Sounds like trouble

I’ve rattled this off quite quickly… please excuse any typos/etc. It’s also verging on a rant.

So diesel cars are now on their way out, and all things clean are in. Electric-petrol Hybrid, all electrics and, no doubt soon enough rubber band powered vehicles will be as ubiquitous as their diesel powered poor relations. There are problems with this drive, no pun intended (or maybe it was intended) to rid the roads of these bad, black smoke belching beasts.

Firstly, the alternatives aren’t that clean either: the production of electricity is not a carbon neutral endeavour and purely petrol driven cars also throw toxins and pollutants into the atmosphere. And think about all the resources that still need to be mined, drilled for or modified in order for energy to be created. No such thing as a free lunch and there’s no such thing, yet, as purely clean energy, either. Sure, we all want the world to be a cleaner place, but it’s usually easier to afford new, and in this context, cleaner technology, if you have the capital. Unless car manufacturers, the state or squillionnaire philanthropists with a soft spot for those who can’t afford to upgrade to the new clean car tech decide to cough for the costs, people who own diesels will continue to drive them until their cars are no longer economically viable to maintain or, until such cars are rendered as such through punitive and proscriptive taxation or transport policy measures.

And don’t forget, it was only a decade or so ago that diesels were hailed as one way of helping to address rising pollution. In another ten years, we’ll probably learn that hybrids and other alternatives will turn us all into Triffids or Goths or Ikea shoppers.  More seriously, weaning people off the economic advantages of diesel won’t be easy. Today, diesels tend to perform as well as petrol engined cars – this started around 20 years ago, before which, diesels sounded like tractors and their performance wasn’t much better, either. I had a couple of old diesels and they were awful, even then. New technology, principally in the sphere of turbo design, helped diesels gain a bit of respect in the old 0-60 tests and, what’s more, they were much more economical to run – better mpg and, in most cases, cheaper to service and maintain.

The people I’ve spoken to – by no means representative of any kind of population, are mostly sceptical and some are even cynical. One person told me the present debate is warming us up, preparing us all to accept the inevitable: in short, get rid of perfectly functioning objects and replace them with identical (in terms of their day to day usefulness) objects. Generally speaking, that’s not a very sensible thing to do: if you have perfectly watchable television, there isn’t really a need to replace it. Except we do that all the time, usually when the next phase of technology bursts onto the same screens that the adverts tells us to replace. So it’s not a sensible thing but it’s a good thing: the economy, somehow, wins. Which is what we were all told before things went arse up in 2008: yes, go out there and buy yourself property and become a landlord. Everything will be fine because the economy will be happy and buoyant which is what everyone wants. The problem with this kind of thinking – and no, I’m not an economist, but you don’t need to be one to see the flaws – is that it’s short term and disproportionately impacts, negatively and positively, for those whose lives are governed by extreme economic context – either the very wealthy or the very poor feel the impacts of economic mis/fortunes the most.

Myself, I wonder if, in a Stephen King semi sci-fi kind of  way, that this has the makings of a dystopian future (some of us might be tempted to feel we live in a dystopian present, but that’s another matter). Diesels in particular, and by extension their drivers, will be at first stigmatised, or something close to that. Yes, we’ll all start to disapprove about ‘diesel people’ demonstrating such a lack of responsibility – it already happens, in a more subtle way, with some Hybrid drivers exhibiting high levels of ‘smug’ (see the clip below from an episode of South Park which makes the point better than I ever could). Then, it might take months or it might take years, they’ll be called ‘Diesel People’, or Dieple, for short. They’ll have to pay higher tolls on roads, it will cost them more to park, tax, drive, repair and even clean their cars. On top of this anti diesel sentiment, diesel cars will become not exactly outlawed but associated with extremists, bigots and narrow mindedness. At the same time, manufacturers will shift focus away from diesels (they are doing so already) and help to ensure, little by little, diesels will become a thing of the past. However, in and amongst all this, a small resistance movement, loyal to their old diesel blocks, will emerge and slowly gain support – an underground movement at first, like in Fight Club but without the fighting . This movement will eventually grow in numbers and rail against the prevailing non diesel world view. And then something about Robots and/or possibly Cyberdine Systems/The Terminator (but with cars).

