If beauty is God’s handwriting then perhaps the automobile is modern humanity’s signature.
Certainly the car seems to be everywhere and is synonymous for many with things we aspire to, among them status, style, freedom and personal mobility.
For decades it has been pivotal in my life and as a motoring journalist I viewed the finer examples of the car maker’s art as exquisite motorised sculptures worthy of any modern Michelangelo. I loved driving and still do!
And yet, the harsh reality is that while certain individual models might be objects of art and desire, collectively the automobile is depleting valuable resources, relentlessly clogging our network of roads and spewing toxic waste into the air we breathe. And once it has outlived its usefulness or fashion appeal, it becomes a burden that needs to be disposed of.
In my time I’ve craved the companionship of Porsches and Ferraris, attributing to them qualities of sensuousness and even eroticism. My love affair with the Porsche 911, which was first launched in 1963, has spanned much of my adult life and I’ve devoted thousands of words to a eulogy of the car that used to give me goosebumps whenever its engine started up, sounding so much like a demented vacuum cleaner on steroids.
Walking a winding country lane through the picture-perfect Lake District during my Glastonbury-Iona pilgrimage, I realised that the romance was over. The Porsche is a towering achievement in so many ways, although I no longer have the faintest wish to own one, nor any great urge to drive another example of the enduring classic. In a world of war, poverty and hunger, it is no longer relevant and has passed its sell-by date!
Many months of walking alongside freeways, highways and country lanes have revealed the flipside of the car coin – to a pedestrian or cyclist they are irritating, intrusive, toxic and dangerous.
In the same way that a boat creates a wake and sends ripples across the water, vehicles generate vast waves of sound and energy many thousands of times larger than their actual ‘footprint’ on the road. They batter our bodies and minds.
In a bid to escape them and discover an unfamiliar rural England, I’ve walked canal towpaths northwards until the network of waterways ended at the hamlet of Tewitfield, the final link severed by the political decision to give priority to the busy M6 highway. Many lesser railway links have suffered the same fate, policy makers seeing more personal profit in building motorways and expanding the road network.
Often there were no cars in sight although the din of a nearby highway could be deafening. At the end of the day I felt wearied by the continuous assault of engines, exhausts and tyres on tarmac. Often I wanted to scream, so invasive was the traffic cacophony.
On one canal section I was between a busy railway line, the M6 Highway and with a flight path overhead, trains and planes competing with the noise of the cars, although ultimately proving unequal to the challenge. I had to chuckle when an unusually noisy boat chugged into view on the canal alongside me and I observed the irritable reactions of a petrolhead-turned-pilgrim.
I also remembered the many times I’d sped past pedestrians back home in Africa, invading their space with the noise of my vehicle and often kicking up a cloud of choking dust on unsurfaced roads. Is this my penance?
But inevitably the inspiration of people past and present came to the rescue, and so it was as I unexpectedly walked into the village of Grasmere where poet William Wordsworth found much of his inspiration.
A museum includes the cottage where he lived for a number of years and emerged as a leading figure in the new age of poetry and art we now know as Romanticism. His presence also acted as a magnet to the area for other literary figures, among them Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott and Thomas De Quincy.
For a brief while cars were forgotten as I rediscovered his imagery of Nature and daffodils especially. I remember first meeting with these beautiful yellow flowers in a London park many years ago and more recently in northern Scotland when I photographed Findhorn co-founder Dorothy Maclean with the first blooms of Spring.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils –
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze…
For oft when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils.