Posts Tagged ‘mazda’

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.”


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.”


“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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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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mazda at glasson

The mass-produced motor-car ushered in a revolution from the late fifties to the present day, essentially and literally mobilising the working class. It got people out of their towns at the weekend and it got them to work. As the bus and rail services were wound back in response, it seemed the future of transport was private rather than collective. But then we did it to death and made so many of the damned things they’re now killing us. But things are changing, motor-cars on the brink of becoming elitist again.

I’ve noticed in the last decade a decline in youngsters learning to drive, mainly due to the cost of insurance for first timers. You can still easily pick up a sturdy used vehicle for less than a grand, but it will cost a kid twice that to insure it, and there aren’t the jobs around for your average youngster paying that kind of money. When my own kids were learning I subbed them their first premiums but not all parents are in a position to do that.

So, it may be in the future we’re looking at collective solutions again, more busses, more trains. As for the pollution problem we’re hoping to address that with the increasing use of electrical vehicles (EVs) – at least for those who can afford them – though the futurologist in me says EVs will stall in the UK because we’ve barely the generating capacity to keep the lights on without everyone rolling home at tea time and plugging their cars in as well.

Cars have always meant a lot to me. They’ve got me to college, to work, taken me all over the UK for pleasure. The car I’m driving at the moment has given me the most pleasure of all, rather an old Mazda MX5, but still quite lovely to look at, and even with ninety five thousand on the clock still drives like new. For a one point six litre engine the road tax is pretty steep, and long ago outpaced my old-timer insurance premium, but then I’ve only to think of cruising the Dales with the top town in summer, and I pay up happily. Yes, she’s a bit of a polluter, but at the moment I have no other choice. It’s not her age, indeed newer petrol cars are worse, generating more CO2 than cars did a decade ago, mainly because demand for smaller cars is being overtaken by demand for gas-guzzling monsters.

I’ve always driven older cars. It’s the cheapest way to get around, and if you look after them they’ll go for ever. Yes, things go wrong with them more often than with new cars, but if you can’t fix them yourself, you take them to your local independent mechanic and he sorts them out for you. But newer vehicles are no guarantee of reliability. I’ve had a newer car but it came with a design fault in the transmission that was essentially unfixable. In my experience, new cars and dealerships are to be avoided if you’re of a frugal mindset, and finance for a car, indeed for anything, is enslavement.

I paid £2500 cash for the Mazda, six years ago and I’ve spent another thousand on her since in bits and bobs of repair. Like most cars she’ll do a round trip of a few hundred miles on half a tank of petrol and there are three filling stations within a couple of miles of home all competing for pennies on the price. However, I understand the push to rid the roads of the internal combustion engine, and furthermore I understand that push will come primarily from year on year hikes in vehicle excise duty, that eventually my beauty will have to be scrapped or sold to some rich petrol-head with more money than sense, and a penchant for the endearing qualities of older MX5’s.

So then I look at what’s coming and find electric vehicles still just don’t have the range. They’ll get you to the shops and back, but that’s about it. And the prices, of course, are eye-watering – twenty or even thirty thousand being considered pedestrian in the EV stakes. Nor does the second hand market offer much scope as yet, with the costs of replacing dud batteries easily outstripping the value of the vehicle. With some vehicles you can lease batteries, but that’s a form of finance that’s never ending. Things may change in time of course but we’ve still a long way to go.

Of course sworn urbanites don’t see the need for private transportation at all, and fair enough, because the cities are generally well served by bus and rail. But in the rest of the country there’s no alternative. My nearest town for food and other essentials is a twenty minute drive, or an hour by bus that runs once every ninety minutes. I could go to another town by train that runs once every hour and a quarter, but those services are more often cancelled, requiring rescue by taxi. I could forgo the trip (indeed I often do these days) and order everything online, but that’s only passing the pollution miles on to the van man who delivers your stuff.

There are interesting times ahead, but thus far horses and carts still seem to me a more viable alternative to internal combustion than anything else I’ve seen, so I’m hoping there’s enough petrol left to see me and my old Mazda comfortably out. There are a couple of nags that graze the field at the back of my house, and I recall I did once learn to ride. The only downside I recall is they’ve no brakes and, at times, a weird sense of humour.

