How I Created Petrolhead

During a peer review of my work, someone commented that I had included a number of pictures of cars. The work concerned was about storms, but the reviewer was right, there were cars in floods and cars being battered by the elements. It occurred to me at the time that cars act as an avatar for humans. Cars are not human, but they are unique to humans. They are a signifier of human presence.

Car culture is deeply engrained in western societies. Cars are not simply a means for getting around, they are symbols of real or pretended affluence. TV programmes about car culture (Top Gear, The Grand Tour) are plentiful and get good viewing figures.

Cars are also deeply polarising, causing deep differences of opinion. Environmental campaigners are frequently anti-car and do not own one.

The environmental campaigners have a point. Motor vehicle use causes a large proportion of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Particulates from diesel fuel, tyre and brake wear are significant polluters. Airborne pollution causes thousands of deaths a year in the UK. Statistics are included in the story.

One Sunday afternoon in the summer, I noticed reports on Twitter of severe delays on the M23 near my home. I knew of a bridge over the motorway that would likely be a good vantage point, so made a visit. I was able to take some good pictures of the traffic queue and people in their cars. I have been stuck in such queues myself. It’s frustrating, you just want to get going. On this occasion, the delay was due to a fatal crash near the Gatwick exit, a motorcyclist had been killed. I wondered how many of the occupants of the stationary cars knew why they were waiting. Did they know that a young man’s body lay on the road in front of them? This led me on to thinking about the disconnection inherent in travelling by car. The same journey made by car, on foot, by bicycle or by bus are completely different experiences. Travelling by car involves the least exposure to the elements and other people. For many drivers, this is the very reason they drive. It’s not difficult to extrapolate this attitude to some of the practices of dislocation and separation that fracture western society. Humans are inherently social creatures, but for many, the way that society is actually conducted is oppressive to the extent that they seek release from it.

I attempt to explore these themes in Petrolhead.

Unpicking car culture will be a crucial activity in the transition to a greener future. It’s not just about getting people out of their cars, it’s about having a nicer world for them to step into.