A nine year old boy was killed by a motorbike on Tyneside last week. I’d read the story on BBC.co.uk. Yesterday I found out who the poor child was. He was a school mate of one of my daughter’s friends.
When I was the same age, a boy in my class was killed in similar circumstances: crossing a road.
One of my aunties was killed in a motorway smash.
Most people can relate similar stories. We all know of people closely connected to such tragedies.
The Campaign for Safe Road Design says:
“In the past 10 years more than 30,000 people have died on Britain’s roads. We all know someone killed or maimed in a brutal road crash.”
Road deaths have been falling year on year since the 1960s. Partly this is due to self-segregation: pedestrians and cyclists steer clear of ‘dangerous roads’. But 2500 annual road deaths is still an amazingly high and shocking number.
In 2008, 124 children were killed on roads. 115 cyclists were killed. 572 pedestrians died. 493 motorcyclists were killed. The rest of the deaths that year were of motorists. Road deaths are relatively static: between 2500 and 3000 a year. Driving is more risky than it seems, both for the driver and for those outside the car.
Driving is seen as a right; it’s not perceived as dangerous. It’s not seen as risky for a human strapped into a fast, heavy object to propel that object along a route shared with slower, softer, lighter humans.
We gloss over road deaths. They’re diffuse, they’re under-reported, they’re random.
Many of those shot and killed in Cumbria last week were also random. But there’s been mass-media coverage ever since. The Lake District killings were awful but because Derrick Bird killed with guns, his evil is still newsworthy. If he’d killed 12 people by randomly smashing into them at a bus-stop, there would a news mention but not a week of blanket coverage.
This afternoon, Edmund King, president of the AA, tweeted:
“Media coverage of Cumbria killer is way over the top compared to lack of coverage of daily road carnage.”
He’s right. And here’s why (although he likely wouldn’t agree). We’re so in love with the many and glorious benefits of mass motoring (I’m not anti-car) we refuse to see it has a dark underside.
I think it’s relevant here to repeat the short story from ex-Python Terry Jones I’ve run before. This is from ‘Fairy tales and Fantastic Stories’, well worth shelling out for. I’m guilty of breaching copyright if I repeat the full text of Terry Jones’ story so I’ve extracted long excepts instead. You’ll still get the gist of the polemic.
THE FLYING KING
There was once a devil in Hell named Carnifex, who liked to eat small children. Sometimes he would take them alive and crush all the bones in their bodies. Sometimes he would pull their heads off, and sometimes he would hit them so hard that their backs snapped like dry twigs…But one day, Carnifex got out of his bed in Hell to find there was not a single child left. ‘What I need is a regular supply,’ he said to himself. So he went to a country that he knew was ruled by an exceedingly vain king. He found him in his bathroom…and said to him: ‘How would you like to fly?’ ‘Very much indeed,’ said the king, ‘but what do you want in return, Carnifex?’ ‘Oh . . . nothing very much,’ replied Carnifex, ‘and I will enable you to fly as high as you want, as fast as you want, simply by raising your arms like this,’ and he showed the king how he could fly. ‘I should indeed like to be able to do that,’ thought the king to himself. ‘But what is it you want in return, Carnifex?’ he asked aloud. ‘Look! Have a try!’ replied Carnifex. ‘Put out your arms – that’s right, and now off you go!’
The king put out his arms, and immediately floated into the air…He went higher and higher, until he was above the clouds… Then he landed back beside the devil and said: ‘But what is it you want in return, Carnifex?’ ‘Oh, nothing very much,’ replied Carnifex. ‘Just give me one small child every day, and you shall be able to fly – just like that…there are thousands of children in your kingdom…I shall only take one a day – your people will hardly notice.’ The king thought long and hard about this, for he knew it was an evil thing, but the idea of walking anywhere, now he’d tasted the thrill of flying, seemed to him so slow and dull that in the end he agreed. And from that day on he could fly – just like that.