Still, I wonder.

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in martindale

 “Mazzy”, the small blue car in Martindale, Westmoreland

I wave to fellow Mazda MX5 drivers. They don’t always wave back but it cheers me up when they do. It’s mostly the guys who’ll reciprocate. Girls will only rarely acknowledge you. Mk 4’s are the worst for not responding, unless driven by an older, old-school silver fox, and then you’ll always get a wave.

It’s just part of the scene, and a pleasant one. I think old Landies and Bugs have a similar thing going on. It proves we’re still human, that we’re enthusiastic about irrational things, that we’re quirky. It tells me there’s still hope.

But I thought the Mazda was into her last year this year. Her back wings and sills were rusting out, and I’d had a quote for repair beyond what she was realistically worth. Then I shopped around a bit and got a price for the sills that would at least get her through the MOT. The guy made a pretty good job of it too – matched the paint and everything. He was pleased I was pleased. And I was pleased that he was pleased that I was pleased. As for the wings, they’re okay from a distance, and I can make a go of patching them myself once the bubbles break, slow the process down with Waxoyl, get them professionally done at some point later on. I’ve also had a dodgy ABS sensor, so all told it’s been an expensive year this year but we’re set up now for a little longer, and as winter comes on, I’m already looking forward to the spring when we can get the top down again and go explore some more narrow roads in the Dales.

At sixteen years old, I’ve got to expect something pretty much all the time now. Speaking of which there’s an occasional howl coming from the front passenger side wheel at low speed on full lock, and I don’t know what that’s about – the cheap option is a sticking brake cylinder, the expensive one is a wheel bearing. I’ll mention that at the service come December’s end, but ’till then we’ll see how it goes. Engine and transmission are still like new (touch wood). I’ve had the car five years now and she’s such a pleasure to own, I want to keep her going for ever. She’s done coming up on ninety thousand now so she’s good for a while yet. A colleague has the same marque, but his had done a quarter of a million and had just started smoking. It was worth about a hundred as scrap and he still didn’t want to let her go.

My other car, what had been my main driver, a four year old Ford Focus went in the autumn, and good riddance. The Powershift started playing silly buggers, and not for the first time, so I sold it back into the trade for a massive loss, but that was better than it bankrupting, or killing me. It’s such a pleasure to be without it I’m still basking in the afterglow one less seriously squeaky hinge, and for sure I’ll not be driving a Ford, or an automatic, again for a long time. A rusty, creaky old MX5 is my only battle-bus now, and people wave at me when I drive by.

No one ever waved at me in my Focus.

The finest run we had this year was the little Malham to Arncliffe road, with a return to Stainforth via Littondale. That was a hot day. I’d spent it walking around Malham, but the drive was as much of a pleasure, and you can’t say that about many cars. I had the top down and you could feel the air and smell the meadows as we passed. You can thread her up and down most any road with confidence, even with a wide beamed eejit coming at you the other way, and she’s a bottomless pit of torque for the hills. Sometimes I forget I’m pushing sixty, the fun I’ve had with that car. Or is it more a gesture of defiance, that you’re just a hair’s breadth from being twenty five again and it’s all a question of spirit? That’s it, I think. She revives my spirit.

The grey slab commuter mule was the thing imposed on me by forces beyond my control, and not much I could do about it and come out the other end feeling at all like a responsible adult. But come weekend, I’d toss the walking boots in the Mazda and we’d take off somewhere beautiful, just the two of us. Like a love affair.

The finest drive we’ve had to date, I think, was round Ullswater to Pooley, then Howtown and up the zig zags into Martindale, a stormy looking day but we managed the top down until our return to Glenridding when it caught us up and we had to batten the hatches down. I took coffee at the Hotel there and I remember coming out and seeing her beaded with rain and looking like a dream. We’d still a hundred miles to go but I’d no worries she wasn’t up for it. That Focus, I’d’ve been waiting for it shivering through the changes at every junction, and wondering if it was going to drop out of drive, or even take it up at all. Thanks for all your help with that one Mr Ford – I’m still waiting for your call by the way.

