By Catharine Morris
A new cultural venue opened in London last week. It’s a semi-permanent construction – part of the sixty-seven-acre King’s Cross development – and, in case you haven’t guessed it from the photograph above: it used to be a petrol station. That’s why, at its inaugural event last week, the subject under discussion was cars.
Geoff Dyer hasn't got one. He hates them. The hatred began when he was a child: his father was so mean with money that he would only buy half a tank of petrol at a time, and he was constantly having to stop to get more. Dyer was willing, nevertheless, to guide us through the history of the filling station in US art and photography – in the work of Edward Hopper, Russell Lee, Dorothea Lange and William Eggleston, for example. The loneliness and anonymity of some of the pictures were in contrast to the mood of the poem read for us by Luke Wright – inspired by his tour, in 2006, of Britain’s service stations: "Hello Moto! Welcome Break! / Massive coffee, piece of cake . . . .".
The design critic Stephen Bayley told us that he saw a Lotus XI racing car on the back of a trailer when he was about six and thought “How can a machine be so beautiful?”. He loves the drama of certain American designs – “vulgarian, non-economic and therefore fabulous”. One of the men behind these was Harley Earl. He was among the most influential designers who ever lived, Bayley said, but he never drew anything. His working method was to make a mental note of features that pleased him and then issue instructions such as “I want that line to have a duflunky, to come across, have a little hook in it, and then do a rashoom or zong . . .”.
A MoMA exhibition of 1951, “Eight Automobiles”, described cars as “rolling sculpture”. In Bayley’s view, cars don’t quite constitute art, being collective things, but they “ape the effects of art”. Part of the attraction of sports cars, he believes, lies in the “obvious erotic character” of their design and of the act of driving them, and in their military associations – he quoted a saying among American enthusiasts: “When you get in a Porsche, you feel you want to invade Poland". But cars are “ultimately about freedom, about escaping crushing tedium”, and about the imaginative journeys you go on along with the geographical ones.
Electric cars may have been W. H. Auden’s fantasy – “Dark was the day when Diesel / conceived his grim engine . . . ”; “we need . . . / an odorless and noiseless / staid little electric brougham” (from “A Curse”, 1972), but Bayley thinks that they “speak of convenience and disappointment alone”. Fortunately, there are those with something more exciting in mind. Dr Michael Jump, an aerospace engineer at Liverpool University, is taking part in the myCopter project, which is investigating the possibility of personal air vehicles for commuters. Jump is carrying out research using a flight simulator, working on the basis that such vehicles would have “vertical lift capability” and fly at low level.
You may be wondering how this relates to literature. Jump told us that he was inspired to enter his profession by the fiction of Arthur C. Clarke; and he stands by Clarke’s statement that “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong”.
An artist's impression of a personal air vehicle
© Gareth Padfield; Flight Stability and Control
Top: The Filling Station, King's Cross; © John Sturrock