Chapter 6: Car hunger and Power
Today there are more than 17 million private cars spread among a population of 56 million but overwhelmingly owned by one car families. In other words they are psychologically possessed by the dominant male in the family. Almost automatically this means that subordinate males will consciously or subconsciously be in a position of car deprivation.
In extreme cases car deprivation may drive a young man to steal or temporarily 'take' a vehicle. A glance at international figures on this shows how frequently such deprivation gets to the pitch of inducing an adolescent to break the law:
In London in 1954, 85 vehicles were taken per 100,000 of population
More than a quarter of a million vehicles were 'taken' in the USA in 1959 (288,937 to be precise). Just over 39,000 people were arrested for the 'takings' and of these 64% were under 18. According to a 1962 German police report more than 80% of illegal takers of cars in the Federal Republic were adolescents.
Criminological research shows that a lot of the car-taking is simply 'joy-riding', i.e. a boy picks up a car, drives it round for an evening and then dumps it. Much of it is not theft in the sense that the taker intends to make the car his personal property—he simply uses it for a time to assuage his desire to sit behind a wheel. Joy-riding would seem to be extreme compensatory behaviour in young males suffering from car deprivation and the consequent feelings of inferiority and humiliation.
To be deprived of a car today is as much of a humiliation as to be deprived of a horse was in the Middle Ages. One of the most radical and 'unmanning' injunctions to humility that Francis of Assisi bound on his friars was the prohibition against horse-riding. The Ottoman Turks shared Francis's view that the horse was somehow connected with a male's pride and dignity, and so, to cut down their status, the Turks forbade their Christian subjects to mount horses, with the exception of the Patriarch of Constantinople. In fact one of the first conciliatory gestures towards the Greek elite after the Turkish capture of Constantinople in 1453 was Mehmet the Conqueror's personal gift of a magnificent white charger to the first Ottoman Patriarch. Today Gennadios would no doubt have been given a Cadillac.
It is not only criminologists and psychiatrists who see car deprivation as the root of joy-riding. Some policemen have come round to the same view, albeit in this case a French one; the Interpol chief, Henri Feraud wrote in 1966:
It is widely recognized in the so-called economically developed countries that an individual, be he adult or young, feels himself to be in an inferior position when he doesn't have personal use of a motor vehicle. Having a car is certainly no longer a privilege in our day and age, but everybody doesn't have one, and the individuals who are still baulked of car ownership feel resentment which is the deeper the more motorized people there are in the country.
Joy-riders and car thieves are people who feel car deprivation so acutely, either consciously or not, that they are willing to brave the sanctions of the law to prove themselves. The joy-riders are the extreme fringe of the adolescent males suffering from car deprivation. Many of their contemporaries compensate for temporary car deprivation by hitch-hiking. Clearly this is a more ambiguous device than taking a car and driving off with it, but it has the practical advantage, in the British case, of being legally permitted and infinitely indulgeable in.
The hitcher who is compensating for car deprivation is in a curious state of mind. Basically he assumes the 'right to a lift', not to a personal lift from a particular car owner but the right to a lift from car owners in general. If you questioned him directly on this, he would almost inevitably deny the existence of such a right. The phenomenon usually only comes to the surface of consciousness when an apparently normal hitch-hiker is baulked of a lift for what he feels is an unreasonable length of time. Then he may well explode into open, violent expressions of envy and anger towards all drivers who go past him. In All the Time in the World Hugo Williams describes just such a situation in Northern Australia:
It's going to be a long wait. As night falls the flies drop off and the mosquitoes start up. They make us feel paranoiac and we hurl insults at the passing motorists. 'Don't stop,' we growl, 'don't stop if it's going to strengthen that fearful self esteem, that pride of ownership you guard so carefully from us. Shake your head at us and say—I'm sorry boys—to yourself. Run your hand over the clean empty seat covers. Smile at us and we will smile back, for we can see the varnish already beginning to flake ...' It's terribly ungrateful, but that's the way one goes on, even after a lift of 400 miles. One gets spoilt. One gets to think it's every car's duty to stop.
Fascinating to see how Williams gives a straight account of his explosion of anger and envy against men who won't stop, and then somehow has to produce a gloss on it. The gloss is quite inaccurate: one gets to think it is every car's duty to stop. The deprivation compensatory mechanism makes the unconscious assumption of the right to a lift; the assumption is there all the time, but it only surfaces at a moment of stress like this.
A technical college student, who wouldn't for one second posit a 'right to lifts' and consciously dislikes arrogance in hitch-hikers, gave this description of what happens inside him when people fail to stop:
I suppose it's the frustration of sitting there ... standing there not knowing why they won't give me a lift .... You know I get more and more frustrated because I think that people have passed me by when they should have been giving me lifts. It is a question of should—I feel as though they should be giving me a lift ... well it's anger I think ... instinctive almost, if that's the right word. l can be standing there about ten, fifteen, twenty minutes and nothing will happen—you know I'll just be bored really and just hoping ... and then it'll suddenly come up. It's almost as though I suddenly start thinking to myself: 'Now why?' and as soon as that happens then it starts building up into anger.
The hitcher just quoted is unusual in that his feeling of a 'right to lifts' is so comparatively near the surface of consciousness that it only takes a twenty minute wait to bring it to light.
