Why carsickness was the secret to my success

Leyland Austin Princess 1977 Sherburn Durham

Our 1977 Austin Princess

Many of us assume we are who we are just because that’s who we are. We’re often oblivious to the influences, small or large, which shape our character, beliefs and drives. We assume that we’re born with certain talents and lack others. We know what we like but really, we only like what we know. We think we think what we like, but it’s more likely that we just like what we think.

It was this question, of why am I who I am, that drove me to examine my life to see if I could see why I have embraced my creativity and imagination while some others have not. Why do I love to spend my time thinking, writing, making music, creating new things. Was it that I’m just more thoughtful that others? Is it that I’m just more inclined to invent new ideas in my head, to solve problems in interesting and unusual ways. Is it a natural born talent that I have that other’s lack, no matter how they try, they could never match my kind of creative life?

Of course not. There are a whole host of reasons why I like what I like and do what I do. I’ve explored my memory and found all manner of defining moments or exposures to certain stimuli. There were times when I had encouragement and times when I was told I was useless. All these pushes and pulls guided and shaped my self image. But I came upon a much more subtle and not very pleasant reason that I can award the real trophy for the most character and talent defining cause in my early life: carsickness.

That’s right. Puke. I must have spent more time feeling or being sick than most. Almost any car journey over 20 minutes could result in queasiness (or 5 minutes if in a friends Ford). Visiting relatives in Yorkshire was the big journey. From Bristol, Durham and then later Hampshire to Bradford and back, usually over a weekend. Between 2 and 5 hours in the back of my Dad’s Morris Marina (the worst), Austin Maxi, Princess (the best), Vauxhall Cavalier or Rover SD1.

My brother, immune to travel sickness would play with toys, read, do puzzles, play Fighting Fantasy books among other things. I could do none of those. I could only stare out of the front window, trying to keep very still and my eyes straight ahead. If I looked down for a second I would tumble into the reeling ugliness of that spinning griddliness of foreboding sick. My head would swoon and my sense of smell magnify by a thousand times. Sometimes opening the window for a rush of freezing cold air helped, but not much. My mouth squeezed itself full of saliva. If I dared open it to get my Dad to stop the car, I’d tumble out onto the long grass of the verge, hoping that the ensuing vomit wouldn’t come through my nose this time, or worse, sting the back of my eyes. If we couldn’t stop, there was a large iceceam tub to hand. Either way, I’d be spitting for some time the excess saliva, waiting for my head to stop spinning before getting back on the road and beginning again. If you’ve never had car sickness, it’s not like other sicknesses, like food poisoning, where afterwards you feel better. With travel sickness you feel sick for up to two hours after the journey whether you actually been sick or not. When we arrived at my Aunty or Grandma’s house it would be lunchtime, often fish and chips, sometimes from the then magical Harry Ramsden’s. All I could have was to try to ignore the smell and have a glass of lemonade.

So to avoid this hell I had the be very deliberate and determined to concentrate on looking out of the front (not having rear seatbelts help in this respect). Listening to music made it worse so I had to ask my parents to turn the radio off. I had to steal my mind on something to really concentrate on. I could recall in my minds eye every frame and intonation of voice from episode three of Doctor Who and the Destiny of the Daleks which had been on the previous Saturday night. I would make up my own stories in my mind, making them as solid and as memorable as possible since I wouldn’t be able to write any ideas down for quite a few hours. I would visualise Cyberman bases instead of buildings and Dalek saucers instead of clouds.

I had an imaginary friend who was a fox who ran alongside the car, jumping over obstacles, over bridges, through fields and under junctions. When we stopped at the Little Chef he’d either gone on ahead or was lagging behind so we never actually met. But once we were back on the road, he’d be there again.

My favourite game was the car game I invented I still play this one today. To begin, you pick a car from either the overtaking lane or the oncoming traffic lane, whichever has a reasonable flow of traffic. The game starts when you have chosen a car that you like, say a Jaguar XJS which has passed by. This is now your car and you count every car that passes by after it. If you don’t pick a replacement car by the 10th car (or higher number if the flow of traffic is faster), then you have to swap the Jaguar for whatever the 10th car is. The point of the game is to keep switching from great car to great car without having to lower your standards to some rubbish old Ford Escort or embarrassing Datsun.

If I kept my body still and my mind moving I could beat the sickness. I must have had thousands of hours of this sort of thinking. So when I’m in a situation today that I have to wait, I’ll never get bored. I’m always thinking. Always imagining. I can’t help it, I’ve had so much practice.

Perhaps we don’t have talents at all. Perhaps we just have quirks of our physical nature that in some weird un-calculated way forces us to behave in such a manner that may lead to some behaviour that is recognised as useful. I believe I can lay the blame, or the thanks, at an unusual cause. For my imagination, thank you, sick.

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5 comments on “Why carsickness was the secret to my success

  1. My Dad’s first family car was a 1959 Vauxhall Victor Deluxe. It had a two-tone livery of turquoise and light grey. It was upholstered in blue leather and it had a steering-column gearshift. The back seat was roomy enough for me, my two brothers and my sister. Nobody was ever sick in it – but I do recall one journey when I was sick at heart.

    We had been out for a day at the seaside. We had been browsing around the rides and sideshows. I had spotted a tent where Bingo was being played. My older brother had lent me sixpence to play a game and left me there alone while he went off to try the fearsome Rocket Flight. I had sat down alone, in the company of several other adult strangers, and waited timorously for the first number to be called.

    “4 and 3 – 43!” I had checked my board and slid a red square over my number 43. Then the numbers came thick and fast. I was sliding red tiles over my numbers at a rapid rate. Then I had found myself with a complete diagonal of red tiles. It was Bingo! I had Bingo! I had won! I should shout “BINGO!” But wait . . . was I sure? What if I had made a mistake? If I was wrong, all those people would point and laugh at me. Or they would get angry, maybe, and call me a cheat. I hesitated. Soon afterwards, the caller had closed the game. I had missed my chance.

    The journey home was one of tortuous silent self-recrimination. I told nobody about my blunder. The prize for winning had been £50. FIFTY POUNDS! That would have paid for our whole day out! I had messed up big time. The car hummed along and my head vibrated against the rear right side window. Very gradually, over the course of the hour’s journey, I came to terms with myself. On that day, at ten years old, I resolved to take a positive lesson from what seemed a disaster.The lesson was:

    ‘Take courage. Always say who you are and what you want. Shout BINGO!’ And that is what I have always done.


  2. Great piece. Though maybe it is a certain creative type who gets car sick. I have never been car sick, could do the puzzles etc. My brother, the artistic one of us, always got car sick.


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