My Life as a Car

Remember the first car you ever owned – the sense of freedom you got just tossing the keys in your hand? And remember that company car, the Mondeo, the one you totaled first day on the job? Then there was the Volvo estate, with the Baby on Board sticker in the back window.  And what about the sports car when the mid-life crisis hit?

Everyone can recall the cars in their life.  They act like reference points and they all tell a story. Here are the cars I remember the best:  my life as a car.

1) 1966. My dad’s Morris Oxford,

Two tone blue, fins and lots of chrome;  a walnut dash and a front seat like a sofa. It was the best of all the cars we had as a family, and most memorable for the time we drove it down to Spain. My dad at the wheel smoking his pipe; mum in the front with a two-year old on her  lap; three more kids on the back seat, playing I spy and throwing-up for 2000 miles.

This was in the days when driving on the continent was still considered an intrepid thing to do – if you saw another GB vehicle you flashed your lights and waved.  We had two weeks on the beach on the Costa Brava,  but the road trip made a more lasting impression on me, in particular the trauma of breaking down on the way back.

A burst water pipe was the culprit. We were suddenly enveloped in steam.  My dad had a spare hose but it was the wrong size, which made him do a Basil Fawlty and  punch the engine.  My mother walked the kids miles across fields to get some water from a French farmhouse.  We managed to crawl to a garage and they fixed it on the spot. My dad gave the mechanic a bottle of wine and he shook our hands: “Bobby Charlton”  – England had just won the world cup.

When we got to the coast at St Malo the car was hoisted in a net and swung into the hold of the ship. (We weren’t in it).

2)  1970  The Morris 1000. (2577 ED)

My aunt developed a mental health problem. She saw the pope on the garage roof. She went into hospital and never came out, and when she died she left me her Morris 1000.

I learnt to drive in this car.  It wasn’t a sexy-looking vehicle – the design of a jelly mould,  and yellow indicator arrows that popped out of the side with a clunk – but the front passenger seat folded all the way forward,  and I was itching to pass my test so I could get up to no good in the back with my friend Paula.

I failed my first attempt, which was hardly surprising:  never has a driving test been racked with so much sexual tension. I took it again, and failed again. How long would Paula wait? I took it again and passed. I wanted to kiss the examiner almost as much as I wanted to kiss Paula.

That Morris was a good little runner, but it was at its best when it was stationary,  parked up behind the cricket pavilion at night.

3) 1976. The Leyland Terrier.

I was living in London and got a job as a van driver, delivering printing paper.  My Terrier was like a home on wheels. I had a Pink Floyd poster up in it, and a sheepskin cover on the seat. The best part of the job was every Thursday and Friday when I’d be given the East Anglia overnight run, and I’d tour Norfolk and Suffolk, taking printing paper to exotic places like Bungay. It was the hot, sunny summer of 1976 – I had a very suntanned right arm. I was given expenses for accommodation, but I used to sleep in the van on the paper. For company I picked up hitch-hikers. I would fill the back with them. I remember one American guy said he’d hitch-hiked round the whole of  Europe and the best place he’d been to was Ipswich.

Word got back to the company that I was running a bus service and I got fired. An endless summer that abruptly came to an end.

4)  1980. The Lincoln Continental.

I was traveling across America.  Now I was the hitch-hiker, but  I had a stock of good karma and everyone picked me up and took me home.

Then just outside De Moines I got a ride from a sales crew in a huge Lincoln Continental. They sold cleaner: “Presto, for the home industry and auto.”  They were a bunch of kids my age, traveling round the country, led by Jack who was an old hand and ran the company from his car. He  offered me a job and I  accepted  because I didn’t want to get out of the Lincoln.

For the next few months we headed west, over the mountains, across the desert, traveling in this black beast with red leather upholstery, stopping off in every town and selling Presto. Life seemed easy, and yet Jack was in trouble, the company was going under. He said he was going to have to sell the car, downsize. Then Mt St Helens exploded and covered the west in dust and mud and overnight everyone wanted to buy a tub of cleaner.

5) 1982  My Escort, the getaway car.

Back in London I’d started a gardening business. I used to cycle everywhere, but I thought if I had a car I could extend my range. I bought a very cheap, nondescript Ford Escort, so nondescript that it kept being stolen.  It would be used in a crime and then abandoned. Time after time this happened.  Crooks were using it for their work more than I was for mine.  The police would phone and tell me to come and pick it up from the station. I went on one occasion to find  it had been stolen from the pound. Basically, my car was having a more exciting life than I was.

