Last night I took a few hours off to go and see some mates in the centre of Dubai. They live in Deira, where glitzy new malls jostle with jammed apartment buildings, packed local restaurants, and empty sandy lots (common everywhere in town, presumably awaiting construction) which act as overflow car parks. Without them, as congestion builds in the new Dubai, the centre of the city would entirely seize up.
I span our thundering Nordic saloon onto one of these lots (if I’d been thinking, I would have wondered why it was almost empty) and hung the wheel around to bring it back facing the way I’d come in. Two thirds of the way through the turn, it got stuck. That’s stuck, as in whatever you do to extract it (push it in neutral, push it in reverse, stick planks or stones under the wheels, call in passers-by to inject brains and brawn), its clever Scandinavian front-wheel-drive wheels just spin deeper, deeper, deeper into the sand. By the time we gave up they were half-buried. A 4WD with a length of rope might have done the trick, but at 9.00 on Friday night (the Muslim equivalent of Sunday) none was passing.
It was a shock, the desert rearing up to suck in my powerful machinery, right in the centre of what presents itself as one of the most modern cities on earth. It reminded me of an episode in one of Ian’s train books, in which Gordon the Big Engine, in a fit of self-important mischief, edges himself off a turntable and finds himself hurtling down a steep embankment into a ditch, where he settles harrumphing unhappily while frogs and a newt tickle his nose in the foetid water. The Fat Controller (like the towing companies I called last night) has better things to do at the time than organise his extraction, and he’s left all day to contemplate his hubris. In the evening, the train company throws up a set of floodlights and has James and Henry drag Gordon out with cables. And this afternoon the mechanic who looks after our cars sent out a tow truck.
Two or forty-two, I can relate to Gordon’s helplessness. As things happen in kids’ stories, he’s left sadder and wiser, while I’m left wondering about the power of even a few inches of the original environment to throw the 21st century (as we know it) off course…