What no “red car, blue car”? No pub cricket, which even my own nippers, now seven and nine, enjoy playing – cheering as we pass The Bull (four runs) or wildly celebrating the huge score of a Fox and Hounds before lamenting the fall of their “wicket” to a “legless” pub like The Crown?
Instead, the car, that last refuge of forced companionship, with all its trials and triumphs, is being atomised, just as so many other once sociable spaces have also been locked down and fragmented by the on-demand, on-screen world.
It is more than just sloppy old nostalgia that should make us lament the passing of the Great Car Journey. Studies suggest the car journey – unplugged – has innumerable benefits, too.
One survey, by the insurer Aviva, suggests as many as one in eight of us has actively fled to the car to have a tricky family conversation. It’s not hard to see why. Psychotherapists say that its non-confrontational privacy, with passenger and driver sitting side-by-side or one in front of the other rather than squared up, makes the car a perfect place to broach delicate topics. There’s no squirming, or eye contact to shrink from; silences are not awkward, as the journey itself fills them, and provides an obvious, literal sense of moving on.
And while the car is a haven from intrusive distractions (finally, no checking emails), the act of driving itself provides distraction enough to lull the brain into a more receptive mode. “Because you’re not fully engaged on the one task of having a difficult conversation, you might not be as defensive,” Allegra Salvoni, a counsellor, told the Aviva survey. “It’s a technique hypnotherapists use a lot. They give the central executive function – the part of the brain that operates on a conscious level – an easy task because our mind needs to be busy with something. That leaves the rest of the brain free. Then we can subconsciously begin to understand our emotions and problem-solve, which is a better state to be in when you’re having a difficult conversation.”
The car’s ability to ease us into companionability is unparalleled. I vividly remember how effectively the silent routine of a lift home from school gradually melted my loathsome teenage school personality, so that by the time we got home I was almost human. “Oh, hello,” my mother would say, as if I’d been hibernating for months, rather than sitting alongside her for three-quarters of an hour.
Later, on a longer first trip to university, the car was the place where we both navigated that nervous sense of separation, of the chick finally flapping its flight feathers. How comforting then it was to stare out of the window, as I had on that infant trip to Norfolk, watching the city slip away and exchange itself for a flatter, colder landscape of which I knew nothing. Nothing teaches you geography like a shared car journey. Is it round here? Just round the next bend I think… The passivity of train travel, for all that I love it, doesn’t leave the same imprint.