Posted on Sunday, June 05, 2011, under , ,

As with most things civic and communal, Japanese have come up with a functional, albeit unnecessarily elaborate, pedantic and bureaucratic way of processing/renewing of driving licences. The system is in fact a curious version of Orwellian collectivism in the name of expediency. Yesterdays’ visit to the Kyoto Driving Licence Centre, which some smart planner dumped in the most inaccessible part of the city, proved indeed to be an Orwellian experience of sorts. Never have I felt less of a human and more of a ‘number’ whilst being prodded from one counter to the other, at each being peremptorily instructed what to do at the next by a busy clerk barely visible behind a low grille, all the time precariously carrying a bunch of papers about whose specific purpose I knew nothing about. In the course of a quarter of an hour I visited a dozen counters and even managed to have an eye-test and a photo-for-license taken. I was finally given a red-coloured tag numbered 26 and sent upstairs to what I had been dreading the most: a two-hour lecture as the final indoctrination into the ‘acceptance’ of the highway code rules. This is it, I thought, it’s my room 101. Except that it was ‘the red room’ — the tag turned out to be correspondent with a wooden seat of the same number (there were also a blue and a green lecture rooms, presumably for people with more/less traffic offences).

But the gods of roads and highways looked rather kindly upon me, thanks to my little plan and thanks to my ‘Julia’. We explained to the lecturer that I hardly understood a word of Japanese while Julia didn’t speak English well, or well enough, which would render the whole lecture pointless. He might have asked how on earth do you communicate then, in Chinese?!, but instead he came up with a half solution procuring a book of traffic rules in English (he twice reminded us it is only for ‘rental’) and sending us to the back benches of a half-empty classroom, where the air was much breezier than what looked like a controlled rigidity in the front rows. It was also a reversal of roles for me, from my everyday one of a classroom teacher to that of a student, a rather passive and disinterested one at that. The lecture itself proved to be much more instructive to Julia who really was just a trespasser and who, by the way, is currently a proud holder of ‘the golden’ license. This type of license carries no penalty points. And how could she earn any when she’s hardly driven since she got the license years ago. But the lecture was intended to instruct those of us who can actually drive, who have learned our lessons the hard way, on the actual streets and roads. Talk about role reversals. Talk about conversions and reconversions.

Anyway, this whole episode reminded me of a poem on driving I read only a couple of days ago (the word ‘coincidence’ carries less and less meaning as years go by) by Jamie McKendrick from his first collection ‘The Sirocco Room’, entitled Fetish, the fetish of course being the car. The speaker’s tone effortlessly blends the comical with the profound, and that for me is some achievement. Here is the beginning…

That my first car, at thirty, should be fifth-hand,
a filthy patchwork of worn azure and bare zinc
and amateur spray-jobs like a subway wall,
appeals to my pride as a failed consumer.

…the profoundness…

It takes me places that I thought I’d never see
even though seeing them is not that different
from not having seen them — but who’s to say
if experience doesn’t help, doing nothing does?

…and a lovely closure:

But what would happen if it left me?
I heard you say just now it’s dangerous
And drives you mad to fall in love at thirty.

At the moment I can only think of one other poem dealing with cars, and it is a ‘conversation’ with a driving instructor, by Michael Donaghy, entitled ‘L’. Again it’s an amusing piece with its own doses of insight and a ‘punchline’, which seems to be a prerequisite in the car-poems. Here is the poem in its entirety and I hope I am not infringing any copyrights as it was already published on the web here

‘Switch off the engine and secure the car.’
He slots his pen across his clipboard
and makes a little cathedral of his fingers
as though I were helping him with his enquiries.
‘Tell me, Michael, what's your line of work?’
I tell him the truth. Why not? I've failed anyway.
‘Driving and writing have a lot in common,’
he parleys, and we sit there, the two of us
blinking into the average braking distance
for 30 mph, wondering what he means.
I want to help but it's his turn to talk.
When my turn comes he'll probably look at me
instead of his hand, stalled now in mid-gesture
like a milkfloat halfway across a junction.
Look at him. What if I'd said butcher?
At last ‘It's all a matter of giving – proper – signals’
is the best he can do. But then he astonishes me.
‘I'm going to approve your licence,
but I don't care much for your … ‘ Quick glance.
interpretation of the Highway Code.’

Once I told Michael how I really liked this poem, to which he rather cryptically responded by saying something like ‘I am glad you liked it’ with the emphasis on ‘you’ which I took to imply he was maybe surprised that a rather serious figure I must have cut 15 odd years ago would enjoy this humorous oddity. But you were seldom 100% sure with Mike.

Readers, do let me know if there is a driving/car poem that you know of, or perhaps have written yourself. Cheers. 

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