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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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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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I had a near miss, this morning. I was coming up to a mini-roundabout, another vehicle approaching from the opposite direction, a big car, ostentatious, with its ultra-bright HID “F*$k You” headlights on, even though it was broad daylight. I thought he was going straight ahead, because I didn’t see the blinking amber of his indicator light. So it was a surprise when he cut across my bows, so to speak, and cut across them really fast. I was lucky, had time to react, stood the car on its nose. He had time to react as well, with an offensive finger.

It’s possible he indicated. I don’t know. I’m finding with these really bright headlights, they fuzz out my vision and I can’t see anything else, especially not a relatively puny blinking indicator lamp tucked in close to the epicentre of that laser like HID blast. And that’s in daylight. Meet one of these monsters at night on an unlit twisty road and you’re heading for the ditch. Or maybe I’m just getting too old to be on the road, too long staring at computer screens, eyesight too wasted now to discern the important details any more.

Nah, the optician says I’m fine.

Anyway, those long promised robot cars are coming, and they’ll avoid awkward situations like that. The well heeled finger jabber with the HID headlamps and I will be sitting back, flicking on our phones, while the cars are doing all the driving and the talking to one another. Each will know what other is doing, adjust speed so they manoeuvre smoothly around one another without so much as a dab on the brakes. Maybe those big cars for rich folks will even have superior algorithms capable of gaming the traffic flow to their advantage. I mean, otherwise what’s the point of paying a lot of money for a car if it isn’t going to steal a march on those less well off?

This morning was just a commute in my old Ford Focus, an A to B, and fair enough, they can be a bit of a drag. A robot car would save me time, allowing me to eat my porridge while the computer did the driving, and presumably took all the insults on my behalf. But is that really what we want?

This evening was different, I managed to avoid near misses – true the roads were quieter when I backed the Mazda, my other car, out of the garage. The Mazda is not a commuter mule – I keep her strictly for fun. It was about half an hour before sunset and the temperature had dropped to nine degrees. The vinyl top was too cold to risk folding back, so I made do with the other pleasures afforded by this little car, and I just went for a drive, windows down, feeling the air, tasting it, smelling it.

She’s laid up most of the working week especially over winter, so I like to get her out and give her some exercise of an evening whenever I can. Already I’m anthropomorphising. Cars don’t need exercise like humans do, but it’s as well to keep the battery topped up and the oil lining the cylinder walls, and the belts all moving. Still, I like to think of it as exercise, and she seems to enjoy it that way too.

I have this scenic little circuit that I do. It was a beautiful evening, clear sky, deep blue above, fading to azure at the horizon. And it’s a wide horizon out here in the West of Lancashire, but you’ll miss it if all you’re doing is flicking on your phone, and that would be a shame.

In this car you don’t need to be going fast to feel the thrill of movement – yes, movement! You can take the corners without any degree of body roll, thread your way through a series of left and right-handers, flicking up and down the box as the note of the engine tells you. And at some point, she’ll get into her stride, and you in hers, and you’ll press the gas and she’ll respond with a rush. This is no longer driving. This is dancing on air. No A to B, more a silver fox in an old MX5, dancing in the last light of an early Spring evening.

It won’t be the same with a robot. They’ll never be able to dance for a start. They’re dead things. Nothing human about them at all. Nothing human either in just wanting to get from A to B, yet that’s mostly what we do these days. And when the whole world is robotised and we’re all lobotomised, glued to our phones, flicking mindlessly at all that rubbish, and those times we drove simply for the pleasure of it are but a dim and distant memory,…

What then?

in martindale

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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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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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aylesburyI took the conveyor of the living dead, the M6, south, picked it up from the East Lancs road, let it carry me down to the M5 intersection, a run of about ninety miles. It took three hours, an hour longer than it took in 1985. Goods wagons formed a fairly solid convoy, swelling both the inner and the middle lanes, all the way. Only a fast car in the outside lane, and a driver with no imagination could have reduced the journey time, but only then by a smidgen and it did not seem worth it to me.

Road works and the sheer heaviness of traffic joining at various junctions slows progress to a clutch-foot killing stop-start. The last ten miles to the M5 were like that. It’s always like that now, seems a little worse each time.

Things picked up from the M5, finally managing a decent cruise speed on adequate roads – the M42, and the M40 to Bicester. Then it was the arrow straight line of the old A41 to Aylesbury for the night – all told, another hundred miles, which, by contrast with the conveyor of the living dead, took just a couple of hours. I conclude the North is being crushed under a weight of rubber, and heavy goods in transit.