Japan looks like a beautiful country – don’t suppose I’ll ever go, and it seems odd to be driving a car that was put together there and got itself shipped half way round the world to end its days with me, skipping around the Lakes and Dales. I wonder if she’s ever homesick, if she’s just putting a brave face on things, or if she’s really happy?

It was a short run today, out for breakfast at a local cafe, then off to the shop for supplies. She’s resting in the garage now chatting to the mice. I passed two Mk 1’s and a Mk 2.5. All waved.

None of us were drowning.

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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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MX5 HortonIt’s my third summer now with the MX5, and with all due respect to those pop psychologists, I didn’t buy it because I was menopausal, even though I’m probably of an age that’s ripe for it. I bought it because I wanted one when I was seventeen and couldn’t afford the insurance. By the time I could afford it, I was married with kids, so a two seater sports car was impractical and I ran around for a quarter century in a family hatchback instead. Then the kids reached a stage when they wouldn’t be seen dead going out with me any more and suddenly that open topped sports car was on the cards again, and if you go for an old second hand one, neither are they particularly expensive.

But there’s nothing the media likes more than to gather a few pop psychologists and poke fun at all us silver foxes pretending to be teenagers. I mean, can’t we see how ridiculous we look? I suspect such articles are written by people in their twenties, who have no idea what it actually feels like to be a man in their fifties. Well, you know what? Being a man in your fifties feels just like being a man in your twenties, except in one or two significant respects which makes being in your fifties infinitely better.

Horton Church and PenyghentI took the MX5 to the Yorkshire Dales today, a round trip of about a hundred miles, drove it with the top down all the way, not in order to attract the admiring glances of women, but because there’s a greater sense of presence when you drive this way. The air feels good once you get off the highways and you appreciate the scenery more.

I took the car to the Dales because I wanted to climb Penyghent. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was in my twenties. I’d puff and wheeze my way up it back then, and I still puff and wheeze my way up it now. I’m not worried about advancing age, I’m not trying to prove anything, this is nothing about bucket-lists or raging at the setting of the sun. I took the car to the Dales, I did the hill, and I called for coffee on the way back. It was a great day out and I didn’t once feel self conscious or stupid.

The Mazda’s in the garage now cosseted under its dust sheet, and I’m in the summer house with a glass of wine and the laptop, thinking back over the day. There were plenty on the hill who were a good deal older than me, and they’re an inspiration in the sense that no one is too old for anything. Granted, I wouldn’t recommend climbing Penyghent in your eighties if you’ve never done a day’s walking before, but if you’ve been doing it all your life nothing’s going to stop you, is it?

I’m not saying the male menopause doesn’t exist, because it does, and a man must deal with it as best he can. But what the writers of pop articles about the male menopause overlook is that it’s no fun being young either. Being young has its own problems. True, you’ve more chance of attracting beautiful women and making love to them when you’re younger, but I seem to recall there was a downside to all of that as well, and one I definitely don’t miss.

penyghentOn my way up to the Dales, I stopped at some lights and a brand new Maserati pulled up beside me. It was growling like a tiger with bad guts. The driver wasn’t a silver fox, just a rich bastard with more money and ego than he knew what to do with. I could tell what was coming. When the lights changed that Maserati set off like a bat out of hell, the driver’s point being that his willy was bigger than mine. By the time I’d even snicked her into second, he was just a dot in the distance. His car was worth about £60K, mine about £900, not much of a contest, yet he still felt the need to establish his simian “superiority”.

It doesn’t take much of a psychologist to work out he’s got a considerable menopause waiting for him.

My MX5 is fourteen years old now, done 80K, still drives like new. The 1.6 litre engine isn’t particularly quick, but she’s gutsy on the hills. We attract a lot of bumper stick on BMWs and Mercs and Audis because they’re more powerful and go faster, and their drivers are rude and impatient and not a bit dim. She’s generally in good nick. Her back wings have had some work in the past, but they’re starting to bubble though again and she’ll need a bit of tidying up soon. Returning to her this afternoon after a couple of hours on the fells, I was glad to see her, glad to pull off my boots and settle into her, and I was looking forward to dropping the top and enjoying the sunshine on the drive home. In short she adds something to the day that those old family hatchbacks did not. It’s significant, I think, that I remember none of them with affection.

