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Archive for the ‘motoring’ Category

This one’s not about cars. It’s more about bending life into art. Allow me to illustrate:

Soon, yes, and for a time, I am no longer thinking of Grace, but of Maggs. Again. I am sinking into Mavis, tapping with futile distraction at the ABS light, which is taken metaphorically now as a sign always of trouble ahead. And I note, these days, the light is on more often than it is not.

What is Mavis trying to tell me, then? What else could ABS stand for, other than Anti-lock Braking System? Abandon Bull Shit? Yes, that’s promising. Nothing worse than bullshit, is there? All Begins Somewhere? Hmm,… obviously true, but a little too philosophical for me, right now. So, how about: Avoid Bad Sex? The chance would be a fine thing, but actually best avoided completely – the bad, the good, and the mediocre.

From my story: Saving Grace.

Sometimes life imitates art, sometimes life becomes art, or it can be twisted into art. I drive an old car, my protagonist drives the same one and calls it Mavis. This is Mike Garrat, who volunteers at a charity bookshop run by his muse, Margaret (Maggs) Cooper. Throughout the writing of this story, I recall my car was driving me nuts, the ABS warning light coming on then going off again. It’s a common fault on my model of car, once they’re of an age, and is usually the sign of a failing sensor.

ABS means anti-lock braking system, an innovation that prevents the wheels from locking, and therefore skidding, when you hit the brakes hard, so shortening the stopping distance. When the light is on, the brakes still work, but the ABS doesn’t, so you risk coming a cropper in the wet if you slam on at high speed. It’s an MOT failure. So I’d think about taking it to the garage, but then the light would go out, and the car would be fine for weeks, and I’d forget about it, and then it would come on again. I did eventually have it repaired, and it was expensive. I wrote it into the story as a device through which Mavis would caution Mike over the things he was thinking or planning.

I’ve had a good run with mine, but the ABS light came on again this morning so, if I was Mike Garrat – which, fortunately, I am not – I’d be watching my step. Unlike last time, it’s a fairly unambiguous fault, the light staying on all the time. There are four sensors to go at, one for each wheel, but by scanning the engine control unit, you can find out which one’s on the blink. We’re booked in for a repair, and I’m hoping it’s not as expensive as last time. But whatever the cost it’s a lot cheaper than a new car, plus of course mine, ancient as it is, is irreplaceable. And then the longer she’s around, the more she justifies the carbon footprint of her manufacture.

She will eventually bite the dust, of course, and that’ll be a sad day, time to put my open-top roadster days behind me and get a grown up car again. But, like my protagonist, I seem to have conflated the notion of my own mortality with the reliability or otherwise of my car. It’s not a sensible thing to do, and certainly not rational. But threading a willing little roadster over the moors, or the high roads of the Lakes and the Dales on a fine summer’s day is worth all the frustration of ongoing maintenance, and is a dream worth preserving.

Life isn’t art, of course. It’s not an episode from a romantic story, or a movie with a soundtrack. Cars do not talk to people. Neither do the gods talk to people through their cars’ warning lights, any more than they do through other portents, or oracles, unless we choose to let them. So let’s explore the metaphor: Brakes. The brakes won’t work as well as they should. Go easy, then Mike. Not too fast. Don’t push your luck. I was planning a major expense in another area. The car is telling me not to rush into it. Warning duly noted. We’ll park that one for a bit, give it some further thought. I’ve a feeling we were going to do that anyway, but this confirms it. And we’ll also park the car, in the clutter of the garage, while she waits her turn in the workshop.

And since I’m feeling playful, I’m going to spoil Mike Garrat’s story by telling you the ending:

She’s looking a little anxious now, a little unsure of herself, as if her nerve is failing. She’s not ordered anything from the counter. Perhaps it’s just a passing visit, then. Perhaps I should ask her if she’d like something, so I might at least have the pleasure of her company over soup.

Don’t disappear, Maggs. Don’t leave it hanging like this. Let’s work something out.

“Listen,” she says, “I’ve taken that cabin in the Dales for a bit.”

“Cabin?”

You know, Mike. ‘The’ Cabin?

She clarifies: “Our Cabin.”

“Really?” Did she just say ‘our’ cabin?

“I’m going to take some time out, relax, catch up on my reading, you know?”

“Always a good idea to catch up on one’s reading, Maggs. Em,… so,… what exactly are you reading these days? Not another of those dreadful spank busters, I hope?”

She laughs, blushes.”No. Right now I’m reading the Joy of sex.”

“Really?”

“You were right, it’s rather good.”

“Précis it for me. One sentence.”

“Oh,… let me see. Taken in the right spirit, sex can be really good fun.”

“Ha! Nice one.”

“So, speaking of fun,… I thought it might be – well – fun, you know, if you joined me at the cabin, for a bit. Could you,… manage that, do you think?”

“I’m sure I can manage that, yes. “

She sighs, but only I think to cover the tremor in her voice, to steady it. “Lovely.” And then: “I,… I heard you’d built your house at last?”

“Yes. Would you like to see it?”

She nods, dives in, steals my bread roll and takes a bite of it. “Sorry. Starving. I’d like that very much, Mike.”

So, there we are,… a better place to leave it. I’ll be asking her to move in I suppose, eventually, but since we’re still pretending we’re not even in love, that might be a while off. There’s no rush, though, is there? Long game, and all that. But for now,… Cabin, Maggs, Joy of Sex,…

What more could a man ask?

Thanks for listening.

