From Salisbury. With Love

I used to go to Salisbury a lot. A bank manager there thought I was going to shoot him, but I didn’t have a gun. To be fair, I did, but I didn’t have it with me. And I had no intention of shooting him. It was all a misunderstanding. There were a lot of them hanging out with that girl.

She wasn’t the Queen of the Silver Dollar. Salisbury didn’t run to that kind of thing. She was a perfectly ordinary lower-middle class girl who was lucky or unlucky enough to be stunningly pretty and not overly blessed with much of an education, nor much support at home, but home was warm and new and comfortable enough, with fitted carpets and a chest freezer, a boat on the drive and a car loan for the kids, her and her brother.

We used to take her Afghan hound for a walk, her in her ponyskin coat, me in my motorcyle jacket. We’d stroll down to the Old Mill Restaurant where we never went because we didn’t have any money, then the little footbridge across the river, through the watermeadows towards the cathedral. One Spring we watched the cygnets grow to be swans and when the last had shed its grey feathers her dog died. Saturday nights were 6X, Leibfraumilch and crisps and waiting for her parents to go out. She had an orange Ford Escort with a Stage Two race engine. I had a 650cc Triton. Jack and Diane as it might have been written by Thomas Hardy.

It wasn’t always sunny.

There was torential rain when I had to do the best piece of motorcyle riding I ever did. I’d turned off the A36 and blasted up the empty cold road on the last mile to her house. There was a ninety degree left at the end of the straight, then another straight for about a mile until the very last turning. What I didn’t see until I clipped it with the back wheel was the metal drain on the apex of the corner that spat the wheel sideways. I’d opened the throttle on the apex of the bend, the way we did back then. I think I was doing around 60 but I didn’t really have time to look. I got the back wheel back again but it shot out to the left. Then to the right again. Then to the left.

I thought if I braked I wouldn’t be doing much else in my life, so I did the only thing I could think of and rolled the throttle off slowly. It worked. Before long it was hot instant coffee and central heating and don’t put your wet jacket near my mum’s coat, back to normal.

It wasn’t the sort of place spies got poisoned, which probably makes it the best kind of place for spies to get poisoned.

The bank manager was mistaken. All I did was ask him what time she might be getting out of work, but I did it in the street, outside the bank, reaching into my motorcycle jacket for my wallet, wearing jeans and motorcycle boots and he thought I was reaching for a gun. “I don’t have a gun” didn’t seem to help, either. Hey ho. The past is a different country. They do things differently there.

Share Button

Don’t think about elephants

I’ve had a ringing in one ear for the past year after a really bad cold I got from students. Thanks, kids, it makes it all worthwhile. I got so bunged up I had to have my ears syringed for the first time ever after I thought a warning buzzer on the car had packed up. Turned out it hadn’t, I just couldn’t hear it.

It got a lot louder so I went to the doc. Who reassuringly said she’d quite like to see if it wasn’t anything to do with my ear at all, but a brain tumour pushing on it. But don’t worry about brain cancer until we find it, ok? Er …..sure. OK. It’s like saying don’t think about elephants. It can’t be done.

I had my scan and waited. I phoned the doc, who told me to phone the hospital. Who wouldn’t talk to me because I wasn’t a doctor. Reassuring. I wondered how long it would take to do a Data Protection Act query. The doc told me the hospital wouldn’t have been arsing about like this if I actually had a brain tumour, but that wasn’t 100% reassuring.

Yesterday I went to the follow-up meeting with the Senior Registrar. No brain tumour. She stuck a camera up my nose and pressed her boobs into the back of my head. One of these sensations was much nicer than the other. She rolled her eys at the GP’s suggestion that polyps were growing on my eardrums. There aren’t any. She thought it wasn’t great that GPs do the ‘you might have a brain tumour’ spiel. I don’t.

A nurse blew in my ear to see if I had a punctured ear drum. With a machine, obviously. It’s not that sort of hospital.  If you can feel the pressure increase ten you don’t. I only could in one ear. The machine was broken. We had to borrow one from the office next door.

What I do have is fluid stuck behind one ear, the aftermath of that bad cold. It should have gone away but it hasn’t due probably to some local inflamation and a tiny, tiny chance something has gone wrong there at some time which we will deal with if it hasn’t sorted itself out in three months.

