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Joy riding.All this banter of decrepit motor cars and MOT tests (see page 45) reminded me of my childhood. From a gentler and far, far more benign time, when men watched cricket on the green and women watched rickets in their children. Children as young as five could though walk home from school a mile away, alone and in the dark without fear of being either raped or run down. Boys fell fully clothed into icy rivers in November without drowning. Girls climbed trees without the guidance of the Health & Safety Executive. Fifteen year old girls could even ‘do things’ in the attic with their eleven year old neighbour boys without getting pregnant and neither would catch anything that later required scratching. Men smoked pipes whilst their wives darned socks. Folk were poor so food was scarce and limited to only three or four roasts along with a hundredweight of vegetables per week, each. Breakfast comprised a 'fry-up' of ingredients in a list too long to reproduce here, although 'obesity' had yet to be invented. Everyone lived to be a hundred and octogenarians would turn up at a parent's wake to smoke a pound of black shag and drink fifteen pints of stout in their honour. The privy was in the garden and being unlit modified the metabolism of a generation. We had television of course. Just no electricity with which to switch the jolly thing on with. Visiting a pub was still considered socially acceptable. Ah, halcyon days the likes of which sadly we’re unlikely ever to see again.
Following the death of my real father in a flying accident in 1950 my mother re-married five years later to a ‘Fen Tiger’. A wonderfully kind and generous man with a big heart. He brought me up as his own son and I will forever be grateful. Our family of five all lived on a small rented farm in the desolate, windswept Fens of eastern England. On what today at just thirty acres would be called a smallholding.
Small it might have been but it was big enough for me to have my own car. A 1937 Morris 8 that I called Ethel. I was just ten years old when with £8 strawberry picking and apple picking money I was allowed to buy her. All the boys of similar age on neighbouring farms had cars too and so it was only fair. I called her ‘Ethel’ after my maiden Aunt. By way of retribution. She openly hated children and had remonstrated strongly with my Mother and Stepfather against letting me have one. “A total waste of money!” being her reason, rather than any concern for my safety or welfare.
Ethel was a recent MOT ‘10 Year Test’ failure, following introduction of statutory testing for all cars in the same year - 1960. She ran well enough although the clutch slipped and half the body parts had long since fallen off. A couple of months hurtling round our farm tracks saw to the remainder being ripped off as well. Naturally the exhaust system was an early victim to the ruts, followed soon after by the exhaust manifold when an errant apple tree branch caught it. Luckily not removing my right leg at the groin in the process. I can still show you the scars though to this day. Ladies only.
BP ‘Super’ cost 5s/3d (26p) a gallon and I had to cycle with a gallon can balanced on my handlebars for over a mile to get it. I couldn’t afford it so I quickly discovered that providing I initially started Ethel on petrol I could switch her to the paraffin our farm tractors ran on. Leaking valves along with maladjusted timing and a large carbon build-up all contrived to produce copious amounts of black smoke, loud, blue flame backfires, all decorated with showers of bright orange sparks. This concoction belching vociferously and directly from her three exhaust ports in the side of her exposed cylinder block. She’d run a little hot too following switch-over to paraffin. What with ‘pre-ignition’ firing her instead of anything the weak coil needed to deliver the only way to shut her ancient engine down later was to run her up against the barn door, engage top gear and stall her. The barn door eventually gave up the unequal challenge though and later I resorted to using a straw stack. One day the stack caught fire and took most of the farm along with it but more on that another time. I was a loveable child. Perhaps Aunt Ethel did have a point after all!
Family friends and relatives that visited us, including even Aunt Ethel, I would offer to give ‘a tour’ round our farm. A ride in, or rather on, as by this time there was no body, just the seriously rusted ladder frame chassis and there were no seats, just two inverted apple boxes tied on with binder twine, was not for the feint hearted. I had turned my favourite route around the farm and the only route my dear late Stepfather permitted me to follow, into a mud quagmire. Arguably no tread left to speak of on the tyres, all helping with seriously exciting power slides, offered me the added bonus of covering quivering wreck victims like Aunt Ethel in mud from head to toe. Magical!
My muddy route took me past Nugget’s Church. A ramshackle old corrugated iron affair with peeling grass green paint that had been hastily erected in the 1920s in one corner of our farmyard. Presumably in a forlorn attempt at taming the village’s errant flock. Nugget (we never knew how or why he was thus dubbed) was its head honcho, the vicar.
Nugget's regular congregation of three were poor so Sunday collections were a little sparse. This meant Nugget didn’t eat and so was painfully thin. He was also greying and bald on top as he was about 180 years old. A fine figure he did not therefore cut, when, with his full length black frock, dog collar and wizened looks he would appear outside his tin shack. Looking for all the world like an emaciated vulture, waving a stick at me every time I careered past during his Sunday morning sermons. The problem, his problem, was that a lean-to chicken coup had been erected against the side of what could laughingly be described a ‘House of the Lord’ and every time I passed, with carefully honed skills I could just manage to clip one corner of the hen coup. As planned the hens would protest - loudly. Add to this the noise from my car which resembled that of a Blenheim bomber trying to get off the ground with a full bomb load and you’ll get the picture. And why wasn’t I in church each Sunday morning? Simple. I had recently been expelled from the choir for unpicking the buttons from my cassock and firing them with my catapult across the aisle at Johnny Herbert. The little sod from nearby Black Drove Fen snitched on me. “Thank you Johnny.” (I’ve been meaning to tell him for years. Hope he reads this.).