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Hot metal

In Martindale

Scene: An Engineering Industry Training Board Approved Training School, Bolton, some time in the late 1970’s. Scent of cutting oils, and hot metal. Syncopated, rhythmic sound of rotating machinery.

Characters: an occasionally fiery fitting instructor, smelling of pipe tobacco and Johnsons Baby powder, and a reticent seventeen-year-old me.

Action: Mr Mooney is attempting to weld two pieces of steel. I am passing and notice something.

Me, urgently: “Em, Mr Mooney?”

Mr Mooney, dismissive: “Not now, lad, I’m busy.”

Me, more urgently: “But,… Mr Mooney,… Mr Mooney,…”

Mr Mooney, exasperated: “F#ck’s sake, lad, what is it?”

“Your overall’s on fire.”

“What? Oh,…”

Mr Mooney dances, and flaps his arms.

God bless him, Mr Mooney. Skilled as he was in that old-school kind of way, he was never to be trusted around an oxy-acetylene torch. But other than charred overalls, no harm was done, and – albeit indirectly – he taught me much, though not always about Engineering. The Engineering Industry Training Board was a national body that oversaw a year of basic workshop practice for school-leavers – all budding engineers and craftsmen. It’s gone now, and I’ve no idea how the youngsters pick these skills up, though the latter years of my career suggested they were no longer de rigueur for the self-respecting professional who was more likely to be seen plugged into a laptop, attending a virtual meeting, while on the way to another meeting. But if you’ve off-shored your manufacturing, then fair enough, you don’t need what are euphemistically called “vocational skills” any more. Or do you? Well, trying to get my car welded up recently reminds me such skills are indeed still needed, and growing scarce on account of there being no more Mr Mooneys. Of course Mr Mooney would not have been my first choice of welder, for my car, but you know what I mean.

I’ve not spoken about the little blue car for a while. I sense few people are interested in cars, and driving these days. But it’s also partly guilt, I suppose. Cars aren’t a good look when we’re on the cusp of a climate catastrophe, though I would argue my ambitions to keep the old girl going are a valuable offset of the carbon that went in to her manufacture. Also, she takes up a fraction of the room, and the fuel, of an SUV.

Covid has shaken up the makers of microprocessors, which has disrupted deliveries of new cars, which, in tandem with current pressing levels of inflation, has lifted the prices of used cars to improbable levels. So it makes sense to hang on to what you’ve got, and get it fixed when it’s ailing, rather than trading when you get bored with it, unless what you’ve got is a lemon, and we’ve all had one of those. And that’s not an easy call to make.

My little blue car, a 20 year old Mazda MX5, bought second, has turned out to be the cheapest, yet also the best car I’ve ever owned. It’s certainly been no lemon, but they’re prone to rust, especially around the rear sills, and the back wings, and mine’s been needing tidying for a while. A local mechanic was able to make a functional repair of the sills, for MOT purposes, but he admitted anything of a more aesthetic and restorative nature to the bodywork was not really his forte. Unfortunately, he couldn’t name anyone else with the skills who could help. They’ve all gone from round here, he said.

I found an accident repair shop some distance away, and they sounded keen, but then not so keen when they realised welding was what I wanted. Welding like that, they said – meaning fabrication welding – was rare. Most guys doing it had either retired, or gone home, post Brexit.

Go see “So and So”, they suggested. So off I went, even further away, but when I got there the unit he operated from was closed for demolition. So I found another guy, further out, one who restores, among other things, vintage cars, and he said he’d have a go, and lucky I’d called in when I did because he was moving out to somewhere else, even further away.

I’m a little old to be pootling round in an open-top roadster, but there’s much more to the MX5 than meets the eye. If you’re not a motorist, and if you didn’t grow up with cars, you perhaps won’t know what I mean. But cars have a feel to them. They either fit us, or we make do, and mostly we make do because it’s rare to find a car that’s had the time spent on its design, so it’s made to fit how a car’s supposed to fit, and feel when it’s on the road.

I’ve had the little blue car eight years now, longer than I’ve kept any car. I like to walk, but unless I’ve driven out to the start of the walk in the Mazda, the day is not the same. That’s hard to explain, and probably absurd, but it extends the day. You get the walk, but you also get the drive in to a beautiful area, and to top the day off you get the drive back out again. With the top down, you feel the world around you. You smell the air, you hear the birds, and the wind in the trees. There’s talk of this marque becoming a classic, but then they say that about all the old cars. Bottom line, she’s not worth much, but in these strange times, worth keeping going all the same.

So the guy had a good look around her, pronounced her not as bad as I’d feared, explained the repair, the cuts, the welds, the fabrications he’d have to make, the way he’d have to fill certain areas with weld, dress it all back, re-spray, blend,… make it like new. Time he said. It was mostly time and attention to detail. It would cost an arm and a leg, but I was ready for that, and the guy had no scorch marks on his overalls, which further suggested he knew one end of a welding torch from the other. We shook on the deal, which felt odd – the first hand I’ve shaken since the pandemic began. He had gloves on, so I was no risk to him, and I didn’t mind a bit of workshop dirt on my palm. It put me in mind of former times, of Mr Mooney, and the scent of hot metal,…

Thanks for listening.

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Solomon’s Temple, Withnell Moor

You catch up with us today at Solomon’s Temple, on Withnell Moor, and it’s lunchtime. First, though, we unlace our boots and let our feet relax. We’ve only walked a couple of miles from Brinscall, but things aren’t looking promising. Suddenly, all this talk of the strangeness of dreams is of little interest when we’re on the moor, and our boots hurt.

