It can be hard to give up things.
One way is to just remove temptation.
I’d vowed last winter, after waking up to the extent of our climate crisis, only to use my car for unavoidable journeys.
But I’d found – despite then becoming a climate activist and active travel campaigner, and someone who’d always loved walking and cycling, and a big fan of trams and trains – that I still had trouble avoiding the tendency to jump in the car when it was raining, I was feeling lazy or running late.*
I decided that the easiest way to give up using my private car – was to remove it and go cold turkey.
Deciding to do something, and doing it, are also two different things (as the broken lightbulb in my hallway can testify today, a good month after it blew it).
So, when Extinction Rebellion’s Deansgate direct action rolled around this August, and fellow protestors were looking for an eye-catching protest artwork in the middle of the street… I had just the job…
My initial idea was a live art installation — to chainsaw the entire roof off in front of the assembled crowds, and fill it with soil to turn it into a giant car-sized planter full of saplings – to say what I wanted to say about car culture and climate breakdown.
That idea fizzled away quickly when I watched a few ‘Pimp my Ride’ type YouTube videos and realised it looked quite a full-on DIY job that would require safety barriers, angle grinders and expertise… and also several tonnes of soil.
I also ruled it out when I looked into the Road Traffic Act – which seemed to suggest that as long as my car was still driveable as well as not hazardous, I’d be breaking no laws.
But the offer of the car percolated amongst our group, and in the end we arrived at a different, less risky idea…
Another member of our group was working on an idea for an alternative Angel of the North – a massive statue made entirely from plastic and waste. The only trouble was – they didn’t know how to create a secure base for it.
They needed something really heavy yet mobile…
Mmm ….what could I suggest??
Offering my car as the statue base would mean cutting a hole through the roof, ripping out the seats to be replaced by ballast, and fixing wooden cross-strut brackets inside.
And so we proceeded in separate places – the statue team building the angel with crisp packets and chicken wire and whatever else in a garden in Didsbury.
And me pimping my car (keeping it driveable to be able to get it in position on the morning of the protest) outside my house a few miles away in Chorlton.
We sent each other photos and measurements.
I picked up on another of the group’s ideas and turned the interior of the car into a ‘No Thyme herb garden’.
I potted up a set of old containers with a variety of herbs – excluding thyme (as in the time we don’t have to avert climate breakdown…)
I also broke up some old cardboard boxes and painted them into logo boards to affix on wheel hubs and doors.
On the morning of August 30th we all gathered in St Anne’s Square ready to occupy streets – one group assembled the angel, complete with ‘Tell The Truth!’ wings of white sheets – while another stood by to drive my car in place.
We wanted it in pole position in the centre of one of the crossroads of the historic street so it acted as a clear signpost to why we were there.
As soon as the action started, the angel and the car were brought together and in no time at all, assembled into a 5m tall artwork right outside House of Fraser, complete with trailing bunting and flags, and ropes attached to lamp-posts for extra security from the wind.
And there they stayed, locked safely together for four days, until – thousands of selfies and strange looks later – it was time for us all to go.
The piece had done its job; creating a clear message and giving us a centre-piece unique to Manchester.
It seemed natural to make the dismantling part of our closing ceremony.
Under the gaze of regional TV news film crews, the angel was carefully removed from her mount on the roof of my car, to be tilted flat, and carried horizontally by a dozen or more protestors – almost like a funeral procession, her body and wings shaped like a cross (this scene lead the report on the evening news bulletin).
Meanwhile behind her, I piloted the car as it was pushed along at walking pace by dozens more; engine off and silent, save for the creaking of stiff wheels not used to being without power steering.
Around us, like a respectful armoured guard, a few hundred or so remaining protestors walked in procession along Deansgate and then a right turn down towards the People’s History Museum – which had offered to house the installation as an exhibit.
And there they stayed, in the cobbled yard in full view of all the museum’s visitors – a testament to the power of direct action, complete with a typed exhibit explanation and artists credit!
I wish the story ended there – that the angel-car was still in that museum sharing the tell the Truth message.
Sadly, the museum needed its yard back, so some weeks later, car and angel were dismantled again and driven away, to go their separate ways. 😥
The angel is … resting somewhere.
And I haven’t driven the car since.
But I haven’t known what to do with it either. It feels a bit like a dirty secret from my past, tucked around the corner out of sight and out of mind.
It’s damp and cold and silent – and the MOT runs out next week.
So I’ve decided to offer it for free to anyone who wants it for a good cause.
A car** with a history .. and a hole in the roof.
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* I will write a post about what I’ve learnt being car-free in the New Year but one thing I’ve definitely realised is that the perception that the car is quicker for short trips is often quite false – many journeys seem quicker by car but when you factor in the hassle of parking and congestion they aren’t – in fact walking or cycling are far more reliable (almost 100% predictable in fact!) not to mention being miles less stressful and much better for all of us!)
**It’s a VW Polo, about 105,000 miles on the clock, excellent engine, bit of a mess in the back seat… but otherwise in full working order, small hole in the roof, bit mouldy inside due to damp, built 2002, taxed til February.