Magazine article The Spectator

Transports of Delight

Magazine article The Spectator

Transports of Delight

Article excerpt

AUTOMOBILE: HOW THE CAR CHANGED LIFE by Ruth Brandon Macmillan, 20, pp. 467, ISBN 0333766660

Before cars. Ruth Brandon tells us. streets were `not necessarily, or even primarily, roads' but the `arena of public life' where children played, adults promenaded, hawkers hawked and horse-powered transport moved at a steady pace. Anyone brought up even in the Fifties, when cars were plentiful, can recall the automotive and pre-automotive ways of life co-existing: children still walked to school, rag-and-- bone men still came round with their horses and carts and the cries of their trade. My father - a greengrocer for a while - made his deliveries with old Dobbin between the shafts.

But horses, as Brandon also points out, did not deliver an environmentalist's paradise. During the 1880s the New York Sanitation Department removed 15,000 dead horses a year while coping with 1,300,000 pounds of manure a day. Observers of 1890s London described the `anticipatory stench' of cab-stands around stations, the overflowing mud and manure of the streets, the clouds of summer flies around the chandeliers of middle class reception rooms. Motor transport, it is not often appreciated, brought cleaner air to our cities, and less disease. Horses contribute to global warming, too, and they also kill and maim people.

Cars quickly became status symbols, although not, as Brandon seems to imply, mainly because they enabled the rich to assert themselves over the bicycling masses. Rich people are anyway more interested in impressing other rich people but they bought cars chiefly because they found them convenient and exciting. Similarly, Brandon's attempt to link the development of cars with Fascism is unconvincing - less persuasive, in fact, than the argument that Hitler's and Dr Porsche's development of the People's Car - the VW Beetle - was expressive of the strong socialist component of Nazism. The truth, surely, is that Italians and Germans under almost any government would vigorously have pursued their love affair with the car.

Brandon's style is often glibly conversational and some of her paragraphs read like the introduction to a contemporary dictionary of received opinion:

Through the automotive prism a new light falls upon the great questions of our age -- class war, alienation, the destruction of the countryside, the influence of big business on politics, feminism, the power of fantasy, the death of the environment. …

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