginning of twenty years of bloody bliss, y’know. When hundreds of sailors have been out at sea for weeks and they dock here, they’re not going to let the fact that there aren’t enough single women on Gib to make a football team stop them having a fookin’ good time, luv!’
‘And they didn’t mind their mates finding out; they’d just say, “I bet you had a fookin’ good time with Charlie gobblin’ yer last night!” and everybody would laugh. Of course, who gobbled whom wasn’t always the way they painted it – but that was something private between me and them. Things aren’t the same now. I still get offers – but they’re much more furtive; they’re afraid that everyone will think they’re gay just because they had a bit of fun with Charles. And then in 1987 they only went and opened the fookin’ frontier, didn’t they? Now most of the lads head off for the bright lights of Marbella. I can’t compete with dolly-birds and disco, can I luv?’
‘But it isn’t about sex,’ explains Charles, sipping a mineral water (he’s teetotal). ‘It’s the company. The camaraderie. It’s my duty to run this bar! I’m a legend in the Royal Navy, y’know. I’ve been to Portsmouth and Plymouth. They treated me like a real Queen. There was nothing they wouldn’t do for me. I was really moved. I was in Edinburgh once, and a lad came up to me and said, “It’s Lovely Charlie, isn’t it!’ He was very sweet. He whispered, “Look, Charles, you can’t wear that much jewellery around here. They won’t understand”.’
‘I’m passed down, father to son. I had an eighteen-year-old sailor come in here last month, his first time. He said: “That door’s new,” pointing to that door over there to the pool-room which I had installed about ten year ago. “How did you know that?” I asked. “Oh,” he said, ‘my dad’s got a picture of him sitting on your knee. It was the year before he met me mam.”
‘They like to tell the newbies that they’re going to sell them to me for a round of drinks, y’know. Of course, that doesn’t happen. I’d never take advantage. But they like to wind up the youngsters. One lad came here with his Dad – the Navy has a Father’s week where they fly fathers who were in the Navy out here to travel home on board ship with their sons. He said: “Well, ‘ere you go Charles, you can ‘ave your wicked way wiv ‘im if you keep the drinks comin’!” I laughed and said, “Well, you’re his dad, so I suppose that makes it legal!” You should have seen the poor boy’s face!’
‘Oh yes, occasionally you get trouble-makers. They come here saying how much they “’ate fookin’ queers”. Everyone goes quiet because they know he’s going to get a tongue lashing from me. I usually say something like, “And I ‘ate fookin’ ugly cunts like you, luv!” Everyone usually pisses themselves laughing. And usually,’ adds Charles, winking, ‘they end up staying the night…’.
‘I can’t go on forever, though y’know. I’m not as young as I used to be. But the matelots, bless ‘em, they don’t notice any of this decay! They always say, “Oh, Charlie, you never change!” and I say to them, “Well, no, but the wattage does!” Charles laughs. ‘Every year a bit less. I started off here with 100W bulbs. Now I’m down to 10W. And tinted!’
‘What’s that? Why do the lads love me so? Oh it’s because they know I love them,’ he explains with a shrug. ‘And I’m always here. Unlike barmaids, I don’t regard them as a problem or as a meal-ticket. And, of course,’ he smiles, winking, ‘they do like my outrageous behaviour. They always insist that I wear all my jewellery when they come to visit.’
A few hours and a crate of beer later I’m staggering back to my hotel and can’t help thinking that the reason the sailors treat Charles like a star is simply because they recognise one when they see one. ‘Lovely Charlie’ is, well, lovely. And priceless. When he finally calls last orders, or runs out of wattage, a little but precious piece of British maritime and marytime history will be lost forever.
This piece was originally published back in 2000 (and collected here), but I’m very happy to report that Charles is still going full steam ahead, and so is a recently-refurbished Charles’ Hole-in-the-Wall bar – he’s even upped the wattage! (Castle Street, Gibraltar; opens at 9pm.)
UPDATE Jan 2015:
After forty years quenching the thirst of the Royal Navy, Charles’ world famous Hole in T’Wall Bar is closing. But Charles’ matelot fans are giving it a jolly Jack tar send-off – and showing Charles how much they luv ‘im. GBC ran a feature on the closure, which includes footage from the bar – and a rather wonderful big framed photo of what looks a lot like Charles in drag (that I somehow seemed to miss during my visit):
Mark Simpson visits a Russian sauna or ‘banya’ in Tallinn, Estonia and gets an eye-wateringly good seeing to.
(Out magazine, Feb 2007)
“YOU LIKE TO GET BEAT AGAIN?” asks the gruff, naked former Red Army soldier. ‘I do very gently this time.’ Sweating profusely, I turn my back to him and he begins expertly working me over.
I visited my first Russian bath-house, in Tallinn, Estonia, capital of the rapidly Westernizing Baltic country and I nearly didn’t leave. By the time I finally did, I was a wraith of wrinkles and covered in an alarming, stinging, if cleansing rash – from being whipped with a Christmas tree by totally starkers Russians high on beer and pigs ears.
I was also covered with a conviction that we in the West have forgotten how to be comfortable in our own naked skin.