The boots are newish, a bit old-school in their construction. I’d thought to get up on the moors with them, see if we could break them in a bit, but they’re proving to be stubborn. They’re British army surplus, made by Iturri. You can get them for a song off Ebay, like new. They’re a solid boot, but they bite.

It’s one of those “follow our nose” sorts of days. There’s no plan, just out enjoying the moor. But since we find ourselves at Solomon’s, it looks like the subconscious has Great Hill in mind. The boots are man enough for that, man enough for a lot of things, I guess. But I’m not sure my feet are up to much more today, at least not in these boots.

Mushroom soup for lunch. For company, we have the larks, a curlew, and fieldfares. There are no people. I left them all thrashing about in Brinscall woods, looking for the Hatch Brook Falls. The falls are not easy to get to, but the guy who asked me for directions tells me it even has its own Tripadvisor rating, now. That worries me. I directed him as best I could, but he’d come a long way, and wasn’t familiar with the names of places. I advised him to be careful. He nodded with enthusiasm, then set off in the opposite direction to what I’d said.

Hatch Brook Falls, Brinscall

The little blue car’s down on Brinscall’s Lodge Bank Terrace. The sills I’d had welded some years ago are coming through again, and I have to make a decision. Expensive one this. MX5s, like mine, can go for five or six thousand, at a dealership, spruced up, so it may be worth the investment. Or they might fetch as little as fifteen hundred, private and spotty, in which case it isn’t. Mine’s probably somewhere in the middle. She has a full service history, and she’s coddled, but the repair is on the edge of sensible for a twenty-year-old car. It depends on how much the car means, I suppose. I find it means a lot. But that’s not rational, and I’m usually rational when it comes to cars.

Ratten Clough, Brinscall

So anyway, we’ve walked up through the woods, location for the creepy bits of that Netflix thing “Stay Close”. Then it was onto the moor via the ruins of Ratten Clough, and we followed our nose to Solomon’s Temple. New Temple is next, then Old Man’s Hill, and a little trodden way that approaches Great Hill, from the north. It’s a warm day, a jostling of jolly cumulus, and some stratospheric streaks toning down the blue. The ground is mostly firm. Yesterday’s full moon seems to have ushered in a change to fair, after a very cold Easter weekend.

The light is dynamic, and full of interest. I complained in an earlier blog, all we’re doing with photography is trying to freeze the moment. But that’s not right. We’re bearing witness to a moment in time, as well as trying to capture an essence of the beauty of the world. It’s like we capture glow-worms in a jar, then hold them up in wonder and say: look at that!

But in the middle of the day, like this, a photograph never comes out as you see it. Even with a decent camera, the scene is flat, the contrasts, the colours lacking vibrancy. Or maybe it’s just my eyes, and I like to see the world through Van Gough’s spectacles. So I spend a while with software filters, teasing out the world the way I see it. My kids say whatever pills I’m taking, they want some.

Okay, lunch done, boots fiddled with, fastened, unfastened, adjusted, refastened, and on we go. Note to self: Hotspots around the ankles and under the right heel. Early signs of blistering to the backs of both left and right heels. I wouldn’t like to be a soldier tabbing far in these. No wonder they were surpluse to requirements. We clip the western approach to the hill, then turn-tail for Drinkwaters, and White Coppice. We’re three miles out now, and it’s far enough. It’s a pity to miss the top, but I reckon our feet only have a couple of miles left, and three to go.

Drinkwaters, Anglezarke

Of course, it’s a risk, fixing up the bodywork of the little blue car, at such great expense – maybe half as much as the car’s worth. It’s asking for a serious mechanical fault to develop soon after. That’s the way with old cars. But you can get a lot of repairs for the price of a fresh car, if keeping the old one going is what you want.

Some schools are still off for Easter this week, so White Coppice looks busy as we descend the moor. We avoid the noise by staying high and turning north along the edge of the Brinscall fault. Pace is slow, both feet on fire.

There’s a roe deer down in the valley, a mature female – not exactly rare now, but still a joy to come across in the wild. It sees me before I see it, and it bolts high, climbs to the moor’s edge and watches from the safety of altitude. We eye each other, I chance a shot on full zoom. It knows the line of my route, even knows, perhaps, my boots are hurting, so then it bounds along the ridge, and crosses back down the path behind me. “I’ll get no trouble from him,” it’s thinking. “Poor guy can barely walk.”

Roe Deer, Goit Valley, Anglezarke

We sit a while beneath the ash at the ruins of Goose Green farm, let the feet relax again. It was also known as the Green Goose, in the days when farms were also permitted to sell ale. I wouldn’t mind a pint of something cold and murky, actually. I’d fill these boots with it and cool my feet down.

It’s easy going now, a decent, level path, along the Goit, all the way back to Mill Bank Terrace. The little blue car is a welcome sight. And it’s heaven to get the trainers on. A run out’s not the same without the little blue car. She’s not perfect, and rather Spartan by today’s touch-screen standards. But I enjoy her imperfections, and her simplicity. And driving her still makes me smile. Okay, we’ll call at the body shop this week and see what the man thinks. When I croak, it would be nice to think of her being discovered in my garage, a mint condition MX5, covered in the dust of memory, and a quarter of a million miles on the clock. Then some boy racer goes and wrecks her in five minutes.

