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Drive fast to your tomb

Assassins who fret over telescopic rifle sights or the latest undetectable poisons would be better to run down their prey with a car. Kill with a gun, expect jail-time; kill with a car and more times than not you’ll walk free.

It often seems that the usual laws of the land are suspended when crimes are committed on the public highway. Speeding isn’t deemed a social ill, it’s seen as a necessary consequence of our modern, over-stressed lifestyles. Similarly, financial penalties are not yet high enough to quell the number of motorists who choose to be distracted by their mobile phones. Texting at the wheel is commonplace.

Yet the desire for highway haste, and the belief that slower users of the highway should get out of the way of the faster ones, has a long and inglorious history. Road bullying was amplified by motorisation, not introduced by it.

This bullying is painfully evoked in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

His novel has a famous start (“It was the best of times, it was the worse of times”) and a memorable ending (“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…”) but the comeuppance exercised on one of the book’s baddies is notable – for me, at least – because a killer road user actually paid for his crime.

A Tale of Two Cities was written in 1859 but set in the years leading up to the French Revolution of 1789. The ancien regime is personified by the Marquis St. Evrémonde, an aristocrat who thinks peasants are “rats” and who feels the roads – his roads – should be free of obstructions so he can be driven through the streets of Paris at the greatest possible speed. When his carriage, horses driven wildly at his insistence, kills a peasant child, Evrémonde’s uncaring response leads an onlooker to stalk him, and stab him to death in his bed. (The child killer walked, the stabber was executed).

[It was] rather agreeable to [the Marquis St. Evrémonde’] to see the common people dispersed before his horses, and often barely escaping from being run down. His man drove as if he were charging an enemy, and the furious recklessness of the man brought no check into the face, or to the lips, of the master. The complaint had sometimes made itself audible, even in that deaf city and dumb age, that, in the narrow streets without footways, the fierce patrician custom of hard driving endangered and maimed the mere vulgar in a barbarous manner. But, few cared enough for that to think of it a second time, and, in this matter, as in all others, the common wretches were left to get out of their difficulties as they could.

With a wild rattle and clatter, and an inhuman abandonment of consideration not easy to be understood in these days, the carriage dashed through streets and swept round corners, with women screaming before it, and men clutching each other and clutching children out of its way. At last, swooping at a street corner by a fountain, one of its wheels came to a sickening little jolt, and there was a loud cry from a number of voices, and the horses reared and plunged.

But for the latter inconvenience, the carriage probably would not have stopped; carriages were often known to drive on, and leave their wounded behind, and why not? But the frightened valet had got down in a hurry, and there were twenty hands at the horses’ bridles.

“What has gone wrong?” said Monsieur, calmly looking out.

A tall man in a nightcap had caught up a bundle from among the feet of the horses, and had laid it on the basement of the fountain, and was down in the mud and wet, howling over it like a wild animal.

“Pardon, Monsieur the Marquis!” said a ragged and submissive man, “it is a child.”

“Why does he make that abominable noise? Is it his child?”

“Excuse me, Monsieur the Marquis — it is a pity — yes.”

The fountain was a little removed; for the street opened, where it was, into a space some ten or twelve yards square. As the tall man suddenly got up from the ground, and came running at the carriage, Monsieur the Marquis clapped his hand for an instant on his sword-hilt.

“Killed!” shrieked the man, in wild desperation, extending both arms at their length above his head, and staring at him. “Dead!”

The people closed round, and looked at Monsieur the Marquis. There was nothing revealed by the many eyes that looked at him but watchfulness and eagerness; there was no visible menacing or anger. Neither did the people say anything; after the first cry, they had been silent, and they remained so. The voice of the submissive man who had spoken, was flat and tame in its extreme submission. Monsieur the Marquis ran his eyes over them all, as if they had been mere rats come out of their holes.

He took out his purse.

“It is extraordinary to me,” said he, “that you people cannot take care of yourselves and your children. One or the other of you is for ever in the way. How do I know what injury you have done my horses. See! Give him that.”

He threw out a gold coin for the valet to pick up, and all the heads craned forward that all the eyes might look down at it as it fell. The tall man called out again with a most unearthly cry, “Dead!”

The onlookers knew that the Marquis could trample common folk under his wheels without fear. They knew “what such a man could do to them, within the law and beyond it.” But one of the onlookers, Gaspard, was a revolutionary and hid beneath the underside of the carriage as it left the scene. Dropping off close to the château owned by the Marquis, Gaspard is spotted by a “mender of the roads” but is able to hide. That night he steals into the château and stabs the Marquis to death, leaving a note: “Drive him fast to his tomb.”

