Learning to Drive

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People often use their cars to express who they are and what they think.

Life lived as a passenger is a very different experience from that of a driver. When I hit thirty, I decided I would learn to drive. I called the British School of Motoring, which was the one that people said I had to use, and booked some lessons. At the time I was living off Portobello Road in a busy part of West London. My lessons involved dodging buses and angry black cabs on the Harrow Road and avoiding pedestrians. No one observed any lights and my efforts to try and find some order within the chaos of London’s narrow, crowded streets felt frustrating and futile. On top of that, I was learning on an old, manual car. Getting to grips with a clutch while avoiding killing people was too much. I ended up running over a cat and that was that. No more lessons for me.

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A stop sign in Missoula, Montana.

Almost twenty years on, I am living in Montana where the roads are wide, and there are few pedestrians, let alone cars on the road. And drivers seem exceptionally courteous, certainly compared to London ones. So I have decided once and for all that I will get over my fear of cars, my dislike of petroleum products and the people who suck them out of the earth, and challenge the view of myself as one of life’s passengers.

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The perils of being a pedestrian in a car-centric country: sometimes the pavement literally just stops.

When I think back to the adventures I have had, I don’t feel any particular lack in not having driven a car. I crossed the US on a Greyhound bus around ten years ago, and by not driving, I met people and went places I would never have if I had done the trip in my own little metal bubble. The thing you notice more than anything as a passenger in life is that you have to put your trust in complete strangers. In St Louis, a bored taxi driver from Somalia let me sit in the front seat with him while he picked up customers and told me about his life before America. During one call out, we went to a very rough part of town and sat and waited outside a boarded up house. After about three minutes a guy stumbled out in a pair of black trousers, a white untucked shirt and a bow tie askew. You could still smell the booze on him from the night before and he could barely walk a straight line. But we got him to his shift in an upmarket restaurant almost on time. I have also been ferried around Amarillo, Texas and Detroit by taxi drivers who wanted to show me their towns. The cabbies in St Louis, Amarillo and Detroit didn’t charge me for their time, perhaps enjoying some distraction from their normal routine. Telling people in America that you don’t drive arouses their curiosity and their desire to help.

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Old, beat up cars are such a big part of the landscape here in Montana, you stop noticing them after a while. This one is in Clinton.

The driver in Detroit was ecstatic at having someone he could show the real city to. “This place is like Beirut,” he said as he whisked me to a part of town where the buildings had no windows, the cars lay in parts strewn across empty lots and people walked around like zombies, literally out of their minds, pushing shopping carts full of rags. I showed him the hotel I had booked myself into which turned out to be a crack den with people passed out on the front stoop. “Why would you want to stay there?” he had asked. “Because it was cheap,” I replied. He laughed at my naivete and I told him I had managed to book somewhere else called The Milner where the elevators were shaped like coffins and water leaked through the ceilings making the lights fizz. We talked at length of the promise of Detroit during the height of Motown, when Berry Gordy was at the top of the music business and the sounds coming from Hitsville USA were unlike any heard before or since. Compared with the city I was being shown the sadness was too much to hold in. And he didn’t mind me crying as I watched the city in all its crumbling beauty fly past. All that potential, all that hope, all that great music. All of it gone and replaced by poverty and decay and a sense that the place was not worth saving. My visit to Detroit was before any books or photos or films had been made about the town. When its nineteenth-century buildings with their collapsed roofs and chandeliers spilling from broken windows had yet to be documented. When I got back to London, I tried to explain what I had seen there but no one really believed me. I had taken some photos but managed to lose most of them. Would I have experienced Detroit as deeply if I had been in my own car and possibly too freaked out to go to its more devastated parts? Who knows. But I would certainly not be able to say I cried in a taxi while the driver shook his head in sadness alongside me and kept me company in my grief.

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Clinton, Montana. This one was for sale by the owner.

Around a month ago I went out driving with a friend on some quiet streets and in the parking lot of the Mall. It all went smoothly, but I was too worried about crashing her expensive car and destroying our friendship, so I called Missoula’s best-known driving instructor Mike Kincaid who is not a native Montanan but a transplant from Long Island, and set up some lessons. There is something about his broad New York accent and his laconic sense of humour that puts me at ease. We’ve now been out in his car three times. I have negotiated rush hour on the biggest street in Missoula, which is nothing like rush hour in London, but nevertheless I managed to share the road with other cars without hitting them. Mike has been teaching me to parallel park, which I am told no one ever does here, but it’s on the test. I am learning on an automatic on streets with hardly any traffic and it all feels so much more manageable than my previous attempt. Maybe after all these years, this is my time to drive.

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Mike Kincaid, my driving instructor. Maybe the only driving instructor in Montana who subscribes to the Nation.