….Every day some poor family would find that one of their children had been taken by Carnifex the devil. Now the king’s youngest daughter had a favourite doll that was so lifelike that she loved it and treated it just as if it were a real live baby. And she was in the habit of stealing into the king’s bathroom (when he wasn’t looking) to bath this doll in one of his baths.Well it so happened that she was doing this on the very day that the king made his pact with Carnifex, and thus she overheard every word that passed between them. Naturally she was terrified by what she had heard, but because girls were not reckoned much of in that country in those days, and because she was the least and most insignificant of all his daughters, she had not dared tell anyone what had happened. One day, however, Carnifex came and took the king’s own favourite son. The king busied himself in his counting-house, and would not say a word. Later that day he went off for a long flight, and did not return until well after dark.
Eventually all the people from all the corners of the realm came to the king to protest. They gathered in the main square, and the king hovered above them looking distinctly uneasy. ‘You are not worthy to be our king!’ the people cried. ‘You have sacrificed our very children just so that you can fly!’ The king fluttered up a little higher, so he was just out of reach, and then he ordered them all to be quiet, and called out: ‘Carnifex! Where are you?’ There was a flash and a singeing smell, and Carnifex the devil appeared, sitting on top of the fountain in the middle of the square. At once a great cry went up from the crowd – something between fear and anger – but Carnifex shouted: ‘Listen! I understand how you feel!’
…But the king’s youngest daughter stood up on her stool, and cried out: ‘He’s a devil! Don’t listen to him!’ ‘Quite, quite,’ said Carnifex, licking his lips at the sight of the little girl still clutching her favourite doll. ‘But even I can sympathize with the tragic plight of parents who see their own beloved offspring snatched away in front of their very eyes.’ ‘Don’t listen!’ shouted the king’s youngest daughter. ‘So I’ll tell you what I’ll do,’ said Carnifex, never taking his beady eyes off the little girl clutching what he thought was a small baby. ‘I’ll give you some compensation for your tragic losses. I will let you all fly – just like that!’ And he pointed to the king, who flew up and down a bit and then looped-the loop, just to show them all what it was like. And there was not a single one of those good people who wasn’t filled with an almost unbearable desire to join him in the air. ‘Don’t listen to him!’ shouted the little girl. ‘He’ll want your children!’ ‘All I ask,’ said Carnifex in his most wheedling voice, ‘is for one tiny. . . weeny. . . little child a day. Surely that’s not too much to ask?’ And, you know, perhaps there were one or two there who were so besotted with the desire to fly that they might have agreed, had not a remarkable thing happened. The king’s youngest daughter suddenly stood up on tiptoe! and held up her favourite doll so that all the crowd could see, and she cried out: ‘Look! This is what he’ll do to your children!’ And with that, she hurled the doll, which she loved so dearly, right into Carnifex’s lap. Well, of course, this was too much for the devil. He thought it was a real live baby, and he had its head off and all its limbs torn apart before you could say ‘Rabbits!’ And when the crowd saw Carnifex apparently tearing a small baby to pieces (for none of them knew it was just a doll) they came to their senses at once. They gave an angry cry, and converged on Carnifex where he crouched, with his face all screwed up in disgust, spitting out bits of china and stuffing.
And I don’t know what they would have done if they’d laid hold of him, but before they could, Carnifex had leapt from the fountain right onto the back of the flying king, and with a cry of rage and disappointment, he rode him down to Hell where they both belonged. And, after that, the people gave the youngest daughter a new doll that was just as lifelike as the previous one, and she was allowed to bath it in the king’s bathroom any day she wanted. As for Carnifex, he returned every year to try and induce the people to give up just one child a day to him. But no matter what he offered them, they never forgot what they had seen him do that day, and so they refused, and he had to return empty-handed. And all this happened hundreds and hundreds of years ago, and Carnifex never did think of anything that could persuade them.
But listen! You may think that Carnifex was a terrible devil, and you may think that the flying king was a terrible man for giving those poor children to Carnifex just so that he could fly. But I shall tell you something even more astonishing, and that is that in this very day, in this very land where you and I live, we allow not one. . . not two. . . not three… but twenty children to have their heads smashed or their backs broken or to be crushed alive every day – and not even so that we can fly, but just so that we can ride about in things we call motor cars. If I’d read that in a fairy tale, I wouldn’t have believed it – would you?
Carnifex is Latin for killer or executioner.