The menopause in males isn’t about hormonal changes, it’s about the dying of the light, the fear of death and the realisation of its proximity at time when we feel we’ve not yet begun to live, when we haven’t yet made a difference in the world. The ego cannot accept its impending annihilation and seeks as a last gasp some way of making its mark even if that risks killing us or making us look stupid. And the bigger the ego, the bigger the problem. There’s nothing surprising about this, no complex psychology, no thesis to be written. The risk is we’ll rage against it, or we’ll pretend we’re still in our twenties, that even as our hair greys, the sun will never set. Neither attitude is helpful, and neither are smart-arse psycho pop articles that miss the point entirely.

So if you’re a silver fox like me who missed out on that old MG when you were younger, don’t let societal jokes or pop psychologists get under your skin. Sure, you’re not in your twenties any more, but neither are you dead. If your kids have flown the nest and you can persuade the wife she’ll enjoy it, then go for it my friend. Stop thinking about how others see you; don’t live your life through their eyes. You are the eyes of the world as you see it, and it’s your purpose in life to go out and enjoy life as best you can, and if that means being a silver fox in an old MX5, then so be it.

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My Mazda MX5 – and other vehicles!

mazzy interiorMotor vehicles get a bad press these days. They burn petrol which, as every eco-warrior knows is the Devil’s sperm, spawning a carbon catastrophe that’ll melt the ice-caps and flood half the world. But they can also be great fun.

When I was seventeen I rode a motorcycle to work. It was a question of necessity. I had no car and the cost of public transport exceeded my earnings at the time. It wasn’t a big bike, just a 150cc MZ from the old GDR, and it trailed a permanent burned haze of two stoke oil. When I wasn’t commuting on it, I’d take it out on the country roads and thrill to the feel of it as we canted through the bends. If you don’t understand the allure of bikes, it’s because you’ve never ridden one.

Of course bikes are dangerous, and if you ride one, you will come off it. I did, twice, and on neither of those occasions was the situation avoidable. And the bigger the bike, the greater the risk of killing yourself. They’re also unpleasant to ride in winter. In 1978 my commute was 10 miles and ’78 was a bad winter. I’d manage 5 miles before I had to pull over and warm my hands on the exhaust pipe. I’d arrive at work for 8:00, and it would be mid-morning before my legs stopped shaking. That winter also taught me that bikes are not great on snow and ice. Selling the bike and buying a car before the next winter came was a question of survival.

mazda slaidburn 2014But most cars are dull. I say most, not all. I had some fun with an MG Midget. This was 1980 or so. The car was 12 years old, and showing its age with some serious mechanical faults and rampant tin-worm. It felt good from behind the wheel, but really it was in its death throes – nearly killed me too. When I revved it hard, the throttle linkage would jam on the balance pipe between the carburettors. The first time this happened was at a junction with a busy road and the car nearly rammed me into a passing wagon.

I was just a kid, earning very little. The car was a lemon, and I couldn’t really afford to repair it properly – and that car needed a lot of work, plus it had tried to kill me, which for all its sprightly fun, rather set me a’gin it. It amazes me when I see Midgets of that same age now, nearly forty years later, and I boggle at the amount of effort it must have taken to keep them on the road all this time. But they are something. Alas for me, the Midget was the last of the fun cars and there followed thirty five years of dull commuter mules.

mazzy at rivingtonWhen I see them now, and their bigger siblings, the MGB’s, I cannot suppress a smile. A guy roared past me recently in one, top down, mid winter, flying jacket and a huge grin on his face. He was feeing the road, feeling the air, feeling the twist of the bends and the rattle of his suspension. But those MG’s are getting on a bit now – I mean the real ones. They’re not the sort of cars you can have a casual relationship with any more. They weren’t exactly supercars. They weren’t exactly reliable either, but they weren’t just about getting from A to B. They were about the journey. They were about the feel of the road. They were: Roadsters.