The impetus for learning to drive here and now is because America, with possibly the exception of New York, is a place where you need a car in order to survive. Learning to drive is a rite of passage, and like marriage and kids seems to be the accepted face of normality. Stupidly my not learning to drive sat next to my “f*** you” button which I press when I don’t like what I am being told to do. I grew up in the Canadian suburbs where you were expected to drive. But as a teenager when I had saved up a chunk of money from babysitting or cleaning houses I would take myself to New York or Florence or Paris instead of putting my money towards practical things. In my bohemian teenage head, sitting in Parisian cafés was much more romantic and life-enhancing than sitting in a car in the Ottawa suburbs being told about the rules of the road. Learning to drive was aligned in my mind with accepting that a white wedding and three kids in a suburban bungalow were my future. I never wanted any of that, and somehow along with rejecting the normal uncontested route, I also rejected driving a car. It was my own personal revolt against the status quo, and what a stupid one it was too. In short the political and personal threads that had seemed so important to me as a young woman had over the years turned into a Gordian knot of non-driving. With the onset of middle age comes the acceptance that some of our stances are puerile and plain ridiculous.

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This old car, which still runs, was parked near a stone angel marking the grave of a much-loved German Shepherd. Clinton, Montana.

On a purely practical level, I need to be able to lug food from the supermarket and get E to her ballet classes when J isn’t around. I need to be able to buy birthday presents for E’s friends and take her swimming. Even these simple tasks will seem like monumental achievements to me, if I do in fact learn to drive and pass the test and find the money for a cheap car. These are all big ifs. J has always said that my problem with driving is that I see cars as large metal death machines. My reply to him is that they are. And death in a car, just like death in an airplane (I am also terrified of flying), is not how I would like to go. Driving makes me aware of my mortality and not in a good way. And the thought of killing someone else terrifies me beyond anything resembling a rational fear.

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Cars provide an endless source of stupid bumper stickers and signs.

I always wonder how people can get into a car and turn it on in such a cavalier manner. It’s not ridiculous to contemplate the fact that every time you get in your car, you might kill someone. In fact, not to think about it seems much more ridiculous. And then there is the ecological argument that favours not driving. You only have to look at the destruction caused by the Canadian Tar Sands or the ongoing catastrophic environmental damage caused by BP’s oil well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico five years ago to know that by handing over your money to oil companies you are implicated in the destruction of the planet. By learning to drive and perhaps one day owning a car, I will directly be part of the machine of oil consumption, rather than indirectly, as a passenger. Maybe this is more honest. Maybe by not buying gasoline and yet benefitting from the kind people who have ferried me around all my life, and by allowing myself to fly across oceans, there has been an element of hypocrisy around my not driving. The idea I can’t shake in all this is that right when we really need to be cutting our consumption, I am learning a skill that relies on the very people who are destroying the planet. And that just really sucks.

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Clinton, Montana.

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Miracle of America

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The exit sign as you leave the Miracle of America Museum, near Polson, Montana.

I realise I have not posted anything of our trip up to Polson, Montana to stay with friends on Flathead Lake. We did this trip in the last weekend of February, and as it was a mild winter we managed a few walks as well as a trip to the nearby Miracle of America Museum.

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Some of the ‘don’t drink and drive’ display from the Miracle of America Museum

The museum is run by Gil Mangels whose views on women’s rights, religion and gun control are pretty obvious through his choice of exhibits. As a visitor to his museum I found myself with that strange sensation I so often get here in the US: a sense of respect towards someone who is at the absolute opposite end of the political spectrum from me. In the UK, I rarely meet Hoorah Henrys, City bankers or people with fundamentally different views on basic issues like taxation, welfare, healthcare and education. But here in the US, I so often meet people who I like very much, or who I find fascinating, but who have opposing views on issues such as a woman’s right to determine the result of an unwanted pregnancy, about belief in God, about whether Barack Obama is a Muslim, and about whether we need to be armed in case the government wants to invade our town and take away our freedom (i.e. our gun license).

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The armless, noseless woman in the ‘domestic’ installation.

The Miracle of America Museum is no exception to this strange and peculiar American-style vertigo I sometimes get. The director of the museum, Mr Mangels was kind and open and helpful, and yet showed a particular fondness for military hardware, guns and a vision of America last seen in John Wayne movies. He had entire displays consisting of images of foetuses and pages from magazines and pamphlets on the sacredness of the unborn child. Another display centred on the ills of drunk driving. Lots of political memorabilia that make it clear he is not a Democrat.

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A piece of Gil Mangels’ artwork.

Yet, what struck me most in his museum were the delicate and very beautiful sculptures he makes in his spare time and which he weaves throughout his collection of military hardware, war memorabilia, motorbikes, vehicles of every type and from every era, farm equipment, UFOs and the likes. When I asked him about his ‘work’ he was bashful and seemed reticent to talk about it. A true outsider artist who perhaps doesn’t see the value in his own work.

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A Calder-like piece of Gil Mangels’ artwork.

We probably don’t see eye to eye on anything except that his art is an expression of the one thing that unites us all: our humanity and the invisible and indisputable need for humans to make art. That is the real miracle in this museum.

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Gil Mangels who runs the Museum and makes art.

