The last day of June

I’m writing today to celebrate my acquisition of a new car this week. I have things to mourn, too – my red Rover, which has risen phoenix-like from many a scare over the years, has finally gone to the scrapyard. And I’ve just become unemployed, I’m another statistic of the slump, and I’m peering vaguely at the jobs market in advanced middle-age with a great list of redundant skills and qualifications that modern institutions don’t value. My old job’s gone to the scrapyard too, and it’s already been dismantled, and parts of it doled out to odd scavengers within the college, who grimly hope that their own job might scrape through an MOT if it has bits of mine bolted on, and they just might still be on the road into the Winter. They probably won’t, but good luck to them. Hey, life moves on, and I like to look positively at things. A new car is something to celebrate.

First let’s dispel a rumour. There are people who imply that I only ever drive old wrecks and death-traps, insurance write-offs and scrapyard rejects, and that I get pirate MOTs over the internet. Well, let them believe what they want to believe. My cars get their MOTs on their own deserved merits. I approach these annual inspections with only slightly more caution and preparation than I bring to Work Appraisals. When I first moved up to Lancashire it was in an old Datsun estate which one of my students described as “a shed on wheels”. I quickly warmed to the colourful local ways with words. It’s a car I replied, it goes. I was used to London, where whatever car you own you spend most of your time sitting in more or less stationary traffic with everyone else, so people tend to have quite pragmatic and functional attitudes to transport. You can’t move much, but you can’t park anywhere either. Half the time it’s simply more convenient to just hop on a tube. So it came as a bit of a culture shock to discover that up here, people still think of a car as something for posing in. My younger students just sighed at my ignorance, and patiently explained that’s exactly what cars are for: posing in.

But I’ve had some class vehicles in my time. Many years ago I had a Saab, for instance. True it was an old Saab, and a slightly dented Saab, but it was a Saab. It looked good, and it was a joy to drive, as long as you could keep moving anyway. In town traffic it used to overheat, and you had to pull in somewhere and wait for half an hour till it cooled down. That wasn’t a problem though, on the great open roads of the north, though occasionally I had to be philosophical about mobs of sheep who seem to have no road sense at all.

The Saab was a solid thing too and you always felt safe in it. Eventually one misty Monday morning it met its end in a motorway pile-up. Everything in front of me stopped without warning, and for absolutely no reason, and I couldn’t stop in time. The Saab’s front end just concertinaed in so the front bumper was suddenly just in front of the windscreen. A moment later the car behind me joined in the fun, and the Saab’s back end concertinaed in too, so its back bumper was just behind the back seats. Yes I’m exaggerating, but only a little. I was totally unhurt, and luckily, so was everybody else. I remember Radio 4 kept jabbering on quite calmly, too, as if nothing had happened. But that was the end of the Saab, and of a few other cars as well.

In those days I used to teach a particularly crap class first thing on Monday mornings. Even so the first mobile phone call I made was to tell the college I’d be late, before calling the AA, and, to the annoyance of at least one of the other contributors to the pile-up, before even exchanging insurance details. But even so, the crap class still lodged an official complaint that their teacher was late that morning (later than them, that is, they were never exactly keen), and some of the more officious careerists within the college middle management duly launched an official disciplinary investigation. The police turned up before the AA did, like they always do except when you want them, and just took over, like they do on motorways. The AA would have towed us to the breaker’s yard of our choice for free, but the police called in some expensive wreck-removing firm that they have a special relationship with, who towed us all to their own depot, insisted we came along with them, charged us for the privilege, and wanted to charge a daily fee for storing the wreckage as well. The college procedures came to nothing because you can’t argue with the police in these situations. Delays under the direction of a police constable in uniform aren’t covered in college management training, so they were fairly stumped. The police were at least efficient. Most of those students failed their exams, but that was because they never read anything and dawdled into classes late and dozy, not because of the motorway incident. And that’s my Saab story.