I’ve got to sniff tolerable drops twice a day for two weeks and do stuff too revolting to mention, but I don’t have a brain tumour. Not today, anyway.

Share Button

Maybe I grew up



I was supposed to go to work today. Yesterday a one hour commute turned into two hours because of the snow. It didn’t snow overnight, so I thought it might be ok today.

As I was driving down the hill I listened to the radio telling me the A14 was blocked, the A14 was blocked, the A1120 was blocked, the road to Framlingham and the A1120 was blocked and the A12, well, the A12 was described as ‘a nightmare’ but as anyone who ever drove it knows, it just is anyway. There’s one other road out of here, precipitously steep, single track and not even a B road.

My immediate obstacle was getting down the hill safely. The problem here on the edge of this haunted airfield is that it froze last night after it snowed the day before. Then this morning we had a lot of wind that blew the snow off the fields on top of the sheet of ice that used to be the road.

I did what I was taught to do on an off-road driving course to get down any hill safely: put it in first gear and get your foot off the accelerator. Because it’s first gear your car can’t physically do more than about 15 or 20mph anyway, which is plenty fast enough on sheet ice. I tried to ignore the idiot behind me who thought two car lengths was plenty of distance between us.

I turned left at the bottom of the hill onto the bigger road that looked pretty clear. And it was for the first mile. As soon as we’d got through Hacheston the wind had piled fields full of snow onto the road making it just one lane. There were two cars stopped at the top of the hill, one of them slewed sideways and the other turning round, but there was a snowplough spreading grit up ahead so I slotted in behind that.

The lady’s not for turning

Which was a mistake. The snowplough stopped. It took a while to see why. A black Volvo XC 90 was blocking the road, coming the other way. Like lots of big, new 4×4 cars it had never been fitted with a reverse. That’s my charitable explanation.

In darker moments I just believe that the drivers think everyone who doesn’t have a big new 4×4 should just get out of the way like the forelock-tugging plebs we are.  I even tried reversing (not for the Volvo. Some hope of that) but my car is front-wheel drive. Good for snow when going forward. Almost useless for snow going backwards.

Eventually it dawned on the Volvo driver that the snowplough wasn’t actually going to reverse all the way to the depot they way they’d expected it to do. I followed the snowplough through. It had taken 30 minutes to do three miles at that point. The A12 looked clear but empty when I saw it, but I remembered the radio warning.

I turned left instead of right and turned up the hill to go home at Marlsford. This hill was sheet ice too, but going up this time instead of down. I didn’t think I would have been able to get up my hill the way I’d come down. I knew something about going up hills in snow too – as soon as you hear the wheels spinning, get off the accelerator fast unless you want a quick one-way journey into the nearest hedge. With the wheels spinning you have absolutely no steering to speak of and you’re just sliding. Off the gas and your steering comes back instantly.

But go slowly. Above everything else, drive as if you’ve got a basket of eggs on the dashboard. But I sitll called it. For the first time in my whole life I emailed work and told them the weather was too bad to get in. It had taken fifty minutes to do a six mile circle around my house. And it was nice of work to write a one-word reply to my email, simply saying ‘Received.”

My life is worth more to me than a day’s pay. Obviously this isn’t a universal viewpoint, which is always nice to get clear. I spent the rest of the day applying for a job.  The gig economy works two ways.

Share Button

Someone won’t be home tomorrow

I didn’t particularly want to see this when I looked out of the window. I live miles out in the countryside, 5 miles from any town, a short walk to a haunted airfield. We’ve got a letterbox, but no pub, shop or anything else up here on the hill. They’ve got all that fancy stuff down on the main road, such as it is. Except the pub.

Because I do several different jobs, this week I chose the wrong one. The film I was working with had finished shooting and although I’m with three agencies there’s nothing around this week, so I was committed to teaching nearly fifty miles away.

