Saturday, April 10, 2010


Anyone who has been to Beachy Head knows the vertigo that peering over that chalky-white cliff to the rocks below can induce. It’s the kind of thing that either thrills you or makes you nauseous, depending on your temperament. And neither the lighthouse - that striped pepperpot sticking out into the ocean - nor the horizon where blue meets blue, can soften the fact that this is a place where people go to kill themselves. 
     Sad remnants of deaths are strewn all along the cliff-edge – cotton flowers faded with sunlight, tiny wooden crosses and small cards with messages of love etched in biro.
     Yet even as you walk along the edge, looking over into white frothy waves, seagulls swooping and rising, you can easily miss something that’s nestling in a clump of trees, halfway down the jagged slope. Squint, and you’ll make out rusty car windows, a bashed in bonnet. I noticed this car the first time I took a bus along the coast road through Newhaven and Cuckmere, towards those cliffs looming over Eastbourne. The car seemed like a drunk who'd fallen over and now lay face down, pissed, in some hedgerow. Grass has gradually grown over most of it so that now it’s almost invisible and easily missable. I find it terrifying - the empty driver’s seat, passenger door flung open, its glass long-gone. I wonder who, why, and how it came to be there, and how long the person who accelerated it off that cliff lay inside its crushed metal or thrown across bracken before the helicopter rescue team flew down over the Sussex coastline. Perhaps they jumped before the wheels skidded off the crumbling edge. I hope so, though somewhere I doubt it.
     A few years ago, I sat on a bus that steadily rose through the Alpujarras mountains in Andalucia, Spanish voices chattering loudly around me. I shielded my eyes from view out of the window - a steep, rock-strewn incline, diving hundreds of feet down. From time to time I’d peer out from between my fingers, and almost every time would spot another car contorted like a body in the grass, beside olive trees. I followed the trail of devastation, like markers on the road to annihilation - my palms sweaty, teeth crunching down desperately on boiled sweets.
     Seeing an abandoned car or one crushed by gravity is obviously less horrifying than, say, passing a car wreck – time has passed, the suffering has long since gone. Yet to me, it is compelling, scarring; evocative of all that we pretend to be far away from our daily realities - death and destruction, losing control at the wheel; that exhilarating fall. I remember as a kid trying to recall the best way to escape a car that was sinking into the river (I watched TV programmes on it, read stories about it) and the terrifying prospect of sitting in some airless container until enough pressure had been released so that the windows could be rolled down. When they invented automatic windows, my first thought was – so what am I meant to do now…? I’d be sunk, mouth like a goldfish, gulping nothing.
     Recently I walked with friends through countryside that was flat and waking up with the first signs of spring. At the side of the small road that led towards nearby fields, we spotted an old barn. With its peeling white painted planks, its still spinning weathercock and dark, smashed windows, it looked mysterious, inviting. I peered in through dead grass that blocked the doorway, but inside was filled only with rolls of barbed wire and empty crisp packets. However, out front, two cars sat side-by-side. It was as though two people had parked up, turned off the ignitions and just wandered into fields and towards the river, knowing they'd never return. Decaying and mildewed, these cars were oddly mesmerising like some old, dead couple, still holding hands.
     I don’t drive. Probably never will. Is that part of the reason why I’m so fascinated with cars that no longer function? Why I want to wrench open the doors, climb in, and sit inside the wreckage?


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

John Foxx has a thing about cars too. His son is a videojockey called Karborn. One of his tiny colour moves project pieces is of a teenage girl swimming around underwater cars.

He shows all these 8 N 16 N 35mm films and plays live to them. Saw him do this at the Ica in 2007. My hero.