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Car as Place, Space or Thing

I have had reason to examine my relationship to those contraptions called cars lately. When it initially became evident a new vehicle would have to enter my life (for reasons of age and infirmity) I was thrown into a consumer crisis which took months to resolve. About six to be precise. The process has revealed a number of things to me, the first of which is a badge of shame: it turns out that I care, rather more than I would like, what car I drive. In theory I am not at all concerned with brands and badges, or whether something comes ‘fully-loaded’. All I care about is fuel economy and CO2 emissions. But as I got into it, it did really matter to me that the car was not fundamentally ugly. So now I had to account not only for my parsimonious and green sensibilities, but an aesthetic one as well. Already, what had seemed like the straightforward job of replacing a car had become fraught with difficulty and challenges to one’s sense of self.

I will not bore the blog with all the turns and twists of my mind over the six months, but my investigations into the modern, fuel efficient car, revealed that, for some inexplicable reason, modern car manufacturers are making some bastard ugly vehicles. Or, cars that look the same as another. Or cars that don’t look the same as another, and aren’t too ugly but are dull and so lacking in character that if you drove them for more than five minutes you would fall asleep from boredom. To solve the problem I began to wonder if I could walk and cycle everywhere, but the children often need to be in two different places at the same time, as do I and, without the option of a teletransporter, it was clear a car was more or less a necessity. This was a disappointment. The next was that I couldn’t afford an electric car, which offers a limited daily driving range, but motoring that costs about 1p a mile which is a joyous concept in these straitened days.

I retired one car to a more gentle pace of life in the country with some dear friends, the other sat outside making me feel bad. Her front grilles fell out, I drove over one. Her tyres were nearly bald and went unreplaced due to the diagnosis of a dodgy timing belt and a leaking coolant system. After many years of loyal service, the car was being betrayed. At the end of last month, twisting the knife, the car tax went unrenewed. The scrap dealer was called in. On the first occasion I couldn’t go through with it. After another month she has had to go. They turned up in a car transporter yesterday and she started up with gusto and drove straight on to it with not a bother on her. ‘There is nothing wrong with this car,’ I said grudgingly to the man. He placated me with words about her great age and costs of work and then drove away with the old car and disappeared to wherever it is that elderly cars end their days. I found myself wishing I had kept the chrome gear stick knob that used to be freezing in mid-winter and make a pleasant sound when I clunked my rings on it.

I was also close to tears.

To be continued.

La vie en rose

I don’t suffer from this as a rule, preferring to see things as they really are. A counsellor once told me that people who are able to reach for the rose-tinted spectacles, people who are unrealistically optimistic, have basically got a protective shield around them that helps them to cope with the vagaries (and worse) of the world.

Life is interesting; ‘may you live in interesting times’ being more of a curse than a blessing. Today has been interesting too. I am conscious that even the most committed rose-tinted spectacle wearer might have struggled with getting up this morning to multiple stomach upsets (via the dog) on the rug in the front room and on the staircase carpets. Or the early call to cover a class when I had children to drop off (via the car) and a meeting to take at the same time.

Or the necessity of still travelling, via the car, with the heaters on 32 degree heat, full blast because the question whether to save or scrap the car is too vexatious. Or the meeting summary that morphed into a 1500 word report that I wasn’t expecting to have to do today. Or the threat of bailiffs next week and the mix up about the university library fines I swear I paid. Or the two car parking tickets that are probably in the post.

I didn’t reach for my sun-tinted spectacles though. Instead I took the rug out into the garden and employed some washing up liquid and my watering can. And later on I did some cleaning up the stairs. The rest can wait. I found myself saying to someone earlier this week, ‘Well, it’s not the things that happen to you that are the problem, it’s how you respond that matters’. If someone punched me on the nose for saying such a thing, well I’d understand. It might be fair enough. It would be how I responded that mattered more than the punch. Wouldn’t it?

Sometimes, when I think things like this I wonder if I am becoming somewhat certifiable. Don’t mention this to my mother.

Hmmm…. The jury is out.

Nb The dog is fed three times a day, but he still has the figure of the waif and stray that he was. Eat your heart out!

Skeleton Coast

Possessions come and go, yet memories are yours to keep forever. Make choices from a sacred perspective rather than a mundane one and the rest will fall into place.

That’s what my horoscope said this morning, so here’s a little blog about a possession on its way out and some memories of yesterday.

