Heathcote Williams, Author of Autogeddon, RIP

Were an Alien Visitor
To hover a few hundred yards above the planet
It could be forgiven for thinking
That cars were the dominant life-form,
And that human beings were a kind of ambulatory fuel cell,
Injected when the car wished to move off,
And ejected when they were spent.

An excerpt from Heathcote Williams’ Autogeddon, a ballad about the plague of the motorcar published in 1991 (by Jonathan Cape publishers, London). Heathcote Williams died on 1st July 2017.

As described on the book cover, “Autogeddon is a witty, original, brutal examination of the car cult where ‘no child knows silence’…..Some will be shocked by this revelation of the price we pay to keep death on the roads………. Autogeddon awakens us from delirium, our eyes glued to the road and our hands gripping the wheel, as we accelerate round the final apocalyptic bend.”

While penned over 25 years’ ago, the reflections and observations captured in Williams’ ballad have never been more relevant than in 2017. He comments on the bizarre normality of so much death and injury having been created by motordom:

‘Oh, he died in a car crash…’
‘She died in a smash-up…’
So frequently said
With little more than a careless shrug.
So many swindled of a more measured death.
Accidents feature on the radio
Merely as hold-ups to the traffic flow.

The ballad addresses many aspects of social life that have been radically reshaped - for the worse - by the advent of the car. For example:

Stand on any street
Awash with bristling piranhas
Grinding out the flatulant muzak of stress:
A sudden move, a moment’s inattention:
You’re snapped up
And idly spat aside.

As adults are glutted by mobility,
Children wanting to play on their own doorsteps
Are hemmed in by parental fears,
Or else fatally immobilised.

The heart of the community, the street,
Is daily rent apart -
Conversation numbed
By a nervy descant of toxic shock.
Streets, once the open forum of daily life,
Are now the open sewers of the car cult.

If at all possible, it’s well worth getting your hands on a copy of the published book version of Autogeddon which includes many striking photos to accompany the text. Overall, it’s a powerful contribution to help us think critically about what the age of automobility has brought with it.

Heathcote Williams’ obituary in the Guardian can be read here. RIP.

News Item
Thursday, July 6, 2017

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