Will Self: the first step in dealing with your speeding problem is agreeing that you have one

It may surprise regular readers of this column, who have read me over the years animadverting on the follies of all aspects of the vehicular, to learn that I am a chronic speedhead

At the speed awareness course run by AA DriveTech somewhere in the arse-end of the Angel, I run into Stephen Bayley, the design guru. Bayley is the author of (among many other works) Sex, Drink and Fast Cars, a copy of which he rather opportunistically has in the Gladstone bag he’s lugging along at the end of his cream-linen clad arm. A quick exchange establishes that he, like me, was nabbed by the speed cameras on Tower Bridge doing 27 miles per hour. Our admission calls forth from our fellow course participants, who are sitting on plastic stacking chairs waiting to undergo the “registration process”, that they – old, young, black, white, brown, male, female, gay and straight – are all guilty of exactly the same offence.

It’s a very modern moment, this: an application of technology to the turbid urban mill race has resulted in the diversion into this quiet, carpet-tiled pool of an odd group of fish, united only by this fact – that on such and such a date, we were all travelling at the same velocity in the same place. And yet . . . and yet, the recognition of this piffling common characteristic is sufficient, or so I like to think, to unite us as a group. As Gary (not his real name) from DriveTech checks our IDs and fingers our details into his handheld device, our solidarity grows; we swell into this new identity, until – seated in trios at melamine-topped desks, confronting our instructor – we have become the “Tower Bridge 22”, a fearless gang of desperados whose only wish was that the drawbridges had actually been raised as we speeded towards them, so that our cars would have been launched howling into inner space!

Our instructor, Peter (not his real name, either – indeed, I don’t believe he has one), sets out a few house rules, including the need for us to maintain confidentiality. So I suppose I shouldn’t be writing about this course, let alone telling you that Stephen was there. Still, I like to tempt fate: I’m the Edward Snowden of the TB22, fearlessly exposing DriveTech’s sinister secrets, and when the City of London police come knocking, I’ll go on the run, holing up at South Mimms services until I’m offered asylum . . . by Burger King.

Up until now, I’ve been struggling to fit in with the rest of the TB22. I want to be a good group member. Besides, unlike Stephen – who vigorously contends that he never speeds and that the 20-miles-per-hour limit, as well as being inadequately advertised on the approach to the bridge, is imposed on baseless grounds cooked up by English Heritage regarding its not-so-superstructure – I know I need help. It may surprise regular readers of this column, who have read me over the years animadverting on the follies of all aspects of the vehicular, to learn that I am a chronic speedhead. True, I don’t own a car any more but put my hands on the hireling wheel – as they were on the night of the 17th inst – and my foot slams straight to the floor. So . . . I am reaching out – while Stephen tenses up.

Over the next three hours, with only a 15-minute break for coffee, Peter leads us through the dos and do-nots of velocity. The course is a mixture of the informational (basically, a refresher on the Highway Code) and the emotional: lots of statistics about fatalities and how an extra ten miles an hour will turn you into the Angel of Death, slaughtering all suburban firstborn. I am, as I say, willing to be healed and so I participate enthusiastically. So does Stephen. Unfortunately, we take part perhaps a little too enthusiastically: I’m not sure Peter gets that many attendees who wish to discuss in detail the traffic management theories of Hans Monderman, or the impacts of high- and low-frequency vibrations on bascule bridges, let alone the neoliberal underpinning to his argument that the government needs us to be able to drive so that we can join in that collective desideratum, “growth”.

By the end of the course, when we’re using our hand-held devices to “vote” not only on multiple-choice questions but also on how we feel Peter has done, I’m feeling considerable solidarity with my fellow speeders. But then, as we are encouraged to put what we’ve learned to the test by answering questions in response to Peter’s laser pointer hovering over an image of the approaches to the dreaded bridge, it becomes painfully clear that I am a man alone. It is Stephen who personifies the group’s Geist, for almost every member of the TB22 is still carping bitterly about how they were nicked at all. Loonies.

A vandalised Gatso speed camera. Photo: Getty Images.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage