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Posts Tagged ‘cars’

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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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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Someone else’s MGB, Glasson Marina, February 2014

The last Friday of February, this year, was also a full moon, thus seeming especially auspicious. Previous years would have had me and the small blue car at Glasson Marina, enjoying the year’s first hints of spring. From Glasson, I like to walk the quiet lanes to Cockerham, then back up the Lancashire coastal way, over the green sward, by the remains of the abbey, and the Plover Scar light. I’d have lunch at Lantern O’er Lune, then return home via the garden centre at Barton, for coffee and cake. A grand day out, as they say.


I first did that trip in 2014 in an old grey commuter mule called Grumpy. I’ve done it every year since, except last, and this. On that first trip there was a guy at the marina in a gorgeous red MGB. He looked to be in his seventies, living the dream, with his Irvine flying jacket. At £850 a go, that jacket was as much of a statement as the car. Cynics might have said he was menopausal. But in your seventies? Not likely. Okay, he looked a bit eccentric, but the guy had spirit, and he inspired me. The next year I was in the small blue car, an old but reasonably well-kept Mazda roadster. All right, she’s no MG but, forgive me, I never held the same faith in British motor cars as others. I’d thought to keep the car a year or so, get her out of my system, and sell her on, but we’re still together. I drew the line at an Irvin jacket.

My MX5, Glasson Marina, 2015

This pandemic year however, the car is under covers, and I keep my steps local. On Friday, I walked a pleasant circuit from my doorstep, instead, just clipping the next village. I was hoping to see a particular buzzard, thus scotching rumours the bird had been shot. I didn’t see it. As I walked I was thinking of Glasson. I was picturing the crocuses in the churchyard, and along the canal bank. I was also thinking about writing, and the answer to a question I’d posed: Why have I not decided upon so much as an opening sentence of new fiction yet, months after putting up my last novel? I have never been without a work of fiction for company. But time is ticking.


Things are pretty well upended, was the answer to my question. You’ve had a big change of circumstance, what with early retirement and everything, so let it ride, don’t rush it. And fair enough, I’m not. I’ve bought a 3D printer to tinker with, and I’m designing and building bits and bobs for myself. I’ve made a clock case, a watch case, and some quick-release clips for stashing Alpine poles to my rucksack. Ironic, I thought. For most of my life I have been writing as a distraction from the trials of engineering. Then I retire, and I take on personal engineering projects as a distraction from writing. I am, if nothing else, perverse. But the answer goes further, deeper. It takes in the ruins of the world, and how best to move on from them.


I understand that in one sense I’m in a good place. A final salary pension helps enormously, but most of all I’m lacking anger. However, I’m also lacking passion, which is possibly less good. I look upon the corruption of political high office, and I don’t care any more. I read how the cost of BREXIT is now roughly the same as our contributions to the EC since 1972, and I don’t care. The Labour Party is veering once more to the right, purging itself of even moderate old lefties like me, and I don’t care. I’m fine, I want everyone else to be fine too, but I’m waking up to the nature of the world as being one of ineradicable inequality, indifference and self-entitlement. Money makes you mean, and since money buys power, you can plot your course from there to the most logical outcome – which is pretty much the ruins of where we are.


The Taoist texts talk of clarity. They use the image of a lake. If we are emotionally aroused, they say, it’s like the perturbation of the surface, and the stirring of sediment. Then we cannot see through to the bottom of things. Only through calmness, through stillness, does the sediment settle out and clarity is restored. But while in stillness, there might indeed be a kind of clarity, I find there’s not the energy to power a hundred thousand words of fiction. It strikes me therefore, I might have already written my final novel. On the one hand I’m surprised by that, since I’d always imagined my retirement as a time I could spend writing to my heart’s content. On the other hand, again, I don’t care. The muse has been slipping me the occasional idea, but I can tell she’s not serious. She has not once lit the blue touch-paper. All of which perhaps goes to show the Universe is not without a wry sense of humour.


Then, as I write, my son brings news of a pair of buzzards circling my garden. He’s rummaging in some excitement for the binoculars. It’s an unusual sight, a pair of them like that, and a bit of a shock, actually. I break off for a photograph, snap-on the long lens. I’ve been stalking buzzards in my locale for a while now, trying to get a nice sharp image of one, while lamenting their vulnerability, and suddenly there are two over my house, as if they had come to look at me and pose. It’s surely an omen. Of what, who can say? Light or dark, we take our choice. Myself, I’m optimistic. It seems you don’t always need to venture far in seeking what you want, also that we needn’t go chasing every shadow. Indeed, perhaps what we seek is actually seeking us, and all we have to do is find sufficient stillness of mind to let it in.

Glasson, on the last Friday of February 2022? The small blue car will be twenty years old.

It’s a date.

One of a pair of buzzards, circling over my house

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corsaFebrile: of or relating to fever, indicative of a malaise. Maybe that’s why the Jaguar pulled out of the side road in front of me this morning?

I’m not driving my own car at the moment – sold mine, but that’s another story. My current ride, a six year old Corsa has a leisurely way of doing most things, including an emergency stop. In fact it didn’t really stop. It just slowed sufficiently to allow the Jag get away with it. Pip my horn? Didn’t have time to think about it really.

But then it was the ubiquitous white van-man, weaving about at great speed on the motorway, undertaking, overtaking, ducking and diving across all three lanes, narrowly avoiding clipping my nearside front as he made a last second lurch for the off-slip – I think they call this manoeuvre ‘cutting up’. It caused another alarmed stamp on the brakes and a rise in heart-rate and blood pressure. But pip my horn? Didn’t really have time to think about it.

Then there was the BMW that pulled into my path as I was leaving the motorway, and with a Juggernaut full square in the view mirror, barely inches behind. I only half tested the brakes this time, sufficient to allow the BMW to get away in a cloud of tyre-smoke and stupidity, but not quite enough to have the Juggernaut ram me – just back off in a startled squeal of brakes and an alarming little wobble. He was as surprised as I was (a) at the sudden out of the blue manoeuvre of the BMW, and (b) that he’d managed not to ram me.

Pip my horn? Well, you know,…

And then, finally, there was the industrial estate, a sensible twenty mile an hour limit, and not difficult to manage, but a frequently vexing experience with aggressive vehicles glued to my bumper wanting to go much faster. This morning it was a brightly illuminated “Boss Class” Audi. As I slowed and filtered right to make my final turn of the morning, he vanished with an angry growl, a blared horn and a jabbed finger. “You slow coached, goody two shoes, penis,” he was saying, “take that: PAAARP!”.

It took a cup of tea and a good ten minutes to get my arms back in my sleeves after all of that, I’ll tell you. My commute is definitely getting harder.

There are a number of factors at play here. For one it’s the steady, year on year increase in the volume of traffic, which in turn increases the percentage of aggressive, or simply reckless personalities on the roads. Then there’s my age – one cannot react as quickly to a sudden stimulus at 57 as one did at 17, and too much erratic stimuli can leave one reeling when, at 17, it would be dealt with and dismissed merely as superfluous noise.

But there’s also something in the air, something fragile in the Zeitgeist and I feel endangered by it, glad to arrive safely in the mornings, now, and get home at night without mishap. And if it’s true we create our own reality, the universe is providing the white vans and the Jags and the BMW’s and the Audis to confirm my own sense of the febrile nature of things.

I therefore need to take steps,…

I’m not without my own faults of course. Slow, yes. A little overcautious,… and prone to the occasional muddle, at times> Yes, yes, all true, but also I’m prone to a certain cold eyed vindictiveness. Oh yes, really!

Since much of my commute is spent virtually motionless, sitting in heavy traffic, I have often had the opportunity to observe evidence persuasive of the maxim that money makes you mean. With the traffic control systems so regularly overloaded and spilling into commuter chaos, it falls to individuals to organise themselves and cooperate in allowing other drivers to filter in ahead of them, or no one would get anywhere. And I’ve noticed it’s older, cheaper cars, that are most likely to allow another to go ahead of them – the more expensive the car, the less likely. No, seriously! You can test this phenomenon for yourself the next time you’re creeping nose to tail with traffic filtering into the stream, from where it would otherwise not have right of way.