Those boot though? Well, after today, I think we’re done. I’d never trust them to get me down from a big hill. I’m hoping they’re just a pair of duds, because I’d hate to think of the entire British Army marching in boots like those, poor souls. I don’t know, though; it would be a pity. Maybe a bit more breaking in will do the trick. Lunch at Solomon’s’ was good though. We’ll have to do that again sometime.

Thanks for listening.

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Big Red Mercedes-Benz.

A Zen Master is driving his little car back into his home village. The road is narrow, and traffic is calmed to 20 MPH. He needs to make a sharp left turn over a little bridge. Care is needed here, in case there’s another car coming over in the opposite direction, because there’s no room to pass. Sometimes there are pedestrians and cyclists. He slows, indicates in a timely fashion, peeps around the corner. All is clear, light touch on the gas, the little car moves sedately from the main village thoroughfare, and safely onto the bridge,…

PAAARRRRPPP!

A huge red, Mercedes-Benz has been following, and is apparently enraged at the Zen Master’s cautionary pace, slowing up the already sedate thoroughfare. The Zen Master catches his breath in surprise. He stalls the car on the bridge, looks around as the Mercedes-Benz accelerates aggressively into the village. The passenger, a young, male, backwards-hatted, sneers. 20 MPH is clearly for the little people.

Question: would a Zen Master have been so alarmed? They fit very, very loud horns to big Mercedes-Benz. For the sake of argument, let’s say even someone as calm as a Zen Master can be startled by a sudden, very loud noise, when no noise is expected. But what does the Zen Master do next? Well, he starts the car and proceeds on his way. The incident is forgotten, or rather, it is let go of at once.

What he does not do is instantly think of giving the finger, only to discover he is so confused and angry, he can’t remember where his fingers are. Nor does he feel insulted. He does not inflate himself with self-righteousness. He does not wish a tyre iron into his hands, and the time, to say nothing of the agility, to spring out and smash all the glass on the offending, big, shiny, opulent, rich, smug bastard’s car. It might have wiped the smile off the backwards-hatted young man’s face,… just prior to him reaching for a baseball bat, and matters escalating from there.

No, I didn’t take a tyre iron to the rude man’s car. For all I know he might have been the local drug baron. So, I weathered the insult as best I could, but not like a Zen Master would. Clearly, a Zen Master, I am not. I just write about stuff that happened. Maybe I hold onto things for longer than I should, but that means I can squeeze them dry for all they’re worth first.
Anyway:

There was a young man thought profound
For wearing his hat ‘wrong way round,
But then it seemed all he said,
Came out the back of his head,
So clearly his plan was unsound.
Bah bum!

Big Red Mercedes-Benz, and backwards hatted, obnoxious persons, feel the stinging lash of my pen! Ouch!

Drive safely. And be patient.

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Pendle Hill, from Downham

At 1827 feet, Pendle is a hill of considerable stature. It’s also a shape-shifter. From the A59, as you zip by Whalley, it calls, to my mind, the shape of a crouching lion. From the east, say from Barley, I think it has more the profile of a whale. From Downham though, where we’re heading today, it looks more like one of those Pictish hog’s back stones, complete with mysterious pictograms.

The simplest, and most direct route to the top of Pendle is from Barley, up the big end, but I have a vague notion of trying something more meandering today. I say ‘vague’ because it’s a mystery how I come to be here at all, actually. The original plan was to meet a friend in Kendal, but he was pinged at the last minute by the test and trace app, so he’s in isolation now. I’d thought to head over to the Dales instead, which, when in doubt, is what I usually do. That was definitely the plan on setting out but, as is sometimes the case, the grand old lady Pendle seduced me in passing, so the little blue car and I found ourselves swinging off the A59 at Chatburn. Now we’re on the car park, at Downham, just coming to our senses, and with the feeling of having been bewitched.

Downham is an unusual place, at least now, in twenty-first-century, rural Lancashire. It’s an estate village, owned in its entirety by the hereditary Baronet, Lord Clitheroe, who also owns the hill. What strikes you about the place is not what is present, but what is missing – no telegraph poles, no road signs, indeed nothing that speaks of any modernity beyond the nineteenth century, and with only the passing cars to reassure you you’ve not fallen through a timeslip, into an alternate universe. The way to the car-park is also secret, and unsigned, except at the last minute, and then only discreetly. You either know your way, in Downham, or you don’t.

So anyway, here we are.

The light is stunning at this time of year. Photographers have a thing about the golden hour – this being the hour before sunset, when shadows run long, and the light becomes dreamy. Some would never think to get their cameras out at any other time of day. But in September, the golden hour lasts from dawn till dusk, so long as the sun is shining. And it’s shining today. The colours are rich, the contrasts deep, and there’ the sense of the year holding its breath, holding on to the very best of things, as the leaves hover on the edge of crispness. It’s been a long time coming, a long time building, and here it is: the year’s perfection, golden and gorgeous. The oppressive heat has gone out of it, the air is fresh for walking – a beautiful day to be on the hill, or indeed anywhere out of doors.

Worsaw End Farm

The map tells us the way is clear enough. We take the path that runs by Worsaw hill, one of Pendle’s many curious little limestone outliers. Then it’s down by Worsaw End farm, famous as the main location for the 1961 film “Whistle Down the Wind” which starred a young and ruggedly bearded Alan Bates, and an even younger Hayley Mills. From here we follow the narrow lane, which peters out into a track and then becomes a path up the moor, meandering at first, then arrow straight, as it joins the curiously named Burst Clough. The contours are close together here and the path intersects them at right angles, so the going is very, very steep.