Sometimes the compensatory mechanism drives the hitch-hiker to choose only large expensive cars. He feels he has been unfairly done out of having a car. So when he hitches he is only going to accept the best. Johnny Speight author of the Alf Carnett TV series, one day stopped his vintage Bentley to pick a tramp up:
'I prefer Bentleys,' said the tramp, 'a little Anglia offered me a lift a while ago, but I wouldn't take it. I mean, you meet a better class of person in a Bentley.'
That story may or may not be true but there is no reason to doubt the veracity of the Exeter Express and Echo's motoring correspondent when he quotes the AA (26.8.66):
Today's hitch-hiker seems to be more arrogant and less grateful for lifts. Only last year the AA reported the story of a hitch-hiker who would only take lifts in Jaguars. There was once a time they would have been grateful to travel mile after mile in the back of a smelly old fish lorry ....
The boy in the report was clearly suffering Jaguar, not fish lorry, deprivation.
By getting a lift in a big car the hitch-hiker suffering from deprivation enters a kind of fantasy of co-ownership. This fantasy is carried to its logical conclusion in the TV film Yob and Magog. You see a scruffy thumber getting himself a lift in a Rolls Royce. Gradually he draws the owner under his spell and succeeds in reversing their roles, he becomes the owner of the car and the other man is the outsider. It ends with him ringing up the police and having the real owner carted off as an escaped lunatic.
The hitcher may subconsciously want to share the speed and effortless power of a luxurious car. He may be like this 15 year old London boy, still too young to get a scooter or motorbike licence himself, but prepared to have his speed through others:
Perhaps I'd be happier driving myself, because I'd be more part of something else then, but I'm quite happy to sit there. I couldn't possibly shut my eyes when I'm going fast. I feel I'm triumphing over time and the road, to watch it whizz past like that, you know. I might sometimes ask the driver to speed, I might say:
One of the most interesting studies on joy-riders, by T.V. Gibbens, shows that teenage boys often pinch cars to prove themselves as men and to achieve a feeling of power. Gibbens writes:
Clinically the car thieves stand out from the usual run of Borstal lads in that the offence is more often of the 'neurotic' type in that the crime has a symbolic significance and is unconsciously motivated from different sources especially sexual ones .... In the simplest cases the joy-riding is of the common 'proving' type in which an over-protected lad from a 'good home' commits an offence to prove his masculinity. The close relationship with his mother induces a sense of guilt when sexual feelings emerge in adolescence.... The daring act represents a bid for independence and the car provides a feeling of power in which he feels so lacking....
Now clearly the boy who copes with feelings of car deprivation through hitching does not directly experience manual control of the car. What he does experience is the control of the car through a certain psychological control he has over the driver. He makes a small gesture and at his command a car comes skidding to a halt, its nearside door opens and he is asked where he is bound for. Quite a number of hitchers are aware of the psychological power they are wielding when they stop a car. One girl says she prefers to hitch-hike alone because then she feels in total control of the situation:
I enjoy the power of making people stop—perhaps it isn't the right attitude—they are after all stopping out of kindness—I like the feeling of willing them to stop, and willing the person who stops to be an interesting person.
As some thumbers see it, their power over the motorist is one of foreknowledge; they feel they can look at an on-coming stream of traffic and spot the car that is likely to pick them up:
And sometimes you don't even bother thumbing people who come by because you know they're not going to stop. You just thumb this one man and he stops and it feels really satisfying. (Liverpool scooter shop owner)
Other hitchers adopt a definite strategy for getting a driver to stop:
When you're going it it's more a question of trying to entice people to stop. I find you've got to use every trick and try, anyway, and persuade people to stop by standing in the right place in the road which is conducive to someone stopping, where they may be slowing down or where there's room to pull in ....
All these three people are very conscious of their power over the motorist. Apart from hitch-hikers the only external forces that stop motorists usually are policemen, traffic signals, jams or accidents. The last hitcher quoted, a Cambridge student, has an almost predatory attitude to the motorist. Perhaps 'predatory' is too strong a word—he doesn't so much hunt the driver, he angles him, tickles him, fishes him. But the object is identical: to catch him.
All this may seem to be in blank contradiction with the picture drawn in Chapter 4 of the forlorn hitch-hiker standing by the dusty wayside watching a stream of impersonal steel boxes go by, and then suddenly melting in submissive gratitude when a car finally does stop. Both pictures are graphic descriptions of states of mind that one and the same hitcher may live through at different times, depending on his mood. I have certainly experienced both feelings as a thumber.
The notion of the hitch-hiker mentally dominating the driver and compelling him to stop is one of the key ideas re hitch-hiking in Georges Limbour's book La Chasse au Merou. He goes into some detail over the importance of the psychological message transmitted by the visual action of thumbing. He says that success for the hitcher depends on:
... the rightness of the gesture, the moment it needs to be made, the distance relative to the car's speed; it depends on an undefinable something in the gesture which must be both discreet and determined, not too commanding but not too humble either, a gesture of frank assurance. For faith is essential—the doubter never gets anywhere—the doubt is transmitted to the driver. The signal, which includes the whole movement of the body, is so vital that you can say it's as often the hitch-hiker who picks the driver up as the other way about.
It is awareness of the inevitable self-assertion in the act of thumbing that makes hitch-hiking distasteful to people who are timid, withdrawn or particularly sensitive. It is precisely the same thing that satisfies car deprived teenagers, who by dominating a driver into stopping achieve a kind of vicarious, temporary, fantasy possession of his vehicle. One can hardly avoid agreeing with the student who said to me in a discussion on the out-lawing of hitch-hiking:
If you banned thumbing, surely this would mean an increase in car thefts.