What is it about driving that turns one into a pig? A lot of us like to imagine ourselves as patient and courteous, but put us behind the wheel of a car and we end up furious, frustrated and yelling imprecations at other drivers. More generally, why do conversations about cars and driving in our culture so often have an unpleasant undertone – the casual sexism about “women drivers”, the self-righteous moaning about road tax and the blustering dismissal of “eco-rubbish”?
The oddest thing about all this is that I don’t believe most of the people who say this stuff actually believe it. I’m usually reluctant to assume bad faith, but I reckon that on another topic, a lot of people to be found driving their mouth like this would be happy to admit that men and women should be treated equally, that some taxes should be collected to benefit everyone and that science has a lot to teach us. But talking about cars seems to bring out the narrow-winded, resentful worst in many people. Or maybe driving talk imposes these attitudes onto people’s conversations: that the language our society has developed to talk about cars only has the vocabulary to sneer and put down other people. The “language speaks us”, and what it says ain’t pretty.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. Why, when someone cuts me off at a junction, why can I not dismiss the matter with an insouciant wave and a heedless cry of “Poop, poop!” Oh, to be a Toad! The “motoring” of early twentieth-century writing comes across as raffish and elegant. Lord Peter Wimsey runs his motor into a ditch at the beginning of The Nine Tailors, Sebastian borrows an “open two-seater” to take Charles to see the family home in Brideshead Revisited, and the “Subaltern’s Love-song” takes Miss Joan Hunter Dunn from “The Hillman is waiting, the light’s in the hall”, through “roads not adopted, by woodlanded ways” to an engagement in the car-park of a dance.
Over the Atlantic, the picture is similarly exuberant, or used to be. Route 66 was praised by Nat King Cole and Chuck Berry, ZZ Top borrowed the title of their album Eliminator from drag racing, and the popular music in between was chock full of engines. Cars were an essential part of Kerouac’s On the Road, from the scenes of superhuman valet parking to the criss-crossing of a continent – when the first book from his artistic heir Hunter S. Thompson was about motorcycle gangs there was more than coincidence at work. Something essential to the American experience, even the American spirit, kept being found in the feeling of the open road. Though the car is a vehicle for resentment in American too – as in this Superbowl ad “Man’s Last Stand”, which offers a Dodge Charger to men as revenge for all the indignities of being in an adult relationship.
The title of that ad gives a good clue to what ‘s often being discussed when car-talk goes on. It’s a proxy for male insecurity , a protest against the way the world has changed, whether that means industrial workers are no longer the centre of the economy, or that teenage girls don’t wait meekly at home hoping to be picked up and driven to the movies. The oddly private/public experience of sitting in a car becomes an imagined space which outside forces are threatening to invade – a metaphor for white male privilege under menace. Thinking about it, I’m amazed by how well-suited all the topics of resentful car-talk are for this purpose. Complaints about women’s inability to park or understand cars allows the speaker to wish women out of the public sphere. Ever since Ancient Greek comedy the male ego has been anxious about women in public life in the widest sense, “invading” the marketplace, the workplace and the political process. It might raise a few eyebrows in polite (or impolite) company to declare the world would be better if women never left the house and weren’t allowed to have jobs, but saying they’re all lousy drivers is a pretty effective code for those sentiments.
Similarly, it might be difficult to say out loud that public money shouldn’t be wasted on other people’s concerns or needs, but the language used to complain about road tax (which actually doesn’t exist) comes pretty close at times. Car ownership is the supposedly clinching argument on so many newspaper comments sections about “scroungers” on disability benefits, or immigrants who are getting too many “handouts”, that it’s difficult not to read it as a proxy for citizenship. (So long as it’s a citizenship which keeps the right people in charge.) And the fact that a scattering of countries still drive on the left-hand side of the road could have been designed to indulge the curious blend of xenophobia and imperial nostalgia cherished in pubs and golf clubs across the country. Maybe I’ve been talking to the wrong drivers – and I’m willing to believe it’s different for hardcore petrol-heads – but the subject of cars seems to provide an entire network of topics on which men can publicly declare their prejudices without having to own them. So let’s remember Isobel Shields, secretary to Lord Reith in the 1920s, who wore a monocle and drove a Bugatti at Brands Hatch. Or the Hon. Mrs. Victor Bruce, the first woman to ride a motorbike (and to be summonsed for speeding), who drove to the Arctic Circle and back, and in the same year won the Monte Carlo Ladies Cup after seventy-two hours non-stop racing. Let’s agree that the vision of a better, happier world where women knew their place is a trick of the rear-view mirror.