David Bouchier

The other day I received a surprise message from the British police, informing me that I was being fined £30 for a traffic violation. It seems that two months ago in the provincial town of Colchester I had strayed into a bus lane, and the proof was enclosed with the police letter: three photographs taken from different angles showing my rental car crossing a completely empty bus lane on a completely empty road. I can even remember the moment when this happened. I had swerved right into the bus lane to get into position for an awkward turn that I almost missed.

Inspired by the example of Christopher Columbus, many of us travel great distances for reasons that are not always well thought out. We don’t travel by sea any more of course: we fly. It is one of the many paradoxes of the modern age that, while long distance travel has grown infinitely faster and more convenient, short distances are much harder than they used to be. No conveyance in 1492 took as much time to cover three miles as the 57th Street crosstown bus in Manhattan, or moved as slowly as the Belt Parkway near Kennedy Airport.

Back in the long forgotten pre-Amazon era, I spent some happy years working in a big university bookstore opposite Trinity College in Cambridge – the old Cambridge, not the new one by the Charles River. The bookstore was a kind of warren of knowledge, with sections for Greek and Latin books, mathematics, art, literature, the sciences, philosophy, and an enormous history department. It was a happy hunting ground for professors, and for the more dedicated students, and we liked to think that it was in some sense the intellectual heart of the university.

Jane Austen died in 1817. She wrote brilliantly about a world that was psychologically and socially a million miles away from present-day America, in the kind of stately, exact English that nobody speaks or writes any more. She seems an unlikely candidate for media celebrity in the twittering age, yet her works are still enormously popular. Some people have even read the books, but the real boost to her celebrity has come from a flood of movies and TV specials.

There's no emergency like a water emergency. It brings out our most primitive fears. We inevitably think about Noah's flood and the final deluge. When water runs out of control indoors, we have the worst kind of domestic crisis. When the plumbing fails, we panic.