»  The Straggler, No. 86

January 25th, 2010

   Car Talk

"The parking brake, honey. Parking brake."

"Sorry, Dad."

She releases the parking brake and we move out into our quiet suburban street. Signaling, she drives nicely to the corner, stops, looks, and makes a graceful turn in the direction of the village. Coming up to her 17th birthday, my daughter will soon take her driving test. Discounting as best I can for parental partiality, I believe she is a good driver, cautious and sensible. My trips as her legally-required chaperone are a stress-free pleasure. Reverse parking is still a problem; but then, it's still a problem for me, after 40 years of driving. In any case, there are cars now that will do the job for you. The Artificial Intelligence boffins tell us that the completely self-driving automobile is only a decade or so away. For a little while longer, though, our youngsters must be trained to drive.

Since I have been consigned to passenger limbo, my mind wanders. I am surprised at Nellie's skill as a driver. Also pleased, as it spares me the vexation of teaching, a thing for which I have utterly the wrong temperament. I did teach my wife to drive (in Manhattan!) but the marriage barely survived. I have been making up for it ever since by acknowledging her droit de maîtresse to the newer of the Straggler family's two cars — currently a 2009 Toyota, which our daughter is strictly prohibited from driving. Our driver-training excursions are conducted in Dad's 1993 Ford, to the trainee's disgust.

While pleased with the girl's confident skill, at the same time I regret the absence of any detectable excitement or pleasure on her part. Learning to drive is, for her, just one of the duller social passages, like orthodontistry. That is sad. When I first took to the wheel, driving was still, in England at least, motoring. Cars were thrilling: not just the driving of them, but talking and learning about them, observing and comparing them, spending Saturdays fixing them in a friend's yard (a pastime for which you nowadays need a Ph.D. in electronic engineering). The embourgeoisement of driving, though well advanced, was still meeting spirited resistance from opponents of seat belts, speed limits, and drink-driving laws.

That opposition was personified by J. Bonington Jagworth and his Motorists' Liberation Front, both of which were imaginary creations of the great satirist Michael Wharton, who had a column in the London Daily Telegraph from 1957 to 2006, and who was one of the few writers of any note who might be described as reactionary. He was in fact given to quoting approvingly from leader articles in his own favorite newspaper, the Feudal Times and Reactionary Herald, also imaginary. (Or from which, if it actually exists, I should very much like to get some commissions.)

André Gide liked to scandalize enquirers by saying: "Je ne suis pas tapette, monsieur, je suis pédéraste!"  ("I am not a fairy, Sir, I am a pederast!") In a similar spirit I am sometimes tempted to assert: "I'm not really a conservative — more of a reactionary." It's not true, though. I wonder if it really can be. It is all very well to speak of standing athwart history crying "Stop!" but history will not stop, and there are some respects in which even the most sincerely conservative of us would not wish it to. Even Michael Wharton must have availed himself of modern medicine and transport. (In the 1990s he claimed to have acquired a computer, which he named Ughtred St. John Mainwaring.) Did he drive? I make a mental note to ask John O'Sullivan, who actually knew him.

It was once possible to be a true reactionary. One thinks of the third Duke of Norfolk, who, when someone quoted the Bible to him, retorted: "I never read the Scripture nor ever will read it; it was merry in England afore the New Learning came up; yea, I would all things were as hath been in times past." That was in 1540, though. Such a reactionary position now can only be a pose, though perhaps no more false a pose than many that are called "progressive."

We reach the village and turn smoothly into Main Street. There are people on the sidewalks doing what people ceaselessly do nowadays: peering and tapping at tiny gadgets held in their hands, or talking to invisible counterparties via a doohickey wedged in the ear. Who on earth has so much to talk about? Eighty percent of what I say is polite nothings, and half the rest is idle speculation, probably wrong. Yet I am taciturn by early 21st-century standards. They text, they twitter, they talk, while shopping, eating, traveling. It's done by electromagnetic waves, so I suppose a sphere of inane babble is expanding outwards into the universe at the speed of light, alerting the slave traders of Arcturus and the anthropophagi of Betelgeuse to our presence. I speak here from smug self-righteousness, as the last person on the Eastern seaboard who does not own a cell phone.

Yet on this too I shall no doubt eventually yield. As tiresomely antisocial as these gadgets are, I can see merits. Waiting under the Christmas tree for Mrs. Straggler this year was something called a Garmin, a wallet-sized gadget to give directions when driving. I was aware of these things — auto makers have been offering them as optional extras for several years — but had never used one. The sophistication of the Garmin is astonishing. It not only knows every lane and alley in our town, it even tells us local speed limits. I have staged some reactionary theater for the sake of form, grumbling: "What's wrong with maps?" I can't deny the charm of the gadget, though. Its voice, though affectless, is not gratingly robotic; and in a family containing two bumptious teenagers, affectlessness of speech is not necessarily unwelcome.

So while we tool sedately down Main Street in my Ford Clunker, we are simultaneously hurtling on into the unknowable future. Technologically, humanity is at an interesting point. The clanking heavyweight products of the machine age are merging with tweeting hand-held dispensers of information, Big Iron mating with Little Silicon. It seems to me that Big Iron was a lot more fun, at least for the male of the species; but that, I suppose, is a reactionary point of view.