I won’t go through all my backlog of vehicles but I will mention, from my motorcycling years, my beautiful shiny red Suzuki GT550. Red tank and side panels, gleaming chrome exhausts and mudguards, wheels with proper spokes. 550cc may not sound too much but for a 3-cylinder 2-stroke it was plenty. I’ve no idea how fast it went because at high speed, on a motorway for instance, I had to lean forward so my chin was actually above the speedometer, which was virtually upright, like a car’s. If I’d sat back so I could see the instruments the wind would have blown me off. All I know is that the rest of the traffic just whooshed behind me in a blur. But for getting around town it was pretty useless. Your only chance of keeping within the speed limit, or of not bumping into the car in front, was to keep the throttle closed and the brakes full on. It stalled all the time, and then sulked and refused to start again. Once I counted 97 swings on the kick-starter in the middle of busy traffic around Trafalgar Square. But on the open road it was a different story.

I eventually gave up motorcycles because the good old ones became too rare, and “collectable”, and expensive, and I just don’t like modern motorbikes. The newer ones are too fat, smooth and ugly. They look like something out of a science fiction film. I was more a Steve McQueen or a Marlon Brando myself. After selling the Suzi I stuck to cars. Old cars. A few nice ones, like the aforementioned Saab, and a Volvo. But more often, rattly wrecks, lost souls that few other people would have given a home to, but often with some kind of character to them that appealed to me.

Four years ago for instance, the Volvo, after serving me like a loyal if dour butler for several years, developed a series of complaints, including what seemed like severe clutch drag, except that it was an automatic, and I’m not sure if automatics even have a clutch. Eventually down some Godforsaken side-street it decided it would only go backwards, not forwards. I considered reversing all the way to the scrapyard, which would have made some good road theatre maybe, but in the end I let the scrap dealer come out and get it, and watched him hoist it onto the back of his lorry. Then, wandering among the parts of town that only desperate bargain-hunters would know about, I came across an abandoned-looking old red Rover 420 with a torn-off  piece of paper sellotaped inside its windows saying, in handwritten scrawl, FOR SALE, £300 ono, and a mobile telephone number.

The owner was a mild-mannered, pleasant enough fellow, though he did let out the odd hint that he might have been a car dealer. The first warning sign was just before the test drive. When he turned the ignition key, instead of starting the engine it set the horn off. It's the immobiliser he explained, it’s a bit temperamental, it’s confused because you opened the back door. Or something. But after going through the sequence a few more times – shut the doors, open the driver’s door, press the left-hand button on the fob, insert the key, turn the key, swear, press the right-hand button on the fob –(see, I’ve learned it now)– it sprang into life. It was a bit the worse for wear, but it handled nicely. It needed a new water pump almost immediately, hotly followed by a new radiator and a new clutch, and it needed its immobiliser reprogrammed, but what do you expect for £300. Especially with a car that's named after a dog. It needed so much water that I had to always carry a bucket in the boot. The windows had a habit of opening themselves, by just dropping inside the doors, till I glued them shut. It acquired further dents each Winter, when cars are slipping and sliding all over the place out of control, and wherever you park you’re likely to come back to find further damage. Twice somebody knocked a wing mirror off, and once someone cracked the windscreen, but that’s not the car’s fault. Once a white van driver stopped suddenly in front of me on a roundabout, mangling my front bumper, and then made a claim against me for writing off his vehicle and for whiplash neck injuries to his entire extended family. But that wasn’t the car’s fault either. It just about sweet-talked its way through a series of MOTs, and although it got tattier and tattier it still handled these twisty Pennine roads with ease and panache and held its own on the motorway too. It kept going well enough for over four years. A few bits fell off, but the AA stuck them back on again. This summer it was still going fine, though it was making increasingly alarming rattly noises and new rusty holes were appearing on a more or less daily basis. When I boldly presented it for its MOT I was presented with a five-page list of reasons why it couldn’t have one. I took it elsewhere for a second opinion, but although the second MOT gatekeeper’s estimate for a repair bill was about half of the original one, they both agreed that it wasn’t worth the bother. Reluctantly I had to accept that the red Rover’s days were finally over.

