Peter Hitchens On the Automobile
At The Lamp's blog, Hitchens has a great little essay on the wrong turning civilization took when almost everyone got a car. It starts as a personal matter with him. He just doesn't like cars, period:
Life would be a lot easier if I did not hate motor cars. But I just do hate them. I have tried not to. I even learned to drive at the age of thirty-one, a terrible surrender made as I sought to fit in with what felt increasingly like a compulsory faith. But I never really submitted, and have since drifted away from it....
I would be dishonest if I pretended to have this fine and unequivocal disdain for the thing. Like most Americans, I got my driver's license as soon as I possibly could when I turned sixteen. I was never exactly what one could call a car person, but there was a period of a couple of years in my teens when I read hot rod magazines and assembled plastic model cars. When Tom Wolfe published The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby I knew what the title referred to. I knew who Ed "Big Daddy" Roth was. I coveted a Jaguar XKE.
I spent weekend nights riding around in the nearby towns, although what I was driving was hardly cool: a low-end 1959 Chevrolet with a 6-cylinder engine and a rusting body. It was not improved by the small fire I started in the back seat when I flipped a cigarette out the driver's window and into the open window behind me.
(The one I drove was not decorated like this one.)
A friend of mine sometimes had the use of a T-Bird. My one-time girlfriend had a white Mustang. Those were about as close to cool as I ever got.
By the time I was nineteen or twenty that interest had vanished completely. For some while a sort of detached admiration for certain cars persisted. I recall seeing a dark green Mercedes on Sundays at my parish decades ago, and thinking it was nice looking, but I had no desire to own one. I've never owned a vehicle that would merit any interest or even respect from a person seriously interested in cars.
Even the mild appreciation that continued faintly into middle age dissipated altogether. The arrival of the so-called "sport utility vehicle" really killed it. Once upon a time the term had a connection to reality, but that's gone. I have an active disdain for the really big ones, the Tahoe and such, and the luxury ones, like Mercedes and BMW "SUV"s. Some Americans seem to look back at the big cars of the '50s and '60s and congratulate our modern selves on having better taste than the people of those days. One can argue about the aesthetics but there is absolutely no room for most contemporary Americans to look down on those of the 1950s for their love of the big powerful cushy automobile.
I now drive a 2010 Honda Civic and plan to continue driving it until either I die or it does. But I admit that I still like to drive under certain conditions, still enjoy a long drive on a highway with not too much traffic. So to that extent I am not on the same page as Hitchens.
It isn't just his personal dislike, though. He also hates what the automobile has done to English cities, towns, and countryside. And there I'm very much with him:
And, if you do not love automobiles for what they are, I think you are bound in the end to hate them for what they do. Look at the way they spoil every prospect. A line of garishly colored cars parked in a beautiful city square wrecks the proportions of the place. Their curious shapes, inhuman and flashy, clash violently with almost every style of architecture except the most brutal concrete modernism. The incessant noise and smell of them, the horrible danger they represent to soft human bodies, the space they take up, are all outrages against peace, beauty, and kindness. Near where I live, there are several roads where drivers are officially encouraged to park on the sidewalk, because if they parked on the narrow road, it would be impassable. The logic of this is inexorable, once you have assumed the supremacy of the car. But if you are a car heretic, the thing is a blood-boiling outrage.
I probably have (if it's possible) an even more intense resentment on that point because of the scale on which America has done this. I doubt that England has as many of the 100% auto-age urban areas that we do. We have vast cityscapes that did not exist before 1950 or so. Some of these have arisen around an existing city of significant size, some have only a little town at their centers, surrounded by a sprawl many times larger. And all of it is built on the assumption that everyone has a car and will get into it and drive somewhere for any activity that does not take place in his own home.
I grew up fifteen miles or so from Huntsville, Alabama. At the beginning of World War II Huntsville was a small town of roughly 13,000 people. Because a military weapons development center was located there, the population grew during the war and was up to 20,000 or so by its end. After that the military installation was mainly devoted to the coming thing in weaponry, guided missiles, and then a major piece of NASA was located there. Its currently listed population of something over 200,000 doesn't tell the story of the growth of the area, as Huntsville and/or its suburbs now extend literally to the driveway of the house I spent most of my childhood in. The two smaller towns within commuting distance have also grown and sprawled so that the three have almost grown together. The connecting highways are clogged. Most of the area between my former home and the middle of the city, the old town square which is only a relic, is literally unrecognizable to me now. When I go there I find it difficult to stop complaining.
Here is the link to the Hitchens piece again. It's called "The Great God Zil," and I'll leave it to you to discover what Zil is or was. And I'll add that his denunciation of the huge pompous belligerent motorcades that now move our rulers around is not the least important and savagely enjoyable part of the article.
