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.