I remember coming down this way, late one winter’s afternoon, with a weak sun putting in its first appearance as it dropped below the level of the clouds, yet with only minutes from setting. The light was eerie, and I’ve never forgotten it, nor have I forgotten how glad I was not to be going up by this route. Now here I am, over a decade later, going up. But it’s a glorious day, much earlier in the day, the sun is dipping in and out of the clouds, and the undulations of the land are preening cat-like, as the dynamic shadows stroke it.

I don’t know what it is about hills. I’ve not been doing too bad this year, tackling the more substantial climbs in my locale, but I never seem to hit a peak of fitness, when a climb like this wouldn’t be a struggle, one that involves several stops to admire the view and to catch the breath. Maybe if I climbed a few thousand feet every other day, I might make it to the supreme level of fitness that seems to come easy to others, who only walk a big one once a year. I think they call it mountain form, and I suspect no matter how many miles I put in, mine will always be middling. You have it or you don’t. And if you don’t, you just do the best you can.

The path eventually cuts the contours at a less punishing angle, and we reach the massive Scouting Cairn, a hard one to miss, even in atrocious weather. Here, the vast plateau that Pendle hides, become evident, and mercifully level. The path from here hugs the edge of the hill, takes us north-east, then east, with stunning, airy views of the Ribble Valley, the Bowland Hills and the Dales. Ingleborough, where we were a few weeks ago, is glimpsed now through a buttery haze.

The going is easy on the legs now, and impressive, ample reward for that slog up Burst Clough. Eventually we meet another distinctive path coming more directly from Downham. We’ll be using this on return, but for now, while we’re so near the big end, we’ll strike a bearing south for the main top – not that we need to strike a bearing here, not even in mist, I imagine. The paths here are broad as day, and easy to follow.

Pendle summit

I’ve seen only a few people on the hill, and likewise even manage to get the summit trig-point to myself for a bit. It’s good to welcome back that old rush you get from making the top. But it’s more than that. For a time, on a big hill, with all the land spread out below your feet, there is a sense of transcending the every-day. You think and feel differently on a big hill.

I don’t know where I would have ended up if I’d carried on to the Dales – Malham probably, Pikedaw, possibly, and a good day would have been had, because all days in the Dales are good days. But Pendle made her play, for reasons best known to herself, and I was not disappointed.

The way down seems a long one, as it always does, when one turns for home. We can see the village of Downham miles away, pinpointed by the prominent tower of St. Leonard’s Church and, on wearying legs, we wonder if we will ever reach it. But the way is pleasant, first the meandering path across the moor, then the greener, meadow ways, by Clay House. Then it’s Downham’s timeless and ever gorgeous welcome, and those last few strides to the car. I’m glad to have the little blue car back on the road, after a few weeks of uncertainty. Runs out to places like this really aren’t the same without her.

But the day goes to the grand old lady, Pendle herself. She’s beautiful, at times mysterious, occasionally treacherous, but forever beloved of Lancashire. If you’re not from Lancashire, and you wonder what we sound like here, I can do no better than refer you to Whistle Down the Wind. I can’t believe we were really as innocent as this in the ’60’s, and the kids so sweet, but I was there, and I have a feeling, actually, we were.

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The little blue car at home

The little blue car has been feeling poorly for a few weeks now. She developed a strange sound, like running on a flat tyre, but only when she’d warmed up. I noticed it first returning home after a longish drive. Once upon a time I would have had the wheel off, checked the brake pads for wear and so on. But I’m out of the habit of actually tinkering with cars. Instead, I did the lazy thing and booked it into the local workshop. But they didn’t warm it up enough because they were too busy to mess about, and as a consequence they couldn’t repeat the noise, let alone diagnose it. They had it briefly on the ramps, checked underneath, and spun the wheels.

“Brakes are fine,” they said. “Bearings are fine. Nothing loose. Bring it back when it’s doing it all the time.”

I drove away feeling like a bit of a clueless, fussy Freddy. But I grew up around cars, mainly old, rusty cars, spent whole weekends of my teens getting oily in my uncle’s backstreet garage, and I knew something was definitely off. I was also losing it, losing confidence, and not just in the car, but in my ability to just do stuff. This is a feeling that comes and goes.

Anyway, I was thinking that’s it. The car’s getting on a bit now, it’s always been a reliable little thing, but I couldn’t really trust it now to get me any distance, when I didn’t know what this noise was. What else could it be? Gearbox? Drive-shaft? Differential? Any one of those, and the car’s a scrapper, given it’s worth next to nothing, now. Plus, I mean, come on. Maybe I shouldn’t be expecting to get about much in a car that’s nearly 20 years old. I’m emotionally attached to it, and that’s never a good thing, but even with 95K on the clock, it’s still the best car I’ve ever driven, old or new.

All good things come to an end, though,…

The little blue car, Slaidburn, November 2014

Anyway, I was giving my garage a clean out, and came across a shiny new spider wrench – one of those cross shaped things with a different sized wheel-nut socket at each corner. That’s odd, I thought. I don’t remember owning one as posh as that. It must belong to one of my sons who’d dumped there, rather than having it rattling about in his car. Either that,… or the wheel-nut fairy left it for me as a hint to buck my ideas up.