But I’m as guilty as anyone else here – at least in a topsey-turvey sense. If it’s an expensive car stuck for someone to let them in, I’ve noticed I’m less inclined to be courteous. I make an assumption regarding the kind of person driving that kind of vehicle. I assume they’re arrogant, over-brimming with a sense of their own entitlement, and in the main I feel justified in nurturing such prejudice on the basis such vehicles are also more likely to be reckless and aggressive when driving against me at speed.

So I suppose my personal challenge, and a possible way to defuse the Zeitgeist’s current febrile malaise, is, the next time I’m locked in traffic, to smile, wave, and allow that pumped up gas guzzling monster of a vehicle to filter in ahead of me. Indeed, let us all drive with greater courtesy to our fellow motorists, regardless of the car they drive. Let us defy the Zeitgeist, and be kinder to one another, generally. And even if you’re cut up, provided you survive to tell the tale, resist the urge to pip your horn in retaliation. After all if you’ve time to gather your senses and pip your horn, it wasn’t really that close anyway. Was it?

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mazda night journey HDR

It doesn’t feel like I’ve had the little blue car for long, but it’s getting on for four years now. It’s hard to describe how much pleasure I’ve had from driving it. I’ve discovered the roads have a sway to them not felt since my motorcycle days, the sunshine is brighter and, top down, the air is a dream of freshness, and all this is to say nothing of the places I’ve discovered with it – especially in the Yorkshire Dales, just a short hop from home, and a place for which the car seems to have been especially built.

For years now the remoter dales have echoed to the burble of its exhaust note, as the little blue car wandered with a tenacious grip and a surprising vigour, given its fifteen years. I’d thought it would last for ever. But then I noticed it was suffering from tin-worm in the back wings, and sills. A previous owner had already patched it, and quite neatly, but the sills are bubbling through again, and I’ve had an advisory on the MOT.

The cost for a decent repair is far in excess of what the car is worth. So at the moment it’s tucked up, looking forward to just one last summer on the road before the breaker’s yard. I couldn’t sell it on without pointing out the work that’s needed, which will surely put any casual buyers off. An enthusiast with a knowledge of welding and body repair might take it on, but at most five hundred quid is what I could, in all fairness, get for it.

Sadly this is the way most old MX5’s go. They are like butterflies, built for warmer, drier climes, not the persistently wet brutality of roads in Northern Europe, nor especially its salt caked winters. Rationally, it makes no sense to invest any more in it. I mean, goodness knows where else the rust might be lurking – the body shop talked of common issues with the forward suspension, further advisories on the MOT and costs in excess of five hundred at some point in the future.

It’s a thing to ponder over winter, and quite sad. She runs well, has only 86,000 on the clock, and might in all other respects have another ten years of pleasure ahead of her, but there we are. All good things must come to an end.

“I’d bite the bullet and get it done, mate,” said the guy in the body shop. “These cars are becoming classics. It’ll be worth it in the long run.”

Nice guy, and an infectious enthusiasm, but he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Oh, I know he’s right, but classic cars are holes in the road you pour your money into. They take all your love and patience, and repay it with an ever more temperamental drift into old age and irritability. But for a short while at least, heaven for me has been a little blue car with a roof you can fold down, and a twist of dales country road warming to dust, under a hot summer sun.

 

 

 

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Mazda under cover I take a breath, click the clicky thing and I say: “Radio?”

The car responds. Female voice. Mature. Slightly bossy. “Radio.”

“FM?”

“FM,… frequency please?…”

“Ninety three.”

Pause. The car computes, and then: “Not possible.”

I try again: “Radio?”

“Radio.”

“FM?”

“FM,… Frequency please?….”

Best 1950’s BBC accent now: “Ninety three.”

Pause,… “Tuning,…. Eighty three. Not possible.”

“What? No,… I said NINETY THREE,….”

