The car as a vehicle of social castration

I have been doing a lot of walking recently.  Not going up into the mountains but walking as a means of getting to places.  As explained in a previous blog my concessionary bus pass, issued in Wales, isn’t valid in England so I walked most places when I was up North.

This is where I have to admit to having become obsessive about it.  The key is the pedometer which Ruth and Tim gave me for Christmas.  Unlike the old one I had it is pretty accurate and comes with the software and the facility to download the data to a PC which then displays the information in graph form.  It has become compulsive.

Ruth has a target of 5,000 steps a specified number of times a week to get some kind of benefit from a healthcare package.  So subconsciously I set myself an initial target of doing that number of steps each day.  Not too bad really, the house is quite big and I was doing about 3,000 a day even if I didn’t go out, working out at about 2.5 kms.

Because I was doing such big distances each day up North, backwards and forwards to the superstores or to the town centre, that my daily average for February shot up to over 10,000 steps, about 8 kilometres.

Now I’m back home I walk places, or at least walk to the bus, most of the time with the result that my daily average is still pretty high.

Copy of the pedometer graph. Note the increase in distance after 12 February when I lost the use of my bus pass

Generally I only take the car out once or twice a week and then only because there are no buses on a Sunday and I need to get to church and back and because if I go up to see the family the last bus home is at 19.05.  This poor bus service is a combination of tunnel-visioned transport accounting and yobs smashing up buses in the evening. What is worse is that the bus service is likely to be cut further as council subsidies to the bus companies are again being reduced because of the recession. If the bus service was better I could probably manage quite well without a car.

Which may not be such a bad thing and indeed may be positively beneficial.  A couple of chance encounters in recent weeks have led me to think about the benefits of walking and using public transport, apart from the obvious health benefits, conservation of finite fuel resources and reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

What triggered this reflection was a 10 minute conversation I had with a guy on the platform waiting for a train late on Tuesday night.  He was meeting somebody off the train that I was getting on it.  Never met him before, never likely to meet him again but it was one of those chance encounters which was uplifting to the sagging spirits.  We chatted about nothing of very great consequence, then shook hands and went our separate ways. I could have travelled by car in which case I would never have met the guy nor enjoyed a stimulating conversation.

It reminded me of the similar encounter I had with a young Italian girl on a ferry in Greece in July last year.  We chatted for an hour and then I got off at Symi and she continued further up the Dodecanese.  It made my day.

These are the exceptional encounters but there are countless others which simply don’t happen travelling everywhere by car.

Walking to and from the house and most days I meet at least one of the neighbours and stop for a brief chat.  Nothing ground shaking but keeping in touch and finding out how things are going.  Leave the house by car and there is no more than a nod of the head and maybe a smile and wave of the hand.  Soon after we came to this house in 1975 there was a street party for some Royal event or other.  Neither Enfys nor I were royalists but we took part because this was a community event.  There is no danger of a street party this time.  Most people don’t even know what their neighbours look like. There is nolonger any community.  Incarcerated inside a car there is no social contact.

Watch any traffic queue and the majority of cars are occupied by just the driver.  Regarded as a punishment for bad behaviour in HM Prisons, why do people submit themselves to this daily solitary confinement for maybe an hour or more at a time.   Whole families leave the house and confine themselves in a barely large enough box to travel around, with increasing amounts of electronic gubbins to make sure that there is no social interaction even within the box.  More expensive cars are now sold with monitors in the head rests so soon it will become a standard requirement.

Admittedly I am oversimplifying the case but I am convinced that by travelling everywhere by car we are castrating society.  Maragaret Thatcher famously said “there is no such thing as society” and to put emphasise her point that individuals must help themselves and not rely on state support said  It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour”.  This philosophy of  “self first, neighbours second” is now deeply engrained in the UK ethos and I think it can be argued that by isolating ourselves in our houses and in then in our cars we have removed the ‘neighbour’ bit completely in any practical sense. The society that Thatcher denied existed in the first place has been destroyed. The present Government’s emphasis on the ‘Big Society’ is nothing but a cynical attempt to remove local services and facilities from the public purse and leave them to the voluntary sector.

I prattle on about how far I am walking these days but that is as nothing compared to Enfys’s grandfather who lived in the tiny mountain lead mining village of Ystumtuen in Mid Wales and at times walked across the tops of the mountains every day to work in the lead mines in Cwmystwyth and then walked back, carrying his tools in a canvas bag on his shoulder.  It is not mere coincidence that in those days the community was central to life.  Maybe in the summer I’ll go up the Mid Wales and replicate that walk.

But I’m getting carried away.  Back to now and grey reality.  The grey weather continues in earnest.  Birds are again taking to the trees with a rather spectacular tree top percher one morning.

Heron perched in the topmost twigs of a tree at the end of the garden

Zooming in

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