Why all this talk of MG’s in a piece about the Mazda MX5, a vehicle of distinctly oriental vintage? Well, I’m coming to that, and my argument runs that when the British open top roadster died in 1980, the market was left wide open, and what filled it was the MX5, or the Miata, as it’s known in the USA. Also the Z3 from BMW. The MG badge is still around of course, it adorned the late revival MGF from ’95 to 2011, but that car, though well loved suffered also from the same manufacturing and design faults as its forebears. How to bend the head on an MGF? Just start her up. Enthusiasts will argue endlessly over which is the better car, but what no one can dispute is that the MX5, from the Mk 1 in 1989 to the more recent Mk 4, has fulfilled the need for a small sporty roadster very well.

Mazda3Mine’s a Mk 2.5, built in 2002. This car is Japanese to its core – no UK offset manufacturing here, it’s pure import. I bought it a year ago to run as a second car because I was feeling dead from the neck down and needed cheering up. It’s my menopause mobile, but I prefer to call her Mazzy. Half Mazda, half Mazzy Star. What does the Mazda MX 5 feel like? It feels like a smile.

At 12 years old it’s as old as that Midget was, similar miles too, about 75K, but unlike the Midget, there’s no serious tin-worm, no oil or coolant leaks, and all the mechanics still feel like new. Also, unlike that old Midget I trust her to get me further than the next town.

But what is it? Is it a sport’s car? Well, if you drive the strictly unmodified stock version like I do, with a 1.6L engine, no, it’s not really a sport’s car. It feels about as powerful as my 1.8 litre  Vauxhall Astra, which is an admirably smooth commuter mule. But does my Astra make me smile as much as my MX5? Em no. Tune the MX 5 up with lots of sporty bits and pieces, and yes, you’ll get yourself a sport’s car. But in standard form, what you’ve got is a roadster.

So what is a roadster? Well, imagine last weekend – late winter, the temperature nudges up above 12 degrees C, and you get a rare day of sun from dawn ’till dusk. So you pull on a heavy jacket, turn up your collar, drop the top and you drive,… and you feel? Well, you feel good. A roadster is simply a car with no roof and two seats, and it’s about more than getting from A to B. With a roadster, the journey itself is the thing.

The car is light for its size, and with a rear wheel drive it’ll dance nicely on ice or in the wet if you push it. In the dry, it’s well behaved. Being a two seater, the driving position is set a little further back than on your standard car, and it’s also lower, the suspension stiffer, which means when you’re doing 30, it feels like 50, and it has a different feel through the bends because you’re sitting with the car’s weight balanced equally in front and behind you. It’s a punchy little car that you can drive without the top on. It’s like my motorbike. Like I said earlier, if you don’t ride bikes, you won’t understand the allure, and if you’ve never ridden in a roadster with top down, you won’t get the allure of that either. And no it isn’t draughty unless you drop all the glass as well – save that treat for a really hot day.

Mazzy at BuckdenWhen I bought Mazzy, the guy said I could probably run her for a couple of years, get her out of my system, and I’d still have a car worth a couple of grand. But I’m entering my second year now, and I know we’re a long way from purging my system of whatever it is this car makes me feel. Ahead of me, this summer, is a travel-lite tour of the Yorkshire dales, and another of the English Lakes. Would any of that mean the same in a dull, grey commuter mule. Em no.

Can the Mazda MX5 do the Nurbergring faster than a Porsche 911? With expert tuning, lots of add-on bits and an experienced driver at the wheel, it’s worth a shot – otherwise I wouldn’t count on it. But for your average guy, aching for a bit of fun and a car that makes you smile just thinking about it? Well,… let’s just say I’m very fond of the Mazda MX 5.

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wormy gremlinsSometimes we feel the world is caving in – I’m talking trivial here: the washing machine gets blocked, the lights blow in the bathroom and the conservatory roof starts leaking. And as soon as we fix one thing, something else happens; you break a wineglass; a breakfast bowl; you lose the charger for your iPad, you take a chunk out of the freshly painted plaster in the kitchen. And though you hear your grandma telling you there are bigger losses at sea, it’s like the world has suddenly turned to mud, and there’s nowhere safe to stand.

Even the Mazda has succumbed to the pernicious wormy gremlin. Sunday was a decent day, sunny, warm for the time of year and I fancied a drive out with the top down. So I turned the key but there wasn’t a spark of juice. I’d not touched the car in a while but the battery was in good nick and it’s not been cold, so I’d expected it to be okay. It wasn’t. There’d be no driving out that day, and worse, I somehow had to get the car to the workshop the day after for its annual MOT test.