Here’s the clip from South Park




Emotional breakdown

So you’re driving along, perhaps you’re on your way home from a hard day at work, minding your own business, maybe listening to some tunes, thinking about chilling out a bit when you get indoors. You’re tired but you’re happy. That’s when it happens.


You don’t know what it is but you know it’s bad. You can feel it in your bones and if not your bones, your gut tells you it is or will be bad. Your heart sinks into your stomach and you start rehearsing the possible repercussions of this – whatever the hell this turns out to be – but there’s a glimmer of hope that tells you maybe it’s not too bad. You’re not an expert, after all. So maybe it’s nothing. A glitch. A fluke. A one off.

A glance in your rear view mirror kills off any seed of hope before it can take root. There’s a plume of white smoke following you as you slow down and pull over. Hazard warning lights on. Ignition off. Eyes closed. Curses, or possibly prayers, quietly but passionately uttered before you give the key a turn. The engine starts up but it’s not right. Abnormal. It sounds sick. Dying, even. But something else, not the car’s state of being, is fucking with you now. You’re hurt. Betrayed. Your car has revolted and is no longer with you. Not an enemy, not exactly, but not a friend, either.


You sigh and, because you’re a man, you do what you think you should do. Pop the bonnet and have a look. What you’re looking for, you don’t really know. But it’s what you do, on account of masculinity and gender roles and all that sociology bullshit. Right now, everything is bullshit.

Your eyes roves around the engine bay, scanning in the vain hope that what you see will suddenly become framed through Terminator vision, with flashing warnings and descriptions bleeping into your brain through your robot eyeball. If it was something obvious – like a missing engine or a lump of wood in its place – then maybe you could do something about it. But no, as far as you can tell, which isn’t very far, everything seems normal: no burnt cables, no torn belts, no leaking pipes, no remnants of an explosion. Now what?

Oh you fucker.

Cars and vans drive past you, drivers and passengers crane their necks. You catch sight of their expressions and you can read every one of them:

Poor bastard.

I’m glad I’m not you.


You scan the traffic on the off chance that a friend or even a remote acquaintance is amongst the trickle but of course there isn’t. Ordinarily, when things are good, you can spit and it’ll land on one of your friends. They’re everywhere, usually. Not more than five minutes pass when you see someone you know, on the road, going somewhere or nowhere. But not today, not right now. Today, the bastards have all decided to stay at home and watch telly or read a book or do some DIY or their ironing or something equally pressing. Yes, you realise that was a crappy pun but then, most puns are crap.

You sigh and ask yourself What now?

A phone call. A phone call on your mobile phone. Your mobile phone is your one and only friend right now. Technology is amazing, you tell yourself. Technology makes life so much better and easier. But your mobile phone can be a bit of a bitch when it wants to be… as you swipe it to life, it drops to 5% charge. No charging lead.


You make a call to the only person who can possibly help and it better count. The person you call is also your best friend right now but you know damned well that he doesn’t hold you in the same regard. You are a customer. You are in his hands. Time to pucker up and kiss his greasy arse.

‘Bro, how you doing? Listen. Car just fucking died on me, man.’

He doesn’t sound too interested but then, why would he? Not like you’re blood to him or anyone even remotely important. It’s not like you can ever do anything for him, other than pay him. But at least he asks you what’s happened. At least that’s something.

‘Just now, driving home: made a funny noise and all this white smoke and then it just died on me. It’ll start up but it’s making a right racket.’

Please let him say it’s something and nothing. A common fault with my car. Please let him tell me all I need to do is twiddle a knob or switch something off and on again or recite a poem or rap three lines of Tupac before it’ll be cured. Let it be something easy and quick. But no. The white smoke is all he needs.