Clearly this voice recognition thing has some way to go. It isn’t exactly one of the stand-out features of the Ford Focus. Instead, I fumble for the little preset button that takes me to 93 FM, and Radio 4.

Radio 4 annoys me these days, but everything else on the radio annoys me more. I prefer silence as I drive, but my commute is long and boring, and sometimes I like a companionable background babble for a change. We are half way through my commute, about 7:45, traffic at a standstill, sleety rain, just coming light. I’ve had the car a few days and we’re still getting to know one another.

Radio 4 is broadcasting a political interview. Both the politician and the interviewer have tones like cheese graters. Prickly. Abrasive. Adversarial. I don’t want to arrive at work already irritated, so better to turn the radio off, but – and lets be honest here – I don’t know how to turn the radio off.

It’s either this or Rock FM.

“Radio?”

“Radio.”

“Off.”

“Not recognised.”

The voices drone on. In the end I turn the volume down all the way. That will have to do for now.

The voice of the car makes me feel like a dimwit. I daresay I won’t be talking to it very much.

And I’m missing old Grumpy.

Grumpy is now living in Wales. I know this because his new owner rang last night to ask about the service book. I thought I’d left it in the car, but it turns out it’s still in my hall-table drawer. I don’t know how the new owner got my number. I didn’t sell Grumpy to him. I traded Grumpy in to the dealer for a pittance, because Grumpy needed work, and I hope they did the work before selling the car on. The dealer must have passed on my number which was naughty of them, but they’ve like as not already sold it round the world anyway, so it hardly matters. And the new owner seems pleased with Grumpy. I’m glad he’s found a good home. Ages since I was in Wales.

The Focus is a decent car and, in the main, looking pretty sound. The blurb extols the virtues of this new-fangled Ecoboost engine with twin clutch automatic transmission – claims I can get 40 mpg in mixed motoring. But 36.4 seems to be the limit so far, even driving with a feather touch, and I was getting that out of Grumpy without trying. And Grumpy had a bigger, older engine, and a dull old torque converter gearbox. One wonders at the fuss and blather. Still, the Focus is half the road tax of Grumpy, and that’s the equivalent of a couple of tyres.

I’ve not seen it properly yet in daylight. Not even sure of the colour – sort of blue-grey. I bought it in the pouring rain, and it’s been raining ever since, except on the few occasions when it’s been dark. That’s what it’s like. Wintertime. The commuter mule is mostly invisible. You go to it in the morning, demist it, brush away the snow, scrape the frost,.. whatever. Then it conveys you to the dayjob at an average speed of 22 miles per hour.

But it smells nice inside, smells of “new car”, a scent you can apparently buy, and which the dealer has clearly been very liberal with. It’s comfortable, quiet, plenty of poke when you want it,… and the dashboard lights up very prettily indeed. The transmission is strange – the odd bump and shuffle, but I think this is normal for a twin clutch auto. Yes, it’s fine. It’ll do.

But,…

It does not exactly make me smile.

I have another car, not for commuting. It spends much of the winter in the garage, gathering dust, avoiding the wet and the frost. What with one thing or another I’ve not been out in it for a couple of weeks. It’s my old Mazda MX5. It’s noisy, has a gearbox that takes an hour of running before it’s silky smooth; it has an engine as tight as a duck’s bottom unless you shamelessly thrash it. It smells of venting battery and damp, is brutally hard sprung, clatters over the bumps, rattles your teeth, and the rag-top is fraying,…

The rain stopped briefly on Sunday, and a winter sun peeped through just long enough to dry the roads. So I backed the Mazda out and took her for a spin to keep her limber. She warmed quickly and began to enjoy the road. Yes the Mazda enjoys the road. I know she does. I feel it in her bones. Smooth she’s not, quiet she’s not, but, oh,… what a joy that Mazda is to drive.

And yet,…

This morning the frost was layered thick upon the Focus while the Mazda slept in, snug beneath her blanket. It was a hard sheen of ice with jewelled drops, and a fine fuzz of dendritic growth on top, like a snowy fungus. It all was a glitter under a shivery clear skied dawn. Two clicks on the dashboard and the heated front and rear screens had the car ready to go in a minute. The ice capitulated.

