Hitch-Hiking by Mario Rinvolucri/chapter-5

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The New Zealand Maoris believe that things given have a spirit or 'hau'. You make me a present of an object. At a later date I give this same object to a friend of mine. Some time after that my friend decides to give me a gift in return. The object he gives me contains the 'hau', or spirit, of the first object you originally gave me, and this 'hau' will never be magically at rest until it returns to your house. If I hang on to the gift from my friend I may well be killed by the restless 'hau'. The safest solution is to give the object to you. The 'hau' has now come back to its place of origin and is at peace.

In modern European peasant society the giving of a present also involves complications. If you make a Greek villager a gift he will barely look at it in front of you or say 'thank you'. The simple acceptance of the present has already put him in your debt, in your power, and to express great gratitude would dangerously emphasize this. The French Alpine farmer will accept a gift, price it as carefully as he can in local shops, and within a couple of weeks make you a gift of almost identical money value. He will thus have freed himself of the onus of your gift.

Communities which hold a magical view of the world, or which are still close to such a view, are acutely aware of the danger of receiving a gift or a service without there being a subsequent reciprocation. By them the danger is seen as coming from the spirits who are capable of doing the human beings concerned direct harm.

In post magical society the need for reciprocity remains, only now it is seen as a psychological one. A person does not wish to be beholden to another on account of a gift or service rendered, he does not wish to say: 'much obliged'. Emerson in his essay on gifts writes:

It is not the office of a man to receive gifts. How dare you give them? We wish to be self sustained. We do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten....

Kant makes a similar point in discussing ingratitude:

... a man imagines, because the benefactions of others subject him to an obligation, that he does not need them; nor will he ask for them, but bear the burdens of life alone, rather than put them upon others and thus become indebted to them. For he fears that in so doing he will sink to the level of a client in relation to his patron, and this is repugnant to true self-esteem. (The Metaphysic of Morals)

The universally felt need for reciprocity appears in very special garb in post Reformation English society. It has integrated into the puritan system of thought, and in the process of integration has been given an even more conscious place than it claims in other communities. The puritan man is first and foremost a self-sustaining individualist. The thing he most hates is to feel beholden, obligated, psychologically in debt. We are at present going through a period of revulsion against certain aspects of puritanism, a so-called period of 'permissiveness' (this word itself must first have been coined by a dyed-in-the-wool puritan); it is very important in reading what follows not to become so annoyed by the puritan expression as to fail to see the universal psychological substance of what is being discussed.

Hitch-hiking is a practice that strikes a great many people as unacceptable. Internally they feel it psychologically unsettling, but when they express their feelings they dress them up in the words of puritan morality, the dominant morality. This is what a sprinkling of people, ranging across class and age divisions, feel about hitching:

Sixty year old, middle class, church-going lady: Hitch-hiking! Just another name for scroungers. Utterly dishonest. People should work for what they want as our generation did, not expect to have everything before they're twenty ....
Professional man in his fifties: I'm inclined to think of them as beggars, not the sort that sit on the corner of the Kasbah displaying their 'woes', but a more sophisticated type, say a 'con-man'. I have met many of them and am inclined to suspect them at first, though I have never had cause for this ....
Twenty one year old Liverpool electrician: My views on hitch-hiking are pretty set really, ... in as much as ... mmm I think hitchers generally are spongers. Because, I mean, having struggled myself, all my working life -- all five years of it (he grins) -- to keep a vehicle of some sort, whether it be a scooter, or motor-bike or car or what have you, I'm sort of forking out and saving up. Well, the first bike, I scrimped, really sort of saved for nearly nine months to buy. I personally would never consider hitch-hiking anywhere, and I don't see why people should turn round and say: 'Well I'm going to have a holiday on the cheap,' and scrounge off some poor soul that's got nine pound nineteen and fivepence worth of petrol in the car and sort of use his petrol and say 'thank you very much' at the end of it and leave him to it.
You can't go anywhere now, even down the East Lancs Road, without passing yobs from football matches with their red and white scarves and their blue and white scarves thumbing lifts. You can't go on the motorway without some young teenage girls from some college somewhere or other, sort of thumbing lifts, you know; well, it's er . it's decrepit to my way of thinking, the fact that they have to rely on this method of transport, er it's just not er ... it's just not done in my estimation at all, in fact that, that is why I never stop for anybody and give them a lift.