On a decent day it takes just under an hour. It was obviously going to take more this morning. My old Saab was built in a snowy place, so I wasn’t worried about the car. Chiefly what bothered me was other people. When I was a stupid kid every time it snowed I went out for a drive. I can’t have been that stupid, because every time I did by the end of the drive I’d survived situations that would have resulted in me not typing any of this if I hadn’t had the practice.  I remember coming back from one jaunt like that and finding a snow plough lorry across the road I’d been planning to use. I put the car sideways into a snowbank and no harm done to anyone.

I didn’t practice any handbrake turns today, not even a little one. But I saw a few people who ought to have done, or at least, their vehicles. The first one was a van half on its side in the ditch that had been trying to go up a hill and hadn’t. The last one that blocked the entire A14 was sad. A small car, not new, on the verge. To be accurate, half-way up the verge, in the trees surrounded by smashed branches. And upside down, with the roof crushed to the top of the doors. There was a police car there. I’m assuming the road had been blocked by ambulances and police crews and the fire brigade getting the people out. They weren’t there. It was hard to see how they were ever going to be again, unless they ducked down under the dashboard, the way people manage to in films. I doubt it, somehow.

It took nearly double the time it normally takes me to get to work, and the same coming home. I’m shattered from concentrating and remembering how to drive in the snow, and from remembering to pack a broom, a wooly hat, gloves, wellies, a camp stove, water, a lighter, a blanket, teabags and two packets of quick-cook porridge, along with a wind-up torch in the car. If you don’t need this stuff, you’ve won. If you do need it it’s no use in the cupboard at home.

I’d like to give special thanks to the two 4×4 owners who decided that ten feet off the back of my boot was an excellent place to drive, except I’d be lying. Total arses though they both were, are and obviously will continue to be, I hope even they get home safe tonight. That little wrecked car in the trees will stay with me.

Share Button

Calling home

It took four years to win the Inmarsat account. But we did win it in my other life, when I was a researcher/analyst. We did something nobody else had ever managed to do and when St Peter asks me why I should be let in, I’ll be able to say something very few people can. I helped 800,000 people make a phone call.

Way back but not so long ago that I can’t remember, someone at Inmarsat, then an NGO which owned all the satellites that let ships talk to the rest of the world, had an idea. Maybe, he thought, maybe the crew would like to make a phone call now and again. Maybe they’d like to phone their mum or their wife or their girlfriend, that kind of thing? He wondered how much they were spending on phone calls. And he accidentally got me in the FT and made me famous enough for people to recognise me at conferences in Australia, quite a long way from here. It was a suddenly different world.

I thought about it today because I was looking for some data to practice some pivot tables. We didn’t have them back then when the research was done. We put interviewers physically onto ships in Southampton and Singapore, after ruling out Baltimore and a host of other locations either because they duplicated (ie the ships at Southampton mostly went to the other port as well) or they were too complex and hostile to get into. At Baltimore for example, every single wharf was owned by a separate company; there was no way we could get onto enough ships in time.

Singapore was hostile enough. The entire interview crew managed to get themselves arrested as stowaways there, which is no mean feat for middle-aged, middle-class English ladies with clipboards. We’d trained them well. On every ship they went to they were told to get specific permission from the captain, no matter that we already had permission from the owner via the agent. They went onboard and asked where he was.

The tradition at the time and presumably still is that if the captain’s cabin door is open you can go in and if not, not. But it was open so they did. The captain was in his cabin. Sadly  he was entertaining a newly-acquired friend fairly vigourously and called for the ship’s Mate who was told to get rid of the interviewers pronto. In fact, get them arrested. The Mate asked what for? The captain said the first thing that came into his head, his mind being on other things. Stowaways. The Mate went away and came back quite quickly. The interviewers weren’t reassured by the fact he was now carrying a rusty Sten gun dug up from some totally illegal hiding place in the bilges, which he prodded them in the back with all the way down the gangplank. The Docks police had had a call that something was going on, drove up and arrested the ‘stowaways.’

It all turned out alright in the end. But it’s about time I wrote it all up.



Share Button

It tolls for thee

This week’s earth-shattering event wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn finally getting it into his head that opposing the government might be a way to win some votes, or Michael Gove pretending that banning plastic straws was something he could do to save the world if only that pesky EU wasn’t stopping him, dang nabbit. Oh no.