This was not a good omen!

So, it was off to town in old Grumpy to Halfords for a charger. It’s a long time since I’d needed one – maybe thirty years, and I wasn’t sure I even remembered how to use one. That’s something else when things start going wrong – we begin to lose confidence that even the basics in life – like how to charge a car battery – are still within our competence. Forty minutes later, I’m plugging the new charger in. It doesn’t work because I’ve been sold a dud. Wormy gremlins again! Deep breath, back to Halfords and another forty minute round trip – close to closing time now and fighting the urge to floor it. The staff are apologetic, falling over themselves to help. New charger works okay. A quick skim of the instructions, then whip the battery out and set it to charge.

By now the wormy gremlins have put me in a dark mood. I’ve been getting dragged down by the dying of the light – once it starts getting dark at 5:00 pm I just want to hibernate until spring – but it’s an additional kick in the guts that the Mazda might need some work now, that she might not tolerate being idle over the winter. I’d thought her spirit indestructible – it seems though she’s just as prone to the black dog as me. Perhaps that MOT test will reveal a nightmare under the gloss, then the dreams she’s kindled over the summer will be well and truly over. All this from a flat battery? Oh dear me!

Later that night, I reconnected the battery. The interior light came on and the mystery of the Mazda’s unexpected demise was solved. That light had been on for about a week – since the last time I’d sat in her – plenty of time to flatten a battery. The wormy gremlin in this case was me. I turned the key a click and she lit up, needles flicking to the ready. Another click and she turned over – not so lively as usual, but she caught and roared back to life.

Smiley faces all round.

When we’re in the throes of one damned thing after another it’s tempting to lash out at the wormy gremlins who seem to have it in for us personally. But this is self defeating, and if we can only find the space within ourselves to step outside the cycle of pernicious events, we realise the spiral of decline is largely self created and entirely self sustained. I was careless over that interior light, but that’s my nature I’m afraid, and I forgive myself.

She passed the MOT. I had her serviced too. Sparks, filters, oil-change, replacement of dodgy alternator and power steering belts, engine flush, coolant change. She sounded very pleased with herself on the drive home.

We’ll have that run out next weekend come rain or shine. And in the mean time I’ll plant snowdrops under the tree in the front garden like I’ve been saying I’ll do for years. We should always have something to look forward to.

It helps keep the wormy gremlins at bay.

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There’s this theory, supported even by some respectable quantum physicists, that if our lives end suddenly in one reality, then our consciousness reappears in another reality where our lives do not end – we squeak through, we live to fight another day. In one reality, the bullet strikes deep to the heart, strikes us down – in the other, it misses and we live on.

If this is so, then I may be reporting to you from another reality, my end having come on the B5246 Rufford Road, on Saturday with the Mazda flipping off the kerb and crashing through a hedge to land on top of me – either that or it was a head on collision at a closing speed of a hundred miles an hour – thirty five of them being mine, the rest belonging to the other guy.

Saturday was a lovely day, and I’d taken the car out for a run. I’ve been enjoying the feel of the air all summer, pottering about with the top down, but the opportunities are becoming sparse now as winter approaches and the light sinks. There’s a nice twisty-turney bit of road coming out of Hilldale, as you head out across the moss towards Rufford. It’s a beautiful bit of the run, but you need to be cautious here. The limit is 40, but 35 feels safer.

Country lanes like this are dangerous, being frequented by drivers who like to open their cars up a bit. You need to watch out for them, factor them in somehow, but what you can’t mitigate against is the other guy coming at you on the wrong side of the road, out of control. My memory is blurred, but my son tells me it was a black Seat. He’d lost it on the bend. There was little I could do but hit the brakes.

The road must have been a little wet, because I felt the Mazda shimmy towards the kerb. We were cornering sharp right, heading down-hill, so this was to be expected. It took a nudge of the steering to catch up with her, traction was restored and we avoided clipping the kerb. Now, either we turned to smoke at this point and that Seat passed right through us, or our little side-shuffle bought us sufficient margin to escape by the skin of our teeth. The next thing I remember is a glance in the mirror to see the Seat careening up the hill, still on the wrong side of the road. We were very lucky. I’ve seen some crazy stuff on the roads this year, but this was the closest we’d come to a direct hit, and of course, it was personal.

