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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.

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.


There was a swish car dealers on the A127 into Southend until recently, I think it was a Lexus/Chrysler one, maybe with some Mercedes-Benz thrown in for good measure. I can’t really remember. Anyway, at one end of the recession when we all suddenly had no need for pick and mix from Woolworths at the other end there were these car dealerships closing down and merging with each other because without bags of pick and mix to suck we couldn’t face going on long journeys any more. Which means that we stopped buying Lexuses and Mercs on HP.

So the replacement on the site would be what I wondered, as they ripped down the shiny car showroom. The redevelopment was so not eye-catching that it didn’t catch mine eye until the other day when I noticed we were being treated to a new storage company. You know the ones; the buildings that charge you to lock your crap in their building for as long as you care to keep coughing up. All very well I thought, but this new one is just down the road from an existing rival company. Can we really need so much storage opportunity?

I can’t help but wonder if all this need for storage is directly related to our materialistic lifestyles. We have too much stuff. At this point I will just make a brief disclaimer. People who move and are between houses may need somewhere to store their things and I am quite sure they resent every penny they have to pay out. But what about those people who aren’t moving? What stuff are they storing? What they are not storing, according to the rules and regs, are the following:

Toxic, polluted or contaminated goods
Firearms, munitions or explosives
Radioactive materials – those first three are fair enough
Flammable or hazerdous goods – sic
Living plants or animals – makes sense
Food or perishable goods** – **unless by prior arrangement, so maybe yes to wine and no to my collection of salamis**
Cash and securities
Illegal goods
Waste –because it would obviously be easier to cart it to the storage facility and pay for storage than it would be to put out the rubbish…

For my own part I keep most of my stuff in my car (mainly the overspill from work), but then I am spoilt. When we moved here we had no less than three sheds (but no garage). We now have one shed and a stable door thing that you could keep an anorexic Shetland in, but both are pretty well-utilised and then of course there is the loft. Maybe that’s what’s contributed to the proliferation of these firms: more flats with neither lofts nor sheds. That said I am well aware that a material-free existence is a nirvanic state I should work towards, given that there won’t be much room for rubbish on my retirement narrowboat and I certainly won’t be paying for storage. I bet their business models are predicated on the bulk of their customers paying out for things they can’t bear to part with, have no use for and forget what it was they were paying for after the first year.

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.

The Second-Hand Car Conundrum

Goes something like this:

It will cost you in a year four times as much as it would yield if you sold it, but the four-fold cost would not be sufficient to buy another equivalent vehicle.

Why is that?

I had plenty of time to ponder this whilst driving back and going the wrong way from Suffolk yesterday. I went the wrong way for two reasons. One, I was fuming about something and two, I was fuming about having bought an automatic car in the first place.

I hate it. I hate it not going into a low enough gear quickly enough and slopping round the thousand roundabouts there happen to be if you need to circumnavigate Chelmsford. I hate not being able to change down and give it some welly, instead just sliding round the bend like a corpulent swan. Cars should not be allowed to be automatic – I want to be in charge and I hate it.

And the postscript to all this is that although I loathe it with every fibre of my being, I am scared that its automatic little brain will find out and then actually break down on me.