Article in The People, 12 September 1965:

-- In the course of my travels I have met many like him on the roads. The hitch-hiker scrounging a lift from anywhere to anywhere. Except that 47 year old Bill Donehue of Leeds is probably the champion at that game. He reckons to have been 'chauffeur driven' over 20,000 miles since he picked up the habit in the army during the war. Bill and his wife have an income of £26 a week (1965), but he regards the idea of buying a car for himself as ridiculous:
'Why should I, when I can get free lifts anywhere?' he asks.
There are too many hitch-hikers like him today -- well-off young men who take advantage of the generosity of motorists, some of whom can ill afford to run cars. Those who want to enjoy oysters and champagne have to earn the money first. I see no reason why the same principle should not apply to those who want to travel.


To hitch-hike: to travel by begging lifts from passing vehicles.

When challenged over this remarkably biased definition the editor, Dr W.G.S. Friedrichsen, replied:

Anyone who solicits something for nothing is begging, and a man who has so little pride as to want to ride in someone else's car without any regard for his convenience or privacy is a begger or a 'cadger'; in the USA a 'bum'.

What strikes one reading through the foregoing is the shrill vehemence of the words used by the puritans. Perhaps this is because hitch-hiking threatens their scheme of values in the area of exchange between human beings, in the area of giving and taking. On this deep level it would be a disturbing phenomenon to any community, puritan or not. It worries the specifically puritan mind by apparently by-passing the need to own money. The possession of money sufficient to one's needs is a central tenet of the puritan philosophy. Otherwise, the puritan reasons, the individual cannot be independent and self supporting.

Those who want to enjoy oysters and champagne have to earn the money first. (The vast contradiction of capitalism and living off money-lending is one which the puritan ignores, forgets or deftly double thinks.) The puritan sees the hitch-hiker travelling without paying, therefore he has no money, so he hasn't earned any, therefore he doesn't intend to earn any ... etc.

To exorcise the hitch-hiker from his mind the puritan writes him off, belittles him, demeans him: he is decrepit, a parasite, a bum, a scrounger and a cadger, a beggar. This is a familiar mechanism for protecting oneself against the influence of a person who threatens one's psychological security.

There might appear to be a contradiction here in the fact that the puritan belongs to a religious tradition that had a beggar as its founder. Some of its leading cult heroes, Iike Francis of Assisi, opted for bumdom. But this is only an apparent contradiction, since no society could follow the example of Christ or Francis and remain cohesive, at least not at the present stage of psychological development. The early Christians themselves only put into practice that part of Christ's sayings that fitted into the framework of an organised community life. In other words the puritans are at one with other Christians in rejecting the beggar philosophy, despite the fact that Christ and the apostles were just such.

A more difficult contradiction which the puritan mind is either unaware of or double thinks its way through is how you reconcile the ideal of self sufficiency with large scale begging by wealthy organisations. In any given year the Oxbridge colleges and public schools probably squeeze more out of the willing elite in building appeals than all the fares 'unholy cadgers' plying the motorways fail to pay. The scouting movement lives a similar double think over Bob-a-Job Week.

A very peculiar puritan belief is that exertion and unpleasant effort are intrinsically virtuous. This frequently comes out when puritans talk about hitching. A Mr Stanier wrote this to The Times (30 August 1955):

Hitch-hikers contend that their practice encourages enterprise and initiative; so do many other dubious activities. It certainly costs less in money and energy than normal modes of travel. There are other inexpensive ways of seeing the country, but as these demand a considerable amount of physical exertion in walking or cycling, they may not appeal to hitch-hikers.