It was the death of Nic Grundy.  Who never existed. For those few beyond the Pale who don’t know, the Grundy family are the local yokels in BBC Radio 4’s hardy perennial drama The Archers, billed as an everyday story of country folk. It’s markedly light on things like incest and racism compared to every country village I’ve lived in, where I’ve heard the district nurse insisting that two local families hadn’t managed to get out enough on a Saturday night in her professional opinion. But as radio drama goes, it does, every evening after the seven o’clock news and a marathon collation on Sunday for the weekly worship. Clary and Eddie begat Wiwyum and Edwurd and Wiwyum shacked up with Emmer. Except she got very bored very fast and one Christmas took up with Edwurd while Wiwyum was off to the shops, so far as I could gather. I’m going to stop the voices now because it’s getting silly. Er.

After a breakdown William took up with Nicola, whose name was obviously shortened to Nic who this week cut her arm on an old picture frame and shortly thereafter died. Several people online claimed, with a straight face, that they were in mourning. Not ‘moved by the drama.’ Not ‘touched’ but ‘in mourning. Not for 300,000 people being homeless. Not for 100,000 people dying unnecessarily in the UK thanks to government spending cuts according to the UN, but because a minor character in a radio soap has been written out. The words ‘moral compass’ seem a bit pointless some days.

The character died of sepsis. And dear reader, it could have happened to me. It did to my great-uncle. After a lifetime of messing about with bits of metal one day he got a bit of swarf stuck under his fingernail. It can’t possibly have been the first time he got cut by a piece of metal but it proved to be the last. He got what was called then ‘blood poisoning’ and died in short order.

Because of that I’d always made sure my tetanus shots were up to date, thinking that would fully protect me from anything I might catch from a cut. I reasoned that my office wasn’t exactly the most hostile environment. I was wrong on the first count. Tetanus is a rare bacterial infection, potentially fatal but not, as I’d assumed, the only one going. I cut my right index finger on something. I couldn’t even remember what it was. It was a bit stiff the next day, so I cleaned the wound and slapped some disinfectant on it and a new plaster. It was worse the next day. My finger was swollen. The day after I couldn’t type well at all and my finger was a different colour as well as being swollen and painful.

I was lucky enough to work in the same office as a pharmacist. When he saw it he told me to get to a doctor that day, now, get out of here, unless I wanted to maybe lose my finger or maybe lose my life. I did.

I got a huge dose af antibiotics, promised faithfully to finish the course of tablets and within three days my finger was pretty much back to normal and in a week I couldn’t see any real difference between that finger and any other ones I have.

Sepsis can kill you in days. But I’d have more sympathy for people mourning a fictional radio character if they ever spared a thought for Biggles, Algy and Ginger as they languish in a care home.

Share Button

I got it wrong

I used to shoot.  I’m not talking about an air rifle to deal with the rats that worried my chickens, nor even a shotgun to shoot clay pigeons. No. My deep, dark un-English secret was once not a secret and very English indeed.

Back in the Boer War that my great-grandfather went to, the British Army comprehensively lost (not something you’ll see in The Sun or pretty much anywhere else) in large part due to the fact they couldn’t shoot for toffee. A man called Lord Roberts decided that TrueBrits ought to be able to shoot, so in the early 1900s pretty much every town in the country suddenly found itself with a Rifle Hall and some with an outside rifle range as well. Just look at an old Ordnance Survey map. You will be surprised.

A long time later, despite how old I am now, aged fourteen I went along every Thursday to Trowbridge Rifle Club. It was held in the local Territorial Army centre in a town where soldiers from Warminster School of Infantry were forbidden to wear uniform in the shops in case they were targetted by the IRA. There was a six-wheeler Saracen kept in a shed behind the TA centre and if you don’t know what that is then I am very pleased for you. Times change for the better. You could see it through the cracks in the doors.

We had a pub called The Saracen, too.

