COVER PHOTO | JO-ANN McEWAN
The author of this book is a university English Professor. Reading it is a lot like being at university. You start all bright-eyed and keen, flying through the introduction and first chapters on speed theory and half of the next one (which deals with the incitement to speed), lose your way a little in the middle bits covering the experience of speed and visuality, then make a dash for the finish and practically inhale the crash culture chapter and the charmingly named epilogue: overdrive, to be left only with a heady mix of accomplishment and the urge to read some Ballard.
It isn’t a light read. It makes no reference to The Fast and the Furious series. What The Speed Handbook does, however, is run through countless brilliant works of art and literature (with a focus on high culture) from the nineteenth century to modern-day. It traverses the uptake of increasingly available transport options while explaining the changing cultural dynamics, from the early production of the motorcar to widespread use, alongside phrases like “the instrumental relation between human user and seeing machine” and “a sustained grandiloquence of literary flourishes”. The pace of the tome seems to slow early on as it discusses the ‘modern horror’ of slowness, citing the plodding steamer in Heart of Darkness and the new, frustrated energy of traffic jams.
Although early speed limits on public roads in Britain under the 1865 Red Flag Act were only four miles an hour, which increased to fourteen miles an hour by the Locomotive and Highways Act of 1896, even these allowances (paltry by today’s standards) could provide early road users with the sensation of speed; one most intoxicating when experienced above normal comfort levels (and forever requiring increased speeds to feel the same rush). For the cautious thrill seeker, rollercoasters (in existence from seemingly too early year of 1886) don’t allow driving but offer speed as physical thrill sensation, controlled and regulated, and with little threat of real danger.
Pleasure, danger, corruption of innocence, ‘modernism’, violence, and changes in the notion of space and time are all here. The use of motor vehicle as a means to improve efficiency is given a mention. Even the tragedy of Lady Di is covered in the first few pages. It shouldn’t warrant mentioning, but it’s a nice touch that all reference to the driver is from a female perspective. If you can make it past the chapter on abstraction of space and non-place (unless this floats your boat, of course), the rest is well worth your time.
Good job, Enda Duffy. Four stars. Available here.
Jo is a buxom redhead looking for adventure. She loves her motor children equally, and if you ask really nicely, she might let you take them for a spin. Easily distractible, but also easily obsessed, she is our Editor-in-Chief, resident proof-reader, and zany ideas lady. Caffeine is her fuel of choice.