The idea that one of the sins of the hitch-hiker is that he does not toil forward by the sweat of his brow is echoed in this public schoolboy's diary:

We set off on the Bruges road and though there were others with the same idea as ourselves we were offered a lift within ten minutes. I think this was because we kept walking and looked industrious, whereas the others all stood still to hitch lifts.

What happens when a thorough-going puritan is forced by circumstances to hitch? Isobel Kuhn was an American Protestant missionary in South China and in 1940 she desperately needed to get across the mountains to see her little daughter. She decided to 'travel by yellow fish':

A mother who wants to reach her child will go through much, so there I was holding up my thumb to this young Chinese fellow, who drew his truck to a standstill and grinned at me. We bargained for a seat and he doubtless never dreamed that this drab, middle-aged white woman was cringing with humiliation inside. But I was. Reasonable or not I have never forgotten that flush of shame. Once quietly installed in the truck I talked in my heart to Him who had always been my refuge. 'Lord why do I have to be put in situations like this?' (In The Arena)

Isobel Kuhn, steeped as she was in zealot missionary puritanism, might seem a million light years from young people hitching in the so-called permissive Britain of the sixties. Yet when the 186 respondents were asked: Some people say hitching is cadging -- do you think it is? more than 1 in 3 said they thought it was. In other words more than 1 in 3 were hitching guiltily.The answers fell out like this:

  • 67 respondents 36% YES, yes to a degree, yes sort of ...
  • 21 respondents 12% IT DEPENDS, sometimes, yes and no ...
  • 98 respondents 52% NO, no not really . . .

The 36% who felt hitch-hiking to be cadging, or in a way cadging, were worrying about the deep, age-old problem of reciprocity in giving and taking. The word 'to cadge' and their own verbal reactions to the questions asked bear the stamp of the puritan ethic, but this must not obscure the fact that the problem they sense is a universal one.

The 36% of the respondents who felt hitching was cadging or to some degree cadging were then asked: If you think it is, how do you feel about doing it yourself?

Some could find no relieving solution to the problem -- their answers revealed their acceptance of the puritan condemnation -- they simply internalised their degradation and humiliation:

  • I don't like doing it.
  • I was a bit ashamed at first.
  • I was a bit afraid going through towns, everybody's staring at you.
  • I'm a hypocrite.
  • I just swallow my principles.

In direct contrast to the above group who internalized their feelings of guilt there was another group, who having said hitching was cadging, disclaimed feelings of guilt, rejected such feelings, or aggressively side-stepped the question. Here are some of their reactions:

  • I don't feel anything about it.
  • I don't feel bad about it, I don't force them to stop.
  • I don't feel guilty about doing it.
  • (He shrugs) It's a way of getting round.
  • You're not forcing anybody to give you a lift.

A third group tacitly accepted the guilt the questioner implied by asking: How do you feel about doing it yourself? and put forward the justificatory excuse of lack of money:

  • I can't afford to go any other way usually.
  • I can't face spending o7 going from London and Plymouth and back, so I have no alternative.
  • Only do it when I have to.
  • At the moment I'm broke, I haven't a car, I had to trade in my motor-bike. It's one way of getting around. If people are prepared to give you a lift.
  • In some cases I have to scrounge.

Among the people who reckoned hitching was cadging the one group to work out some sort of solution to the psychological problem were those who retrieved their dignity and self-esteem by positing the principle of reciprocity:

  • If someone wants you to, you contribute to the petrol.
  • If you're travelling with a lorry driver you stop and buy him a drink.
  • By talking to people and communicating with them you can enrich them in a sense.
  • I'd pick up people if I was driving.
  • I give people lifts when I'm driving.

The principle of reciprocity (the word 'repayment' has too narrow a sense) is the major one invoked by hitch-hikers in coming to terms with the psychological problem of accepting Iifts. There appear to be six major ways of achieving reciprocity in hitch-hiking.