“So,” says the Focus, “you want to go? Well come on then. Stop messing about. Quit blathering about the road-poetry of that flipping Mazda. Let’s go!”

The back roads were a sheen of black. The Mazda would have tested my nerves and risked a nose-dive into the ditch at the first bend. With the Focus I dared to test traction with a dab on the brakes. It responded with the sure footed grind of ABS, came crouching to a straight line stop. Safe as houses.

“Well, what did you expect?” it says. “High drama? Pirouettes?”

And then: “Listen,” it says, “What you get with me is the A to B. I’m about getting you there when getting there is what matters. That flighty little Mazda is about catching up all the bits you’ve missed inbetween, and only when the sun is shining.”

Makes sense at last. Respect. If I’m not careful I’ll be giving it a name.

Just waiting for one that sticks.

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grumpy approaching kirkstoneI’d like to start this year by thanking those who follow and comment on my blog: Simon, Tom, Lee, Rati, Jim, Bottledworder, Walk2Write, Paul – to name but a few; your comments and likes are a constant encouragement, as are the “likes” of others, followers or not, who drop by and read my stuff. Thanks to all, and a Happy New Year.

The Rivendale Review is hardly what one would call an “influential” blog, but has far exceeded my expectations when I set out in 2008, and has become an integral part of my writing life. 2016 will see the same eclectic mix of stuff, things that catch my eye, things that make me think, things I find joyful in life: travels, books, absurdities, curiosities, and funny stories. I shall also write about writing.

So,…

The year begins as it ended, with rain. It’s been raining since October. The rattle of it against the glass is a familiar companion now. The garden is sodden and squelchy, my outdoor coat is permanently airing on a hanger in the back porch. We have come through flood and sickness unscathed, but philosophical. And there is now a sadness too at a parting of the ways.

My car, my long familiar commuter mule, Old Grumpy is to be traded on Tuesday for another vehicle with less miles on the clock. Right now I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing or if I should have kept Grumpy a little longer. As for the new car, a ’12 plate Focus, I’m wondering if it will be any less troublesome than Grumpy has been over the long years of our acquaintance.

To the cosmopolitan gent, the car is becoming superfluous, even derided for its environmentally unfriendly habits. And to drive is to be milked as a cash cow for tax, insurance, repairs, and roadside assistance, to the extent one is wise to think twice about taking to the road at all. But for those of us living outside the city limits, in places where trains and buses are infrequent and rarely link up anyway with the places you want to go, the car remains an essential part of everyday life.

All the eras of my life, since late teens, are defined by the car I was driving at the time. A memory surfaces, say from 1978 – and I remember the plucky little Honda rustbucket I drove back then. In ’82 it was the Blue Mk4 Cortina, in which I began to explore the Lakes and Scotland. In ’86 it was the first in a long line of 3 series Volvos. Those eras were short, three or four years at a time. Then marriage and family life stretched the finances, so the car eras became longer – seven or eight years. In ’94 it was the Rover 216, in ’02 the first Astra, then the last Astra, old Grumpy in ’08.

The Grumpy era was marked immediately by a severe downturn, a period of grinding economic austerity, of rocketing energy and petrol prices. Grumpy saw petrol rise to £1.50 a litre. The Grumpy era has been a choppy one, an era of breakdowns, expensive repairs, and a general fragility of affairs that has sapped confidence and led to a contracting world view, rather than one that expands to encompass new horizons. The old Cortina took me to far away places, places I had never been before. Sometimes it feels as if old Grumpy has taken me nowhere but rather kept me on a narrow circular holding pattern. Holding for what, I don’t know. On the up-side, the grumpy era has been one of the most creatively productive. And whatever the ups and downs of it I’ll be sad to see him go.

A recent rain poem (2014) from the Grumpy years:

Crystal Teardrops

The day dissolves to a silver mist,
Lighter than air,
Drifting,
Settling softly
Among bare branches,
Where minuscule spheroids swell,
Coalescing to a smug fatness.
Teardrops of crystal,
Transparent berries among the black thorns,
Rich yield of cold nourishment,
Hanging motionless in a mist,
Still drifting,
Thin as ghosts,
Aimless as smoke,
From dying embers.

