Hitch-hiking

Introduction


World Wide Web Publication by Bernd Wechner

This is probably the best piece of research into hitch-hiking that exists. It was originally published as a paperback in 1974 by the author himself. It was a thin book of 108 pages and some 50,000 words. I doubt very much that the original circulation was very large. To begin with the subject matter of hitch-hiking is rather esoteric and not one for the popular press, at least not in such a well researched form. I originally found an old copy in the Australian National Library, and later in Sydney University library.

I wrote the author, requesting to use some or all of this material on the web, as I edit a column on hitch-hiking there for which I am always happy to receive material. I was most surprised that my letter even reached him, as I only had his 1974 address. But reach him it did, and now (June 1997), with the author's permission, I am proud to republish this wonderful book on the World Wide Web.

The entire book was scanned on and converted to text using some sophisticated OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software. The software is not fool-proof though, and errors may have crept in, even after my proof-reading. As a consequence I would be very grateful to hear of any errors in the text as they are discovered. I would also be very appreciative of feedback from readers who have found this text useful, informative or interesting.

Please keep me informed.

Acknowledgements

My first debt is to the thousand plus hitch-hikers who answered questionnaires or submitted to the ordeal of being non-directively interviewed.

Cambridge girl student: It seems such a false situation to be in, to sit and talk to a microphone about hitch-hiking. Without the cooperation of such people this book could not have happened.

My second debt is to those authors and publishers who have allowed me to quote from material under their copyright.

My third debt is to personal friends who have helped in a whole variety of ways. Three who spring directly to mind are Andrew Knowles, Michael Cunningham and Peter Ryan.

My thanks are also due to the staff of the Cambridge University Library whose courtesy and efficiency have made it a pleasure to work under their roof.

Complaints

A minor hindrance in completing the research for this book was the fairground chaos of the Bloomsbury Reading Room of the British Museum. This stricture does not apply to the British Museum Newspaper Library at Colindale.

A difficulty facing anybody researching recent social history is the non-availability of classified newspaper cutting files. Such files do exist in the private libraries of the various news media, but these naturally cannot be open to the public. There is a real need for the State to set up a classified newspaper and magazine cutting files library for the use of the public. Until this happens lazy researchers will rely heavily on The Times (which is indexed), while the more diligent will waste thousands of research hours flipping through slithers of yellowing newsprint.

People engaged in the social history of the last 70 years would also greatly benefit from a centralized film, TV film and video-tape library. To be useful and quick to use such a library would have to produce a catalogue which gave a brief content analysis of each film held. The text which follows would have been greatly enriched had I had access to more material on film.

My Bias

If a man with a Jewish grandmother tries to write an 'objective' book about the Six Days War, one somehow feels one ought to know about that granny. Her influence on his mind is likely either to make the book pro-Israeli, or he may over-compensate and lean too far towards the Arabs. The author himself is probably incapable of anything near 'objectivity', but the reader can redress the balance of what he reads if he is shown something of the author's emotions prejudices and passions.

I feel the same about this book. I have tried to write 'objectively' but am quite aware that bias has crept and even marched in at various points, for instance in the section on the police. To try and root out leanings this way and that, to neutralize all sentences which imply personal comment, to strive for total 'objectivity' would be to limpen and antiscepticize what has been written, which I don't want to do.

The aim of this introduction is to give you a sufficient account of my inner life, my likes and prejudices to set the rest of the book in perspective. Only when you are in a position to weigh my bias and yours is there any chance that this book may stand as a valid intellectual communication between us.

A phrase that rings through my head from childhood is:

It costs money! You had to be careful with things because they cost money. You had to pick up your feet when you walked because your shoes cost money. Occasionally you couldn't have toys because they cost money. To me one of the most amazing things about hitch-hiking was that it didn't cost money. It seemed like a breath of air sweeping into the close atmosphere of my home where there was constant saving, scraping, amassing, investing, interest re-investing and so on. Having been brought up in a nut-hoarding, squirrel-like environment I was amazed at the freedom and laisser-aller of moving across the land without spending a single dime. How could it be?

My father was a highly intelligent man but with a great need to dominate those around him. He sincerely believed that in the latter part of his life he had achieved wisdom, and that obeying him and conforming to his attitudes was the best way a young, unformed person could share a little of that store of wisdom. Though intellectually intelligent, my father was not at ease in dealing with people—he often failed to see how they ticked.

From the time I left school at 18 until the end of my three years at university much of my mental life was occupied with the battle to assert my own right to exist, independent of his ideals, wishes, projections and attempts to re-live his own life through me.

The independence struggle manifested itself in two main ways. The first was opposition to his right wing political views. The second was to refuse money from him.

I had been brought up with a strong consciousness of money values and so this was a logical enough area in which to try and reject dependence. I didn't want to take more money from him than the minimum necessary for my course. On the other hand between 18 and 21 I had a growing dislike of being at home and more and more needed to get away during the vacations. Hitching and living rough were the solution: they enabled me to escape the atmosphere of the house and be far away, but this without begging paternal money.

I first hitched when I was 18. There was a gap between leaving school and starting at Oxford, so I disappeared to Europe, thumbing, working in a hotel and giving English lessons. That first hitch-hiking trip was not yet a conscious act of rebellion. I was still in a basically congruent and submissive mood towards both my parents. Incidentally they didn't oppose that first journey, though they expressed some worry. Neither parent at any time tried to restrict my physical or phenomenological freedom. The freedom they failed to grant was an inner, psychological one, an ontic one, which they probably didn't even realize they were withholding.