Peter Hitchens is a master of the short essay. It seems he might write one about almost anything, yet find something to say.
I've been watching, in a somewhat haphazard way, for your monthly pieces at The Lamp, but I haven't seen one in a while. Are you still contributing?
Posted by: Craig | 06/20/2022 at 10:17 PM
No. Apparently I got fired. The last thing I sent them, months ago, was never published, and I got no response when I asked about it. Oh well. I hadn't sought the work, so easy come, easy go. And of course now I'm telling myself that it's just as well, for various reasons.
I've only read a few things by P Hitchens, and I agree. This little essay is wonderful. His others have been good, too. I don't know whether I mentioned it here or not, but the first issue (I think) of The Lamp had a piece by him on the Book of Common Prayer which I liked very much, so much that I printed out and gave copies to several Ordinariate people.
Posted by: Mac | 06/20/2022 at 10:42 PM
Saw a commercial the other day for the new Jeep Grand Wagoneer. They start at $89,900.00. That's more than my house (well, condo). The question that springs immediately to mind: who on earth needs a vehicle that expensive?
There's a great passage from Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons about the ascendancy of the automobile. If I can locate it I'll post it later. Published in 1918, it was pretty much prophetic.
A couple years ago I read a statistic that said that in America, no matter where you live, you cannot go ten minutes on average without hearing an internal combustion engine. In a sense the things really have taken over, to the point where their ubiquity barely registers.
Posted by: Rob G | 06/21/2022 at 05:59 AM
You've mentioned that Tarkington quote before and I think included it. I'll look.
Posted by: Mac | 06/21/2022 at 07:18 AM
Let's see if this link to a specific comment works:
I'll copy and paste the text later when I'm on my desktop machine. Doing this on a tablet.
Posted by: Mac | 06/21/2022 at 07:25 AM
Well, I'm sorry to hear that you got fired, because I was looking forward to reading them. But, as you say, there is more to life than The Lamp.
I might go back and find that essay on the Book of Common Prayer. I've become something of an Ordinariate person myself.
Posted by: Craig | 06/21/2022 at 09:20 AM
Do you subscribe? If not I can probably send you a pdf of it. I would not consider that illicit.
Posted by: Mac | 06/21/2022 at 12:56 PM
Here's the Tarkington quote:
‘ "I’m not sure he’s wrong about automobiles,” he said. “With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization — that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men’s souls. I am not sure. But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles; just how, though, I could hardly guess. But you can’t have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that the spiritual alteration will be bad for us. Perhaps, ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the gasoline engine, but would have to agree with him that automobiles ‘had no business to be invented.’ ” '
Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons (1915)
Posted by: Mac | 06/21/2022 at 01:24 PM
Oh, and about that $90 thousand Jeep: The house I live in now also cost about that much, thirty years ago.
I had a conversation recently with a guy who drives a big pickup. It's more or less justifiable, as he has a home remodeling/repair business and hauls a huge trailer full of tools around. But dang that thing is huge. I'm not very tall but I'm not strikingly short, either, and its hood is probably chin-high to me. We were talking about how much they cost and he said it's entirely possible to go over $100 thousand with various extras, like those gimmicky tailgates that I saw in tv commercials last fall.
Who can/will pay that kind of money for a car?!?!
Posted by: Mac | 06/23/2022 at 04:46 PM
I can understand needing a relatively expensive vehicle for work purposes like you describe. But you can usually tell the big trucks/SUV's that are work vehicles from those that are largely for show. It's the latter that are annoying (and dangerous).
In my experience the people who own those sorts of large/expensive vehicles for show tend to have what I would call juvenile tastes in other regards as well. They are seldom 'thoughtful' people.
Posted by: Rob G | 06/24/2022 at 05:51 AM
If I remember correctly the guy I was talking to thought he had gotten a good deal on his truck for somewhere in the $40-50 thousand range. That was shocking enough for me.
I think that's mostly true about the people who drive the ostentatiously huge and lavish vehicles. I remember when the Hummer came out a few years ago reading some guy's quite open admission that he just liked the feeling of lording it over everybody else. Little did he know that if I passed him on the road I was thinking something along the lines of "twit." The college where I worked for so many years was in the most expensive part of town, and I used to be amused by the sight of women driving these monster SUVs either alone or with one child somewhere in the back. It's a safe bet that few of them had more than two children. That would lead to further amusement at the thought of those '70s feminists who assured us that women are naturally less materialistic, acquisitive, etc., than men.