The first is a direct cash payment. Car delivery men pay lorry drivers so much per 100 miles. This is a direct system of payment with a tacitly agreed rate. Even lorry drivers who don't accept the money expect it to be offered.

People who don't hitch normally, and suddenly find themselves forced to accept a lift sometimes try to pay off the favour directly. I once picked up a forty year old man on the way back from London to Cambridge. He had been to a business conference and had missed the last train. There were other people in the front and he had to suffer the indignity of travelling on the floor of my van for 15 miles. When we got to Cambridge he pressed 50p into my hand to buy a gallon of petrol. I tried to refuse but he absolutely insisted. Finally I gave in -- 50p was a small price for a man to pay to regain his self-respect.

The second way of reciprocating is by an indirect cash payment. Some lorry drivers don't like platers to pop them 5 bob 'for a drink'. It smacks of being tipped. So they have a small box in the cab and when money is offered they point to the box and say: for the kiddies' Christmas.

In this way they get the money without directly accepting it. A number of motorists also have little boxes in the fronts of their cars and ask thumbers to contribute. This idea seems to have come up first in the lift-giving spate in 1940. Writing in Motor (2.10.40) S.J. Critchley said:

... I would therefore suggest that all motorists willing to assist be provided with a Red Cross collecting box into which passengers can deposit a trifle and thereby express their gratitude for services rendered.

Writing 23 years later a Mr Walton brought up the idea again in the Guardian (19.2.63):

I now carry a standard cardboard collecting box of the type easily obtained from an organisation such as Oxfam. The label on the outside has been slightly amended: 'one good turn ... help and give others a lift too'. On principle I try not to know what any particular passenger puts in but I do know that none yet has refused and that very few pennies are given.

Mr Walton and those like him are certainly providing hitch-hikers with the possibility of freeing themselves from psychological indebtedness even though in some cases the driver's motivation in putting out the little box may have a punitive, puritanical side to it, as this letter in the Telegraph makes clear:

Sir -- If motorists would carry collecting boxes for some charity and request a contribution when asked for a lift by hitch-hikers, it might put a stop to this intolerable imposition. (19.5.54)

The third reciprocal method used by the hitch-hiker is, while accepting the gift, to offer a counter gift, or token counter gift. He may keep the driver supplied with cigarettes. When they stop he may buy the other a snack or a meal. Sometimes he may provide an actual service, like taking over the driving if the owner of the car is tired, or doing an illegal chore for his host. Coming from Greece into Yugoslavia I was asked by a Volkswagen driving Arab to put an envelope of his into my rucksack. When we had got safely past the border guards, he reassuringly told me I'd been smuggling legal documents for him. I had well and truly paid for my ride from Athens to Belgrade.

Quite a number of thumbers are conscious of the counter-gift mechanism. An East Anglia student and his girl friend had this to say about it:

He: They often buy you a drink or a meal if you're going on a long journey. I mean really I often sort of think: 'Well you're giving me a lift, let me buy you a drink or let me get you a small meal or something' ....
She: I think it's rather nice, you know, to buy them something -- I'd like to sort of feel that I wasn't begging off them completely ....

The fourth way the thumber feels reciprocity to be working is when he makes an effort to talk and stimulate the driver. So a Liverpool student:

You sort of think: this chap's giving me a lift, I'd better give him his money's worth and chat to him and tell him exactly what I'm doing ....

Some people feel this in a more violent, aggressive way than the Liverpool student. A wages clerk, asked if he thought hitch-hiking was cadging said:

No, not at all. If I'm picked up by a lorry driver I'm doing him a favour talking to him.

In the case of attractive girls they are often aware that their presence in the car and the pleasure it gives the driver is a very real return for the lift they are getting. More on this in Chapter 7.

