The other day, I was driving back from Brive in the 107 Noddy car. I took the lower road that runs past the gipsy encampment because the back road was blocked by the work on Quatre Routes' flood-drains. I suspect I was on automatic pilot and maybe my mind was a little elsewhere, as is too often the case these days. I turned off the road to cross the adjacent level-crossing. Of course there was music playing, but not too loudly to compromise road safety. One of the speakers is knackered anyway, and I've pinched it with a clothes peg to stop the cone distorting horribly. Suddenly, I realised that the crossing's lights were flashing and the bells were ringing. It was too late to brake and the barriers were coming down. I pushed down hard on the accelerator and just made it to safety. But only just. Had I been driving a more 'muscular', masculine car, with a higher axle and roof, my momentum could have been arrested by the barrier. And then...
I think it's Maggie O'Farrell who has just brought out a memoir based on ten close encounters with death. Ten's a lot for someone younger than I am. Apart from the time as a drunken teenager when I stepped out onto the ledge of a top-floor window at a party and held on to the gutter just above my head, most of my close-shaves have involved cars. Run over when stepping onto a road in Verona. Taking a bend too fast on a main road in the rain and sliding across the adjacent lane. Failure to spot a Stop! sign. My crimes are legion. On this last occasion, I could have argued extenuating circumstances. It shook me up, though, and made me think. No wonder I'm so aware of the risks every time one gets into a car.
A long road trip one we had of it this month, from home to the port of Toulon on the Côte d'Azur. It took us an hour to crawl through Toulon and reach the port, where we were to catch the ferry to Ajaccio for our first visit to Corsica. It didn't exactly warm me to the city, even if we got there safely in the end. I hadn't realised how central is the rugby stadium, where the erstwhile behemoths of French rugby play. I believe there's a commemorative statue to their adopted son, Jonny Wilkinson. I didn't see it.
Everyone has been telling us how beautiful the isle of Corsica is. My mate Eddie Palmieri, the legendary salsero, told me that his family came originally from Corsica via Puerto Rico (God rest it's battered landscape). My Dutch friend up the road, who spent several years there, also warned me about the roads. It takes hours to get from A to B because you wind up one mountain and then down the next. So what's a few hairpin bends between friends?
The ferry was enormous. Driving past the side of the boat as we embarked, it seemed about as high as a municipal tower block. Swarthy men in fluorescent yellow overalls directed the traffic inside the cavernous hold. They barked out their commands in a strange kind of Franco-Italian. We surmised that they were probably Sardinians, given that this is another of the ferry company's destinations. Anyway, we didn't hang about.
The yellow ferrymen looked likely candidates for road-rage once behind the wheel of a car. We didn't yet know it when we disembarked at Ajaccio early the next morning, but road-rage would become a keynote of our Corsican holiday. Before first light, the backdrop of mountains hung like a menacing stage set over the town. While the surface of the main road south seemed better than expected – my Dutch friend shattered a shock absorber in an island pothole a few years back – we were soon driving up a mountain via a tortuous series of bends. It's no more than about 60 kilometres to Propriano, but it took well over an hour to get up and down one mountain and then up and down the next.
Propriano itself is nothing much to write home about. It's a port with a main drag and some faceless chain-stores on the periphery. But my God, what a backdrop! Mountains, as far as the eye can see. Real mountains, not County Down's 'Mountains' of Mourne, that sweep down to the bluest sea I've yet set eyes on.
So far, so good. But the longer we stayed, and the better we got to know the place, the more we could confirm two things: that Corsica is undoubtedly the most beautiful island in the Med and possibly the most beautiful one in the northern hemisphere; and that you take your life in your hands on its roads. One lapse of concentration and you're over the edge. But more to the point, the local drivers are maniacs determined to dish out death to foreigners.
After 22 years now in France, we've become almost inured to tail-gaiting. It's still irritating and often downright menacing, but it happens so often that it has lost its capacity to shock. In Corsica, though, tail-gating is undiluted bullying. They roar up behind you and almost then attempt to push you off the road. I found myself pulling into lay-bys willy-nilly. Letting someone have his way was one less chance of a head-on collision – because they will overtake with so little thought of safety that one wonders whether the concept of danger has ever even entered their tiny minds.
One hot day (and it's hot, and dry; before it rained on the Saturday, they'd had no rain since April), we drove to the airport in Figari to pick up our friend from London. On the way back to base-camp half way up our mountain, we took a look at Bonifaccio – and found it to be a little like Rocamadour-by-Sea. That's to say, pretty damn stunning but crawling with tourists. Like ourselves, I hasten to add. On the way home, we were rattling along a straight stretch beside the sea, when suddenly a white BMW shot past us and the two cars in front, then ducked back in just before driving head-on into an oncoming lorry. I was at the controls on this stretch, so I had to leave it to the other three to throw up their hands in horror. We then watched open-mouthed as the driver did a 360-degree turn and sped back in the opposite direction. We were just recovering from the shock when a black Audi overtook us at the speed of a Looney Tunes cartoon car and vanished into the horizon.
What gives with these people? Do they simply not value their own nor anyone else's life? I figured that we must have witnessed some sick and obscure game of chicken – like riding the roof of a train or leaping across alleyways from the top of one apartment block to another (which, according to my comic of the time, The Victor, was something that Tony Curtis did in his hoodlum youth). I secretly hoped to find the car upturned on some rocks in a bend of the road further on, or maybe down a cliff, Hollywood-retribution style. Some kind of poetic justice or divine intervention, anyway, designed to hurt the transgressor and spare the innocent. But life rarely works like that.
That was the worst we saw. Nevertheless, I didn't take any chances after such an exhibition of highway madness. We pulled over, as I said, and treated every blind bend with extreme caution. One thing, though, that we continued to note was that every incident of aggression involved, naturally enough, a male behind the wheel and, on most occasions, said male was driving a white car, usually a BMW or an Audi. Drug money? Mafia connections? Inbreeding? Who knows. One day, I shall do some more research – preferably online – and posit a hypothesis for academic discussion.
Until then, I shall try to hang on to dear life by avoiding white-van-man and white German cars. Despite the roads, we shall go back to Corsica en famille to explore more of the island's astonishing beauty. George Clooney, apparently, has toured the island with a friend on a motorbike. I for one shall not be following suit. Four wheels, bad; two wheels, even worse.