The town where I live has small two-lane streets in its central "uptown" of a few blocks. The parking on some of them is the straight-in kind. The other day I had to stop and wait for oncoming traffic to pass because a parked Tahoe or something stuck out so far into the street that it was not possible for me to get past it without going into the other lane.
Posted by: Mac | 06/24/2022 at 01:12 PM
We have straight-in parking in the complex where I live, and the problem here is that if one of those monstrosities parks next to you it's impossible to see around/over them when you're backing out. You have to just go slow and hope that any car coming along isn't going too fast, or that there's no kid on a bike or whatever.
Posted by: Rob G | 06/24/2022 at 03:04 PM
Oh yeah, you can imagine what that's like in my little Civic. It doesn't even have to be a monstrosity.
Posted by: Mac | 06/24/2022 at 07:17 PM
Ah, my favourite journalist. He has nearly convinced me to give up my car, but since the horrid "covid"restrictions which I completely objected to meant I could not use public transport without the ridiculous obeisance required by the gov't, I have become attached to having this little bit of independence and may therefore own one until I die.
Posted by: Louise in Tasmania | 06/25/2022 at 12:17 AM
From what I've read the restrictions were pretty extreme there. And apparently most people submitted?
Thinking of you and your family reminds me of another reason for having a big vehicle: having more than two or three children, because everyone has to be strapped in, either in a car seat if under 7 or so and seat-belted if not. This is a serious problem for families where the number of children gets up to five and more. No more piling children on top of each other in the back of the station wagon as it was when I was little. You have to have a very large and very expensive vehicle if you must or want to transport everybody at once. At least that's the law here and probably in most auto-centric countries.
Posted by: Mac | 06/25/2022 at 10:23 AM
Now that I think about it, I'm actually really angry that the gov't has made it so hard for me to trust public transport --here in my city it's pretty good and I could easily live without a car, except that I just don't trust what crazy "rules" the buses and taxis might come up with next. At this time in life, with good health and no tiny children it would be quite easy for me to live without a car. But I am now way too concerned about the nefarious plans of gov't.
Yes, Maclin, I was really annoyed by the laws about seats etc for children. At the very least, it should be easy to fit 6 very young children into a minivan, which are obviously bigger than a normal car, but not as big as one of those monster cars (I will confess to having a Tahoe for some of our time in Texas, solely for the number of seats) but still not an outrageous size for transporting 8 people. But as it is the child restraints etc are excessive in size etc so now it's probably not easy for most young families with alot of little ones to travel in a reasonable sized vehicle.
When we came to visit you we borrowed the 12 seater van from our friends, because our minvan only seated 7 and with the whole family we were 8 people. It was actually really handy having the 12-seater for our road trip! So much space made long distances with the kids much easier.
I still have great memories of that day, Maclin!
Posted by: Louise in Tasmania | 06/26/2022 at 01:47 AM
"From what I've read the restrictions were pretty extreme there. And apparently most people submitted?"
Unfortunately, the majority did. Where I am the restrictions were stupid enough but nothing like in Melbourne which was literally insane.
There is a wonderful documentary called "Battleground Melbourne" on Youtube by Topher Field, which is well worth watching to get an understanding of what happened there and the protests that followed.
The restrictions in Australia were very bad and totally unnecessary, but I get the impression that in many countries they were just as bad, or nearly so.
Posted by: Louise in Tasmania | 06/26/2022 at 01:51 AM
Nothing wrong with having a big vehicle for a big family. I remember y'all arriving in that enormous van. That was indeed an enjoyable day.
Restrictions here were never as bad as in some places. No attempt to force people to stay in their homes etc. Masking and distancing were pretty strong for a while but even then not universally followed. Restaurants and similar public places were hit pretty hard as in most places, but not completely shut down. We were going out to eat again by June of 2020. By "here" I mean Alabama--it was different in some places, very different in some. Long after masks had been mostly abandoned here they continued in certain places.
Posted by: Mac | 06/26/2022 at 01:40 PM
About those Covid restrictions in Australia being "pretty extreme" and that "most submitted" to them. I read a Twitter thread about that a while ago by Gray Connolly, who I think is a conservative, and Catholic, writer in Australia -- is that correct, Louise? Anyway, it's here: https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1421461574389145600.html
You should read the whole thing, but here are some bits:
Almost every day for the last few months, I have received DMs from people in various parts of the world (esp the US) asking how Australia fell under some Orwellian tyranny with our major cities under public health orders/lockdowns. I think I need to explain 'Australia 101'.
...in a pandemic (or any sort of crisis) Australians, generally, trust that the functional parts of the government will work well (Police, armed forces, science nerds etc) & that they will get the benefit of the doubt & significant cooperation.