The plan was, modest I thought, to go to the rescheduled Bloomsbury Summer Fete and take in the horse exhibition at the British Museum, which is sure to be cool in such hot weather, surely? I was a little later leaving with the kids than I had intended, but I wasn’t worried about it – why worry about time, when time takes care of itself. Incidentally, there’s an excellent blog here on that very concept. My loose attitude towards clock time causes my mother to compare me to the hookah smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland; I take this as a compliment. I stand by it though, if you stop watching the clock, real time elasticates in rather marvellous ways.

Not hardly

I’ve digressed. I was a bit behind my nominal schedule and we left around midday. I’d spent some time throwing around the options of car v train in my head. In the end, because I had petrol in the car and a week until payday, I opted for the car. The car is old, it has many miles upon its clock – a measurement of wear and tear as much as years passing our the markers for my own. We have had it for 7 years and it is reliable, which is the main thing, in my book, Alice in Wonderland or not.

I drive conservatively and, I like to imagine, a little like a light aircraft pilot – with one eye constantly on the control panel. I also drive a little empatico with the car, given the miles on its clock, I don’t take it for granted. Of course this is all silliness, but it does mean that when, even under the soundproofed bonnet, I heard some strange noises I turned down the radio and scanned my dashboard. Sure enough, the temperature gauge was creeping up. The car has never done this with me, the needle having always been rock steady on the vertical. I pulled over immediately, on a very narrow ingress from the A127 near the junction with M25. I was off the road, but barely and cars and lorries were thundering along a couple of feet away.

Obviously the children needed to be out of the car and away from the road. Some weeks ago we had a debate about the necessity for child locks on the rear doors – leave them I said – you never know.

The child locks certainly saved the 8 year old from disappearing down this uncovered manhole, its depth indicated by the traffic cone tip just showing like an iceberg. Now, I may have been broken down on the side of the A127, with volcanic mustard-coloured water spewing from the radiator cap, but I considered this to be the result of the day. The car was parked literally, on a precipice and a child or a wheel down there would have been no fun at all.

Before calling the RAC it was decided to let the engine cool, add some more water and try turning for home, there being no visible leak from the radiator. The car had recently been to France and checked over and topped up, so this was a bit of a surprise, but the car is reliable, isn’t it? Surely it would limp back to Southend.

After a time cooling off and topped up with more water by the emergency back-up in the shape of the kids’ dad, I drove on up to the next junction to turn round. For a mile or so the temperature gauge behaved, by the time I was on the slip road up the M25 interchange it suddenly shot into the red. For the second time that day I pulled over, this time onto the pavement by the roundabout traffic lights. We all got out again and climbed behind the crash barrier. The RAC were called, this seemed a bit more serious now.

I may not clock watch, but I did notice I was hungry, thirsty and needed a wee. The children said the same. It was also bloody hot. Lunch in London had been the plan, but that was off the menu now. To be fair the kids were really good. The eldest made a fairy garden in the first spot we broke down in and in the second said that there was a lot more wildlife off the M25 than she had ever noticed from the car… Good girl.

The RAC man said it was a puzzler. The car took a quantity of water from his container – all of it in fact – gallons. He said, ‘It’s a mystery where it’s gone to though,’ there being no visible leak. The car was still overheating. In the end, he said that if we put the heating on it would draw the heat into the car and release it. I could try driving back to Southend like that and he would follow me. The kids were to go in Dad’s vehicle. It would be a lot quicker than waiting for a recovery truck and, despite my caterpillar tendencies, even I don’t want to be on the A127 on Friday afternoon as the commuters hit the roads home. We would give it a go.

As I said, surely this reliable car would limp home for me…

Every heating vent was open, on full blast. The RAC man set the temperature higher than I even knew it could go: 32 degrees to be precise. I had the windows open so much of it blasted right on out, but, oh… my foot. There was a vent directly onto my right flip flop accelerator foot. It was like putting your foot in a oven set for a Sunday roast. The heat felt, at times, almost unbearable and in the convoy of three vehicles I am sure my erratic driving was noted as I removed my foot from accelerator as often as I was able. 32 degrees outside and 32 directly on my foot. How my flip didn’t melt, I don’t know. Why my flesh wasn’t falling off my metatarsals like a lamb kleftiko I don’t know either. Sweat? You ain’t seen nothing. I could offer to test anti-perspirants driving up and down the A127 in high summer, and I’d lose half a stone a day to boot. I tell you what though, that reliable car’s temperature gauge did not budge – bang on the vertical the whole way home.

