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Visualizing Left

November 29, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Driving to the left in Apia, Samoa


I wrote three days ago about Ian Rankin’s latest crime novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, in which retired Edinburgh detective John Rebus returns after a five-year absence. It turns out he had been keeping busy as a civilian employee in Edinburgh’s cold case unit, where we find him when the novel opens.

In discussing Rebus’s welcome return, I forgot to note one point that had been on my mind. Not about the book itself, but about my experience in reading it. So this is about me, not Rebus or Rankin. Please excuse the indulgence.

How a reader enters into the world constructed within a book—fiction or non-fiction—is personal and idiosyncratic. It also goes largely unnoticed, however fundamental it is to one’s perception and enjoyment of the text. A character gets out of bed, walks into a restaurant, drives down the road and you hop on for the ride, conjuring images along the way. This is so intrinsic to the reading experience that it hardly merits comment. Yet, as I read Standing in Another Man’s Grave, I kept being shaken into awareness.

The reason is simple. As I explained in describing the book, one of its stars is “the A9, a major Scottish roadway running roughly northeast from Stirling and Bridge of Allan through Auchterarder to Perth, then northwest past Pitlochry and Aviemore to Inverness, continuing still farther north to the outer reaches of northern Scotland, ending at Thurso, the northernmost town on the British mainland. Many of the towns along the way are featured in the book, as Rankin drives back and forth looking for clues and interviewing people.” With all of Rebus’s traveling, I was obliged to visualize him sitting at the wheel, getting in and out of the car, pulling into a gas station (well, petrol station — you know).

Do you see the problem? He was driving in Scotland. On the left side of the road. In a right-side-drive car. I found myself pausing regularly to make sure I had him sitting on the right, driving on the left. This wasn’t as distracting as it might seem. It did, however, make me conscious of the act of visualizing.

My insistence on getting the images right goes back to the summer of 1977, when I spent five weeks in Leeds, followed by ten days in Scotland. While in Leeds, I stayed at the Barrington Court Hotel, a once-luxurious house that was now a modest inn with a mix of overnight and long-term residents. What would once have been a square bedroom of decent size had been split into two narrow rectangles, one of which I occupied, along with a bed, a chair, a dresser, and a coin-operated fireplace/heater. The adjacent half-room was occupied by a Leeds faculty member, whom I would hear noisily arriving every night when the pubs closed.

Each morning, the Scottish proprietor, Mr. Pryde, would serve breakfast in a small dining area off the kitchen. Eggs, ham, and cold toast. Across the hall was the lounge, where guests would spend evenings watching the communal TV. At 9:00, Mr. Pryde would come in with tea and biscuits.

Those lounge evenings were immersions in British culture. Guests were generally businesspeople—such as a salesman who came every week for a night—or family of locals. This wasn’t where the tourists stayed. (Not that Leeds is overrun with tourists.) I don’t remember how we settled on what to watch. I do remember that Mr. Pryde would have words with me if I shut the TV and forgot to unplug it. And I remember visualizing the cars, both on TV and out the window, trying to develop intuition that the left side was the natural side to drive on. This was an assignment I took seriously, so that I would be prepared for my days of rental car driving when I got to Scotland.

In the years since, when reading British books, I give undue attention to driving scenes. Same with movies. I finished Standing in Another Man’s Grave last Friday around noon. Five hours later, we were in the theater watching the new Bond movie, Skyfall (which I wrote about here). And again, in the British scenes, I devoted keen attention to the driving scenes.

It turns out that my visualization efforts in Leeds weren’t entirely successful. I only made one error behind the wheel, but I was lucky it didn’t result in an accident. I needed to turn right on a two-lane highway somewhere in the north. I will never know what I did wrong. What I do know is that as I was into the turn, a car coming from the opposite direction at high speed honked and honked and nearly hit me. I escaped into the side road just in time. Was he driving too fast? Had I even thought to look for oncoming traffic? I thought it was safe to turn, but maybe I wasn’t paying attention. Or maybe I did pay attention and he came from nowhere. I don’t know. What I do know is that I keep visualizing.


*The Guardian used this photo to illustrate an article three years ago about a switch made in Samoa from right-side to left-side driving.

The government made the change to bring Samoa in line with Australia and New Zealand, where some 170,000 expatriate Samoans live. It is cheaper to import cars from there than from right-side-driving countries such as the US.

For now, Samoa will allow cars with steering wheels on either the left or the right side of the vehicle – but all will drive on the left side of the road.

Critics accused the government of failing adequately to prepare drivers, and had predicted traffic chaos and a rise in fatal wrecks.

The switch was ushered in with a two-day national holiday, to keep a limit on traffic, and a three-day ban on alcohol sales, to deter accidents.

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