I wondered if it would fit the wheel-nuts of the little blue car, so I give it a try, and it did. In the process of trying it out, I also discovered the wheel nuts were loose, and I mean all four nuts on all four wheels. Well, they weren’t loose exactly, just barely nipped up. So I tightened them properly, and gave the car a spin, got her good and warm. Problem solved. No more strange sounds. The little blue car is back!

But now I have another problem. Well, it’s more of a mystery, really. I’ve never heard of wheel nuts coming loose on their own. I calculate the last time the wheels were off the car would have been nearly a year ago, during a service, when the workshop cleaned and checked the brakes, and I find it hard to imagine I’ve driven around in it since then, the mechanic perhaps having forgotten to torque them up properly. I’m not about to accuse them of it anyway.

My wheels aren’t fancy – just factory fitted aluminium ones, so I find it hard to imagine someone tried to pinch them, then got bored, having partly undone all the nuts. And then even less likely, I hope, that it’s a thing now, strange people going around with a set of spider wrenches, loosening peoples’ wheel-nuts as a sinister prank.

I’ll most likely never know.

I’ve been thinking back to all the runs I’ve made in the car this year, many of them at high speed up and down the M6 and the A59, and the possibility I did it all with slack wheel-nuts. I’ll be having sleepless nights for a while on account of that one. But we’re on the road again, and all thanks to the wheel-nut fairy, for that gift of a shiny new spider wrench, and the hint to get my mojo together, and my hands dirty now and then, instead of running to a mechanic at every squeak and rattle. I’ll be checking the wheel-nuts with it regularly, from now on.

Just out of curiosity, has anyone else had their wheel (hub) nuts come loose on their own?

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It’s two years since I was in the Lakes. Today doesn’t count, because I’m not walking; I’m delivering family to their hotel, so it’s more a kind of taxi service. Timings require a drop-off at 2:00 PM, which is late in the day to be arriving for anything recreational, so I have left the walking gear at home to make way for luggage. It’s a wet day, anyway, so no regrets. I’ll just turn around and come straight back.

Traffic is heavy on the M6 in the usual places: the crazy merge with the M61, the pull up the hill before the Tickled Trout, and then the mad lane-switching frenzy of the junction with the M55. Beyond that it’s just rain and spray, and the usual last-minute Larrys playing Russian roulette, crossing all the lanes, at speed, for the off-slips.

I know my driving has slowed, as my reactions have dimmed with age. 55-60 MPH in the slow lane is fine by me, but especially in these conditions. Others are less cautious, having learned their driving at the school of floor-it and pray. I can only hope their eyesight is good. Observation, however, supports the theory the worst offenders are merely coked to the gunwales.

We pick up the Lake District tourist-grind on the downhill into Windermere town – the A591 – this being the main route for all central destinations, and generally busy, but especially so today, it being a Saturday and holiday change-over day. From here, it’s stop-start to Ambleside, and it rains like it can only rain in the Lakes. Everything is glistening with a dark sheen of wet, under heavy skies, and the mist is down on the Lake, ghost boats emerging from the shifting grey. And yes, it’s beautiful. All right, it’s a little dispiriting if you’re beginning a holiday, but the forecast for the coming week isn’t too bad. Mixed. That’s the Lakes at its dramatic best. That’s the stuff that inspires poetry.

I make the drop-off in Grasmere in good time. In spite of the torrential wet, visitors are still falling from the pavements here, their flimsy waterproofs saturated. There is no point trying to find a parking slot for coffee. Next to Bowness, this is the busiest place in the Lakes, apart from Ambleside, and Keswick. For the introvert, Hell is always going to be other people, so I point the car for home, and head back along the A591, making just the one brief call at the garden centre in Ambleside to answer an urgent call of nature.

It seems we are now split evenly between the masked, and the unmasked. The emporia are also split evenly between those who say it’s up to you, and those who ask you to continue wearing one out of common sense, politeness and respect for others. I still wear one, but without the legality of compulsion, and the mixed messaging, it’ll peter out. You’ll set out for the shops one day and find you’ve left your mask at home, and you’ll think: oh well, it doesn’t matter, does it?

I’m hoping they do not disappear altogether, though. As a fashion accessory for the ladies, I find them attractive now, drawing attention – as they do – to the eyes. Or is that just a personal peccadillo, not shared by many, and better I kept quiet about? I find I am still covid-twitchy, so avoid the temptation of the indoor café, though the scent of coffee is impossibly alluring. Instead, I purchase marmalade and mint-cake, this being out of guilt for the free parking and a quick pee.

I note in passing the garden centre is also selling tweed jackets for £250 – reduced. I do like a Harris Tweed, but not at that price. Mine cost me a fiver from the charity shop and, Harris Tweed being what it is, and in spite of indeterminate age, it’s not in bad nick. I fancy a tweed waistcoat to go with it – you know, that old writerly vibe – but they were £150 – reduced. If these are garden centre prices, I shudder to think what they’re charging on Saville Row these days. I know it’s the Lakes, which is renowned for joke pricing, but we must be seriously down on foreign visitors this year – these being the only ones with that kind of money. Except, of course, the seriously monied Brits are slumming it at home this year as well, so maybe those fine tweeds won’t be gathering dust for as long as I’m thinking. Go on, you fools, cheap at twice the price. You know it makes sense!

From here it’s an hour back to the M6, then home. Five hours in the car all told. It’s a long time since I did that. The little black car did well, this being a 2012 plate 1.4 litre Corsa with just over 40K on the clock, borrowed from my good lady. And, like my good lady, it’s looked after me very well – the Corsa for the last eighteen months, my good lady for the last thirty-two years, God bless her, and long, I pray, may both persevere with my eccentricities.