I bought all sorts of locks, but they did no good. It was as if  it had a ring pull top. One night I woke up and heard the engine turning over. I jumped out of bed and ran outside to see it driving off. I called the police and they actually caught the thief.  He was there at the  station when I went to give a statement, and he gave me such an evil eye that it could only have been him who loosened the nuts on my front wheel a few days later. It came off as I was driving down Westbourne Grove.  Very embarrassing. Soon I went back to my bicycle.

6) 1986. The Triumph 6.

I wrote a book and it got into the best-sellers. With my first royalty cheque I decided to buy the car I had always wanted – a classic, a Triumph 6.  It was a convertible, in British racing green, and had an overdrive gear that made it leap forward with a roar. I paid cash and drove it away. It broke down before I got home.

I kept that car for two years and spent most of the time underneath it, which was pointless because I know nothing about engines. I just unscrewed things, put them back together and then threw away the bits. In desperation I joined the Triumph Owners Club. I went to meetings where guests speakers talked about the joys of a Solex carburetter. I went to rallies, and on stupid treasure hunts, and I spent my time in the company of other Triumph owners who had oily fingernails and no sex life. Looking back, it was a sad time. But what can you do when you love a car?  I was saved when I met a good woman. I was torn for a while, but she became pregnant the way the Triumph never could.

The Triumph was a two-seater. It had to go.

7) 1990. The Peugeot Estate.

A family car. We drove in it to antenatal classes, where my role in the miracle of childbirth was carefully explained.  My wife would take care of the cramps, the indigestion, the heartburn, the fluid retention, the high blood pressure and the excruciating pain, while I would make sure the car was topped up with oil and water and ready for the journey to the maternity ward on the big day.

I took this job of transportation manager very seriously.  I not only monitored oil and water, I checked tyre pressure and brake fluid, and took the car for a service. I became obsessed with getting the parking slot outside the house.  Then on the night my wife’s waters broke we piled into the Peugeot only for the bloody thing to break down halfway to the hospital. I called the AA. A very calm patrolman named Cliff arrived.  He examined the alternator, then examined my wife, and advised she was fully dilated and there was no time to get to the hospital. He delivered the baby using two 40mm spanners as forceps. We named the child Cliff.

I woke in a sweat from that one. But the real thing was no less of a nightmare. It coincided with the day the town’s new one-way system opened. Gridlock. It’s tough being a father.

8) 1999 The Camper Van.

What better vehicle for a growing family? A VW camper with a pop top.  We went to France. We went to Spain. I recreated the trips of my childhood. My wife and I even argued over picnic sites, just like my parents.

The van really came into its own though, when the boys got a band together . We piled equipment in and drove all over the place for gigs. I set up the gear and saw them play to an audience of four, then packed it all up again and drove home. They were convinced they were going to be rock stars. I was thrilled just to be the roadie

The band got better, the gigs got bigger, which meant the sound system expanded. The rusting van groaned under the weight of  a mixing desks and speakers. One Christmas they got through to a  regional final of a battle of the bands.  It snowed heavily that night. As the clock ticked down to their time-slot we were digging the van out of a drift, jettisoning bits of equipment. “You’ll have to play unplugged!”

9) 2009. Ford Focus.

This is the car we own now. We bought it from one of those car supermarkets. I entered my requirements into the computer:  I wanted something that wouldn’t break down,  was cheap to run and repair, something eco-friendly. The computer told me a Ford Focus estate 1400 would suit me perfectly. We walked round the parking lot to the Focus aisle. A row of them sat there as if on a shelf, all colours.  We picked a dark grey one.

We’ve had it three years now.  Nothing has ever gone wrong with it. Perhaps it’s become a little more grey since we bought it – I often lose it in car parks among all the other shapeless grey cars. I’ve no idea what the registration number is.

You can’t blame a car for being dull though. Cars are like dogs, they reflect the owner – the truth is I’ve gone pretty grey myself over the last two years.  It’s just that, unlike all my other cars, I feel no emotional attachment to this vehicle whatsoever. The only character it has comes from the dents that my children put in it  when they learned to drive. (One son actually managed to have an accident in the driveway – he hit our other car. Bless.)

