Gridlock is a great leveller. It immobilises the fastest roadster as surely as the slowest truck. It reminds us that the car is an indispensable part of what we are, but also a threat to us. Without it we couldn't live at the pace we do; with it we're grinding to a halt. Once the symbol and instrument of progress, now it drives us to gridlock and road rage.
Last year's announcement that Vauxhall Motors was ending car production at Luton and Dunstable took me back to starting work as an apprentice in that factory in 1963. It was noisy, hot and vast - so vast I often got lost and was reprimanded for skiving off. I still have dreams in which I'm anxiously trying to get back to my work station. In these dreams time goes by too fast; in reality it went agonisingly slowly. It would be exaggerating to describe the factory as Dickensian, but it was closer to the factories of his time than to those of today. There's a passage in Hard Times which still makes me shudder: 'There was a stifling smell of hot oil everywhere. The steam engines shone with it, the dresses of the Hands were soiled with it, the mills . . . oozed and trickled it . . . And their inhabitants, wasting with heat, toiled languidly.' Machine oil attached to everything. And it was enervating, just like the heat from the machinery, heat which the oil seemed to permeate and make heavier; the sun, too, scorched more fiercely for shining through skylights stained yellow by oil. Oil is used to reduce friction, but in that factory it made everything harder.
LRB 24 July 2003 | PDF Download