The touristy bits of the Lakes looked a little shot at, and terribly busy, of course. Home territory it might be, and forever well-loved in its intimacy, but Switzerland it ain’t. If I come back this year, it won’t be until the autumn, and then to somewhere well away from the main drag, somewhere you can park the car for free, if you’re bright and early, and you can get on the hill without having to queue.

I’ve not done a video for a while, but I gave it a shot from the dashcam – not a brilliant device on the little black car, but serviceable enough for emergencies. Things have moved on a pace since I last had a crack at movie-making. Windows movie-maker has bitten the dust, so I used a free app called Video Pad. Then I found YouTube wouldn’t let me get at my account, where I host my dashcam edits, unless I divulged my mobile number first. So, I thought, yea, right. I’ve moved to Vimeo, now, which seems to render videos in much greater detail anyway. They let you upload around 500Mb per week, so short vids only, which is fine. The backing music is either a catchy or an annoying little number, depending on your taste. I got it from Bensound; it’s called “beyond the line” – and all due courtesies and acknowledgements etc. to them for that.

Bye for now, and,…

Thanks for listening.

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mazzy at rivington

I broke cover from Covid and drove thirty miles to Glasson. It’s the furthest I’ve been all year. I was there for nine, and the car park was empty, but by mid-afternoon it was full. I did a walk through the meadows to Cockerham, then back along the Lancashire coastal way. It was hot and humid. The Cockerham leg was quiet, but on the meadow by the abbey, I hit the crowds coming the other way.

By now I imagined there’d be a vehicle parked within a wafer of mine, and a big ding in my door because that’s what I assume most people are like – gormless, and void of social awareness. My car is eighteen years old now but still looks good. I’m trying to keep her that way against the press of time and entropy, and the carelessness of others. Naturally, as with anything manifest, it’s a losing battle, but we do what we can.

I know, I know,… I have a problem with people. It’s been worse in these Covid-haunted times which makes avoiding them all the more urgent. I’m not sorry to admit it. Indeed I’m less sorry as I get older and begin to understand myself.

Understand myself? Let me see:

I find others draining on account of a strongly introverted nature. That’s just what we introverts are like, and we need make no apologies for it. I’m also often taken advantage of on account of my agreeableness, and in turn I take that bad on account of my neuroticism. Then I don’t say anything in my defence on account of my aversion to confrontation. Instead, I withdraw my support, or more likely these days withhold it in the first place, before some others start feeding off me.

It’s worse at times of imbalance, when I’m shadow boxing. Then I behave in a passive-aggressive way, which is stupid and self-defeating. What I need to do is stand up and be more assertive. But that’s easier said than done. Understanding one’s self is only the first part of the problem, you see? The second part is deciding if it’s a problem or not. These are shadow issues, and you can’t beat them. The best you can do over time is accept them as part of yourself, make peace and move on.

As I walked, horse-flies had found the undersides of my fingers. I’ve never known them do that before. By the time I noticed, my fingers were already swelling from the bites. Nature’s all well and good until you’re bitten by horse-flies, and then you’d rather do without it. We aim for better than nature, at least in the raw, and mostly we manage it, I think, but at times we get above ourselves, and nature sinks its teeth.

Coming back to Glasson harbour, there was by now a carnival atmosphere, crowds milling about, and a couple of yachts coming through the lock to meet the tide. The cafés and ice-cream-vans were doing a roaring trade, kids and dogs running amok. I pulled my bandanna up like a bank-robber and bought a brew from the chuck-wagon. Then I sat with it, well away from the crowds. Few were wearing any sort of face covering. In shops, it’s compulsory, at other times optional. But the “optional” will likely get you stared at, face coverings being a new front in the culture wars.

While I ruminated, a group numbering twenty or so came steaming down the car park on bikes, raising dust and hollers. They crowded me like wasps, while complaining among themselves how busy it was. They couldn’t see they were their own crowd, crushing my two meters of safe space down to a dodgy less than one. I took my brew to the car.

She was unmarked, and my neighbours had allowed a good deal of space between us, redeeming humanity for me somewhat – sure weren’t we all out here just enjoying the summer as best we could? I sanitized my hands with anti-bac gel, which also took some of the sting out of the bites. Then I dropped the top. Driving used to be a bore, but since teaming up with this little car, I’ve rediscovered its pleasures. Plus, we’d had the best of the day and – okay – the crowds were pecking my head. It was time to be off.

I drove home through Cockerham, kept her in fourth, kept the revs up, so she met the bends and the undulations with a bit of zest. It’s still such a lovely car to drive, well-balanced, not powerful – about a hundred and twenty-five horses – light as a feather, and a bottomless well of torque. But, as much as I treasure her, she’s worth about the same these days as some of the bicycles I overtook – pelotons of men in Lycra, spitting. It’s not a good look, guys, the spitting I mean, especially now amid a pandemic spread by body fluids.

I picked up the M6 at Broughton. Traffic eastbound from the M55 was fast and stupid. You have to change lanes early here, so you’re right for the southbound M6. Miss it and you’ll be scooting back north to Lancaster. Even though I was indicating my intentions, an SUV zoomed up and sat on my shoulder, pinning me northbound, so I stamped on the gas, and the car responded like a rocket. The SUV shrank in the rear-view, and I picked up my lane just in time. The way ahead was clear, so I kept on with the power, and we ate the road, fled the crowds and the heat, and all those damned horse-flies.