The fifth way a thumber deals with his feeling of obligation is by expressing his gratitude to the driver, either verbally, by smiling as he gets in and out of the car, by waving as the car goes off, by his gestures, in fact by his whole way of being during the lift. Certainly many drivers expect behaviour of this sort -- they often complain about hitch-hikers who just install themselves as of right and then take themselves off without a word of thanks. Here's an example of a driver, who, on the contrary, has experienced hitch-hikers who reciprocate by being overtly grateful:

Whenever I have given a hitch-hiker a lift I have been more than repaid by the very grateful thanks I have received, and I have driven off with a glow of satisfaction out of all proportion to the small service I have rendered. On the few occasions when I have actually gone a few miles out of my way to save the hitch-hiker a tiring walk, the expression of thanks has been overwhelming. (Times, 30.8.55)

The five forms of reciprocity described have all involved the hitch-hiker doing or saying something to his benefactor. The last, and perhaps most widespread form of reciprocity strangely enough ignores the benefactor of the moment, the lift giver. It is a mental construct in the mind of the hitcher and goes something like this:

O.K., so this man gives me a lift. It might look as though I was getting something for nothing. I am getting something from him for nothing, but I'm not getting something for myself for nothing because when I have a car I'll pick other people up. I'll pay his gift back to another person. The important thing is I won't be left in possession of this terrifying gift, in the thrall of beholdenness. The central idea is to get rid of the gift, to pass it on, to placate the 'hau'.
So: Cambridge student: ... I think I would give lifts to students in repayment ....
Interviewer: Repayment? In what way?
Student: For people who gave me lifts beforehand, it wouldn't be giving lifts to the same people who gave me lifts, but it'd perhaps perpetuate a sort of student-driver relationship, almost, and then students would be more certain of getting lifts.

While much has been said about the principle of reciprocity and ways hitchhikers have found of satisfying its demands, some thumbers don't consciously see the problem of lift-giving and taking in this light at all. Many point out that the man who stops to give a lift is not making a gift in the way that a man who gives you a meal is. The lift giver is not materially losing anything and in fact he is gaining your company. In other words they are not confronted with the problem of being indebted or beholden because they don't see in what sense the other person is 'giving' anything. It is probably people with feelings like these that drivers complain about when they sometimes accuse hitchers of being ungrateful.

Among the 'ungrateful' hitchers there are probably those too who are pathologically incapable of accepting a gift or an interior obligation. The dominant feeling in them is hate and animosity towards the driver, quite possibly combined with envy of his car. One occasionally hears stories of hitch-hikers who deliberately slash the leather of the back seats of a car with a knife or razor. These people are clearly motivated by pathological hate of the driver precisely because he has done them a kindness, and because they envy his ability to do so. They would fit more or less into the type described by the American psychiatrist Seidenberg, in his paper On Being a Guest:

To make him a gift is to make him uncomfortable. He must repay immediately in kind, and usually outdoes the giver. He can remain obligated to no one. It is with great difficulty that he can accept a dinner invitation and remain the socially obligated 20 minutes after dinner.

Seidenberg discovered that in fact this kind of guest was obsessed with unconscious envy of his host. In a sense Seidenberg's guest and the car-slashing hitchers are pathological puritan types, people who so chronically desire to be self-sufficient that they can't bear to lean on others to any degree at all.

A solution for the hitch-hiker who feels he cannot bear the burden of the driver's gift, but who doesn't feel moved to physically damage the car, is to express his aggression by assuming a position of open arrogance. Interestingly the examples I have unearthed of this are mainly fictional. So in Travelling People B.S. Johnson shows Henry snubbing a would-be lift giver:

'Can I give you a lift somewhere?' he said in an accent that Henry could identify only as vaguely Northern. 'You mean may I, not can I,' thought Henry.
'You mean may I, not can,' said Henry. 'Of course you can, since it's well within the capabilities of your vehicle and apparently within the limits of your desire to give; but may you have the honour of giving me a lift? that another matter.'
The man chose not to believe he was being insulted.
'Hop in,' he said, 'I'm going to Oswestry if it's any help.'
It would have been a great help but Henry would rather have walked that day than have allowed himself to become indebted to a car driver.
'No, I want to go in the opposite direction, actually to Ffestiniog,' he said.
'Eh?' the man seemed bewildered, 'you're on the wrong side of the road then.'
'No, you're on the wrong side of the road, they drive on the right in America.

