I recently created and posted a flickr album of photos I had snapped from the window of moving vehicles, be they trains or cars. I realised that by linking to the slide-show viewer directly, here, those who look at the album will be missing out on the explanatory text.
I will copy said text here, and expand upon these words below:
“I do not drive. When I was a youngster, living on Mainland Orkney, my family had an ex-MOD Landrover. Eleven seats meant I could not drive it until I was 21, by which time we had left the islands and I was living in a city. I spent most of the next fifteen years in one city or another, with public transport at hand. I never learnt to drive in those cities, why would I bother?
Then there reached a point where I realised I did not want to learn, at least not in this country. I am sure I will talk about this at another time, but I am not keen on the way many people seem to think owning a car is essential. I live in the farthest corner of the UK, but I don’t begrudge not driving.
This means, of course, that I am always the passenger when I am in a car. This has given me the opportunity to take photos whilst on the move, photos from windows, whether car or train, are an interesting proposition. They are often blurred, your subject can be obscured by a sudden hedge or car. Sometimes a window is filthy.
But all these things add to an interesting composition. They capture a movement, a moment in a journey. I like that idea. Here are a few (from the hundreds) to share.”
In 1944 J.R.R. Tolkien crafted a letter to his son, Christopher, and included the sentence “How I wish the ‘infernal combustion’ engine had never been invented.” Not too long after writing this, he sold his car.
I have never really appreciated the motor car as a covetous object of lust, or even design. Others eagerly show me their vehicles, or talk of driving a relative’s sports car and I listen and nod. I am happy for the joy this gives them, obviously, but cars just don’t do it for me personally, baby.
I grew up in a rural community, our next-door neighbours on both sides separated from our home by a field. My family certainly made use of our transport, whether the Volvo named Cherry or, later, the ex-MOD Landrover we could all pack in for the long journey to see our relatives in England.
I had a bicycle. I loved it and I miss not having one now. When I lived in the city I was simply too nervous of the aggressive drivers and those bus overlords who did not believe in cycle lanes or the right for the cyclist to stay upright on the road. I had a tumble whilst experimenting with clip-less pedals (later discovering I had broken my right wrist) and I stopped riding.
And, as I mention above, I never learnt to drive a car.
I have often returned to the Tolkien quote, wondering whether it was this, read when I was a teenager, which helped shape my decision not to drive. Coupled with the fact I could not legally drive our Landrover and that my friends all had cars of their own, this meant the urge was never there. Plus, it was (and still is, increasingly) expensive to take lessons.
As I have travelled, whether in this country or abroad, I have seen the places where roads have grown, stretched like fat pythons after a feed, crushing the green and pleasant lands beneath them. Also crushing the brown and unpleasant lands, but that doesn’t get as much coverage.
Roads and cars are currently a necessary evil. Or so I am told. Wouldn’t it be an amazing thing if you could cycle down a thin ribbon of tar-macadam between two lush and verdant hedgerows, with no fear of being run off the road, or worse? Wouldn’t it be fantastic to step outside your house and not hear the constant hum or roar of traffic? Oh but you are dreaming, young man. These things are not possible.
Or so I am told.
Yet I will note how our world sees personal, private transport as a status, and as a right. Perhaps it is. Perhaps that man across the road is better than me because he rides behind a powerful engine. Perhaps public transport is not good enough. Perhaps it is far easier to drive the quarter-mile to the corner shop, rather than walk.
Being carless I have no choice but to rely on either my feet and public transport, or the kindness of others. I cannot hire a car with no licence. Others ask — how far can one get by walking? Well, if I were to be pedantic I’d point out how many people have walked across continents and around the globe. Or I’d send you to Runseanrun where Sean Conway, the first person to swim from Land’s End to John o’Groats* is currently running 1000 miles down the UK. Look how much distance he covers, on foot, each day.
Add a bike into the mix and the distances one can travel under your own power become immense.
