Woman About Town

Traffic hazards

Driving in the uncanncy valley, Dartmoor’s cagoule warriors and the wizarding weirdness of the Rowling fandom

This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I am learning to drive. The most remarkable thing about this is that I’ve managed to get so far through adult life without doing it already — particularly given that I grew up in a village where buses were mythical beasts, to be summoned with sacrifices and beseeching prayers. But I’m doing it now, and it’s going pretty well. 

And yet, somehow, I still screamed

Next stop: the theory test, so I’m practising for the highway code multiple choice and hazard perception. If, unlike me, you got your licence pre-2002, you’ll never have experienced the uncanny valley of the hazard perception test: a series of computer-generated clips that simulate the experience of driving with your head stapled immovably to the seat. 

To pass, you have to identify the hazard and click the screen to show you’d react in time. But I’ve done them so often now, I can (unhelpfully) respond by habit. Instead of thinking about driving, I daydream about the small, eerily litter-free CG worlds in the practice films. 

Which CG person owns the CG dog running into the CG road? What are the two CG women talking about that’s so engrossing, they don’t even look before stepping out in front of me? Is the idyllic CG village based on a real place and can I have lunch in the nice looking pub? If I ever identify it, I might make it the first place I drive to.

* * *

All of a flutter 

General buslessness is one of the reasons my parents have decided to move out of the house I grew up in. I went to help them pack up: I dismantled a shattered cold frame, transported potted shrubs and — most importantly — helped get the cases containing my dad’s butterfly collection safely into the van.

Nowadays my dad counts butterflies rather than catching and pinning them, but when he was young he was a keen specimen hunter, and his finds are all preserved in careful rows according to their taxonomic position. 

Then there were the living creatures that made their way to our house: neighbours would bring injured wildlife to my dad, and our dining table was often a makeshift hedgehog ward. Given this domestic surfeit of natural history, I should not have been surprised when I tipped the contents of an old cigarette packet into my palm and found myself holding an enormous stag beetle’s head. And yet, somehow, I still screamed. 

* * *

Besides the driving, another deeply basic thing I’ve started doing is using a to-do list. This has been embarrassingly transformative. No more guiltily marking emails unread to “come back to later” and then losing them in the morass of my inbox! Unwanted online purchases get sent back, rather than repackaged and then forgotten in the hallway till it is too late. 

The brain-in-a-jar fiction of an idealised identity that has no relation to the faulty body

I’ve even started giving myself extra jobs so I can have the satisfaction of ticking them off. I have become, against everything I thought was true about myself, an organised person. 

I suspect this might be the secret of most organised people: you become one, not because you have been gifted a mind that runs on bullet journals, but because at some point your sense of personal chaos outweighs your ability to function. Behind every organised person is the frightened ghost of a woman with a jumpsuit she doesn’t like because she missed the return window. 

* * *

Fools in cagoules

A weekend in Devon ended with a walk across Dartmoor for me, my husband and Jessie the dog. We skirted around Wistman’s Wood — a dense clump of ancient oaks, gnarled by time and elements, scaled all over with lichens. The “no entry” sign seemed superfluous when it looked so obviously bewitched. Not, of course, that any sense of wonder could stop the cagoule warriors from having a good clamber on the moss-smothered boulders between the trees. My nature-loving parents taught me to have a healthy fear of adders, bogs and getting lost, but above all, they instilled in me a horror of leaving damage in my wake. 

The other thing they taught me to respect was farmers. My sister and I kept a tight hold on the family dog after my mum told us loose dogs got shot. So it’s surprising to see how many people on Dartmoor let their dogs off the leash, even around livestock. I called out a warning to one man who replied cheerfully that his dog didn’t mind sheep. Perhaps it’s time he found out whether his dog minds shotguns.

* * *

Net price of “freedom”

I started listening to the podcast The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling because I’m an endless sucker for all things gender wars. Rowling’s decision to speak up for women’s rights against trans activism, in full knowledge of what it would cost her, is a compelling example of someone choosing the inconvenient demands of conscience over the easy appearance of virtue. 

It’s only partly about that, though. It’s also about what the internet did to us, and the Harry Potter fandom was one of the earliest and biggest internet-driven communities. People found a home in their online tribe, but, in the process, they drastically transformed what it meant to be human. The apparent freedom to be anyone that the internet offered came at the price of harshly divorcing people from their physical selves. 

Through the internet, it became possible to believe the brain-in-a-jar fiction of an idealised identity that has no relation to the faulty body. From this sprang fat activism (a fantasy that obesity is harmless), furries (with their “furselves”, the anthropomorphic animal characters that some feel they truly “are”), and, of course, the trans activists, whose bitter rejection of the reality of sex created the fight Rowling eventually entered.

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