In real life arrogance of Henry's sort is unlikely to happen unprovoked. There was the case of a young Irish painter picked up by a Northern Frenchman and told he oughtn't to be travelling if he didn't have the money to go by train. Angrily the thumber retorted that he was an artist and so it was an honour to be giving him a lift.

Apart from hitch-hikers who discount the idea of lift giving being a gift or a service at all, and those at the other end of the scale who are so shattered at being given a gift that they go berserk and carve up the car, there are young people in revolt against the values of adult society, and in this case against what appears to them its tit-for-tat-ery. They exult in escaping from money values in hitch-hiking. Some of the 98 people (out of 186) who said that hitch-hiking was not cadging may well have had feelings of this sort.

Certainly several hitch-hikers have expressed to me their pleasure at being able to get around the country for very little money. A first year student at Liverpool explained that though the people down in the West Country don't Iike it, he can live for next to nothing by hitching and camping; in other words he feels almost free of money.

In the 1930's men on the dole hitched from one area to another in search of work, because they literally had no money. It is very rare for the present day hitcher to be in such dire straits. If you ask people point blank: Why do you hitch? you get answers Iike these:

  • to save money
  • because it's cheap
  • because of lack of money,
  • because we would not be able to afford the fare home,
  • to use available money on more important or necessary things.

Information given by the 186 people picked up in my van on main roads in September 1968 shows that people of widely varying incomes hitch. Leaving aside students, school children, unemployed and armed forces, 102 wage or salary earners were picked up. Of these:

  • 38 earned up to £499 per annum
  • 36 earned from £500 to £749 per annum
  • 13 earned from £750 to £999 per annum
  • 15 earned over £1,000 per annum

It is probably true to say that many of these people genuinely felt they couldn t afford to travel except by hitching. I.e., not that they absolutely couldn't have taken a coach up the motorway but that, in terms of their overall expenses, they did not think it wise to. This particular point was well put by a Cambridge undergraduate from the North:

Yeh ... about money -- when I go hitch-hiking ... I could ... I do have the money to pay for the train fare or pay for the bus fare, but I go hitching because I don't have enough money to do everything I want to do and travel is such an unproductive activity. You don't get anything out of it except for transport from one place to another, and therefore the cheapest (sic) way you can do this the better.

There are probably quite a lot of regular hitchers who would feel extremely ill at ease if they had to thumb, really physically didn't have enough cash to buy a ticket. In Sillitoe's Death of William Posters the hero is asked:

'But I thought you were broke, walking to Sheffield?'
'I wouldn't do this if I was -- walking and hitching lifts when I feel like it. If I'd got no money I'd stay put until I had.'

William Posters and those who feel like him chiefly want to escape any hint of an accusation that they might literally be beggars. Having plenty of money in their pockets provides them with an internal defence against the accusation. When I hitched as a student I used to feel that my wrist watch was the main public guarantee that I was no literal beggar. I was shattered once in the French Basque country to be told by some children that if I sold my watch I'd maybe make enough money to catch the bus.

The 1824 Vagrancy Act provides 14 days imprisonment for: Every person wandering abroad or placing himself in any public place, street, or highway to beg. Psychologically the community as a whole and quite a few hitch-hikers seem closer to the harsh puritanism of 1824 than to the mind of Francis of Assisi, who wrote in the rules for his followers:

If they are in want they should not be ashamed to beg alms ... if people insult them and refuse to give them alms, they should thank God for it ... the shame will be imputed to those who cause it, not to those that suffer it.