Fast forward to the early 1900s and English aristocrats, in their spangly motorcars, felt the roads were theirs. Non-motorists had to jump out of the way or be squashed. This aristocratic feeling of entitlement came to be a common trait of motorists in general. Witness, today, a pedestrian crossing a road with a car bearing down on him or her. How many cars slow down when confronted with a frail human in front of them, and how many plough on regardless? Roads are seen as the rightful territory of motorists and motorists alone: all other users are alien, and worthy of little thought or duty of care.

Dickens used the violent death of the Marquis St. Evrémonde as a precursor of the Terror to come. Aristocrats were few in number and, once conditions for the majority became intolerable, a revolution occurred.

There are many more motorists than there have ever been aristocrats but in certain cities, such as London, drivers of private motorcars are in the minority. Most people get about via shanks’ pony, public transport, and cycling. Boris Johnson’s aristocratic wish to “smooth the traffic flow” – faster cars, less jams – is unachievable because it’s self-defeating (time and speed gains are eaten up by motorists attracted to the faster, less congested roads) but also has a naturally finite lifespan. Pedestrians crossing to Kings Cross station on the multi-lane highway that is Euston Road far outnumber the thundering lorries and private motorcars speeding through this notorious junction. One day the majority will wake up to the inequities they face and natural justice will force roads to be designed for people, not just motorised vehicles.

This day is very far off. But this day will come.

9 thoughts on “Drive fast to your tomb

  1. Swanky Cyclist / Reply May 11, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    It is not like this everywhere. In Japan, for instance, there is far more courtesy enforced by law. My in-laws were somewhat shocked by the way motorists accelerated at them when they were on a pedestrian crossing in the UK. This would not happen over there.

    • carltonreid / Reply May 11, 2012 at 1:04 pm

      I agree. It’s a cultural thing. I’m linking it to aristocratic beginnings of motoring but there will be many other influences, too.

  2. Mark Brewster / Reply May 12, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    It IS a sense of entitlement — whether born of ‘nobility’ or ‘freedom’; when RIGHTS are vigorously exercised and attendant responsibilities are ignored, this entitlement becomes dangerous. The ultimate answer to this would be the “Golden Rule” from the Holy Book, but enforcement of THAT would be the next step PAST impossible.

    As long as people feel the need to put others down in order to feel lifted up themselves, this will go on.

    • carltonreid / Reply May 12, 2012 at 7:00 pm

      True. And the ‘golden rule’ is common to all religions: pretty much every faith has a version of it. And it’s common sense really, not terribly religious as such.

  3. Mike42 / Reply May 12, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    Anyone got any suggestions on retributive justice for people who pass too close/fast to my family when out & about? I know the police can’t/won’t do anything, and have been entertaining all sorts of thoughts of late after a few close calls…

    • Robert Wright / Reply May 14, 2012 at 1:29 pm

      Keep pestering the police, I’d suggest. Damaging someone’s car first of all brings you down to their level but secondly is likely to put you at a serious disadvantage legally if they then, say, deliberately knock you off. I understand the temptation – but it’s better to let things go than to do something that could make it look as if you’re the guilty party.

      In my opinion.

  4. Robert Wright / Reply May 14, 2012 at 10:44 am

    I had a motorist getting angry with me this morning because I signalled to him not to drive straight at me with his Audi R8 as I cycled my son to his nursery. Yet he thinks it rational to drive a car designed for the Le Mans 24-hour race around urban London back streets.

    I agree with the post that motorists have a strange desire to want cyclists and so on out of the way. I illustrated the point a little while ago with a blogpost that started off describing a motorist who was determined to overtake me even though I was going faster:

  5. Sue / Reply October 1, 2012 at 9:17 am

    So people who drive cars are right wing, aristocratic evil fascists and people who ride bicycles are lovely. Is that the gist?

    I have 3 bicycles and 3 cars and a motorbike, so guess that puts me roughly in the middle.

    How is it helpful to class people as “motorist”. “cyclists” etc. When everyone is an individual. Proportionally I suspect there are as many idiots on bicycles as there are in cars. What we need to encourage is mutual respect not a them and us attitude.

    • carltonreid / Reply October 1, 2012 at 9:31 am

      Elsewhere on this site you can find lots of references to aristocrats on bicycles. Cycling is left wing, right wing, moderate.

      Both cyclists and motorists (who are often the same people) have “entitlement” issues, believing the ‘right of way’ to be theirs. This is historically wrong, as this site points out. Highways are for all. Sharing the road ought to happen but, in practice, cyclists, pedestrians and other road users, are – almost literally – driven away.

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