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.