Saturday, 6 March 2010

Piercing the Membrane – Freedom and How to Cope With It

The veneer of civility holding society together is of a very thin membrane, one that is all too easily pierced, as anyone who has driven a car will recognise. We all know there are rules of the road, and we acknowledge they are there for a reason, and mostly we willingly follow them. But there are times when the rules break down, and our true, ugly animalist nature is revealed.

Imagine driving along a motorway. You see a sign stating there has been an accident and two of the three lanes will close in eight hundred yards. That’s all it takes. That’s all we need for the civilised veneer to disappear. We are suddenly rivals jostling for position, competing for space, stating our individual claim. The ego surges to the surface. I am more important than you. I must go first. The rules don’t apply to me for I am above them. In fact the rules only exist so that by breaking them I will be ahead of the game. Like the legendary captain in William Burroughs’ short story who steals a dress and a wig when his ship starts to sink and marches to the lifeboats shouting ‘women and children first’, we bend the rules to our own unique advantage.

Somewhere else this is wonderfully apparent is the Dartford Crossing. The road widens to ten, maybe twelve lanes for the toll booths where we all diligently queue, taking our civilised turn to expend capital for the privilege of travelling from one side of the Thames to the other. It’s on the other side of the booths, after we have spent our money that the fun happens. The road has to go back from ten or twelve lanes to it’s normal three, and it does this in maybe two or three hundred yards, but, and this is the important bit, there are no road markings telling us which way to go. For a couple of hundred metres we see freedom, and we panic. Normally careful and considerate drivers suddenly forget everything they were taught and raw instinct kicks in. We push our right foot down and race dangerously for the limited space. Three hundred yards of anarchy - a rare opportunity to be responsible for our own actions - and we don’t know how to deal with it. If it wasn’t so funny…it’d be a tragedy. If it wasn’t so tragic…it’d be hilarious.

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