Gentlemen, fasten your seat belts: what I am about to admit is so deeply, mortifyingly uncool that frequently, in conversation, I lie about it, to hide my own shame and avoid the righteous indignation of those less fortunate and more enlightened than me. Deep breath. Here goes. My name is Alex Bilmes and I drive to work. Yes, in a car. To central London from, well, not very far at all outside central London. Takes about 25 minutes, door to car park, on a good day. Twice that or more when they're digging up the roads. And when are they not digging up the roads? So call it closer to an hour, each way, in a big, heavy, diesel-gobbling, Arctic-ice-sheet-shrinking, family-man, four-wheel-drive estate-vehicle. A tank-like German one with room for about 17, plus pets and surfboard. Even though most days there's only one person on board (minus pets and surfboard). And me - a mere slip of a thing!
Please understand, I haven't always done this. Until 18 months ago, and for the preceding two decades, I was on the bus and the underground with the rest of the right-minded world. But then I got my current gig, and with it came said parking space underneath Soho, and after two decades in the tunnels and on the top deck, I couldn't resist. Seriously: could you?
This new way of travelling between home and office by car has been an interesting exercise in learning how the other faction lives - sometimes a freewheelingly gratifying exercise; at other moments knuckle-whiteningly frustrating
This new way, to me anyway, of travelling between home and office has been an interesting exercise in learning how the other faction lives - sometimes a freewheelingly gratifying exercise; at other moments knuckle-whiteningly frustrating. It has also offered some perspective on my years as a schlubbish, publically-transported commuter.
Driving to work, let me tell you, has its ups and, inevitably, its downs. To the bedraggled man waiting at the bus stop in the rain, I might seem the very definition of the pampered executive, insulated from real life in my mobile ivory tower. But fellow members of the motorcade will know already that while it's a definite advantage being warm and dry, it's less fun being continually stuck in snarl-ups, gesticulated at by van drivers, despised by pedestrians and spied on by police cameras. Driving is, paradoxically, both more comfortable and more stressful than walking, or running, or pedalling, or hopping on a bus or a train.
Herewith, then, are some observations.
01 Driving to work makes you stupider. OK, I'm pretty up on current affairs, courtesy of the BBC's teeth-grindingly irritating Today programme, which blasts on my Blaupunkt each morning. But I no longer read novels, or serious non-fiction, except in bed. Believe me, I've tried balancing Ms Zadie Smith on my steering column in light-to-medium traffic, but she kept falling off. I tried Mr Michael Lewis, too, but cyclists were getting in the way, and I began to fear prosecution if I hit one.
02 Driving to work makes you more successful but less interesting, because you can spend the whole time on your hands-free, Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone, chatting up clients, impressing bosses, admonishing staff, thereby actually starting and finishing work about an hour earlier and another hour later than tube and subway users. Driving, in 2012, is no longer about indulging in me time. You're alone but not alone. As opposed to on the tube where you're not alone but alone. Which brings me to...
03 Driving to work is lonelier. Yes, it's a relief not having one's face jammed into another strap-hanger's armpit at 7.45 in the morning, somewhere deep beneath Bayswater or the Brooklyn Bridge. But on the flip side, there are no chance meetings with old friends or silent flirtations with alluring strangers. If Mr Michael Fassbender's sex addict character in Shame had driven to work, even he would never have got laid. As for Mad Men's Pete Campbell, forget about it.
04 Driving to work means never again earwigging on strangers' conversations. And while the tinny noise pollution of a teenager's iPhone earbuds is hardly the breakfast birdsong we might ideally expect to start our days with, life in the city really isn't life in the city unless you're rubbing along with and even up against your fellow urbanites. Strangely, perhaps, I miss the esprit de corps of the communal commute. Stuck in my car, separated from the hustle and bustle, I may as well be working in the provinces. And that, my friends, is not a fate I'd wish on my enemies.
05 Driving to work is, for all the annoyances of two-mile-an-hour London traffic, more physically comfortable. Especially if your car has massage seats. Oh, yes.
I often feel like abandoning my vehicle on the gridlocked highway, taking my pump-action from its hiding place under my seat and striding through the city randomly taking people out
06 Even massage seats can't disguise the fact that driving to work is no less stressful than being stuck on the 7.20 to St Pancras or waiting for the Number 94 only to discover you've lost your travel pass at the precise moment it finally turns up. In fact, many is the day when, like Mr Michael Douglas' D-Fens in Falling Down - the best film ever made about the fear and loathing of driving to work - I frequently feel like abandoning my vehicle in the middle of the gridlocked highway, taking my pump-action from its hiding place underneath my seat and striding through the city randomly taking people out. Sorry, but I do.
07 On days when I don't feel murderous - they do come along occasionally - driving to work adds a considerable burden of responsibility to my mornings and evenings. It's not just that I don't have an excuse for being late when the Victoria line goes down. It's that suddenly the lives of all the other many road users - old ladies, schoolchildren, people in electric wheelchairs - are in my hands. The vigilance required to get to work and back without killing one of these specimens, the lightning reactions and Mr-Ryan-Gosling-in-Drive-style avoidance tactics necessary to prevent that inconvenient eventuality, is really quite astonishing. Especially when I've had a drink. Which brings me to...
08 Alcohol. When you drive to and from work, you have to monitor your booze intake. When I say monitor I mean: you can no longer drink until you get home. Which means you feel better in the morning, but you never have fun again. Not just that but...
09 If you have an after-hours work function to attend people will ask you for a lift and get quite huffy when you refuse (because the last thing you want to become is a taxi service for slurry-breathed work colleagues).
10 What with London's congestion charge, the parking fines, the traffic violations and the incredible cost of fuel, servicing and repairs, you need to be a billionaire to drive to work. I'm not a billionaire. This whole thing is unsustainable. And yet, and yet... I've got the car and I've got the space. Might as well use them. Right?