Watching Out for the English
Watching out for the English
This weekend was not one of my proudest moments.
Out cycling early on Sunday morning with my club – the name of which shall remain unmentioned for fear of not bringing my clubmates into disrepute – I unleashed a hysterical tirade on a late-middle-aged man in an early-middle-aged Mitsubishi. He had just gifted us our third or fourth close pass of the day. Having overtaken gratuitously fast and needlessly close, he slowed down to walking pace to pass two horses coming the opposite way. Despite his haste, he was clearly not in a rush. Pulling alongside the driver’s side window, I pointed out as much; perhaps a little more pointedly. Words were exchanged, but there was little illumination to be had and I certainly can’t claim proportionality on my part, as this was the culmination of another morning of intimidation on the mean streets of Kent. I am truly sorry to the rest of our group, for whom this weekly ritual is a chance to unwind away from family, work and the stress of life; I let them down. But I stand by the wish I communicated to the driver; simply that he would swiftly die of a heart attack induced by his own diesel fumes.
I’ve been riding bikes around London for just over two decades now and it’s become very clear that we are entering a new phase on the road, one where Britain’s Poundland MAGA tribute act is bringing their phony culture war to the road. A survey of drivers back in 2019 saw 4 in 10 claim they believed drivers were getting more aggressive around cyclists. That’s a survey of drivers. The Guardian online ran a (for them) relatively thoughtful piece on a similar topic last August, where they posited the ‘othering’ through helmets and special clothing allows drivers to see riders as less than human. I certainly know when I ride my town bike, much more slowly and often carrying large loads on my panniers – including once a 15 foot ladder – I have never been yelled at. Perhaps the most interesting part was their interview with Chris Boardman who as Manchester cycling commissioner had ditched cycle-specific clothing and his helmet to shift the ‘lycra-lout’ perception. But I don’t ride my cruiser on peri-urban and rural roads. And I am not planning 100km in jeans and a t-shirt any time soon. The chafing…
In my experience and that of many others I have spoken to, the issue isn’t in cities where cooperation is a fact of urban life, it’s the outer suburbs and rural areas where we head on the weekend in pursuit of leisure. And whilst I agree with the 40% of drivers who believe the roads have got more aggressive, I also believe the majority of drivers have become much more understanding and much more aware of cyclists as road users and as people. But it is also very clear there is a hard core out there, an aggressive, intimidating vocal minority whose conduct on the road has moved from negligent to actively vindictive. And a large part of this is driven by divisions – whether real or imagined – between Cosmopolitan and Traditional views, City and Rural lives, and Class.
It’s important at this point to place cycling in context. For many, any awareness of cycling outdoors, whether as a sport or hobby( as opposed to transportation for the poor and/or weird) started with London 2012. The ‘Wiggofication’ of the bicycle brought a much broader awareness of cycling, and particularly bike-racing, to the popular consciousness and began a boom in participation that continues to today. This particular incarnation of Britain’s relationship with the bike, coming off the back of Tour de France and Olympic TT success, tied cycling closely to the drop handlebar road scene and felt like a very 2010s British premiumisation of a quotidian European staple, like the Hackney sourdough bakery five pound baguette. And the commentary around it was the same. Cycling was the new golf, expensive bikes were portaged around Surrey as status symbols on the back of Porsches. And Rapha. So. Much. Rapha. And with it was spawned a new observable cultural phenomenon. The Middle Aged Man in lycra. And if you close your eyes and imagine him, if you are honest with yourself, he’s white, he’s middle to upper middle class, and he works in the financial services.
I once worked with an academic who’d published a significant paper on sport and the privilege of ‘paying for pain’, and there is something in that here. The long distance leisure cyclist is choosing a discomfort that they do not have to participate in. The Mamil is choosing to step out of their cossetted everyday and tap into something physical, visceral, real. If your life is genuinely hard, physical, uncomfortable (or you at least perceive it that way), why would you choose to spend your precious free time doing that. Whereas once the car driver looked down on the poor cyclists, now they feel mocked; the group clad in aero gear, whizzing through the lanes of Kent on bikes that all cost more than a second hand car, their small peloton a deposit on an unlovely cottage in the Weald, has crossed the M25 only to thumb their nose at nativist have-nots.
The irony of this runs deep. Because the current perception of British cycling culture is driven by a cultural transplant from the continent, it does not tap into our own rich heritage. Beryl Bainbrisdge and the UK touring scene. The early hobbyists who built the UK’s first metalled roads. The UKs long history of hill climbs and club Time Trials. I’ve not even mentioned Obree and washing machines. And if I am honest, that strand has always existed, but it was kept alive by the clubs of the Peaks and the Lakes, by the Wheelers and the Clarions and the Chaser of Scotland and the North. In their own uniquely British way, they echo the continental pre-history that the Wiggified cycling of the Mamil has been born untethered from.