Additionally, we Australians inherited and have maintained a sort of quasi-British culture of muddling through, esp in War, with the expectation that everyone will do their part, complain but still play on our team, and otherwise desist from being dramatic or attention seeking. ...
Put all these traits together and Australians expect their Federal and State Govts to protect "home" from a pandemic - esp as, after WW1, in which Australians already suffered an enormous casualty toll, we then suffered terribly as a remote people from the ravages of Spanish Flu.
Where foreign observers may see the Australian lockdowns in Sydney etal as severe, we are not yet sufficiently vaccinated to relax measures & we also have populations who are vulnerable to Covid esp Indigenous populations. I emphasise "we". Australians are just more "we" than "I". ...
I do not want to paint a too broad picture but it is important to emphasise that Australia is different. We expect Govts to do positive things for the 'common weal' hence we are a Commonwealth of Australia. We have a mixed healthcare system that takes care of everyone mostly well.
To make a country of Australia's size, with our relatively small population, work, in a Federation, with all our natural advantages and disadvantages, there is just a large element of communitarianism in our civic culture. We all suffer things together for the greater good.
Posted by: Marianne | 06/27/2022 at 03:28 PM
From what I've read, more or less confining people to their homes, which I gather was the case in Melbourne, was extreme, in the sense that it went beyond what was really needed and may have done more harm than good. But it's really, really hard to get at the truth of what was actually needed, what was effective, what was just theater, and so on.
It's nice that Gray Connolly sees it that way, but clearly not everyone did:
Regarding the civic virtues, trust, and so forth, things were once much more that way in the U.S. Fifty years of culture war and general fragmentation have taken a heavy toll. A few months ago I watched a movie made in the '50s in which the plot revolved around a bubonic plague outbreak in New Orleans. (Can't remember the name of it right now.) The hero, a public health officer, was obeyed unquestioningly by most people. When he told a group of men to roll up their sleeves for an injection, they just did it, no questions asked (or few). What a different time.
Things went bad here right from the start because it was so heavily politicized. Trump naturally wanted to minimize the threat, and the Democrats wanted to maximize it. It was a debacle.
Posted by: Mac | 06/27/2022 at 06:05 PM
The main reason Melbourne had to have so many and such stringent lockdowns was because of this -- "Our vaccine rollout is a disaster – here’s how to fix it":
"Australia’s vaccine rollout has so far been an unmitigated disaster. It’s simply untenable for the federal government to continue to pretend it’s going well. We started months after the United States, Britain, the European Union and many others. And now that our long-overdue program has finally begun, we’ve only administered half as many shots per head of population as other countries at the six-week mark.
If the first step in solving any problem is recognising there is one, the second is having a concrete plan on how to proceed. The cold, hard reality is that we’ve delivered a jab to only about 2 per cent of Australians, while Britain and the US are at 46 per cent and 30 per cent, respectively. There’s simply no time left to waste."
Posted by: Marianne | 06/27/2022 at 08:37 PM
But that doesn't establish that lockdowns were the appropriate or effective response. Maybe they were, maybe they weren't. I don't know how we can be confident either way. Maybe 50 years from now the immediate political realities surrounding the whole thing will have become irrelevant enough that some consensus as to the truth can emerge.
Posted by: Mac | 06/27/2022 at 10:33 PM
Thanks, Marianne, you're correct about Gray Connolly. I think he gives a pretty accurate description of the Australian character.
Having said that, I don't believe any of the measures were necessary and I don't even believe in Covid-19 at all and nor do I believe any more in viruses or germ theory.
No one has to agre with me, of course.
But even if I believed in Covid-19 and that it was severe enough to warrant all kinds of measures, I now no longer trust in gov't at all and believe they are actively working with the globalists to kill or enslave us.
Even if none of that is true, they would then only have shown themselves to be grossly incompetent. I can't stand them and will go to prison before I ever voluntarily pay them income tax again.
Posted by: Louise in Tasmania | 06/29/2022 at 01:10 AM
Gosh, Louise, the not believing in viruses or germs part...that's out there. The other things though I fear have some grounding in truth. I don't think the government and globalists are actively trying to kill or enslave us, but many of them are by their own admission working toward a regime that would be a sort of combination of Brave New World and 1984.
Hope you can stay out of prison! :-)
Posted by: Mac | 06/29/2022 at 08:51 AM
It’s ok, Maclin. I plan to stay out of prison. :)
Yes the germ thing is out there, lol. But Dr Sam Bailey has pretty much convinced me.
Posted by: Louise | 06/29/2022 at 06:02 PM