I was driving a hired car, one of those suddenly controversial Volkswagens, an iced white 2.0 L diesel Passat. Its generous proportions kept me sane in heavy traffic, and it went like a rocket on those finally open stretches of the M40. I set the Satnav to ping me if we went over 70, and 70 felt as sedate as 30. It is a beautiful machine, state of the art in automotive design, responded to the pedal with an assertive rush and a growl of the turbo, yet barely consumed a quarter of a tank of fuel.

Still, I do not envy the company rep who drives these sorts of distances every day, though I suppose one must get used to them. I am certainly less fatigued by a six hour drive now than when I was young – although I remember journeys like this taking much less time twenty years ago. My average speed was 38. It used to be 45.

council offices aylesburyI saw little of Aylesbury, rolled in at rush hour and with the sun just setting. The civic building, the so called Frank’s Fort rose, an ambitious 200 feet, an early 60’s dour grey monolith, illumined by its multitudinous windows. The last rays of the sun picked out the glass and lent it a fantastical appearance, dominating the town in the gathering dusk.

Although this was my first visit to the town, I’d already driven in the day before, in virtual mode at least, looking for the hotel on Google’s marvellous Streetview thing-a-ma-bob. It lent an eerie sense of deja vu, seeing those junctions, the roundabouts and the skyline once more, when I drove in for real. I found the turning for the hotel with the combined help of Google’s preview andmy “CoPilate’s” Satnav precision, and there I pulled in safe at last to rest. I remember we used to manage such navigational dead reckoning with nothing more than a sketch map and a bit of common sense. I wouldn’t like to try that now. Is the world more complicated, or am I just older and slower?

The hotel was new, parking on the roof. Steel-lined elevators took me down to the newly refurbished waterfront of the Grand Union Canal, all clean lines and crapless. Barges gurgled in anachronistic contentment at their moorings, looking out across a wide paved piazza, to the clean white edifice of new office blocks – citadel of the homogeneous modern workplace, potential of a thousand souls sitting behind computer screens in open plan.

The hotel was quiet and comfortable. I did not venture out, but ate in the  somewhat Spartan cafe. I was one of perhaps twenty diners that evening, and the only one not peering at a hand-held screen, because I’d left mine in the room and felt conspicuous without it now, as if sitting there without trousers. The wall mounted TV was tuned to Heart radio which jarred somewhat. I counted only two staff. My meal was an hour in coming, industrially bland but adequate. They did their best, were smiling, friendly, outnumbered.

Corporate efficiencies are often times impressive in their attentions to the removal of detail. The bathrooms no longer furnish little blocks of soap. Besides the cost of them, there’s the time penalty in servicing the room. Much more efficient is the foam dispenser, but as a guest I do not like to wash my face with it. Instead, I subvert the system by foreknowledge, and bring my own soap.

The room rocks, vibrates to the beat of my heart. In fact it is my heart, a slow pulse that travels the length of my body. Fatigue of the road, I suppose. I write a little. Update the journal, run through another draft of the Sea View Cafe, in so far as I have it down to date. Fin and Min are becoming much loved companions now. Then I channel-zap the wall mounted television. Entertainment ranges from the banal to the grotesque. I find little to linger upon except a curious episode of Stargate Atlantis.

This holds my attention for a while, partly because I realise it has a female lead at the upper end of what Hollywood would consider a permissibly attractive age. Any older and it might become confusing for the audience. Women any older than this struggle to find parts in movie drama unless they are playing the stereotypically annoying old person/grandmother, and certainly not as a potentially romanceable lead. It is as if the writers of visual fiction consider a woman to lose her power when she is no longer capable of Galatean transformation.

I was never a Stargate Atlantis fan, but like much of TV drama aired any time between now and 1975, I have probably seen it before, soaked it all in to the subliminal zone from where a passive suggestibility arises. Sci-Fi, Kitchen Sink, Police drama, Soapy Suds – all are interchangeable, each derived from the other in an incestuous orgy of diminishing returns.

When I think of my own stories I am as guilty of this as anyone, my unconscious suggestibility raising the age of romantic leads as I have aged myself until, I note, I broke the half century, when I time-locked the male at 45, and the female at around 38, thus exposing my own inadequacy and prejudice at the same time. I apologise to women who are older, plead only that it may be I am considering myself no longer substantially active in this way, that I must rely on imagination and memory from here on in.

By lunch time the following day I am on the M5 again, approaching Birmingham, heading north. Home by tea time – another two hundred miles of nose to tail, a round trip of four hundred miles.

Eleven hours in a car.

It is a strange meditation to be on the road for so long. One cannot switch off, obviously, since driverless cars are as yet only a promise of the near future, but neither can we allow ourselves to become coiled tight in readiness for a collision or we would not last an hour on the roads as they are now. Relaxed focus is the key. The company rep must have it in oodles. My mind wanders, thinks, channel zaps strange things.

I wonder if I have thought them all before.

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