Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The art of conversation in a car

Ours is a progressive age, and there's nothing we love to do more in our progressive age than to progress towards thing in cars. The car is swift, shiny, sleek, full of whizz-bang items of gadgetry for making the car go whizz-bang into things, and able to go round and round and round the country for hours on end in search of gay little cafes and jolly tourist traps and picturesque beauty spots, which spots and traps and cafes the drivers and passengers of the cars like to stop at for half an hour or so for rest or refreshment or postcards before driving off again into the countryside for hours and hours and hours. Horses, which we used to travel around on, being possessed of high intelligence and acumen, and otherwise being noble and conservative creatures, would generally object to such acts of circumlocution or rhodomontade, and so had to be disposed of in this progressive age, which is one reason why we find ourselves in the unfortunate place we do. Though not for very long because the progressive car generally progresses very fast away from whatever place we find ourselves in almost before we are in it.

And since we are in a swift shiny sleek whizz-bang progressive age and find ourselves in a swift shiny sleek whizz-bang progressive car, what is it like to be in a car? It is hot. It is humid. It is so cramped that you end up putting your arm into someone else's leg space and your leg into someone else's head space. Someone is crying. And someone sitting behind the wheel is very, very angry and quite possibly shaking their first at someone in another progressive car progressing in another direction against a red light. But the car has disadvantages, too: you cannot ride on the back of a car, shouting valiantly, waving a claymore* in the air, while the car gallops down into an army of Redcoats which you are about to do battle with. No, while we are in the car, it seems we will all have to learn to get along, and put to use the arts of etiquette and conversation and wit. However it seems we have left most of those arts behind, along with the horse, in that more staid and conservative age before the car. This is unfortunate.

Ideally, for a car conversation, you will need one of all the following people:

1) Someone to get into a political argument with.
2) Someone to attempt to start a game of Eye Spy in an attempt to distract from the increasingly tense and heated argument.
3) Someone to get bored with the game of Eye Spy and attempt to start up a joke competition.
4) Someone to shout and say Eye Spy started first and why do you always have to ruin everything and that's not fair.
5) Someone to tell everyone else to keep quiet because someone else is trying to sleep.
6) Someone else trying to sleep over the noise of someone else telling everyone to keep quiet.
7) Someone to urgently try to keep the peace between everyone, who are all arguing over the top of one another now.
8) Someone to ask "are we there yet" every one kilometre on a thousand kilometre journey.
9) Someone to loudly announce "I'm bored" everytime someone else attempts to start up a conversation.
10) Someone to querulously whine "but I want to go to the toooooooooooilet" one minute after the car has whizzed past the last toilet for three hundred and forty three kilometres.
11) Someone to quietly weep in the corner.
12) Someone to suddenly get incredibly hungry in the other corner.
13) Someone to apologetically vomit all everyone else.
14) Someone to shamelessly steal and retell the jokes that someone else has told an hour ago.
15) Someone to go rummaging for food to keep everyone else distracted, except maybe the person who has just vomited.
16) Someone to suddenly query three quarters of the way through the trip just where we are all going.** 

Of course, the typical car has only six to eight seats, so several people will have to take responsibility for multiple roles. (And bear in mind this list is very limited).

Often in the car you end up having to amuse yourself. When I was a kid I tried numerous tactics. After being told a number of times by parents to 'shut up', I would loudly announce to my brother, 'Hey Lachlan, let's have a shutting up competition'. 'Okay!' he'd say, fully expecting my reply: 'I lose!' Fun the first thousand times you try it, not so amusing after that. At other times, I'd take part in games of Eye Spy which I would (cleverly, I thought) undermine by providing obtuse answers when it was my turn to play: 'B' for 'Blueness'. 'E' for 'Existence'. 'I' for 'Ineffable Feelings of Ennui and Angst on Suddenly Discovering the Pointlessness of the Car Journey'. No-one else seemed to really appreciate my Eye Spy interventions, but really: how many times can you go with 'T' for 'Tree', 'G' for 'Grass', 'C' for 'Cow' and 'R' for 'Road' before the game suddenly becomes utterly tedious and meaningless?

Speaking of tedious and meaningless, let us turn now to the writings of Dr Samuel Johnson. No - no, I don't mean he was tedious and meaningless, just that he wrote entertainingly about that very subject quite frequently. 'I took a short journey into the country in a stage coach', he writes:

On the day of our departure, in the twilight of the morning, I ascended the vehicle, with three men and two women my fellow travellers. It was easy to observe the affected elevation of mien with which every one entered, and the supercilious civility with which they paid their compliments to each other. When the first ceremony was dispatched, we sat silent for a long time, all employed in collecting importance into our faces, and endeavouring to strike reverence and submission into our companions. 

It is hard to imagine this happening on a modern car trip, and not even on a modern train or bus trip (though that is in some ways similar to the experience of travelling in a stage coach with strangers). But what follows is all too familiar:
It is always observable that silence propagates itself, and that the longer talk has been suspended, the more difficult it is to find any thing to say..... At last a corpulent gentleman, who had equipped himself for this expedition with a scarlet surtout, and a large hat with a broad lace, drew out his watch, looked on it in silence, and then held it dangling at his finger. This was, I suppose, understood by all the company as an invitation to ask the time of day; bu no body appeared to heed his overture: and his desire to be talking so far overcame his resentment, that he let us know of his own accord it was past five, and that in two hours we should be at breakfast.

The whole essay is surpassingly excellent and worth the time to read in whole. However, like passenger number 14 in the car trip, stealing the jokes of another, I have set out on this article telling my own story, and ended up telling Dr Johnson's story instead, and so here the journey will end.

*I should admit that I am not at all certain what a claymore is, but I feel quite strongly that it is something that ought to be flourished savagely in the air. 

** Hopefully person number 16 is not the driver.

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