My son reminded me that at least we had it all on dashcam, that it would be a good idea to post our near miss on Youtube – one of those “Look at this idiot” types of thing. I intended doing just that, also linking to it from this blog piece, but I’d been playing about with the dashcam that morning. I’d discovered it can record in time-lapse mode and I’d had it on a tripod shooting movements of clouds over the back garden. One frame every five seconds makes for some interesting, dramatic, and very beautiful footage of clouds. And guess what: I’d forgotten to reset the camera, and the whole near-miss incident took place between frames. It was as if it had never been.

Life can end pointlessly at any moment, even it seems between the frames. We blink out and the world does not notice. Most of us get by ignoring this fact, pretending it isn’t so, but the doctors and nurses in our A+E departments, also firemen and traffic cops, are reminded of it every day. I don’t know how survivable that impact would have been, even with airbags and modern crumple-zone technology. Imagine driving into a concrete wall at a hundred miles an hour, and you tell me.

I remember coming to grief on that same stretch of road on November 9th 1988, a bad night, a wet night, driving my fiance out to my mother’s 60th birthday dinner. I was driving an old Volvo 340 in those days. A couple of boy racers came at me like a torpedo in their Vauxhall Nova. They’d lost control on the bend – actually they didn’t see the bend at all and came straight across the road, into me. They took out the offside wing, folded the wheel right under the car. The front of the Nova was flattened from grille to bulkhead, the engine lying in a pool of its own oil in the road, but we all survived. Even the Volvo lived to fight another day, but a split second later and that Nova would have piled into my door, and me with it.

Or maybe that’s exactly what happened. And equally, maybe there’s an old MX5 still in a ditch by the Rufford road this morning, or crumpled in the hedge – a Seat impaled upon its bonnet, the pair of them locked in deadly embrace, my son and I now numbering among the A+E statistics.

I shudder. Someone walking over my grave. To whichever watchful Daemon had our backs on Saturday, I offer my thanks.

Drive carefully.


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Mazda3One of my worst nightmares as a motorist is  killing someone, not just through my own carelessness but also the result of their own. Either way it would change my life for the worse, probably ruin it. It hasn’t happened yet, touch wood, and if I thought about it too much I’d never get behind the wheel of a car, but we must remain mindful of the possibility and always drive carefully so we maximise our chances of averting tragedy should the unexpected arise.

There are little roadside shrines all over the place now – touching displays of flowers, teddy bears and favourite football strips, each telling the story of a very personal tragedy. We drive by, perhaps momentarily reflective, wondering idly what happened and who it was that died. It happens a lot. Surgeons in A and E departments are hardened to it, that innocent people are killed randomly and pointlessly all the time in stupid road accidents. If we would like to preserve the fantasy that they do not, we need to take care, and think. And we need to slow down.

I have three points on my license, courtesy of a policeman’s radar gun and a momentary lapse of concentration – proof, if needed, that I’m as careless as anyone else. To an idiot driver three points aren’t going make any difference, but to one who liked to think he was a safe pair of hands, they’ve been a cautionary note. I think I am more careful now than I was before.

If you’re a regular reader here, you’ll know I’ve been spending time on the back lanes of West Lancashire, tootling about between the villages, enjoying the air with the rag-top down, in my menopause-mobile. A small sports car is not the best of vehicles for being safe in. I’ve noted other drivers expect certain things from it, and are puzzled when it doesn’t conform to type – to the extent that I’m considering fitting a defensive dashcam. But it’s been an education, my number one observation being that, sadly, people no longer drive for pleasure, no longer seem to enjoy just motoring. The price of fuel and the sheer volume of traffic on the roads has killed that golden age when we used to take pleasure in just getting there. If we’re not merely commuting, we drive to show off now, or to get from A to B as quickly as possible.

What’s struck me as well is the greater number of cyclists about on the roads nowadays. The Wiggins factor has spawned a new generation of pedallers, to say nothing of a consumer boom in very expensive bicycles. Of course, cyclists require careful handling, not just because they’re vulnerable, but because they can also be rude and aggressive, and no one wants an ugly exchange spoiling an otherwise pleasant day out.

