The car: a ’06 rosso red Seat Ibiza 1.9 TDI Sport, bought three weeks ago from a man who had bought the car from the Stig’s mum. If the Stig, with all his motoring experience, had carefully chosen the car for his dear old mum, it was an inspired choice. For an inexpensive, inoffensive-looking little two-door saloon, it is wonderfully quick. The route: from the north-western French port of Roscoff, in the socialist department of Finistère, down to Brignoles, the far-right, pied-noir capital of Provence; a 1,300-kilometre diagonal from the top left of the country to the bottom right. The in-car entertainment: ten CDs of smoky-voiced US southern-belle actress Elizabeth Ashley reading Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, John Lahr’s biography of Tennessee Williams, her voice becoming hoarser with each successive CD. Travelling time, as computed by the satnav: 11 hours 53 minutes.
I drove it in one go, stopping only for diesel and double espressos. My chosen satnav voice: a sensible, optimistic young man from New Zealand who advised me at every plausible, and sometimes implausible, opportunity to ‘grab our jandals and go and look for some steak and cheese pie’. The unmitigated contempt in his voice when warning of an imminent toll charge was a joy. The drugs: the aforementioned caffeine and Modafinil, 150mgs, which in combination kept me alert and interested throughout, with only mild hallucinations disturbing my peripheral vision after Avignon.
Observations. There isn’t half the traffic on French roads as there is on Britain’s. It’s like driving in the 1970s. Also, the French don’t spend half as much money on their cars as we do, and they spend it patriotically. Eight out of every ten vehicles were compact or mid-range Renaults or Citroëns. But the French are faster and more aggressive drivers than we are. Their liberty takes your breath away. Drunk, probably, some of them. At the point in Elizabeth Ashley’s narrative when Tennessee Williams was 12, and his mother, the monstrous Edwina, had bought a typewriter for ten dollars and touchingly presented it to him, I looked in the rear-view mirror to identify the maniac who was tailgating me for no earthly reason. It was a 70-year-old woman driving with one hand on the steering wheel and a cigarette clamped between her teeth.
Also, French motorway designers respect the driving abilities of their compatriots more than ours do, provocatively adding some very exciting cambers on the long downhill curves. Also, with no cat’s eyes delineating the driving lanes, French motorway traffic is less orderly than ours, with a significant minority treating the road as a racetrack. Jockeying for position on exiting the péages is like the doors opening on the first day of the Selfridges Christmas sale. There are speed-enforcement cameras; but they are clearly advertised, allowing you to commence braking gently to the requisite 130 kilometres an hour well in advance and rejoin the wacky racers the instant one passes the gantry. The tarmac is maintained to perfection. The single inoffensive pothole I encountered around about the time that Tennessee Williams lost his virginity, finally, aged 27, surprised me, and the image of it has remained in my memory. I could draw it for you now, a week later. In places, the flowering shrubs on the central reservations are as meticulously cultivated as the formal avenues in Regent’s Park.
I passed two accident scenes. At the first a jeep was lying on its roof on the hard shoulder. The second looked more serious. It was about halfway. Tennessee Williams was 33. He had woken to find himself internationally famous after the storming success of The Glass Menagerie. ‘The catastrophe of success,’ was how he saw it afterwards. Two cars had collided, spun and come to rest in the slow lane. One was a charred shell. Bored-looking pompiers were standing around in the slow lane. In Britain we’d have been queuing for an hour to file past at a walking pace while investigators farted around with tape measures. Here, all that was required was a touch on the brake pedal as we drew level then it was foot hard to the floor again.
Tennessee Williams accommodatingly choked to death on the cap of his bottle of eyedrops ten miles from my destination. Seconal had suppressed his gag reflex, said the coroner. The dashboard clock said 5.30 in the morning. A crescent moon was lying submissively on her back with two bright planets in attendance, one above, one below. I stood on the terrace with a large scotch in my hand and watched the dawn break. The Seat had covered 800 miles without missing a beat on a tank and a quarter of diesel. All hail to the Stig’s mum’s Seat Ibiza TDI Sport.