Driving is not only hard work: it’s dangerous as well. Tony Barrell explains why he has never been a motorist
THE IDLER, 2004
I was about four when my mother asked me what sort of work I’d like to do when I was grown up. “I want to be an ordinary person and not work,” I replied. Up to that point, I sincerely believed that an altruistic section of society happily volunteered for all the physical and mental labour that makes the world go round, while “ordinary people” sat at home eating sweets and reading comics.
Around the same age, I noticed that some people drove cars, and others walked or caught the bus instead, so that was another way of dividing the population. Some people were drawn to the smell of leather upholstery and brake fluid and some weren’t. Then, one day, there came a realisation that brought my naïve world-view crashing to the ground. My dad, it suddenly occurred to me, was a reluctant driver. It simply never gave him that primal, gearshift-jerking Jeremy Clarkson thrill to take his red Austin for a spin. Dad was incapable of driving for pleasure: it was more like a job. In fact, he was obliged to drive because of his job, and – here’s the real shocker – he didn’t like his job much either.
I must be related, because I hate driving too. Driving is work. Every time you double-declutch, do “mirror, signal, manoeuvre” or use your skills to get onto a busy roundabout without crashing into a convoy of pushy BMWs, you are expending massive amounts of physical and mental energy just to get from A to B. And it counts as voluntary work, because you’re not getting paid for it. Moreover, if you’re driving purely to give somebody a lift – working for nothing to assist a fellow human being in need – that puts you in the same class as the Samaritans.
Even when your journey is going smoothly, you’re still working – steering, changing gear, accelerating and braking, watching out for bad drivers. You’re not allowed to drink or take drugs, or even read a good book. And when Something Quite Bad happens, as it does to every motorist – you get a puncture, your radiator overheats, a stone smashes your windscreen, the big end goes, or you run out of petrol 10 miles from the nearest service station – then your stress levels shoot way past the office-Monday maximum. If Something Very Bad Indeed happens – you have an accident – it could be the last anyone sees of you.
The social pressures to fondle a steering wheel and command an engine of your own are enormous, especially for men
I blame the industrial revolution. Ever since, as soon as some “labour-saving” device is invented – the spinning jenny, the Apple Macintosh – human beings end up working even harder than before to satisfy higher expectations of productivity. The development of the internal combustion engine must have made the world insane with joy. How else could so many millions of civilised people have been persuaded to take endless intimidating lessons, pass a difficult exam and become unpaid self-chauffeurs, all for the privilege of shelling out a fortune on MOTs, spare parts, road tax and congestion charges?
The social pressures to fondle a steering wheel and command an engine of your own are enormous, especially for men. At most social gatherings, it would be less humiliating to announce that you’re having a sex change in order to roger your identical twin, than to confess that you don’t have a hot rod outside. But the idea that we all have to be road pilots, engineers and navigators as well as being writers, poets, musicians and artists is beyond absurd. Some of the nicest and most talented people are non-drivers – and motoring abstinence certainly isn’t a bar to fame. Stand up and be counted, Damien Hirst, Paul Heaton of the Beautiful South, and the gorgeous Shirley Manson of Garbage – unless you’ve all betrayed the cause and snuck off for a driving test while I wasn’t looking, you craven bastards.
I was so disappointed to see Simon Day and Paul O’Grady, two of the most comedically skilled men in the world, surrendering to the TV show Celebrity Driving School as if they were undergoing therapy for a guilty secret. Why can’t we have Celebrity Philosophy School, or Celebrity Haiku Poetry School? That would really sort the men from the boys.
Some people adore driving. It’s the biggest buzz they’ve ever had, better than sex, and they breeze along the clogged highways and byways whistling like a demented kettle and using the word “freedom” a lot. And those are precisely the people who should be gainfully employed to drive the taxis and buses and coaches and limos that ferry the rest of us about – the non-drivers who see “motoring” for the vicious con trick it really is.♦
© 2023 Tony Barrell