‘From the exhaust, yeah?’

‘Yeah. From the exhaust.’

‘Sounds like turbo, to me.’

Your heart sinks further. You close your eyes and through gritted teeth, curse again. The phone is bleeping and blinking. Down to 3 per cent already. 2 measly per cent. Stupid fucking phone: bleeping and blinking is the last thing you need when you’re down to 3 fucking per cent.


‘Yeah, Turbo.’

Of course, he’s not one hundred percent absolutely iron clad bullet proof sure. He’ll need to have a look at it and check for a more accurate diagnosis but he’s seldom wrong. Regular car whisperer, this guy.

You go through the implications. For starters, life without this thing for however long it’ll take to get going again means taking the bus to work. Two busses, actually. Or lifts or taxis or James Bond style jet rocket pack that have yet to be invented. Things would be so much easier with James Bond style jet rocket packs: why the fuck hasn’t someone invented one? They’ve invented a million different ways to make coffee, to read books, to open tin cans, to live your life… but no James Bond style jet rocket packs?

And then, of course, there’s the cost of the repairs. You know it’ll be resolved sooner or later, one way or the other, but you’re worried. Anxious and maybe even pissed off. You have no control. You have no power in this situation. This thing, this box on wheels, you think you own it, but it owns you. Always has done and always will. You think it gives you freedom and pleasure. Sure, when it’s not against you like it is now, maybe it does help you feel happy, in control, independent and free. But you remind yourself that this thing costs – and not just time and money to keep the damned thing running. Every day, you hope it will do what it’s supposed to. You rely on it and have faith in it. There’s no getting away from it: you depend on it. Well, you think you do. Trouble is, even this episode will not change your mind. Once it’s back on the road, with you behind the wheel, coming from or going to wherever you want, all this will be behind you, the betrayal forgiven, the relationship restored.

Until, of course, the next time.

7/5/17: Bradford Modifiers Club Car meet – Tesco car park, Great Horton Road, Bradford

There’ve been a few car meets that I’ve heard about over the last few years and have only managed to attend a small number of them. For those of you who don’t know, these are fairly informal, relaxed and interesting events through which car enthusiasts of all backgrounds congregate with their vehicles. A lot of admiring, a fair bit of showing off and a reasonable amount of noise is to be expected.

Here’s a video the organisers have put together around one of their previous events.

So I turned up about 630 in the evening and there were already around 20 cars or so parked up in different parts of the site. Rolling into the car park in my oldish Toyota, the first thing that struck me, however, was the noise. Well, not noise, but music – some young bass head with his tailgate open, showing off his two large speakers and what looked like a damned flux capacitor, blasting out who knows how many decibels of a genre I’m not entirely familiar with – grime dub electro bass head fusion of some kind, probably.

Within an hour the car park was fairly close to full. Lots and lots of cars, all very different and all with a story of their own. A few slots on from me, a 1980s Toyota Corolla but not any old Corolla. An AE86 – real wheel drive, coupe, twin cam engine and becoming very sought after. A few cars on and I see a mid 1970s Toyota Celica.

The owner tells me he’s had his car for about 6 years and has done a lot of work himself. It’s all original, with the exception of the big bore exhaust which emits a deep, throary rattle with even the slightest of blip on the accelerator. It’s a nice looking thing and the last time I saw one was a year or so ago – a reddish one, in Girlington. This version is often referred to as the ‘baby [Ford] Mustang’ because it does look like a compressed version of the US car of iconic status. In their own way, Japanese cars of the 1970s and 1980s have become iconic, as well. The aforementioned AE86, and its front wheel drive boxier cousin, the AE82 Corolla have huge followings and still turn heads because of how they look and sound. While appreciation of these ‘Classics’ has very much happened organically, something that’s developed and grown especially over the last 15 years or so, the appreciation of such cars is not lost on the manufacturer, Toyota. It’s no accident that Toyota decided to call their belated latest Celica replacement the ‘GT86’ and to also keep in mind the ethos and feel of rear wheel drive Corolla coupe that was kicking around over 30 years ago.

