ADAM RUSSELL

Trillions of miles in to an endless journey, no-one now can imagine a world without cars. As my gym buddy Tim always comments, quoting Heidegger, “they solicit our being”. He is literally correct, ‘solicit’ coming from the Latin sollicitus ‘anxious’, which is made up of sollus ‘entire’ and citus ‘set in motion’. Driving sets the whole meaning of our transitory world in motion; all distance is car distance, all places are car places; whether we like it or not, everything succumbs to rubber.

Elva Car Graveyard
PICTURE: Adam Russell

Among the first tasks of a new-born baby today is surely to acclimatise to traffic noise. The droning timbre of tyre and tarmac forces us to desensitise and passivise; the modern pedestrian must be meek and mild, and think of buying new headphones. Any objection to this ‘dictatorship of the automobile’, as Guy Debord termed it, is stupid, futile, borderline hypochondriac. A road sign of weakness. Kafka hated noise and died of consumption; I shout at loud motorbikes on London Road and I’m soft in the head.

Or even worse, just hopelessly atavistic. But at least I like my atavism turbo-charged. I want
the real thing, straight out of the eighteenth century: the coach and horses travelling the dusty turnpike, bound from London for ‘Sussex by the Sea’. As Sussex author Maude Egerton King recalls, in her Round About a Brighton Coach Office (1896), that was ‘a thing worth looking at, with its pole-chains of burnished steel, and its daintiest of ribbons
in silver-mounted harness, and horse-clothes embroidered with royal crowns in silver and gold.’

Our private motor-carriages today haven’t the same charm. What is insipid about the current craze for ‘vintage’ is that it is purely cosmetic. There is nothing but surface value in driving around in a vintage (usually fake-vintage) car;  even in a real beauty – like the amazing old Buick currently parked up the top of Archery Road – you’re still just like everybody else, backed up on the M25, or braking for speed bumps at Sainsbury’s. If these vintage fetishists had more courage and curiosity, they could put their sentimental urges to good use, opening up the back-roads of history, beginning real journeys of experience. I for one would love to see a coach-and-four struggling up the London Road again, setting off on a three-day trot to the Wen (meaning boil or cyst, William Cobbett’s name for the capital).
If you’re not exploring vintage ideas, it’s more ‘authentic’ just to take
the bus.

Regardless, looking either to the past or a smoggy future, it’s difficult to see anything for the busy road, hear anything for the engine noise. There is a common poverty in this, a degrading of humanity and its life outdoors. When I was young I became familiar with few species of bird or tree, but being driven to Ashford most weekends I got to know the shopping centre there intimately. I can still bring the car park vividly to mind, the concrete columns and the pay machine. I’ve a memory full of main roads, but nothing beautiful ever happened on tarmac.

Not that I can’t dream. Coming back to driving after years without a car, succumbing to it finally (but only after developing a fierce hatred of Southern Railway), I still park it at a distance from myself. I remain a pedestrian more than a driver, and I like to think up improvements to life on the road. Electric cars seem to be getting there, but it would be good if all cars were silent; horsepower might impress some, but it hasn’t the general charm of horses trotting. I want to hear people, birds and the wind in the trees more, not just car after car after car.

Another fantasy of mine is a self-healing car. I will have no faith in the hubris of science until we can make a chassis like a skeleton and doors like skin. Then cars could mend themselves after a crash, and shutting the boot would sound like the closing of a big mouth. Here’s something more do-able. Instead of kids being taught to drive with those senseless things, ‘sat-navs’, they should be tested on geography and encouraged to use a variety of routes. Much congestion is surely made worse by the ignorance of drivers who, directed by computers, only use A-roads. If map knowledge were generally better, traffic would be more spread out across the road network, and we’d all get to know more of the countryside.

These are ideas for mere modifications, for the souping-up of the experience of driving, but if anything is to really improve, if car-distance is to give way again to people-distance, and car-places are to be reformed as people-places, then the very infrastructure of our lives in transit will have to be re-thought. If it is inevitable now that machines will always ‘solicit our being’, then we should make them suit us as far as possible.

A good place for these reflections is down the Bexhill Road at Bulverhythe. Squeezed in tight by the railway line, only a short drive from the roadless waves, there is a car graveyard. Side by side, and at the back piled high, write-offs and breakdowns sit forlorn, disfigured in driverless silence; tyres lie around, haphazard and useless like forgotten limbs. An old red Volvo – a lost world – has been badly caved in at the mouth. Standing on the bridge, it feels almost rude to be staring, but even so I always do whenever I’m passing. It has the unseemly pull of the mechanical bone house: Elva Recovery Services. Elva, to Elva, after a crash. Even the name, echoing hell and pelvis, whispers something macabre, something strange, something we don’t want to think about. Over. Ever. Forever. Elva.

But maybe, in time, we will.


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