Filtering at junctions is a major source of conflagration, cyclists weaving their way to the front of a long, multi-laned queue and assuming drivers can see them coming up from behind. I have been called an effing willywhatsit by a cyclist for lacking eyes in the back of my head while he lurked in my blindspot. Perhaps he didn’t realise I had my sunroof open and could hear him.

On the backlanes the cyclist presents an awkward obstruction, since there’s a fundamental mismatch between the speed of a bicycle and a car. The Wiggins factor is thus responsible for the fact that more of my time is now spent crawling at ten miles an hour behind a pair of male (usually) Lycra clad buttocks. I don’t complain of the female variety, but of course the additional danger in that situation is one of distraction.

Speaking as a man I find there’s something half way between ridiculous and repulsive about the male buttock – especially when it’s in your face, so to speak.The temptation is to overtake when it might not be safe to do so, but a decent long straight, with no hidden corners doesn’t always come to hand when you most need it. What you need instead is patience. Several cyclists dotted along a stretch of bendy, twisty road, travelling in both directions, or a whole pack of them, demands a high degree of judgement and balance between brake and accelerator. Inexperienced, unskilled and impatient motorists dread encountering cyclists, even hate them, but it is always the motorist who bears the greater responsibility for safety here, since he is capable of doing the most damage.

I was stuck behind a pair of unsightly buttocks for a number of twisty miles last night. The guy was going at it hell for leather, managing an impressive twenty miles an hour, even up a slight incline. There was nowhere to pass safely, so I hung well back, much to the chagrin of the brightly lit BMW, riding intimidatingly close to my rear bumper.

When a clear straight came up, I was able to ease by safely and the cyclist graced me with a cheery thankyou. I think the fact we were both in the open air, and audible to one another helped engender civility. The enclosed environment of a saloon-car by contrast seems only to encourage petulance.

The road had a forty limit and I accelerated to just under it. Forty felt safe, given the forward visibility and distance between the bends. The Beamer passed me seconds later like I was standing still. I didn’t see him giving me the finger, but I felt it as I ate his dust. He must have hit sixty before I lost sight of him. I trust he managed not to hit anything else.

That network of little lanes makes for a lovely run out of an evening, but one must be careful, and not just of bicycles; this is a big horsey area too – lots of farms and stables dotted about, and horses sauntering along the pretty country lanes. A horse and rider presents an even bigger challenge to the motorist than a bicycle – they require more space to get around, and they move very slowly indeed. I’m always afraid of spooking them and springing a rider into the road. I have ridden horses, all be it appallingly, and I know it takes some guts to mix them with traffic. How the brightly lit Beamers manage them I’ve no idea. It’s a wonder they don’t explode with self-important rage.

Most of the villages hereabouts have strict twenty mile an hour speed limits now. Part of my route last night brought me through Croston. It’s a tight passage through this lovely little village, lots of parked cars and people enjoying a sunny evening outside the pubs and restaurants. It’s not easy to drive at twenty and I’ve noticed few bother, as if it were only an advisory limit, that thirty or even forty is still okay. But it’s not. In an automatic you need to drop the drive down a notch to manage it properly. (That slot with the number 3 next to it will do). In a manual it seems to sit awkwardly somewhere between third and fourth. There’s a reason fothat speed limit; hit someone at twenty and you’re unlikely to kill them.

It was in Croston I picked up a couple of youths in their fluorescent Ford Condom. They glued themselves to my bumper and didn’t take kindly to my half mile of doggedly obeying that twenty limit. Indeed they gave me a good blast on the horn to draw attention to their displeasure – to say nothing of their ignorance and stupidity. Then they raced past, subjecting me to my second shower of dust and stones that evening. I’d like to remonstrate with them here for needlessly frightening the life out of the good lady Graeme. I’d also like to remind them that inappropriate use of the horn is against the law. It’s also likely to cause offence, and is the number one catalyst of road rage incidents.

They’re probably good lads really, but people change on the roads. I don’t know if we become more our true selves,… or less.

Drive safely.

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