Professional cycling traces its earliest days to the factory floors of Belgium, Northern France and Northern Italy, it is tied up with the European industrial working class both here and on the continent. The bike opened up opportunities in both work and life – transporting workers to factories and offices and opening up romantic radii and in doing so expanding local gene pools. In Britain, the simplicity of the Iron Horse was seen in contrast with the equestrian pursuits of the upper classes. Which is what I cringe anytime someone calls their bike collection their ‘stable’.
In the 1920s venues like Herne Hill Velodrome were drawing crowds in the tens of thousands to watch top racers, driven by a wide base of mass participation. You can see this lineage in the team sponsors across continental Europe still, particularly Belgium where Quickstep (flooring) Deceuninck (double glazing) Soudal (adhesives) Wanty (construction) all play major roles in teams. Mapei still makes the adhesives, including the one currently holding my bathroom together – I asked the builder speciality.
But in the UK, these narratives have been lost, severed – at least in much of the South – by the decline of cycling’s popularity in the second half of the 20th Century. Instead, these angry drivers in the home counties see lycra-clad urban ‘haves’ using their arterial roads as backdrops for leisure. They see us playing while they try and work.
It doesn’t help that cycling is certainly more middle class than it was, and that the traditional clubs that provided a broad church for many different people to participate are being fractured into smaller friendship groups and rides. Though there have probably never been more road cyclists, there are fewer good ‘clubmen’ as a proportion. I don’t know what the answer is – bikes are expensive and too many will snigger at the earnest joiner on the induction ride who has come to give it a try on their Triban, but the battle over bucolic country lanes is starting to reflect a divide that cuts through Britain.
Malaysia as a Car Culture
Malaysia is a car culture.
Not a ‘driving’ culture, one where the act of movement itself is a sacred rite, but one where the motor industry and cars themselves have shaped the landscape and the place that in turn has shaped the society and the people.
Driving is more akin to breathing.
This is no more a driving culture than humanity is an ‘oxygen culture’
We are heading up country in a borrowed Honda, my partner and I, departing from her hometown of Rawang, a large, sprawling settlement in the state of Selangor, just north of Kuala Lumpur. Once a tin-pot tin mining town, whose output, like much of Selangor’s, was dwarfed by the larger lodes of ore excavated in neighbouring Perak, Rawang became more populous with successive waves of migration – first for the mines, then the plantations; first rubber, then palm oi.. More recently, as Malaysia has moved up the value chain (along the way, ceding it’s position as the world’s biggest rubber producer in return for birthing the world’s most fecund condom manufacturer) Rawang has diversified, with a large cement plant and several auto part makers, as well as a healthy trade in commuters, who brave the sluggish, stolid, slog of 23 kilometres, south to Kuala Lumpur. For those who know London, it’s a place is faintly reminiscent of a chaotic, post-colonial Croydon.
The Honda was one of those nondescript mid-sized saloons that are almost impossible to date now. Neither old nor new, it was built some time in the late noughties, destined to be driven some time soon into quiet obsolescence with little to mark it’s passing. For now though, it was comfortable in it’s late-middle age – stately, unhurried and reliable. We had stopped in the centre of town to find a cable to connect the car’s ‘Aux’ input – a headphone-jack-sized hole – to the C-type output on my phone which dated the car’s design to a time when people had already begun to carry their music with them, but before the expectation that they could beam it at will to any willing object nearby, a last bastion of the wired in this second age of wireless. The first arbitrary phone shop we found was able to oblige, and we were underway; the cable acting as a tether across time and space, documenting the quiet progress consumer electronics had made in the first decade of my fully-adult life.
That this cable would be so easy to find on the nearest street corner begins to illustrate the car’s pervasive presence in Malaysia. The peninsula itself is as well endowed as it’s prophylactics makers, ringed with scruffy-beautiful sand beaches and spined by a range of jungle-covered mountains, their highlands littered with the kind of idiosnycratic mock-tudor bungalows that a certain type of adventurous Briton wistfully littered across the world during the early 20th Century during occasionally-indulged moments of homesic whimsy, peppering half the globe with a connect-the-dots simulacrum of Surrey, stretching from Sri Lanka to Sarawak. Century-old shophouses, skyscrapers, and one of the worlds most eclectic cuisines are just some of the other rewards you get here. Just don’t expect to get here without driving.
The first car factory in the Straits was in fact not in what was to become Malaysia, but on the island of Singapore; a confident Art-Deco building in Bukit Timah built in 1941 that was shortly to become the site of the British surrender of Singapore in 1942 to the Japanese. Car production in Malaysia itself was really established post-independence in 1967 when the government approved construction of 6 factories – 3 in Shah Alam, some 40kms south of Rawang, halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Port Klang. Initially assembling foreign cars, by the 1980s, the expertise and skills that these had acquired for the country helped launch the ‘National Car Project’, leading to the founding of Proton in 1983 and the launch of the bestselling Proton Saga by 1985. Annual sales of less than 100,000 units in 1985 had almost tripled by 1995 and were close to 700,000 by 2015.
But sales figures only tell half the story.