Thinking about it now, there was probably an armoury somewhere in the building, but we’d brought our own guns. I was about to say they were all .22 rifles, the best of them being the BSA Martini-action rifles directly descended from the ones that didn’t do much good at Rorkes Drift, but some people brought along much more exotic fayre, .22 target pistols and the odd chrome-plated .38. Neither of which they were allowed to shoot in the basement range, but that wasn’t the point. It was the lure of the things.  What wasn’t totemic was the discipline around guns, which wasn’t optional or in any way advisory. As a kid you always knew someone close would have been very prepared to knock you to the floor if you’d started arsing around with a gun, loaded or not. I’m not justifying any of this. It was a long time ago. It was the way things were there and then.

I went to Israel after I left school and some things happened where a gun would have been a useful social tool. Pretty much everyone else was carrying one, from the IDF guys with 9mm Lugers stuffed in their waistband to the little family I recall at a beach, where the child was just about able to walk, Mummy looked dark and slinky and utterly stunning and Daddy had a big pistol kept in a replica US Cavalry holster hanging from a belt thrown over his shoulder as they strolled with an ice-cream, the way Daddies there do. Or did then, anyway. I haven’t been back.

My first job out of university was teaching kids to shoot on a camp by a lake in Wisconsin, in a summer of guns, Chevrolets, pine trees and an Indiana cheerleader called Nancy-Jean. I’m not even making this stuff up. By that time I already had, quite legally, after a tussle with Wiltshire Constabulary, my own Model 28 Smith & Wesson. It was nominally a .357 Magnum, but the recoil was as hard on the hand as the cost was on my wallet, so I normally made my own .38 Special cartridges using a punch and a mould on the kitchen worktop in Bath.

When I got my first job in London I spent my first pay cheque on a government surplus 1911A1, a .45ACP semi-automatic. According to the serial numbers it had been built in 1944, but at two different plants, the frame in one and the slide in another. Word on the street or at least in the gunshops you could then find in London (Trafalgar Square, Edgware Road, New Cross, Totteridge and I think another two if I can remember right) these had been languishing in an Israeli armoury since 1948 before being dumped on the market nearly 40 years later.

Dumped was about the word. It took hundreds of pounds to turn my Colt into a decent competition pistol. The magazine well was bevelled out so the magazine would load more easily, the sights replaced, the hammer shaved down so it didn’t nip the web of your hand, the backstrap replaced so make the grip more gripable, the barrel replaced with a Barstow one worth the name, the slide stop and magazine button made bigger and easier to use, the recoil spring replaced and a special retainer installed for it to make it all work more smoothly, before the frame was matte chromed and the slide re-blued and rubber Pachmayer grips wrapped around it. On top of the £200 or so I paid for it as-was, I think it probably cost something like £600+ to customise it.

It was only ever used where it was allowed to be used, on a licenced range, in competition and as I’d done before and would again, I won a few shooting competitions. Somewhere there’s still a little pewter cup I’ve never thrown away.

And then one day Hungerford happened and I didn’t so much want to be around shooting and then Dunblane happened and the government took my guns away. The Smith & Wesson had been sold years before. So had the Mossberg pump-action shotgun that I can’t now fathom what ever possessed me to buy, but there were two injustices, at least, about taking my Colt.

I have very little idea why I had this stuff. Nor so much of it.

Firstly, the original compensation was an arbitrary £150. I appealed and finally got the money I’d spent on it. More galling was a letter I got from my MP when I wrote to him, which said the confiscation was essentially so that the government could be seen to be doing something. They didn’t see fit to do anything about some seriously dodgy policing that played a large part in both the Hungeford and Dunblane massacres, where in the latter the senior officer who over-ruled police who had met Hamilton recommended he should never get a Firearms Certificate and the fact he was in the same lodge as the senior officer who oddly retired on the grounds of ill-health shortly after the last cartridge case hit the floor was never mentioned much again.

Nor were the allegations that Michael Ryan at Hungerford had a history of complaints about his behaviour that would usually disbar him from ever getting a Firearms Certificate, which he also got practically by return of post rather than the months the police usually dragged it out for. Nor was the serious allegation that while he ended-up shot, Michael Ryan didn’t shoot himself at all, not least by an obliging press that didn’t seem to think the coroner’s photos of his body needed seeing any more than the judge thought they did.

I was annoyed. I thought it would make no difference to armed crime at all. I went wholly along with the whole mantra, that bad people do bad things. A gun is only a tool. People kill people. The only gun control you need is a sharp eye and a steady hand.