A lone leaf falls.

_______________________

And finally, an older rain poem (1990), the Volvo years:

Hawkshead

I hear the gentle sound of rain,
So soft, so fine, against the pane,
And I am in Hawkshead once more,
Remembering the time before,
When you and I first passed this way,
One shy and clumsy Autumn day.
First heartfelt kiss, first tender word,
In growing shades of dusk I heard.
A walk, a talk, from shackles free,
Snug from the world, just you and me.
It seems so long ago and yet,
The moment I cannot not forget.
For here it was that first I knew,
Without a doubt, how I loved you.

 

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grumpy at grasmereDave’s presentation is slick, professional, official-looking, but also transparently sham, like Dave’s bling watch. First up the asking price for the Ford Focus Dave is selling is not the actual asking price. I must add £100 in order to cover “administration fees”. This, explains Dave, in a voice that now rings disappointingly dull with rote learning, is for peace of mind. It will yield indemnity against any outstanding finance on the car.

Excuse me? You mean there’s a possibility you may be selling a car that has outstanding finance owing, and to which I will be liable if I buy it? Dave fluffs his next lines, stumbles a little, moves on to another slide:

Unreliable things, cars. They are expensive to repair. Astronomical prices, are charged for every day things like clutches and brakes and cylinder heads. What I need is a warranty. But does the car not come with a warranty, Dave? Is the car likely to be so unreliable I will have need of it? Have you not checked it out in your extensice workshop facilities? Plugged it it into your main-dealer computer what’s-a-ma-gig?

The car comes with a basic and entirely useless three month warranty on engine and gearbox – things that are unlikely to be a problem on a three year old car. This does not inspire much confidence in me. No, what I need, says Dave, is a proper warranty, for which I must add another £500. I do not want this, and tell him so. I tell him I am not interested in any more “extras”.

By now the light is going, the sky clearing further to a cold cobalt. Meanwhile the cars inside the dealership shine beautifully. The sweet, squeaky clean scent of their tyres is exquisite. A sparkly-black Mustang rotates smoothly, soundlessly, on its plinth. This is the higher end of the motor business, and not without its allure. They don’t wear Trilby hats and sheepskin coats in here. They wear nice, business-like suits and learn their patter from highly trained sales-trainers, whose learning in turn is built upon the killer-psychology of Freud.

In a moment, and in spite of my discouragement, Dave will be urging me to have the paintwork of the car protected with a special, armoured gunk – protected against bugs and tree sap. Now, I’ve never had a problem with tree sap. I admit it can be a nuisance, leaving unsightly blobs on the car, but hot water and shampoo generally does the trick in getting rid of it. I wonder if car paint is not what it used to be – I mean if simple washing, or rain will nowadays dissolve it, without resort to this expensive protective coating clap-trap. Dave’s next slide does indeed warn against the perils of tree sap. Protecting against ice-cream on the seats is also, apparently, essential.

By now I have lost track of the extras, but estimate we’re up to about a seven hundred pounds. Do punters so routinely accept such an easy rack up, I wonder, that they should form part of the salesman’s daily patter? I suppose when paying by monthly instalments, on finance, it might not sound like much, an extra twenty quid a month or something, but I am an adherent of Grandma’s Stern Economic Principles – I save up for what I want, and pay cash. To me seven hundred pounds is seven hundred pounds. But punters like me, paying cash, are not that welcome in such high-bling places as this. Why should we be when with a finance deal we’ll pay thousands more for the same car, over the term of the agreement?

And still there is no word on the trade in value for the Astra. I have been at the dealership for an hour now. I’m growing a little tired, and couldn’t care less about the Ford Focus I once fancied any more, have no interest in taking it out for a test-drive as the light bleeds away and we approach rush hour. I am being flim-flammed, polished up for a mug, and I wonder if Dave knows that I know this. Certainly nothing in his patter suggests such a heightened degree of self-awareness. He jabbers on heroically, if still a little woodenly.