The intimate relationship was not just the car as a marker of progress, as is the case in many rapidly growing countries, but with the car industry as a symbol of national pride. By 2002, Malaysia had become only the 11th country in the world to be able to design, engineer and build a car from a blank page and the only one in the region. By 1999, Malaysia was hosting a Grand Prix and Petronas, Perdua and Proton were all part of a heady, high-octane cocktail fuelling modern Malaysian identity.
Since that early noughties high water mark for both Malaysia and the automotive industry worldwide – even US car sales peaked in 2000 – the wheel has turned. By the end of those intervening decades, the effect of having tied national pride so closely to the automotive has left the country lacking. This combination car-centric policy-making and the endemic underinvestment in other forms of locomotion that it precludes, spiced with a particularly piquant variety of local corruption has left Malaysia lacking. Few if any rail lines were opened between the 1930s and 1995’s opening of the first commuter line serving Kuala Lumpur – incidentally beginning as our journey did, in Rawang. In those intervening years, coinciding with Malaysia’s Asian Tiger’s leap, speculative property building followed road construction, slashing six-lane asphalt through the jungle, arteries bulbous with tumours of exurban growth that were heavy on driveways but light on pavements.
This fundamentally affects the Malaysian way of being and doing. When you ‘go’ somewhere, there is really only one way to ‘go’. Even in central KL, the public transport system is too sporadic, too syncopated to be truly helpful, and in truth, with so many organs of state and offices of commerce, transplanted to new as well as heavily redeveloped and car-centric townships ringing the city proper; Putrajaya, Cyberjaya, Petaling Jaya; it’s utility is moot. In this respect, KL feels like the cousin of LA, caught in a specific glorious moment, sometime in the late 20th century, when car was raja.
From ‘driving to ‘being’
“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport” Gustavo Petro
The car as it currently stands is a beautiful anachronism.
As a mystic sign of (primarily male) potency and a totem of freedom it’s glory days were, at least in the ‘West’, sometime between the 1950s and the 1970s. The democratisation of ownership that came with the post war golden age of consumption deified the automobile as a symbol of individualisation, autonomy and possibility. In the US particularly, its fetishisation was tied up intimately with early sexual experience as recognised by Ernst Dichter; a first space in which agency could be expressed, where you could get away from the parental gaze in the exurban sprawl of the 50s consumer boom.
The car meant escape, freedom, possibility and both product evolution and the marketing myth reflected this. Shots of convertibles, top-down, endless stretches of empty tarmac ahead, Headlines proselytising power, speed, muscular potential. Increasingly powerful engines, aggressive styling, ridiculous names (Jensen Interceptor!?!) all catalysed the myth.
As the late 20th Century saw a move from a ‘bactrian’ to ‘dromedary’ graph of global affluence, carmakers sold this same legend to places as diverse as Dubai to Davao; the myth of driving.
However we are at an inflection point. The open road is a myth. The UN reported in 2014 that the majority of the world’s population now lives in cities, a significant proportion of which lives in densely populated ‘megacities’. If you have ever got in a Taxi in Shanghai or Sao Paulo, you will understand what this means for the this fallacy of driving freedom. The RAC estimates cars in the UK are, on average parked and unused 96.5% of the time. Parking wastes valuable urban spaces and forces longer commutes and in the most expensive cities is often extortionate. Owning a car is increasingly a burden rather than a freedom. And there are signals of this in the growth of car-sharing schemes, the role of products such as UBER’s in freeing up cities (let us park the flurry of criticism which they are currently under… ) At the same time, self driving technology seeks to free us up from the burden of sitting in charge of a vehicle in traffic, turning time that would otherwise be wasted crawling along behind the wheel into productive hours. The very real threat of self-driving is that it will catalyse the move away from ownership altogether in the traditional automotive sector…. The weak signals are already there…
So it’s all pretty grim then for car-makers? Not necessarily. Based on my recent observations, despite ‘driving’ becoming more and more of a chore, there is still some magic left in the car yet. But to harness it, and set-up their brands for future success as the the automobile is dragged and disrupted kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, auto-makers will need to reframe what the category really is. Historically it was about ‘driving’ but in reality now, it is about ‘being’. People still value the time, space and privacy of being in their own car, even in a traffic jam, so long as you can make that experience a rewarding one. The category, even though it hasn’t realised it yet itself is in the business of selling ‘time well spent’.
The implications of this are huge. Think hero features such as soundproofing, intelligent cruise control, audio system and In-car entertainment and connectivity. Designer interiors and hero shots of upholstery rather than exterior angles. And think about how fundamentally differently you you talk about that ‘being’ experience. Whether by accident or design, Lexus hinted at it as early as 2002 ( http://randomarchitecturememories.com/home/lexus-sc430-rome-saatchi-saatchi-carl-erik-rinsch ) and cult cars such as the Nissan Cube and others are implictly about that experience.
Of course there will still be moments that are about ‘driving’ but the reality is they are losing relevance as they decrease, and will lose resonance when it comes to purchase. If car-makers want to fight against a world of mass private-public transport and post-ownership automobiles, they need to sell a unique experience that comes with ownership. And that experience is about ‘being’ not ‘driving’