I kicked around for a good few hours, camera slung around my neck, snapping away and talking to owners and passengers and their cars, the meet and the vibe. It was a fairly diverse crowd in more ways than one. People from all over Bradford and beyond – Huddersfield, Keighley, Leeds, Birstall and other parts of West Yorkshire.

Different ages, varied ethnic backgrounds,a couple of pensioners, quite a lot of youngsters (well, under 25s at any rate) and all with their takes on what their cars could and should look like.

And that’s what I mean about it being a diverse crowd: some of the cars were barely changed (a Bentley, a few high end Mercs, Audis, Beemers…) but others had been modified with any and all of the following: looks, performance, sound, ride, comfort, handling. Taste and identity figured heavily throughout the whole thing – even when I asked some of the owners why they did what they did, their responses were layered with enthusiasm and appreciation of something that held part of themselves. Within each and every one of those cars, there is creativity and even art. Yes, that’s right: for some of those people, and even though they might not recognise or name it as such, their cars are more than mere objects of fundamental and utilitarian function. They are canvasses, bodies and forms replete with artistic and creative meaning. Whether anyone else sees any of that is another matter – all you need to do is read (usually) local newspapers to get a sense of how this kind of car based endeavour is either ignored or, more usually, demonised as dangerous and linked with the breakdown of social order… What’s important is that these cars are modified and fulfil that strangely human habit of producing things which stimulate our senses and, for whatever reason, please us.

I’ve written a couple of academic pieces around cars and am planning on writing a book based on research I’m still doing on car culture. What I’m very interested in is trying to understand why it is people do what they do with their cars and, just as importantly, how cars can allow us all to read and interpret something of their drivers.

That’s pretty much it for now… but some more photos of the meet below.

Link to Bradford Modified Club’s Facetwat page

On being… power bored

So, a little while ago I took part in a ‘training day’ session. I won’t tell you what it was about because that’s not important. However, it started around 9 and finished at about 3. We had a break for lunch at about 12.

All in all, those 6 hours or so could have been quite easily compressed into less than one hour. Large parts of the day involved colleagues rolling out information that was of no practical use to me or many of the others in room. While I appreciate that context can be important, this was information overload. I was not interested in what other people, up or downstream, did or didn’t do. It wasn’t relevant and, more to the point, there were much better, more efficient ways for me to spend my time.

Throughout the day I noticed quite a few colleagues, myself included, becoming increasingly bored. Senior level folk were spinning around on their chairs, stretching, yawning, fidgeting, playing on their phone, doodling and, now and then, rolling their eyes and staring at the ceiling. These are obvious signs that emerge with rapidly disengaging students but instructors seemed unaware that adults have limited attention spans as well. As a lecturer, it’s something of which I’m very aware and manage to resolve by either rapping my lecturers in the style of Public Enemy, or, depending on the subject matter, delivering them in the voice of Orson Welles or Morgan Freeman. Aside from that, I’m expected to give students a break every fifty minutes. Anything longer is cruel.

But the thing that really annoyed me about the whole day, and stuck with me since, was something entirely different and was all about the complexities of power and how it manifests itself.

During a break, a colleague and myself were engaged in some interesting and quite profound conversation. Someone else interrupted our flow and then started talking to the other colleague about work related issues. At first, I thought it would be a quick interruption, lasting perhaps seconds. But as I stood there, waiting for the interuptor to finish, the seconds  turned into minutes. It seemed rude but I didn’t want to make an issue out of it so I excused myself and walked away, possibly muttering something under my breath.