Finally, and as if by magic, the trade in value appears on Dave’s computer screen. The offer is £1000. But I have already ascertained from my trusty Autotrader App that £1650 is a fair minimum price. In all good conscience, I mentally deduct £300, knowing a repair on my car is necessary, but Dave and I are still some distance apart. I tell him his offer is too low. So Dave, who is my friend, and doing his best to protect my interests, sets out to tackle his boss again. This takes another ten minutes. More coffee is offered. Refused. The boss comes over.

This is an older guy, late fifties, jowly, crinkly-faced, dark suit, undertaker grey – a mark of his seniority. Certainly, he talks a higher level of tripe than his minion, and at the speed of an auctioneer, talks at me for what feels like an age. I can barely understand his diction – Shakespeare this is not – more Lear possibly, but I have no interest in it, am no longer listening. Instead, I nod politely, wonder if we are heading in the right direction, wish the jowly guy would cut to the quick, because by now I’m seriously wanting a wee. I almost miss the punch-line. Sorry, what was that? The deluge of rapid-fire tripe equates to an extra £50 on the trade in. Did he really think it was worth such an effort? An Oscar nomination perhaps, but £50, please! The insult is accepted, digested. This is business, remember, not personal.

The main-dealer experience is not without its interest, if you’ve the stamina for it – mainly in the observation of unusual human interaction, also the rather unsubtle and amusing psychology of flim-flamming. Perhaps I have become too unplugged over the years to respond normally to this sort of thing, and instead quietly record the absurdities of it in my mental notebook. It may reappear in a future story, whole or part, or maybe just the characters.

But by now I can no longer remember what the Ford Focus I briefly sat in looks or feels like, and I really don’t care. Indeed I feel like I’ve been in prison, subjected to an intense and craftily contrived interrogation. I will be happy if I never see another Fuc*%ng Ford Focus, or a squeaky dealership again.

I shake Dave by the hand, thank him for his time, because it’s business-like and the polite thing to do. Then I walk out into the early evening darkness and freedom. The sky is luminous, beautiful, streaked over by a single orange vapour trail, a planet sits low in the west, a steady white light. A star to guide me home.The Astra starts at the first touch, as it always does. There’s a clatter from the camshafts at low revs while we find our way out of the dealership, but I’m getting used to that now. She warms quickly and settles down to a familiar sedate hum as we motor home, and all without a single warning light on the dash.

In spite of its litany of faults, both past and present I’m feeling it’s still a nice car to drive, this 07 plate Vauxhall Astra, and may be worth hanging onto for a bit longer, even at a venerable 93,000 miles. I just need to bite the bullet and get it fixed. Again.

Never give your car a name. It makes it all the harder to part with.

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grumpy and friendHe’s an expensively coiffured young man, good suit in pale grey, a quality cloth, fashionably narrow tie. His watch is cheap bling though – gents dress-style in a thin chrome plate – more a case of show over quality. All right, perhaps I’m being a bit uncharitable, but I have a thing about watches; I notice them, and his is already an unfortunate omen. We shake hands in the foyer of the squeaky clean car dealership, and the game begins. My new friend is called Dave.

The dealership has easily a thousand cars, and a dozen well turned out young men like Dave to sell them. The place is so vast he struggles to find the one I’ve seen on the Autotrader App – a ’12 plate Ford Focus with Zetec trim. It has the innovative 1.6 Ecoboost engine with Powershift transmission, asking price £8400. Dave scuttles across the lot, in search. I follow.

It has rained heavily all day –  not a good day for looking at cars, not a good day for inspiring the good humour necessary for bridging the inevitable gap between dealer and punter’s expectations. But just now there’s a more optimistic opening, the greyness turning to white, a wider blue emerging. Gulls screech in from the waterfront. We’ll see.

This moment comes around once every seven or eight years for me – the hunt for a new(ish) commuter mule, a mule with minimal miles on the clock, in exchange for one approaching six figures. I normally avoid the main dealers because they’re such hard work – preferring smaller independents who are equally avaricious, but generally waste less time with Powerpoint presentations and beating about the bush. Still, today I’m open to the experience, and it’s been a while.