Changing cars and changing jobs have things in common. For one thing, sometimes the transition goes smoothly, and you can set up the new one before parting with the old one. When you’re lucky you can even get them to overlap. I once started a new job with a week still to go from an old one and got paid by two different colleges for the same work. Other times there’s a period of uncertainty, unemployment, immobility, between them. And much as I’ve sometimes bought cars that are less than immaculate, or cars with dark secrets, I do seem to have a habit of working for colleges that are about to go bust, or at least for departments and courses that soon go floating tits up on top of the pond, either because the management has a change of whim or because they’re crap at publicity and can’t get enough students. So here I was, scouring the internet both for a new job and for a new low-budget second-hand car.

The second search went more smoothly than the first. With the red Rover still taxed for a few more days, and with the MOT notionally still legal for another week or so, I found another Rover 420 not that many miles away for an affordable price. Younger than the red one and green this time. When I drove over to look at it, it turned out to be not just green but British Racing Green. Smart. It purrs instead of rattling, it’s got no holes, and it’s got leather seats and a CD player. It’s got a couple of minor dents that helped me talk the price down, and the deal was done.

In a vast field near the Lancashire / Yorkshire border, there’s a scrapyard that’s locally famous for being able to find you any part you want, from however obscure a vehicle. I’ve been there many times for bits, for the red Rover for instance, always taking care to park on the lane just outside the entrance, because I know their system: anything that crosses that line never comes out again. If you can get your car to their field, they’ll buy it by its weight. It doesn’t matter what make it is, how old it is, what condition it’s in, they just weigh it. But if they have to come and tow it the price goes down massively, if they’ll pay you at all.

I got it just right this time. I already had the new car, and the old car was still legal for a couple more days, till Wednesday, the end of the month. That Wednesday I had a couple of morning tutorials booked in with students, then the afternoon free. I didn’t want to pay more tax and then have to reclaim it, and I didn’t want to waste money on petrol that would never be used. I figured the old car had just about enough petrol in it to get to college, then get to the scrapyard. So that morning, I drove into college in the old car, held the tutorials, then set off through the leafy lanes.

The fuel gauge was well down into the red, and the rattly, scrapy, wheezy noises were getting worse and worse as I approached my destination. And it’s no nay never, I was humming to myself, no nay never no more, will I drive the Wild Rover, no never no more. Except that’s not quite true because the new car is a Rover too. But it’s not wild. It’s quite a civilised Rover.

I’ve got an MOT failure for you, I proudly told the scrap dealer. But he looked unimpressed, almost kind of taciturn. What’s it got that still works? he asked. I’ve never been much of a salesman. I could have told him the mirrors work, the seats work, the windscreen works. For that matter the clutch works (once you’ve got the knack), the brakes work (if noisily), the central locking works on 3 out of the 4 doors. The list is endless. And the list of what doesn’t work only runs to 5 pages. I didn’t go into all this because I knew that all he was really interested in was its weight. And when he finally got behind the wheel and used its last drop of petrol to tease it into the yard, over that line, squealing and grunting like a pig to the slaughter, heading for the weighbridge, I knew my worries were over. Somehow it looked and sounded far worse when I was standing behind it watching somebody else drive it than it ever had from the driving seat driving it myself.

So there I was, in a field in the middle of no-where, with no car (but a nice new car waiting for me at home) and a wad of cash in my pocket. I had a celebratory pint or two in the local village pub, and then all that remained was the long walk home. It was a fine summer day, the last day of June, and the walk was through idyllic country. When I get a moment I’ll upload some of the photos to this website. I might even put them right at the end of this article to save you a search.

Michael Bruce

July 2010



Last day of June - photos

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