On the one hand, it would be quite easy and even rational to dismiss the interruption as little more than ill mannered and rude. However, such interruptions are also facilitated by individuals feeling they have the necessary amount of power to make the interruption in the first place. If, for example, I was a much more senior colleague, or even someone who appeared to look like a more senior person, then I wonder if there would have been an interruption at all. You might have encountered something like that yourself and while in the context of a workplace, seniority and authority are variables that can help facilitate such behaviour, it happens outside of work just as much. Ever been stopped or questioned by a police officer? Think about the last time you visited a medic. What about the last time you had cause to engage with a motor mechanic, bureaucrat, teacher or, dare I say it, academic?

There are the broader and ‘visible’ markers and signifiers of identity that feed into the mix: gender, ethnicity, class as well as our physicality (our height/shape/whether we appear to have a disability) can all help shape the dynamics of our encounters. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that even these markers of identity are fluid and can shift in order to produce different outcomes: as a lecturer, I suppose I have some authority (as an academic who may hold some expertise around a particular subject matter), but when I’m being told by a medic that my leg needs to be amputated, my academic authority doesn’t mean much. Well, strictly speaking that’s not entirely true because the status which my academic role elicits may also inform a particular class position and with that comes a particular amount of social capital. Because of these features, I can say to my doctor: ‘But I’ve only come for some acne cream, Doctor: why the hell does my leg need to be amputated?’

All human encounters are loaded with power: next time someone shakes your hand, notice how they position it – their hand over yours (so some of the literature on interpersonal communications has it) – indicates a form of dominance; their hand positioned with the palm facing up indicates subservience or a reluctance to be dominant. Tone, inflection, posture, stance and especially eye contact are all key aspects through which power is to be transmitted and often negotiated.When it comes to human relations, nothing is neutral and every encounter has some type of meaning woven into it. It’s not that we need to get fixated by any of this, but merely exploring that which is often deemed normative, banal and perhaps even insignificant can be interesting. Well, it alleviated my boredom for a little while.

What do you get if you cross a helmet cammed cyclist, an angry car driver and the internet?

Someone sent me the video below which I, like I imagine many others, found hilarious.

It’s worth watching because it can offer some quite profound insights into human behaviour as well as how the road and those who occupy it act and react toward each other. In addition, the video itself has all those lovely ingredients which produce a story. We have a protagonist and an antagonist (cyclist or motorist, depending on your point of view); there’s also a third, and somewhat peripheral (but subtly important) character who sits in the passenger seat, saying nothing as far as we can tell (which itself suggests that this kind of episode is perhaps not unusual). We also have a setting/scene (the road, I suppose); a triggering moment of conflict (one of the characters does/says something to the other character which produces rising and falling tension (the trigger event, the cyclist following the driver, the ensuing exchange between the two); and best of all, of course, a resolution.

Like most stories or narratives, there are a few basics – character, conflict and resolution. Actually, this couldn’t have been written much better (I’m assuming it’s ‘real’ inasmuch as the film wasn’t scripted or planned as a production – if it was, then the people involved ought to be getting some kind of award): you can imagine a couple of creative sorts, spitballing ideas for a short film, talking about each character’s motivation, their back stories, the key moments in the script; how some scenes were to be shot, whether or not to use non diagetic sound, the merits of casting Bob Hoskins over Michael Caine for the lead…

Our motorist, of course, is the star. He’s not the hero and he’s not quite the complete villain, either, but he is the one who holds the thing together. It’s not exactly charisma or presence that our man’s got going for him, but we believe him and, whether we agree with him or not, we can understand and explain his reactions. We might even imagine his backstory: the family’s giving him grief, he’s had some chronic heartburn since last night, hasn’t slept a wink, he was running late and then some cyclist starts hogging the road. He’s had a shitty day all round and along rolls this tree hugger on a bike, giving him even more grief… well, it’s the last straw. The nerve of it: they don’t even pay road tax. His anger is made all the more authentic and potent because it’s real. His control slipping, the red mist is everywhere. He must know this much once he realises that his words aren’t making sense. At one point, he says ‘Put your FACKIN mouth.. shut!’ The three dots represent the tiniest of verbal stumbles. In fact, even before the final word of that sentence ends, he knows that the sentence won’t make sense but it’s too late. He’s committed, the rage now owning him, fashioning his fate.