Clearing Out

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Waiting for my flight in Missoula airport. I had Elizabeth Taylor and a cup of tea for company.

Clearing out one’s family home is something you often read about. Stories abound around the subject of inheritance and dividing up the family plot or sharing out the silver. My oldest sister K has been telling me about They Left Us Everything: A Memoir by Plum Johnson. I will read it. In the meantime I made the long and complicated journey to Ottawa from Missoula to help my sisters S and K—the only siblings left in Canada—with the clearing out of the house most of us grew up in and which is no longer inhabited by my parents. Our family home, which we call ‘460’, is crammed with more than fifty years of my mother’s and father’s lives and the imprint of seven children having grown up within its walls.

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Part of my journey ‘home’: the train from Toronto to Ottawa.

Adults handling objects belonging to their younger selves or the intimate possessions of their dead parents and siblings feels like an ancient ritual. The letting go of these physical talismans enables us to move forward divested of the symbolism of these objects and free from their hold. I remember reading in Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf that the writer felt she only really started making decent work once her mother was dead. In the saying goodbye comes an obvious, or perhaps a subtle, lurching forward into an unknown. This is how I felt during the one solitary week I was in Ottawa: things were shifting slowly but with force.

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What do you do with the pin cushion belonging to your mother that you remember from a time when it was bigger than your hand?

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The original paint chips from the mid-fifties used for the interior and exterior of the house I grew up in.

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Photo magazines drying out in the sunshine. Boxes and boxes of these were left to gather mould in a damp garage. What to do with gems like this that could easily fill a month of perusing and musing.

While in Ottawa I visited my father who is in a home that can cater to his advanced Alzheimer’s. Despite being able to communicate very little—his speech is gone and his walking is minimal and he can no longer feed himself—my father smiled when he saw me and managed to say my nickname. His one good eye fastened onto me with the recognition that I was one of his children. I felt so much love coming from that smile and that eye of his. An eye that created a body of photographs which was another reason for my trip to Canada.

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My father watching Lauren Bacall in Technicolour

My father was an artist. But a very disorganised one. He left behind photographs which show a fascinating trajectory from his black and white street photography in the 1950s and 60s to an embracing of the snapshot aesthetic from the 1970s onwards which expresses, as the years progress, an increasing frustration with his encroaching dementia and the feeling of being trapped in the Ottawa suburbs. He photographed bananas and oranges and stones against various backdrops giving them fresh contexts and narratives. He photographed the TV screen clicking the shutter just as Harper’s face takes on a demonic look or just as the ring goes on the finger of the first gay marriage in Massachusetts.

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Ottawa Journal Home Section, Saturday, March 13, 1965. The house was already eight years old by the time this article appeared. There was a petition to try and have its construction halted as modernist architecture didn’t really ‘fit the neighbourhood’.

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My mother ferrying a cup of coffee to the table while I sit in my high chair where the fridge eventually was to go and one of my sisters does her homework.

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The fridge as it is today with the photos my mother liked to look at before she died. It all needs to be dismantled. This is where my high chair stood all those years ago.

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My parents’ beautiful kitchen which once was bursting with life, now being emptied in preparation for selling the house.

My father documented his life within strict constraints, and in doing so created a profound series of images that speak of the limits of experience. Before I arrived, my sisters K and S had already spent days and days sorting through box of after box of colour prints putting them into thematic piles: construction sites, still lives with bananas, rocks, oranges, photos of shadows, selfies, notable people, artists, street scenes, graffiti, newspaper headlines, TV screens, computer screens (some of these unsavoury), family members, photos of his photos which he often annotated or cut up and rephotographed, and thousands of photos of the piles of newspapers and books which he and my mother lived amongst for decades. There is something of the feeling of being trapped that these photos convey and yet also a sense of freedom that he was able to see so much beauty in such a cloistered life. And there is obsession here, too. Lots of obsession and perhaps a touch of narcissism. He was the original selfie addict.

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Some of the piles of my father’s photos. There were thousands, maybe even tens of thousands. At least now the beast of his colour archive is somewhat under control.

But what to do with them all. Where to house them. Do we make a book or try and mount a show or both. At the moment there are too many questions. And too few answers. As I was flying out of Toronto airport on my way back to Missoula, having only scratched the surface of all that needs doing, I noticed a series of photographs right next to the check-in area called The Amazon of the North by the Canadian photographer Aemon Mac Mahon. These photos depict the destruction of the Canadian landscape. Old growth trees as dead as matchsticks lie in piles the size of buildings. It seemed odd to me that photos displaying the destruction of the environment should be in an airport of all places. A building whose sole existence relies on fossil fuels, tourism, consumption and growth—ingredients that contribute to the destruction of the planet. This is exactly the sort of thing my father taught me to look out for. Never trust the image completely; always look below it, above it and way beyond it. Question its veracity. Looking beyond the surface is what artists do and my father was truly an artist—even if he had a hard time acknowledging it himself.

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One of a series of photos at Pearson International Airport called The Amazon of the North which shows the destruction of the environment by Canadian interests.