In today’s busy world, where we expect everything instantaneously, a car is the preferred mode of transport for other reasons too. It is your private space, where you are insulated from the world outside, protected by a cocoon of metal and glass, unable to feel the weather and hear the birdsong (unless you choose to wind a window down). We like to control the world, control our boundaries (as I mentioned here in last week’s missive, Liminality), we do not like to have them imposed upon.
Will I ever learn to drive? I am not saying no, but I do not like what the car is doing to this world. I am unlikely to want to learn in this country, despite wanting to exchange my already peripheral location for an even more rural one. Yes, not driving comes with problems, but I can solve them — as many millions do every day, across the globe, and as countless billions did not too long ago. I can see that I may one day learn in a different country, somewhere the distances are vast and the public transport less available (yes, Canada, I’m looking at you). Learning to drive on the right instead of the left could actually be a bonus in some ways.
Yet… I may not learn at all. Friends ask what I would do in an emergency. Well, in an emergency, the true meaning of the word — not running out of milk — I would simply drive whatever was available anyway. If someone was honestly that much in danger and an ambulance would take too long, I would get behind a wheel — and suffer any subsequent legal consequences.
Do I think more should be done to help people take public transport, or walk and cycle more? Yes, of course I do. But, and this is crucial, I do not think it sensible to accuse individual drivers themselves of damaging the environment. Their cars may not help — but it will take a big global and legal shift before they are not simply a part of a majority, one which is perfectly legal and sanctioned.
Look at alcohol — it is legal in this country, yet the damage it does is tremendous, to both the individual and to the state. Yet, because of its legality, people do not view it with as much worry or fear as, for example, psilocybin mushrooms. It is the same with the car, it is not an object of fear in the way it perhaps should be.
People panic about knife crime, want to ban knives because they could be used in the vicious gang warfare certain sections of the media would have us believe are rife in our cities. Yet how many die from knife crime, compared to road deaths? A knife is a tool. A car is a tool. Both can be used to kill, but the difference is a car can accidentally terminate a life with far more ease than the knife. To kill someone with a blade is up close and personal — to hit someone with a flying lump of metal? Well, sometimes the killer doesn’t even know they have killed.
Rules always dictate how we as a society act, whether written in law, or those we learn as children — decent human behaviour.
Is it all bad? No, it is not. Besides giving me the chance to take photos out of their windows, there are other reasons. Cars may be responsible for a frankly ridiculous amount of death and destruction, whether the hedgehog crossing the road, or next door’s child running out after her football, but there are increasing positives (apart from getting us from A to R).
Look at the sides of motorways — when I was younger many of these were essentially bare deserts, the fumes from the vehicles killing off plant life and dissuading animals and birds. Now though, there are areas of motorway where beautiful wildflowers bloom, rarely trimmed at the wrong time of the year (as many of the verges under local council control are). Small mammals eat the plants and encourage predators, such as fox and kestrel, and the circles grow.
One day I am sure we will reach a point where we look back at the prevalence of the motorcar with something approaching shock and disbelief, but for now I try and do my bit, make a difference by not driving, not adding another car to the road. I will not judge those who drive, that is stupid, but I do judge those who fire up the engine for a quarter-mile journey. That is also stupid.
I will leave this by returning to Mr Tolkien. Here is the paragraph the snippet I used above was taken from (from Humphrey Carpenter’s “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien”, well worth a read).
He made some interesting points — seventy years ago.
“It is full Maytime by the trees and grass now. But the heavens are full of roar and riot. You cannot even hold a shouting conversation in the garden now, save about 1 a.m. and 7 p.m. – unless the day is too foul to be out. How I wish the ‘infernal combustion’ engine had never been invented. Or (more difficult still since humanity and engineers in special are both nitwitted and malicious as a rule) that it could have been put to rational uses — if any…..”
Final thing to ponder: The Road Goes Ever On is a WALKING SONG.
*John o’Groats is not too far away from where I am currently hiding. Not far at all.