December 12th, 2005


Nuclears and fossils

This is my nuclear family. We're at my brother's wedding, which happened on Saturday. We don't all get together very often, the Currie nuclears, but I always really enjoy it when we do. We speak the same language. We share the same genes. I love them. It's also weird; when I look at a picture like this, I can't help thinking of Charles Ray's spooky 1992 sculpture "Family Romance", where a nuclear family stands naked in a line holding hands, all the same height, at different stages of development. We're all grown, and we're all still here, even if we're somewhat scattered now and all have our own lives.

We were mostly together in the 1960s and 1970s — that would be our "active years" in a music encyclopaedia if we were a rock band. Like a rock band, we toured around the world endlessly. In planes, in boats (my sister's son Robbie now looks exactly like me in a photo taken in 1973 on the SS France, as we sailed into New York harbour, emigrating to Canada) but mostly in cars. In the speech at his reception, my brother proposed a toast to his dear nuclears: "The main thing I remember about my family is that I never said a word," he mused, to the amusement of the crowd. "That we drove all over the world, it seems, the five of us, in a car, and I don't ever remember speaking. But there's something very good about this, because I think I derive from the four other members of my family all the key personality traits that I have now. I took the good bit from each. People say this about me — that somehow I sit quietly and absorb. That's what I did with them, and I think I got a fantastic combination of things."

My brother chose a particularly lovely part of the Norfolk coast to get married on. The wedding and reception were in a barn at Burnham Market, and the next day we all had a walk along the gorgeous beach (pines, dunes, miles of white sand) at Holkham Bay. Mark also chose a particularly inaccessible place; even for a public transport afficionado like myself, it was completely necessary to rent a car. In fact, Hisae and I missed the wedding ceremony itself because I made the mistake of thinking the A1(M) and the M1 were the same road. We turned round at the Watford Gap service station and headed across country, arriving a couple of hours late.

The fossils in my title aren't my family. They're cars, and the fuels they burn. As I drove towards the beauty of my brother's wedding, I couldn't help thinking how ugly car culture has made rural England. I'm sure once upon a time cars were a good idea, an idea you could get behind. When I was born there were 6 million cars in the UK. Now there are around 30 million, crammed into the same small island, all vying for space, polluting the atmosphere, making their drivers disconnected, disembodied, irritable, contributing to global warming, poisoning people, poisoning politics, making transit corridors of places that barely still have dignity as places-in-themselves. Driving past the roadkill and the Fatal Accident Here signs ("call police with information"), making way for the screaming ambulances (two or three of them) en route, I imagined how Chaucer's England, or Robin Hood's, must have been; covered with mixed temperate deciduous forests, traversed by donkeys and horses. Slow life! The air must have been clean then.

From the plane, flying in, I counted a convoy of oil tankers on the English Channel. Fourteen of them, heading south. The next day my plane to Berlin took off from Luton two hours late, delayed by Britain's biggest ever peacetime explosion. A fossil fuel explosion. I got a good view of the fire, just ten miles from the airport, when we took off at 9pm... in fact, after take-off we turned and flew right over the inferno, so close I feared the plane would be buffeted or singed. The lights of the highway snaking past the blazing depot looked oddly normal, oddly unperturbed by this oily cataclysm spilling black smoke across England. The radio reports I'd been hearing all day had been calming in tone: motorists shouldn't panic-buy fuel, there was still enough to go around. People should stay indoors and try to avoid inhaling the cloud of burnt ultra-low sulphur diesel, unleaded petrol, super unleaded motor spirit, kerosene, gas oil and aviation fuel. But as for pollution, well, all this stuff would have been burnt into Britain's atmosphere anyway, just in slightly more efficient ways. No cause for concern. No more than usual, anyway.

I believe that one day we'll look back on the age of the car as an age of fossils, filth and savagery. But I'm the black sheep of my British nuclear family: the only one without a car.