Public transport, not driving, Nazis in America, Ed Norton

 

Column, week 16:

 

In 1988, the British director Tony Kaye made an advert for British Rail. Titled ‘Relax’, it showed a soft focus world of comfort aboard the train, where all the ills of the world whizzed by the window, and commuters drifted off into a peaceful slumber. Unsurprisingly, there were many complaints of how inaccurate it was in its portrayal of public transport, but the ad is still considered to be among Kaye’s best work.

It came to mind during the recent ad campaign by Irish Rail. It shows a family on a journey from hell, everyone stressed and bug eyed, dad white knuckling the wheel as the kids bicker, before someone tries to open a two litre bottle of lemonade in the back seat, and it explodes across the windscreen. It cuts then to the family relaxing on board an Irish Rail train, at peace with the world.

If I wasn’t a lifelong user of public transport, it might appeal. Sadly, I am one of those rare people who, for non-medical reasons, does not drive. This statement is usually greeted with ‘did you just never learn?’ I said I don’t drive, not I can’t drive. I did the lessons, drove very briefly a couple of times over the last two decades, but generally, I don’t drive. I can give you a list as long as my arm as to why this is, virtue signalling about a greener planet, and how I have the carbon footprint of an especially petite geisha. But really it is just that I don’t like it.

The next comment I get is ‘you don’t meet many men who don’t drive’. Actually, you do, they just don’t announce it as for some odd reason it is seen as the lynchpin of masculinity – get the car, get the girl, do donuts in a shopping centre car park, rule the world. Perhaps I am just missing the boy racer gene, or that passion for mechanical devices that some have. Either way, I spend a lot of time on buses, trains, footpaths and puddles. Public transport in this country isn’t great. This is why almost everyone drives. Which is why public transport isn’t great. The people who drove past the picketing bus drivers and beeped to show their support failed to see the irony of their actions – support them by using the service. I do, and it is inconvenient at best, because the real price of public transport is not a financial one, but of time. If I leave work and hop in a car, I will be home in half an hour, an hour on bad days. If I leave work and use the usual combinations of walking, bus and train, I get home almost two hours after I am done. I turned 42 last week, so the best case scenario is that I am halfway through my time on Earth. I just can’t waste any more time. So I got a car, or death machine as they could also be known. But however dangerous they are, anything is better than cycling.

Everytime I see someone on a bike in the city I think of the Italian Futurists, who fought in the Lombard Battalion of Volunteer Cyclists and Automobilists in the First World War, making their stand in the alpine regions. Seeing a cyclist weaving through traffic is a harrowing thing. If it was a deer, people would show it more respect. And there is no point in saying ‘well, cyclists are a menace’, because so are motorists, so are pedestrians, so are kids in the back seat playing with fizzy pop. I don’t cycle (I am able to, as, much like riding a bike, you never forget how) because I don’t want to die. However twitchy I am in a car, the thought of trying to navigate a bike through the panzer division of the morning rush makes me sweat. I see people using City Bikes and want to scream at them to wear a helmet. Yes it will ruin your hair, but so will a massive head trauma. You are profoundly vulnerable and there are people at the wheel who do not see you as a human, they see you as an annoyance.

On public transport, people might annoy you, but you generally control yourself because that is what thousands of years of evolution does – it gave us a certain amount of self control when face to face with other human beings. But give us a little distance from each other, or a few barriers between us and we find is distressingly easy to stop caring.

The American alt-right – or fascists as they should really be known – are a generation that seems to have spent a little bit too much time online, who seem to have obtained their sense of history from video games and films. It seems unlikely that any of them have a true grasp on war in any form, and have become totally caught up in some odd role playing game where they are the heroes, or the stagers of an especially cruel prank. But what can the internet do? How do you reconcile the right to free speech with hosting the views of people who preach hate and murder? Well, it seems that even the internet has really had enough, as both Google and GoDaddy have both banned the Neo Nazi site The Daily Stormer. Naturally, it has now simply moved to the dark web, and the question is what will happen on that site now, with the lights completely out, and zero control. It’s hard to see how the situation in the US could get worse – and we have been saying that for months – but here it is, American Nazis in the land of the free, home of the brave. A nation of immigrants, pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war whilst preparing to eat itself alive. Every day brings a fresh hell, a torrent of awful news – so why not relax and unwind with a good film?

Back in the late Nineties, someone in Hollywood had the bright idea of getting ad director Tony Kaye to make a film. Titled American History X, it went down in the history of troubled productions as one of the greats, with the director falling out with the star, Edward Norton, the studio and seemingly much of Hollywood. The film itself was overshadowed by all the controversies, but is a beautiful if flawed portrait of an American Neo Nazi and his search for redemption. Whether it proves to be prophetic and there is some epiphany in the alt-right is unlikely, but let’s hope it paints a more realistic picture of the human ability to change – or at least that it’s closer to reality that Kaye’s depressingly inaccurate vision of public transport.

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