And then somehow, without even meaning to, I grew up. I was totally wrong. If you take guns away, sure, people can still get them. But somehow they can’t get enough of them easily enough to walk down the High Street shooting people, or they’d have to make more effort to do it, or they’d have to talk to people, or all kinds of real-life obstacles to killing kids in a classroom in a couple of minutes.

Take the guns away. Nobody needs a 30 round magazine on a rifle however many deer they put on the table. Hardly anyone came back from WW11 and bought a Garand to put venison on the table. They’d seen what modern military weapons could do.

And so have we. And maybe that’s the issue. We’ve fetishised violence, from action movies to Presidents yelling about crusades to video and PC games where if we’re not peering up Lara Croft’s shorts we’re admiring the way she twirls her own brace of 45s. It’s dumb, it’s childish and it needs to stop. When I became a man I put away childish things. That included my guns.


Share Button

Mixed messages

When I left the hospital on Saturday they told me it would be two to three weeks before I got the results of my MRI scan. Tessa Jowell was on the news last week. She has a brain tumour. She was saying how they can grow 1 cm in a month. This is not something you want to happen inside your head. It isn’t designed with much spare space in there. If things like golf balls start growing, it isn’t long before they push other things out of the way. You’ll notice when you start screaming or your left arm stops working, or you fall over a lot or go blind. This is why an MRI scan is quite a good idea.

Given the 1cm a month thing, waiting 3 weeks to be told ‘ah ok, yes, you do actually have a brain tumour and it’s now 7.5mm bigger than it was when we did the scan’ isn’t something to comtemplate calmly. I rang the doctors on Monday.

We chatted about how no problem the MRI scan was. I did my little joke about Kraftwerk to show how I wasn’t afraid and the person at the doctors laughed politely, which is quite easy to do when nobody’s told you that you might have a brain tumour. It was 11:01 am, because the doctors’ never gets results before 11. I thought those 60 seconds were a decent interval.

The docs hadn’t got any results. They still say the scan was urgent, even though the hospital filed it under not. They thought maybe the hospital downgraded it, but how they could before they did the scan wasn’t explained. Thursday. If I don’t hear anything by Thursday call the doc and they’ll chase the results, but they thought that if the scan had showed I had something the size of a grapefruit stuck inside my cranial cavity then the results would have come pretty fast.

I don’t know. I’m getting odd popping noises in both ears now, and I’ve got a bunged-up nose. The noise in my left ear is still there, as it has been for a year, but it isn’t as loud as it was. I think this is far more to do with some inner ear infection than a brain tumour. And the tossing and turning all through last night in bed was due to the fact the moon was full. I knew it was going to be a hag-ridden night when I saw the moon white above the trees at four in the afternoon, when I went out for a walk. I’d put a courgette and lentil and aubergine stew on low. When I got back at half past five with the owls hooting the stew was perfect. I hope I don’t have a brain tumour. I probably dont. But I don’t know.

Share Button

Kling klang muzik

If you like Kraftwerk you’ll love an MRI scan.

I had mine today to see if I’ve just got tinnitus or a brain tumour. After making sure I wasn’t sneaking bits of metal into the scanner I got a calming chat to make sure I didn’t freak out in there. You get earplugs to put in your ears and headphones to put over them.

“It can be a bit noisy,” the guy said, but what else he said I don’t know, as I told him, because I’ve got these ear plugs and headphones over them, just like you told me….

There’s a bit of vibration. If you don’t like being in confined spaces then just shut your eyes and it won’t bother you. I very nearly fell asleep. I just don’t understand what the fuss is about.

Now the wait for the results. The hospital told me three weeks which makes no sense as this was an urgent scan and it’s been done. I’m phoning the surgery on Monday.

Share Button

Reeling in the years

When I was a kid we periodically had no money. Oh, how times change! One of the things then that made life more inconvenient was cars. Specifically, the way they’d fall apart.