One day Nugget rode his old ‘sit up and beg’ round to our farmhouse to complain to my Mother about my behaviour. She acceded to his demands that I either change my Sunday morning rallycross route or accept being restored to the choir. As wasting my valuable Sunday mornings worshipping some mythical elf, god or hobgoblin was certainly not on my agenda a cunning plan was thus required. There was only one thing for it. Dad had severely restricted available tracks to me, contravention of his rules which would result in withdrawal of my cherished paraffin allowance. I had no choice, I could get round the farm and avoid the church but would have to connect two lanes together using a short trip down the public highway.
I know what's next isn’t PC so those afflicted with PC are excused from reading on. Please stop here.
I don’t advocate ‘joy riding’. Particularly by minors. Bear in mind though that I, even as a self taught driver of just 11 years old probably knew more about driving and could most likely handle any vehicle better than anyone and everyone in our village. Having been brought up on everything from motorcycles, to cars, tractors, combine harvesters, even an old but extremely large Fiat bulldozer my step father had acquired as a big toy. I also had a schoolboy passion for all things ‘motorcar’, including traffic legislation and could quote the Highway Code faultlessly, in reverse order if need be. Besides which I wouldn’t be exceeding thirty miles per hour. The clutch was slipping badly by this time. Thirty miles per hour through a muddy apple orchard with low branches or clipping hen coups by a skillfully measured 2mm is though fast enough. Trust me!
Thus it was one Sunday morning I warmed up Ethel, switched her over to paraffin and set off. Instead of turning right by Nugget’s church shack I turned left and out onto the highway. Oh what joy! My bald tyres made almost no noise on the tarmac and what was left of the suspension had been given a reprieve for once. The roar of my engine forced crows out of their tree tops and made cattle stampede across their pastures as I whizzed by. All was going swimmingly until I hung another hard left for the last leg prior to re-entering our farm. There, just around the bend stood PC Butters. In the middle of the road, arms akimbo, balancing his ‘sit up and beg’ against his giant blue-black frame.
I stopped. I had no choice otherwise PC Butters’s calculated risk would not have paid off and he would long since have been pushing daisies next Nugget’s shack.
“Allo, allo, allo.” (yes he DID!) “Wot ‘ave we ‘ere then me lad?” said PC Butters.
I got out (sorry, I mean I got off) from Ethel. I couldn’t shut her down as there were no barn doors handy against which to stall her. Sparks, flames and smoke continued to belch from her exposed side.
PC Butters stared at me menacingly whilst slowly and purposefully he undid his top left button pocket flap and withdrew his notebook and pencil. In hindsight somewhat theatrically I thought but at the time I had more on my mind. Such as ‘would I ever be let out?’.
“Licence?” asked PC Butters, obviously rhetorically.
“I don’t have one.” I spluttered in response.
PC Butters opened his notebook, turned to a fresh page and a note was entered.
PC Butters: “Insurance?”
“I don’t have any.” I again spluttered.
PC Butters: “MOT?”
PC Butters didn’t wait for my response.
PC Butters: “Road Fund Licence?”
Again PC Butters saw no point in waiting for my response.
To spare your valuable time and by this time you will anyway now have got the drift so I will draw up a simple list for you.
PC Butters continues. Supplying his own observations as answers as he worked his way through it.
“Headlights - none.
Trafficators - none.
Rear lights - none.
Brake lights - none.
Side lights - none.
Horn - none.
Windscreen wipers - none. Note: No windscreen.
Silencer - none.
In fact, no exhaust system whatsoever.” PC Butters then muttered something about the Motor Car Construction and Use Act 19 (whatever), paragraph (whatever). He didn't look well.
PC Butters turned to a fresh page in his note book and groaned.
“Tyres - bald.
Mudguards - none.” he started to write again but pushed his pencil so violently into his notepad he broke the lead. I sniggered. This was probably not a good thing to do under the circumstances.
PC Butters took out his penknife, a much nicer one than mine, opened it and started sharpening the end of his pencil. A remarkable feat of itself I thought as he did so without ever lifting his steely gaze from my now petrified face. I’ve often wondered how he managed to do that.
“Mudguards - none.” he repeated as he recommenced his scrawling.
“In fact, bodywork - none.” followed again by another reference to some esoteric Motor Car Construction and Use Act.
“Speedometer - none. Actually dashboard - none.
Handbrake - none.
Seats - none.
Is that paraffin I smell? Thought so. Customs and Excise Act 19(whatever) contravention.
Date you passed your driving test?”
He went on and on and on. Rhetorical questions followed by scribbles in his notebook and turning of yet more fresh pages. By this time I knew for certain I was going to gaol for a very, very long time indeed.
Finally PC Butters closed his notebook, pockets his notebook and re-buttons his uniform breast pocket. Then he bends over very slowly and deliberately to meet me eyeball to eyeball.
“Get back in your car and turn around immediately. Drive slowly back whence you came. Do not deviate from your most direct route. Do not stop. Do not come back for at least another six years and until you have obtained a driving licence and you have also acquired a safe motor car.”
I did as I was bid. I told no one. Not a soul. Not even my parents. Actually, especially not my parents.
Thirty years later I was sat beside a bed in a dirty, poorly lit and inadequately staffed NHS hospital. I was holding my dying dear Stepfather’s hand. Mother was the other side of his bed. We all had tears streaming down our faces. Dad had been laughing so much he had cried like a baby.
“Do you remember the time Butters caught you on the road outside the farm?” Dad giggled. “We never laughed so much again for years.”
Dad passed away ten minutes later, still smiling. From Pneumonia brought on through Motor Neurone Disease.
I’ve finished crying too now.
For the day anyway.