A few weeks ago I heard that the headmaster at my last school had passed away. It came as a shock, needless to say, and stirred up a lot of emotion. It also reminded me that it was from him that I learned the single most valuable and practical bit of knowledge that was ever imparted to me during all my years of education. When I tell you what it was, it will probably do no more than confirm to most of you that I’m a little eccentric. But not all eureka moments in childhood revolve around Pythagoras, Pi, or P.E. I will write other posts about him, from time to time, as he deserves to be remembered as the fine headmaster that he was.
I attended the British Yeoward School in Tenerife for only one year, as it only took pupils to O-Levels, and we pitched up in Puerto de la Cruz when I was fifteen. It had children from kindergarten until 16 or 17 and there were about 120 in all. It would have been hard to imagine any school more different to the mammoth brute of a place I had just left behind. The headmaster was called Chris Green and he must have been in his mid-thirties at the time. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and slim with a ramrod straight back and an ability to communicate with his eyebrows alone if he was otherwise engaged. It was clear – reading the many affectionate memories of him that former pupils had – that the majority were terrified of him!
The father of one of the other kids in school ran the observatory at the time, which was situated above the clouds in Las Cañadas, at the base of the towering Mount Teide. My aunt had a weekend house there, one of a half dozen or so that were built in the sixties before the authorities wisely realised this was not an area where any construction should be permitted never mind encouraged. As a family we made plenty of Sunday trips up there. I’ve never been good with motion sickness and I would always, without fail, return home after the descent feeling sick and not up to much for the remainder of the afternoon.
One evening the senior class were taken on a field trip to the observatory. We went up in two or three cars and I sat in the front seat of Mr Green’s car. We hadn’t been driving long, barely out of La Orotava, when I brought up this issue of the car sickness. Mr Green then commented on how interesting that was as a subject and asked me why I thought it was that the driver of a car never got sick, even if they were prone to it as a passenger. I assumed it might have had something to do with concentration or something.
He then told me that there had been a study in Japan on just this theme – why do you not feel sick when you are driving the car? The results of the study were not that there was any mental changes, they were purely physical. And blindingly simple, as is so often the case.
They discovered that as a driver turns the steering wheel into a corner he/she also tips the head. A bend to the left, for instance, would see the top of the head tip to the left (and the chin to the right – imagine your head is impaled through the nose with a long needle!). Passengers, even when not doing the things that are known to provoke nausea in a car such as reading, won’t be doing this. They may be looking ahead, but with the head still, trying to relax. They are often turning to look at the view or even, worse still, glancing across at the driver during conversation. In order to replicate what was happening to the driver, the passenger simply had to move the head in a similar fashion. Something that can only be done intentionally, of course, and with some concentration.
I’m not going into the scientific details of the inner ear, and the fluids sloshing about, and the effect on balance, and why a driver instinctively tilts his head. Let’s leave that to the science boffins.
I’m simply writing to tell you that, before the conversation had even finished, I was already practising my new car passenger technique. It’s hard to put into words the euphoria I felt later, when we were driven back down to sea level from 2,000m, in the dark and on a long and winding road, knowing that I was in control of whether I would feel bad or not. I’ve never felt sick in a car since. I would be forever grateful to Mr Green for that.
It doesn’t work on water.
Or on Virgin’s tilting trains.