None of this sounds like me. It’s more like something unravelling, or working its way through the psyche. I’ve been thinking about the novel, Winter on the Hill, and something Annie said to me. Annie’s imaginary of course, which makes her both real and not real at the same time, at least in the phenomenological sense:

You’re a warrior, Rick, but you’re tired, and right now you’re up to your knees in mud, and your sword’s blunt from swinging it at shadows all day long, and the snow’s lying thick on the ground, and you’re cold because it’s winter on the hill. What can you do about that? Well, you get back on your feet, find somewhere warm for a while, and sharpen your sword. Because remember, a warrior can’t live without a fight. Anything else is just death. So you sharpen that damned sword and get back out there,…

For the introvert, it’s easier to take the way of the Lover, especially after a few knock-backs. We just cosy up with a good book, unplug the ‘phone and close the door. We sheathe our sword, withdraw support. Sometimes then, the warrior has to fight first the lover in himself. Then, like Annie says, get back out there and do the best we can, even if all that amounts to is standing our two meters, and telling others to back off.

Keep well, keep calm and keep going.

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Having worked through the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve found myself regularly driving these past months at a time when most people have been at home. This has led to quieter roads, and a halving of my usual commuting time. Paradoxically, it’s also been a time when I have never been more afraid of taking to the road. Speeding, cutting in, pulling out without looking, overtaking on blind corners – all of these things I witness regularly on my commute now. The situation is such that when I am not required to go to work, I leave the car at home as much as possible for fear of accidents. This is not normal and I have a theory about it.

Psychologically we can be divided up into various personality types. There are a number of profiling methods, but the main one used in psychological research is called the Big Five. This lists five main personality traits: extroversion, openness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. Insights into our nature are revealed by how we score against each of these traits.

Those who have stayed at home during the pandemic, those who obey the rules about necessary journeys and social distancing will measure high in conscientiousness, neuroticism and agreeableness. This basically means you worry about doing the right thing, you’re thorough in following the guidelines and you’re thinking about keeping others safe as much as yourself.

The idiots who score low on these same measures don’t care about the rules, they believe the rules don’t actually apply to them, and they don’t worry about others at all, indeed they don’t think about others, and couldn’t give a fig if others found them  disagreeable. Indeed, they might wear the latter as a badge of honour. So, these quieter roads are an invitation for such types to floor the accelerator and really see what the old girl will do. In other words, if you’re sensible, agreeable and conscientious in the current climate you’re more likely to be at home doing the right thing. If you’re on the roads, you’re more likely to be an idiot, and a danger to others.

Speaking of which:

To the driver of the corporate-looking BMW who joined the M61 at around six forty-five this morning, from the on-slip of Junction 5, doing about seventy, and who missed me by inches, then careened blithely out into the fast lane before disappearing in a cloud of dust as he ramped it up to warp speed, I say this: that was some manoeuvre. I’d also say no human being could possibly have reacted as fast as you did, threading that obnoxious beast of a car into tight traffic, unless they were coked up to the eyeballs, which I suspect you were.

You didn’t see all the tail lights stabbing in alarm to make way for your safe passage, and even if you had you would not have cared. Nor did you feel the jolt of shock I felt, deep in my stomach, and which lingered well into the day. You would have considered it amusing perhaps, merely the price others must pay for you to exercise your divine right to do as you want.

And then to the stone-faced cop in the scowly-faced SUV, who followed me halfway home this evening, waiting, I presume, for me to forget to indicate (yes, I score high in neuroticism), I say to him:

Where the hell were you this morning?

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Mazda MalhamThe small blue car and I slipped out today, for pleasure! We were going to find a quiet little spot up on the Western Pennines, and I was going to take a hike. This is legal now, but it turns out it’s still not advisable. Tuesday afternoon, midweek isn’t known for being a busy time up here, but it was busy today. Very busy.

I couldn’t park the car. I cruised around for a couple of miles but every pull in, lay-by and car-park was jam-packed. There were people everywhere, hordes of them, at times ambling four abreast down the middle of the roads. They blinked, cow-like, at me as I squeezed by. Worse, the waysides were trashed with several month’s worth of Macmeal leavings. It was a disappointment and a disgrace.

So I came home without stopping. I hesitate to say it’s time everyone went back to work. Those of us still working weird shifts want to enjoy our time off! And aren’t all you lot supposed to be working from home anyway? And that means – you know – being at home, not all enjoying the same couple of square miles of green. I know, it sounds selfish of me. Bad Karma and all that.

There was one tight little spot I could have squeezed into, then took my place in line on the trails. But where would the pleasure have been in that? Risky too, with so many sticky palms on the kissing gates, and on the stiles. The moral is to stay local for a while longer. No matter what the rules say, don’t use the car for anything yet except commuting and supplies.

There was a package on the step when I arrived home. I’ve been waiting for my garden twinkle lights for months now. You know how it goes? You make sure you pick the UK supplier on eBay, but it turns out it’s a front, and the stuff gets shipped on that slow boat from China anyway? All right, so it’s a non-essential item, but such things weren’t an issue when I placed the order.

Anyway, great, I thought. We’ll get those up, and sit out tonight in the peace and quiet and with the bats a fluttering, with a glass of something nice. I’d ordered warm-white lights, 2000 of them. Awesome!

I switched them on. They were pink.

Send them back to China? Nah! Give them time, I thought.

They may grow on me.

 

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