Monday, 25 April 2011

The great north road


Memory is a kind of hard core lucky dip: you reach into that tub of sawdust and you don't know whether you are going to bring out a shiny new penny or a handful of razor blades.

I drove up and down the A1 - four or five hours each trip. The A1 is not a pleasant road for much of its length, the older sections suffering from narrow lanes and poor road surface, the building of newer sections causing miles of contraflow and hold-ups. Going up I got caught up in a queue trailing back from an accident. On the way back I saw a car engulfed in flames on the hard shoulder, a huge column of smoke rising up like a twister. The heat was incredible even from a lane away.

And yet the A1 is full of memories for me.

I remember long (oh, so very long) National Express coach journeys that would take the whole of a day (or night). Going down to London to see my brother, maybe. And it always did feel as though I really was going downhill, as though the land of Britain is tilted vertically with Scotland at the head.

Living in Newcastle, we always seemed to be on the A1. It used to go right through the centre of the city and over the Tyne Bridge. It was the way north to the Northumberland coast and to Edinburgh. It was the way south to Yorkshire, to the moors, to the coast. It was the quickest way to to start a journey.

I remember my brother-in-law driving me up the A1 in his Ford Zephyr and touching 100 mph. I remember sitting in the back of an army lorry when I worked one holiday as a removal man shifting furniture and crockery in and out of service accommodation.

I was working in effect for my dad. He had become a civil servant on leaving the army and worked for the Ministry. It was his job to oversee the provision of housing and contents to serving soldiers. He had left the army but he still worked in an army barracks and drove back and forth to the various army bases in his area.

I thought about that - among many other things - as I drove down the A1 past Catterick army base. Every hour or so I would be surprised by tears and by the suddenness of the emotion. Tears would spring to my eyes and my throat would tighten as though held in a firm grip.

The Great North Road. It does feel part of my life. I've spent more of my life in the south, and yet I do feel an affinity with the north country. We moved around so much when I was a child that nowhere really feels like home. But I think I am a northerner at heart. If I come from anywhere, I come from the North.

And maybe I wasn't sure of that until I had my back to it on the way home to Cambridge.

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