We find the car. It’s a pretty looking thing from a distance, a little smaller on the inside than I’m expecting, but has a nice feel to it. I circle it in the age old fashion, and with an eye trained on appraising the risks in much older cars than this. Dave stands to one side, spares me his patter for now. A good sign. I’m not expecting to find much on a car this age, but then I’m clocking damage to the bumper on the front nearside, and a serious gouge in one tyre that looks to me like it’s been kerbed and run flat for an irresponsible period of time.

Dave assures me, breathlessly, the car has passed its MOT, otherwise the tyre would have been changed, meaning they’re not going to change it now. But only a fool would drive any distance with a tyre in that condition, MOT or no. He admits the damage to the bumper is unsightly, that it will be “put right”, but by now I have lost faith in the dealer’s attention to detail and expect they’ll simply slobber some touch-up on it, and let it go at that. Shades of Tressell’s Philanthropists comes to mind, and philanthropist, at least in the Tressellian sense, I am not.

The sun goes in, a cold wind whips up, and my optimism dissolves. Thus far I’m unimpressed. But I’m polite. The car still has an enticingly low mileage at just 10,000, and may yet redeem itself in the details of the deal.

Would I like a test drive?

I suggest to Dave it might be better if he looks at my car and gives me a price for trade-in first, then we can see how far apart we are. No sense wasting time on a drive otherwise, is there? I’m not sure I’m what he’s expecting from a punter, or trained to expect, but I’ve bought more cars than he’s sold, spent decades of my youth at the grungy end of the trade, and am myself trained to be unimpressed by glossy language. When dealing with cars it is not sentiment but money alone that speaks, and invariably with a tongue that is severally forked, regardless of whether we are dealing with the grungy, or the glossy end of the trade. It’s not personal; it’s just business.

As for me, my car, “Grumpy”, is ailing, but Dave doesn’t know that, and dealers never offer what a car’s worth anyway, so I’m not feeling too guilty about it. I will not sell it to a private buyer knowing it needs repair, but to a dealer? A dealer is different. Experience assures me they are about to take serious advantage of me, so am already compensated to some degree by the knowledge my vehicle has “issues”, as I already know has theirs. It’s not personal; it’s business. The rules of utilitarian economics work both ways.

Dave gives Grumpy a good going over. An official-looking but entirely superfluous tick sheet is filled in. On appearances at least, old Grumpy cannot be faulted – full service history, four good tyres, and a tidy body. However for all of his efforts, Dave explains, he cannot give me a price directly, that he must consult his boss. This is expected, and part of the game. And it will take time – wearing down time. Coffee is offered, refused. I’m fine, I tell him, and settle in for the long haul. I have been here before, and know how it works.

At some point the punter finds himself at the dealer’s desk, while the dealer goes away to consult his boss. Now, I may be a suspicious old punter but believe one is wise to be circumspect under such circumstances, especially if accompanied by wife or other confidant. By all means talk to your confidants now about the weather, or about how beautifully presented the dealership is, but under no circumstances must you discuss your finances, and especially not your bottom line for trade-in. As shocking as this might sound, dealers have been prosecuted for eavesdropping. I don’t know if the practice still goes on, but one should be aware of the risks.

Trade-in deals are a black art – some might say a dark art – and in my experience follow not the simple guidelines of such optimistic wonders as the Autotrader App, nor less the punter’s naive expectations. One must expect, in fact, to be insulted. It’s just a question of how good a mood you’re in that dictates whether a deal will be closed or not. But before all that must come Dave’s Powerpoint presentation.

Already I’m sensing I will not be buying this car, not unless Dave comes up with something to shatter my boredom, because my mood is sinking and I can be a serious depressive. To be sure, it isn’t looking promising for Dave at this stage, as the “full dealership experience” renders numb my bum, and takes on the air of something more Pythonesque. It is only a grim sort of curiosity that keeps me seated now.

The afternoon slides away to a wintry dusk.

And the presentation begins,…

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