Tuesday 22 January 2008

Long Live the Car

Our car culture is so deeply engrained that people look on you as somehow defective if you admit you cannot drive. I know because until recently I was a member of the outcasts, the non-drivers.

To say that I was a complete beginner though is wrong. I had some experience early in life. That's if you count stealing tractors in Donegal as a teenager. In our early teens we were agrarian joyriders. But we were far kinder than our urban cousins. We always returned the machines when we were done with them, usually intact. Though in one episode it almost went horribly wrong.

My brother, about 10 at the time, was the pilot. Off he went, alone, on the stolen tractor. He quickly discovered quite a serious problem: he didn't know how to stop. He was shouting back at us as he throttled away towards the main street. He was in a terrified panic, looking back as we ran after shouting "put down the clutch, the clutch". He ground to a halt metres from the T junction onto the main street. It makes the recent crash landing at Heathrow look like a picnic. Imagine, a Ferguson T20 going down the main street? Fucking Hell! As first officer, my brother deserved great credit. He had risked his own life and saved a entire village from catatrophe.

But in the car world I remained null. I found that non-drivers fall into two camps - those who keep their handicap quiet, and those who proudly announce it. I suppose I was in the latter group. I used to relish telling people that I couldn't drive. Especially to those who love cars. I couldn't understand the love of cars. It's true he motorcar was a revolution, but so was the flushable toilet. You don't see people buying glossy mags about toilet seats or ubends, I thought. Over lunch, if a car enthusiast boasted about the turbo in a new Audi or marvelled at the seductive scale of American freeways, I'd proudly announce that I had never sat behind a wheel. The reaction was usually a look of bewilderment tinged with pity. The implication was that I hadn't lived.

I saw my incapacity in motoring as a little act of defiance against the tyranny of the car. I felt quite proud that I could always manage without a car, which is no mean achievement in a country where public transport is a patchwork of badly run networks that were designed not to interconnect. As long as I remained a non-driver, I had to believe that sometime in the future we would get it right and communal transport would at last be usable. All those car drivers would be proven wrong. Our cities would be cris-crossed with smooth, silent, metal snakes, slithering thousands to their destination with evil efficiency. You would shoot to Donegal Town from Dublin by rapid train in an hour, then connect with a local shuttle for Killybegs. En route you would watch TV, do some work on your laptop, or sink back into a slumber in your soft, reclining, leather seat.

Filling out the form for my first provisional was an a form of surrender. Finally, I had falllen into the inescapable grasp of the dreaded car. I had to acknowlege that the car is woven into the very fabric of modern society. You could reject the car entirely, but you would be rejecting life itself. You could abstain from all earthly pleasures, but you might as well spend the rest of your life as a hermit on Mount Sinai.

When I finally got on the road, I had to admit, however reluctantly, that the car offers a dimension of freedom that is simply irreplacable. The train carriage is great when bulk is required or when the journey is a beaten track. But no train will ever bring you to the Sally Gap in Wicklow or over the Bluestacks in Donegal. Indeed, while I still love travelling by train when I can, there is something liberating about the car, something that sooths our obsession with the here and now. Moreover, privacy and control are rewards in themselves, regardless of the journey. To cap it all, we live in a world without patience and where our sense of the individual needs to be indulged. The car fits.

I am still not a car worshipper. I know nothing about powerful engines, good handling or lucrative brands. I remain completely agnostic to the shape or look of a car. To paraphrase Ford, I'll take any colour as long as it works. Yet I appreciate now why the car has oozed itself into our bones.

It's a great shame that my conversion to the car comes just as its golden era ends. That era began with the fortunate concurrence of cheap oil and mass production. Buying and running a car became universally affordable. The era ended with the twin threat of climate change and peak oil. I'm confident, however, that the car is not about to go away soon. For the health of the planet, it will have to change. But some formula will be found whereby that strand of individual freedom that is the car can be preserved, even if it means building machines that are a good deal smaller and a tad slower. La voiture est morte, vive la voiture.

11 comments:

An Spailpín said...