I encouraged the children to pass their test as soon as they could, the way I had. I told them it would give them independence. But, of course, they can’t afford to drive now. Fuel and insurance costs make it impossible.  They don’t seem bothered to be honest. Driving doesn’t have the same allure these days. Cars are associated with traffic jams and climate change rather than the open road. It makes me think I’ve lived through the golden age of motoring.

Meanwhile the Focus just goes on and on. It starts every morning without fail; it uses no oil; no sign of rust.  I need to learn to love it. The way it’s bearing up it might be the last car I ever buy.

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Best Open Mics

Couldn’t get on X Factor? Nor me. Don’t worry, there’s an open mic near you.   Open mics are the antidote to TV talent shows. They’re democratic, honest, and it doesn’t matter if you’re rubbish. In fact open mic audiences prefer it if you’re rubbish – if you forget the words or swallow your plectrum. It makes them think: I could do better than that.

There are hundreds of open mics all over the country. I went on a tour of them with my ukulele last summer. I played at 30 different venues on a six week trip from Brighton to Cape Wrath.   Here are 8 of the best I came across

1) Winchester. The Railway. It’s upstairs away from the main bar which gives it a club feel. There are stage lights, and someone on the mixing desk who knows how to make you sound a lot better than you are. A good local crowd, plenty of musicians on a range of instruments. There was a group of Americans there when I visited. They loved everything. I played a Neil Innes song and they went crazy. But I think I could have read the county cricket scores out and got the same reaction.

2) Bath. Curfew Inn. There’s a thriving open mic scene in Bath. I just pitched up at  The Curfew and had such a good time.  There were only about ten people in the audience but they were all up for it. I played Chuck Berry songs and they were jiving away right in front of me. Had to stop when someone crashed into the amp. Someone actually asked me if I had a CD.

3) Great Malvern. The Great Malvern Hotel.  Lots of places to play in this area too. “Sod all else to do,” said a local. Mike the host plays good blues piano and there’s a good standard here.  Place was packed.  A couple of guys at the bar had a loud conversation about scaffolding throughout my set. A good folk  band played at the end – maybe a bit too good for an open mic.

4) Chester. Telford’s Warehouse.  On a wet, miserable Sunday I turned up at this canal-side venue thinking no-one would be out on such a night. But it was heaving.  A woman called  Kai Lei was the host and it was like a variety show.  A guy played the accordion and sang in French.  There was some chamber music and some jazz.  My ukulele rhythm and blues fitted right in.  A great audience, and video screens all around. It was like being on the pyramid stage at Glasto.

5) Bangor. The Greek.  A Greek restaurant in Bangor where Clwb Cabaret have a weekly open mic. Very friendly. Table cloths and candles. Some good Welsh folk music and a belly dancer. I remember I played Tiger feet and everyone went for a drink. Then the host got us to write a song which he performed. It was awful.

6) York. The Habit. Wednesday night in York is like an open mic festival there are so many to choose from. The Habit was just right: busy, cosy and varied. One young man turned up with his fan club who screamed when he sang. I soon put a stop to that.

7) SOAP. Saltburn Open Acoustic Platform.  Every town should have a SOAP.   Friday night and all ages, all abilities get together at the Saltburn Con Club and do their own thing.  They even video all performers http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJoLpOL1WOY

I left Saltburn thinking open mics could repair fractured communities, improve mental health, stop wars.  They should have an open mic at the UN.

8) Ullapool.  Argyll Hotel.  In the summer this fishing village on the Scottish west coast is a truly international place. Its CalMac link to  the Outer Hebrides attracts travellers from all over the world. The Argyll Hotel was like a bar in some border town, full of French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Japanese.  There’s a weekly session here where musicians sit round a table and take it in turns, and the audience applaud like crazy. An American played bluegrass. A German sang a folk song. A Scotsman sang in Gaelic. One local sang a song he’d written about his dog who was sitting on a cushion next to him.  The evening ended with Scotland the Brave. Not many people knew the words.

I should add there were just as many dreadful evenings on this trip.  You can read the whole story in The Uke of Wallington, published May 1st,  AA Books

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Uke of Wallington

Uke of Wallington, round Britain with a ukulele. Published May 1st. AA books

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