As tension with my father increased, hitch-hiking in Europe became more and more consciously an escape. From a purely practical point of view it allowed me to put 2,000 miles between myself and my parents' house. Psychically it allowed me to be away from the mental octopus my father seemed to constitute at the time. Romantically it enabled me to escape from ordinary routine living and go where I wanted when I wanted. I also felt I was emancipating from the narrowness of England with its very special way of looking at the outside world, and from the glass-house Oxford environment which seemed removed from the reality of the way people actuary live and work.

In 1960 I thumbed to Greece with my then girlfriend and present wife. We contrived to go in a group to satisfy the moral notions of both sets of parents, but the group was easy to shed when we wanted to. That amazing journey with a person, who, for a time, eclipsed everything in my eyes, was the faint beginning of adulthood. It was the beginning of my marriage and the very slow emancipation from not only the ring my father sought to keep embedded in my nose, but also from the fine webnet of common assumptions, common emotions, common images of other people with which my mother kept me bound to her, and with which I unknowingly kept myself bound to her.

So hitch-hiking to me is a deeply emotive subject, which cannot be properly extricated from the matrix of passions associated with it. The reader clearly must bear this in mind especially in relation to Chapter 1, Hitch-Hiking and the Umbilical Cord.

I am a socialist and I love hitch-hiking as an often repeated act of practical friendly cooperation between human beings. People in Britain live more and more uptight in their own little father-mother-two children families. When they're out of the house they tend increasingly to be in their own private bit of moving space, the car. This trend to compact, self-sufficient isolation breeds a kind of selfishness, an unawareness of the outside

Hitch-hiking is a trend in full opposition to this isolationism. It makes people meet, mix, talk, argue, think beyond their own little pool.

I find it beautiful because it's a sharing of means of transport and that much better in Britain for being unorganised and completely free. It's a real act of consenting communism. It thumbs its nose at the money system. Very occasionally a driver picks someone up and half way through the journey proposes a petrol sharing arrangement, i.e. asks for money. When this has happened to me I have been horrified by the impurity of the driver's act; suddenly he plunges you back into the monetary mire. It's not the loss of money that shocks me, but the disillusionment and the sudden change of rapport between driver and the hitch-hiker. From hospitality to trading.

Besides its oedipal associations and its socialist appeal, hitch-hiking, especially the long-distance variety, has always absorbed me as a complete experience in its own right. When I think back to thumbing journeys like Oporto-Milan, London-Stockholm, Athens-Liverpool, Oxford-Granada, each trip stands out in the memory like a strange film.

I say film advisedly. I recall long hitches as series of visual sequences and static images of certain places. I say 'strange film' because the speed of the visual sequences varies with the speed of the lift. You may be in a sports car on a motorway with things flashing past at 100 mph or you may be high in a majestic truck-cab grinding up a mountain pass at 2½ miles per hour. Equally well you may be stationary at one point in a landscape for several hours, waiting for a lift. While the rhythm of travel when you drive your own car over a long distance is pretty constant, if you hitch the same route you are likely to be continually changing rhythm. The changes of tempo from one lift to the next are interspersed with periods of stasis, during which you are exposed to the same landscape for ten minutes or five hours.

It is these periods of visual rest and contemplation that I most miss when driving. One could stop and look at a particular bit of landscape for half an hour but at the wheel it just doesn't seem to happen. In other words the practical necessity of waiting for lifts obliges one to soak up certain random landscapes.

One journey I did from Athens to Liverpool involved 42 different lifts, which entailed waiting in 42 different places: the seascapes of the Gulf of Corinth and the Adriatic, the motorscapes of the Roman and Milanese ring road systems, the mountainscapes of the Alps, the suburbiascapes of Northern Paris and Birkenhead.

When I think back to that journey I see a number of deeply imprinted stills, places in which I waited, interspersed with varying lengths of moving film—in some lengths the camera is looking down from a high cab and the outside world is moving past slowly to a thunderous sound track; in other lengths the camera is racing along close to the ground, swerving this way and that along a twisting road-the engine noise is muffled and aristocratic. It's mainly when looking back that I am conscious of rhythm changes in a hitchhiking journey. On the ground at the time it's hard to see the journey as a whole.

A 2,000 mile hitch done without stopping for sleep begins to feel like a dream. In a dream you live a sequence of images and then find yourself in the middle of a quite different one. In the dream jumping without logical link from one sequence to another is not bothering. The fact that it happens and that you live it is sufficient justification. Something the same happens in hitchhiking: in one sequence you are rattling along in a ten year old diesel-stinking van listening to a fascist expounding his view of the political situation—in the very next sequence you are reclining in a D.S.21 while a bronzed young surgeon compares the relative merits of two skiing resorts. The two sequences don't connect, there is an arbitrariness, randomness and yet a total thereness very much akin to the dream experience.

Perhaps it is the dreamlike nature of certain thumbing which makes it such a total escape from thumping everydayness, and the most perfect relaxation I know of.

Every year, come midsummer-time, I look North across the Cambridgeshire Fens and think how much shorter the nights must be in the North of Scotland. Every June the longing creeps over me to slip out of work, responsibility, the known. I'll take the A.1 North to Scotland, stand on Cape Wrath at midnight and gaze at the rim of the low red sun half in the sea. I yearn for the dreamlike freedom I remember experiencing while hitching in the past.

Every year I successfully resist the urge to go thumbing senselessly North. By this self discipline one and the same dream is made to do for several years! I was brought up to be thrifty.


Hitch-hiking

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