Bhí an ceart agat ar an gcéad uair a Thomáltaigh. Tá an gluaistean ar feabhas mar uirlis, ach sin deireadh an scéil. Cailltear blás an saoirseachta go tapaidh agus tusa ag fanacht ar an M50 gan bogadh le uair a chlog, agus gan le déanamh ach éisteacht le seafóid ar an raidió. Ba bhreá an rothar ansin!

Tomaltach said...

Tá an ceart agat ar fad. Tá teorainn ag baint leis an tsaoirse a bhronnann sí! Mar sin féin, is beag duine den lucht gluaisteáin a d'fhágfaidh an t-inneall ag an bhaile is a rachadh amach ar an rothar. Bhog an comhlacht lena oibrím go foirgneamh nua le déanaí. Sular bhog siad, rinneadh suirbhé ar an fhoireann oibre, le fáil amach cá bhfuil cónaí ar an chuid is mó acu. Mar a tharla sé, is comhlacht sean-bhunaithe é seo agus le himeacht na haimsire bhí daoine ag athrú tí is mar sin de, is ag aistriú isteach i gceantair nach bhfuil ró-fhada ón oifig. Mar sin, léirigh an suirbhé go raibh cónaí ar 60% den fhoireann faoi fhad 5 mhíle den oifig. Ach mar sin féin, ní thagann ach 5% chuig an oifig ar an rothar. Tá an trácht go dona anseo (i ndeisceart BhÁC in aice leis an M50) ach is fearr le daoine bheith sáinnithe sa trácht ag éisteacht le Morning Ireland ná a bheith amuigh ar an rothar - fiú amháin in aimsir mhaith.

Vince said...

I am not so sure that the situation within the cities is a good argument against the use of the car. It is, to my mind, one for a very good multi-person -public or otherwise- system.
Yesterday, myself and the hound went for a drive and ended up in Ring. And watching her gamboling along or barking at little wavelets, more than offset any guilty notions of global warming.
I, for some years lived in London, then to Galway. In neither of these places did I have a motorcar. London has a reasonable system, while Galway, if one lived near-in, a car is superfluous and further out must be a bloody torture. How many times, in Galway, did you mark a car only to overtake the thing in four hundred yards, and you on foot.
You have my best on the driving, and if you have a chance, use the military road from Glencree onwards, over and past the gap. While not Connemara, it is a fairly good stopgap in the interim.

Vince said...

On a further driving question.
We at the moment, are being approached with an offer to buy a new mode, and I cannot figure out what the hell one bit of kit is for.
In the book, it goes under the title of, 'ARTICLE 46A, The Union shall have legal personality.' Do you know how it will be used.

Donagh said...

That incident with your brother and the tractor reminds me of a similar one described by John McGahern in Memoir, except he didn't have siblings running after him offering advice. Also, I used to relish the idea that I was able to get by without a car. Now though, as I finally get off my ass and take lessons, I'm relishing the potential freedom. Nice post.

WorldbyStom said...

Did you pass a test yet? I've one at the end of the month, and after a period of about two years eschewing the drivers seat (having failed a previous test) I found this weekend that I really enjoyed driving and was okay - not great - but certainly okay at it. Your point about freedom is very true. However, I find being a passenger, as I mostly am, is the ideal way to watch the world go by and have the mobility... this it has to be said raises certain issues abhaile! Hence my doing the test...

Tomaltach said...

WorldByStorm,
Test this coming Thursday :-{

I agree about being a passenger and I had to take to the controls for the same reason - a young man, now 6 months, was on the way, and there was no way I was going to be chauffered around any longer!

WorldbyStom said...

Hmmm... that's weird. My reason is almost identical albeit from the other end of the telescope in terms of arrival... 2 months, touch wood, to go. Good luck with test.

Tomaltach said...

D'ÉIRIGH LIOM :-)

I PASSED !

WorldbyStom said...

Go h-iontach!

Seán Báite said...

Congrats Tomaltach - but surely, with the way the price of the barrel of oil is going, they'll have teleportation invented before the end of the decade.. At least that's what Spock advises me :-)

PS I passed mine in the Gers in southern France a few years back basically by driving in a straight line for 10 Kms then parking...