The banya, or Russian sauna, is as central to Russian culture as vodka, poetry and passionate friendship. Nearly half the population of Tallinn, capital of Estonia, is Russian descent and speaking. Independent since the early 90s, Estonia still has a strong Russian legacy, though one that is rapidly being erased in the rush to embrace the West and forget the immediate past. Tallinn is a popular destination for cruise liners and British stag parties looking for cheap booze and leggy strippers and the simple, purifying pleasures of the banya are fading fast – there is now only one banya left in Tallinn.
I however was looking for naked sweaty backslapping Russians – though only for comradely, purifying purposes you understand. And I found them at Tallinn’s last banya.
I was taken there by my buddy and banya enthusiast Steve Kokker, a Canadian turned Tallinn resident (director of a remarkable and touching film about Russian military cadets called ‘Kameraden’), After undressing and showering in the (open, non-compartmentalised) wet area, we encountered a group of bollock-naked shaven-headed middle-aged Russians, most of whom looked as if they’d had a hard if quietly dignified life. They were instantly welcoming and friendly despite the language barrier and despite – or perhaps because of – the total lack of clothing.
One, a 69-year-old wounded infantry veteran of the 1956 Warsaw Pact invasion of Hungary who looked twenty years younger, showed me the shrapnel scars on his legs: ‘We all disagreed with it, but we had no choice’. Steve translated for me the low, impressively butch Russian sounds. Many patrons were replete with what looked like homemade, borstal tattoos. Learning that I was a newbie, they extolled the benefits of the banya: ‘It will keep you young.’ ‘It will keep you fit.’ ‘You will not lose your strength in bed.’ Their lean, rangy bodies were the most persuasive argument.
Sharing their smoked pigs ears and warm Russian beer with us, they began arguing vehemently over how long I, as a Banya ‘virgin’, should spend in the steam room and what I should be whipped with first, the white birch twigs? or the juniper? or perhaps the nettle bush? (whipping with forestry is part of the banya experience – it is thought to cleanse the skin, and perhaps also the soul).
They finally agreed on the correct procedure and led me into the steam room – much hotter than any of the Nordic or Turkish saunas I’d experienced. The heat was almost solid. I tried to hold my breath rather than risk scorching my lungs. About twenty naked men were seated on the tiers of benches. Several of them were being whipped with branches by other men, their sweat spraying everywhere. Including, before I could close it, my mouth. Some were talking animatedly, some staring grimly ahead, mutely enduring the heat. Occasionally someone ladled water onto the hot stones, which instantly vaporised into hissing heat.
Trying to impress, I sat about half way up – after having been advised to sit near the bottom. After about five minutes shifting uncomfortably on the scalding wooden bench, (many banya regulars sit on special ‘padjopnik’, or ass-pads) I was dripping like a spatchocked chicken. Then I was led me to the ice-cold plunge pool and more or less pushed in . ‘It is good for circulation!’ they laughed. ‘If it doesn’t stop it altogether!’ I gasped.
Back in the steam room initiators decided I was ready to be whipped. It was agreed that I would first be lashed with white birch tree branches (the birch is sacred in Russia – once a country of forest-dwellers). I turned my back, leant forwards a little and thought of England. I don’t know whether being whipped is purifying, but I can tell you it certainly clears your sinuses. It’s a little like being dragged through a hedge backwards, but more fun. After the onslaught stopped and I hadn’t flinched I felt that I had passed some test.
A little later, I let someone whip me with juniper leaves. This did hurt – like being caught naked in a blizzard of pine needles. Actually, it was being caught naked in a blizzard of pine needles. After less than a minute of this the Hungary invasion vet intervened and called a halt: “This is too much for first time,” he said. I didn’t argue.
At this point a stag party of ten or so young British males turned up at the banya, obviously a ‘real Russian banya’ was on their heavily programmed itinerary, squeezed between lap dancing clubs and driving a rusty T34 ex-Soviet tank. They looked pallid and puny and ill at ease in their own bodies next to the Russian regulars – and terrified by the nudity and the whipping, keeping their towels tightly wrapped around them, eyeing the swinging Russian dicks with alarm. This was altogether too real and, ironically, male for the stag party. I stuck close to my new Russian buddies, hoping to be mistaken for a Russian myself.
I noted with some pleasure that none of them endured the heat of the sauna for more than a few seconds, even sitting on the lowest bench, and none of them submitted to the ritual of the birch. No more than about 20 minutes after they arrived they were shepherded out and onto the next stop on their itinerary. Then no doubt back to the safety of the UK and corporate gyms with their changing rooms within changing rooms, cubicle showers and ‘Swimwear Must be Worn At All Times’ signs.
A well-preserved 50 year-old Russian with piercing blue eyes, who sported the most heavily tattooed and most formidable body there, and whom Steve and I both very much wanted to believe was an ex-con, was determined to use a large nettle bush on me. Repeatedly and eagerly he enquired, eyes shining, if I was ‘ready’.
“He’s very keen to have you bend over and make you feel that stinging sensation,” translated Steve, almost without smiling.
Eventually the Hungary vet intervened again, announcing that I’d had enough for my first visit, and that besides, the nettles would stop me sleeping (apparently they stimulate the nervous system, like a Russian peasant version of crystal-meth).
Nettle Man looked dejected, and muttered something before sloping off.
“What did he say?” I asked Steve.
“He said he will be here ready for you next time.”
This essay is collected in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story