The thing we enjoy about stories is how they are told: the details, the characterisation, the pace and manner in which one aspect of plot feeds into another (or not), and, of course, the extent to which we buy into the identities and conflicts that are represented. In many ways, this is a perfectly rounded story: we know exactly what we need to know in order to understand, recognise or possibly even empathise with one or both of the characters. But it’s only because we also understand the context: the situation, the reason for their encounter produces a dynamic in which we could imagine ourselves. What adds further appeal to this film is that, again this is speculative, it gives us license to imagine how we might behave. In some ways, this isn’t different to a lot of the bear bating type of material that seems to have been breeding on TV over the last couple of decades or so especially. Everything from Jerry Springer to Big Brother partially hinges on the audience’s capacity to identify with the participants through a process of non-identification. Me, I might have my faults, but I am nowhere near as flawed as those idiots confessing their infidelities, embarrassing themselves through exhibiting their lack of even basic common sense. I might have my faults, but at least I’m not on Jeremy Kyle, being goaded into being a bigger idiot than I might be. In short, all that stuff allows us to feel better about ourselves and, dare I say it, even promotes a sense of superiority: intellectually, emotionally and even in terms of basic human morality.

So what’s the point of me writing about that video which, the last time i looked, had way over 3 and half million hits. As I said, for one thing, it does show us how the road can become a place in which emotion, offence and power plays out. The road, populated with some many different and fluid variables, can allow some of us to, perhaps temporarily, give up certain aspects of ourselves. What we might think are key aspects of our identities, suddenly become hidden, or shelved while something else takes over. You might be a really great father, wonderful husband, conscientious worker and you might even like taking the time to talk to people instead sending them text messages. You might be a great human being. All that can mean nothing on when it comes to the interplays between cars, their drivers and the road. Friends and colleagues: rational, decent, wonderfully considerate and emotionally intelligent people have confessed that something happens they’re driving their car, especially when a moment of tension arises. One friend told me that he gets so angry when someone does something ‘wrong’ on the road: not signalling a turn, appearing not to know how to negotiate a roundabout, stopping on amber. Maybe our disposition shifts because the car and road are spaces in and through which we become liberated: indeed, if you think about it, much of the popular discourse around the car is linked to notions of freedom – go where you want to go, when, with whom and how (certainly in terms of advertising: I vaguely recall an advert, possibly from the 1980s, which used the song ‘I feel free’ by Cream). The road and your car gives you license to behave in a different way than you would if you were, for example, a pedestrian. The dynamic which developed in the video would simply not happen if one person happened to pass by another on the street: and even when pedestrians do brush or collide against each other, what happens? An apology or acknowledgement of some kind is usually offered by both. I suppose the bigger point I’m labouring over is that cars and roads are complicated sites in which human behaviour, attitudes and especially biases and prejudices can live and breathe.

Pathetic first post

Not sure what I’m supposed to include here but figure some basics might be useful.

While I’m an academic, the views and comments here in no way represent my employer, The University of Bradford.

This blog is mainly about car cultures. I’m not a petrol head, but I am very interested in how we relate to and with cars. I’ve done some sociologically oriented work around the interconnections and intersections between cars, ethnicity, taste, class as well as location, in particular Bradford (UK). See, for example: hello jav, got a new motor and a chapter in this book: Lived diversities Space, place and identities in the multi-ethnic city.

I’m not very social media savvy… don’t have a facebook, twitter or any other account of that nature. I do have a youtube channel which contains quite a few music/video mashups/dubs and other clips. It can be found here.

From time to time, I might also offer comment around any of the following topics: ethnic relations, popular culture/music, literature, film as well as higher education.

That’s it, really, but figure I’ll stick a video in while I’m at it.