Monday, 20 December 2010

Freezing and sneezing while Beelzebub lurks

Medieval theologians held that certain moments of bodily convulsion allowed the devil to enter. Sneezing, for instance: at the moment of greatest contraction, heightened sensation and subsequent release you're not in control, momentarily you're in another mind state, and who knows how many lurking demons may surge in through E, N and T at that moment and merrily begin their work of moral corruption.

I was reminded of this the other day after an experience I really wouldn't like to repeat. J. and I were in the UK, primarily to attend my mother's 100th birthday. She lives in the north of Scotland. Well, we never got there. The flight to Inverness which we were due to take from Luton, where we planned to leave the car, was cancelled, no suitable alternatives were offered, so very sadly we abandoned the mission and set out to drive back home through the snow and ice and general tundra of south-east England.

On the way - on the old M10, near St Albans in Hertfordshire, black with untreated and unsuspected ice - I braked very lightly, slowing down from about 30mph in order to maintain my 10-length distance from the car in front. There was a violent skid and spin, which I tried to control with handbrake, steering wheel and very low revs, and we ended up neatly parked on the hard shoulder. It must have taken all of five seconds, but on such occasions time passes both faster and more slowly than usual, and your - my, at any rate - mind state goes into that beatific mode outlined by those medieval theologians where you know a perfect peace, though which you can see quite calmly the dreadful thing that's about to happen, but that terrible fear and panic doesn't actually hit you until it's over.

We'd spun fully through 180º and were now facing the oncoming traffic. On the hard shoulder, it's true, but several trucks were taking advantage of the better grip the hard shoulder offered. Knots of slow-moving traffic crept past, slowing further as they passed us. Clearly we were an awful warning.

What to do? We put out a warning triangle. J. called our insurance company in France. In French she explained what the problem was. Magically, somehow their office in Paris managed to pinpoint us. They promised to send a breakdown truck. No, not from Paris. They had a local agent in St Albans.

While waiting a denser than usual knot of traffic appeared. In its midst was a police Land Rover. Seeing our predicament from a distance, the police surged to the front of the knot of cars and trucks and gently brought it to a halt. Two officers, a female sergeant and a male constable came over to us.

Again, that state of mind. Would we be charged? Obstruction? Would our French number plates help or hinder?

They told us they would hold the traffic back until we had turned car back and had set off again. The constable said he would turn it for us. I gave him the key. He tried to get in the car on the right, maybe wondering if the steering wheel had somehow spun off too: ours is a left-hand drive car. Grinning, he changed sides, started the engine, turned the car back through the missing 180º and invited us to continue our journey. The sergeant said they would hold back the traffic until we were well on our way.


If anyone from the Hertfordshire Road Traffic Police picks this up, I'd like you to know that nowhere in the world do you have two more fervent admirers than J. and I, now safely returned home to France. You were superb. You stand alone. There is none like you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

And I don't think any lurking Beelzebubs managed to squirm in during those frantic seconds while we were spinning, but I'll keep you posted. Or maybe some son of Belial did get in: we never managed to contact the breakdown service. I hope they're not still there, chugging up and down looking for us.

UPDATE: My mother's 100th birthday, today, went extremely well. The royal telegram was duly delivered by the Lord Lieutenant of Nairnshire in full fig. Champagne was poured, my mother made a gracious and cogent speech to the 50 or so guests, which she finished by inviting the company to raise their glasses to Vicus the Queen. I'm so sorry we weren't able to take part.


Dave said...


I should be visiting my mother over Christmas, but have already made it clear that I'm not going to risk life and limb if the roads look unsafe.

What's the weather like in France?

Rog said...

Blimey what an adventure!

We've just spent 3 days touring Lincs and Derbys and are up North with a sigh of relief.

When you mentioned "very low revs" I have to mention that Dave sprang into mind for some reason.

Happy birthday to your Mum .... I bet even the Queen's telegram was delayed.

Geoff said...

I think I'd be a gibbering wreck in those circumstances. I don't even know where my triangle is.

english inukshuk said...

you're alive!


moreidlethoughts said...

How lovely to find a policeman who's not " selling tickets to the Policeman's Ball."

Vicus Scurra said...

If liz is still around for my 100th birthday I may well drink to her. Although it will be non-alcoholic, and I will still be waiting for the revolution.
If Thatcher is still alive, I will probably give up my plan to dance on her grave and look forward to a sedate stroll over it.

Z said...

Congratulations to your mother and I hope you will be able to visit her again soon. And congratulations to you and J. on being alive. I'm awfully glad.

I don't think I wrote about my sister's experience on the M11 last time she visited us. I didn't feel quite able to at the time but, since I have a photograph of her car, I think I will.

Anonymous said...


YOU were the cause of that dreadful bottleneck on that bit of road in bitter weather that was all over the local radio news warning of specific road hold-ups in that area on that time-of-day?

Didn't the devil do his worst just then for the rest of us? LOL!

Christopher said...

Weather here's mild and damp, Dave, with the warm southerly wind they call le marin blowing off the Mediterranean carrying all the heady perfumes of N.Africa, camels, souks, that kind of thing.

Rog: Low Rev. maybe, but don't you feel that in some inexplicable way Dave is our accelerator, brake and steering wheel?

Geoff: Ought you perhaps to lose a little weight?

I: I know. We're very lucky.

MIT: I wondered about kissing the lady sergeant, hoping our French number plates would exonerate me, but my perfect English accent had already suggested that I might not in reality be an over-demonstrative, excitable Frenchman. But I felt like it.

Vicus: Thank you. I will pass on your observations to the ladies concerned. Was there no message for the sergeant?

Z: Thanks. We'll try again some time in the new year.

Blue, so glad you picked up the demoniac inference. Were you somewhere in the (forked) tailback?

letouttoplay said...

Goodness! Well done for the neat and tidy arrival on the hard shoulder! I'm impressed and happy for you! Also very glad to hear you survived the time spent on the hard shoulder - very scary place that.
Congratulations to your Mum too! Surviving the British arterial ice in Winter is a great achievement but surviving 100 years of life is just amazing!