Rust was the big killer. It killed a Morris Minor we had, that a scrap man took away and put £1 through the letter box. We thought we might have to pay him. My 14 year-old infatuation with a beautiful Fiat was sensibly sidelined, as Fiats lasted about 20 minutes back then. My first VW Beetle had a hole through the door. A friend’s Peugeot had a hole in the floor you could put your feet through, although it wasn’t recommended. Household monthly budgets would have a similar sized hole driven straight through them when MoT time came and the word ‘sills’ conveyed an almost supernatural dread.

Probably the best.

It was MoT time for my lovely old Saab this week. Or in fact it wasn’t, not until 27th, but as the car’s somehow inexplicably alarmingly 18 years old this year I got the MoT done three weeks early just in case. It was just as well I did.

I replied to some email that came to me from I know not where. It promised that my MoT would be done for £20, not £35. That someone would come and pick my car up from my house and test it and bring it back.

That if anything needed doing they’d phone me before the test, in case I decided that at that age it just wasn’t worth doing. But at that age, at my age, I discovered that I don’t know anything about cars and their ages any more.

A friend’s BMW just died. Literally. It was about eight years old and I quite coveted it, but a month or so ago she switched on, drove down the lane and found that after two hundred yards there just wasn’t any engine. The cam chain had snapped, because someone clever had decided that they shouldn’t use cam chains but cam belts instead, that instead of lasting the life of the car, pretty much last just about 40,000 miles or four years, after which you’re on borrowed time. She got a couple of hundred from a garage which claimed it was doing her a favour. I don’t know if they said ‘luv,’ as well.

And it makes no sense. Cars used to have a life of about six years before they were in falling to bits zone. Rust killed them. Now that it doesn’t, engine life seems to match the useful span of an Austin Allegro. Except on cars as old as the Saab, which still have steel chains doing the business.

The internet garage as I think of them, had a surprise for me. Emissions, guv. Old, innit? Two litre turbo annat. Failed on emissions. Prolly yer catalytic converter. Could be yer fuel injectors but I reckon iss the injector. £650 guv. Plus the VAT acourse. Want us to get on and do it this afternoon?

Oddly, no, I didn’t. I didn’t really know what to do, not least as the garage told me that ‘the law’s changed’ and if a car fails its MoT now, it’s failed. My cunning plan to use the spare three weeks wouldn’t work. I was stuffed, stuck out in the middle of nowhere with a piece of scrap metal. Except it was all a lie.

After I’d calmed down and decided not to lie in the A12 on a dark night I checked online to see a way around the ‘grey area;’ I was told now surrounded the MoT. And it’s what garages used to call total bollocks. The idea that you can’t drive a faield MoT car is true enough, but the old MoT is valid until it would have expired by date, not duie to whatever else has happened. It’s on the government’s own website, clear as day.

As for the catalytic converter. £130 on Ebay, £120 to fit it and we’re back in business. Almost. The Saab failed the re-test back at my proper garage in the next village, after they’d bolted on the new catalytic converter and surprised themselves and me with a reading that implies the government ought to be paying me for cleaning the air each time I start the engine.

There was a hole in the rear wheel arch, inside. Now, I know it’s muddy and around here there’s pretty much no point cleaning your car until March, what with silage, mud, ice, suicidal pheasant and this week kamikase hares littered around the lanes. But it’s a pretty major part of the MoT test. Sills, guv. Another day, £150 cash, with no funny forms and percentages to do and the lovely walnut dashboard reflects my less-worried face again.

Next the brakes. And Ebay again, sourcing £50 discs for a ludicrous £8.33 each, proper Unipart ones, for reasons unclear to me and which astonishes the garage. But that’s the thing about living in an old-fashioned place. You can talk to people and they’re quite happy to share the work you can do with the work they can do. I’ve got a knack for finding things (not like that, officer). They’re just nice and they do that rare thing now: what they say they’re going to do, when they say they’re going to do it.

So cue up the Springsteen car songs, push the button to roll the hood down (yes of course I’ve had the hood down this year. Last weekend in fact, at the request of a friend’s young son and his mate, back from football. Yes obviously we froze. It’s January) and try not to imagine another friend’s description of an encounter she had in the back of one of these.

Try not to imagine because she’s tall and there’s no room in the back. And because it wasn’t my car. And most of all because it makes me inexplicably jealous. But that’s another story altogether and besides, the wench is nowhere near dead.

Share Button