So, if you don’t mind travelling in an overheated sauna, there’s nothing wrong with the car. By the time we had returned to base the RAC man had diagnosed another fault: a replacement rear shock absorber needed he said. That’s added to a suspect head gasket, the unknown leak in the coolant system, the timing belt that’s nearly shot, the boot that doesn’t open, two new tyres and knackered paintwork on the bonnet. I suppose it’s like the horoscope said, possessions come and go but I’ve got the memories alright.

So now we’ve got two knackered old bangers out front, it reminds me of Namibia’s skeleton coast. What with all the heat I contributed to global warming yesterday and the passage of clock time, I wonder how long I would have to leave the cars before they looked like this?

Not hardly, as Absolem the caterpillar said.

Postscript – now faced with the rather mundane conundrum of saving the old reliable, or letting it go out on its shield like an old soldier. With the two bangers and if I only had the right amount of engineering know-how I am sure I could cobble together a hybrid ultra reliable car in blue and green for only the price of an elastic band and some pork scratchings. Hopefully though, like the horoscope said, I can make this choice from a sacred place, whatever that means. Back to the Caterpillar.

How Rudi rolls

If I ever come back in an afterlife, I wouldn’t mind the pampered life of this kind of lurcher. I’d like to go straight into the pampering phase though please and skip the first six to eight months of starvation, vagrancy and being run over by a car – to be fair it’s not put him off them, so long as he’s a passenger.

Are we there yet?

Keeping an eye on the sheep

Too much fresh air thanks

Riding shotgun on the home leg


He didn’t earn a promotion to get into the front there. On the first morning away the boot closing mechanism went and we spent the week with the thing lashed shut with 25lb fishing line x 2. I didn’t trust it for the journey home and wedged myself in between the girls in the back whilst yer man travellled in some splendour. Not bad for a fawn dog from Navan.

An Upgrade

In my dream land I am upgrading the “family” car to this for continental touring purposes.

The new 5 series for 2011 with extended boot!

In my real life the only upgrade I can afford is this one.

A blue cat basket with distended cat fixture

I asked Bibi for a quote: she said she preferred the Greengrocer’s box.

A stereotypical ingrate. I feel like I work for that cat and I can tell you she is a demanding boss.

Doors & Estate Cars

Last week I bought a door off the internet. I am an occasional ebayer and only out of necessity. Not for me the bidding in a mad moment (god knows there are enough of those assigned elsewhere) and then trying to remember what the hell it was you wanted so badly when the package turns up. No. I like to do it the Catholic way: loads of angst, consumer guilt, second, third and fourth opinions, wielding of tape measures and a damn long drive on top. Then I feel like I’m really saving money baby.

On the same come the day, come the door was the big one – the Grand National. This (and Classic Race Days) are the closest I can come to the feeling that football fans have on a big match day. I get up and start twitching. To allay the twitch I get busy. I become prolific on the laundry front, I go to the beach, I palm off the youngest on the neighbour and set off in to the unknown in pursuit of a door. Because it’s the unknown and because my tape measuring is not entirely to be trusted I have rung my father. The door I want to fit in my car (the German one) is borderline. I may need ropes. I may need wooden crossbars. I need a second opinion.

So I land with zero notice in Suffolk and get my Dad measuring. I have only a CSE Physics to my name and a pass at O’ level Maths. My father has a degree in Physics and a PhD in Operational Research. Who would you rather have brandishing the tape measure? It was thus decreed that the VW Passat would be the vehicle that would (just) be able to take the front door.

Now whenever we make a major purchase in this house we have a power battle. A stand-off that can last months. He who can walk onto the end of the counter punch the longest and remain standing wins. When we bought the German car, I wanted a different make of German car. A VW. Because they are more practical. I have waited 6 long years to be proved right, but right I am.

So I drove to Suffolk. Switched cars from the useless and poky BMW Tourer to the capacious VW Passat Estate (Diesel) and was chauffeured across the the flattening landscape into Norfolk (next stop Scandinavia) where the door went in the back with a mm to spare, as per Dr Russell’s prescription.

This photo doesn’t have a lot to do with the price of fish or doors on ebay, but I have driven past it umpteen times recently so I hopped out and took a snap when I had taken a wrong turning.

Great Leighs, where the doors are firmly shut