Category Archives: Cars

Playing the game

I’ve been looking at Dawn Foster‘s brilliant blogs, including the excellent A Hundred and One Wankers in which she chronicles, with the help of a Google map, the precise abuse which she receives as she cycles around London.  Or did, until the ‘greatest wanker of them all’ pinched her bike outside the Beckton Asda. ( I remember the Asda when we lived there twenty-five years ago, before Beckton had an infrastructure and we walked down to Custom House to go to Mass and get the train to work.)

Anyway,  though I don’t get as much specifically sexist abuse as Dawn (probably because I look like the abusers’ mums), M and I both get our share of close shaves and moronic motorists.  On Sunday afternoon, as I was cycling to The Graan, a young boy racer overtook me, threw a glass bottle out of his window (fortunately he didn’t have a passenger who might have had a better aim) and, as it smashed on the road beside me, stuck his arm out of the window with fist clenched in triumph.

Then there was this peculiar piece in the usually emollient Irish Times, bemoaning the fact that, while drivers suffer the indignity of  ‘inappropriate speed checks on dual carriageways’, cyclists are permitted to ride about helmetless with impunity.  (Bike helmets are, by the way, thankfully not yet compulsory in Ireland.)

What is it about cyclists that inspires such disproportionate ire?  True, some are annoying, but surely not so much as white van drivers or those elderly men in hats who hog the fast motorway lanes?  Dawn Foster’s other blog (see above) and Oliver James’s book The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza
which I’m currently reading, gave some possible clues.  Foster writes about the extraordinarily virulent ‘anti-scrounger’ hysteria whipped up by our nice new government with its cuddly Lib Dem accessories while James analyses the emotional distress which accompanies relative materialism (as distinct from the logical materialism that results from not having enough money to buy your next meal).  It occurs to me that it’s basically about ensuring that everyone is playing the game: clambering up the career ladder, ditto the  property one (isn’t it odd how the housing benefit screeches were directed towards the powerless tenants rather than the landlords who actually profit from extortionate rents?) and surrounding oneself with shiny bits and pieces.  And cars, owned and driven, are perfect playing pieces, being so homogenous and easily confused (it’s as hard to recognize which silver hatchback is yours in the car park as to remember whether you chose yellow or blue for the current round of Ludo).

And so anyone who doesn’t play properly (good job, owned house, new car) is consquently suspect,  however otherwise dull or unexceptional.  And that explains why, other than the token grumble, no one really minds that the bankers have conned us out of more money than we can even imagine and are continuing to do so; at least they played the game, even if they cheated.  Or, since no one is quite sure of the rules once the banker is allowed to use the whole cash supply plus whatever he invents  (imagine Monopoly with that variation) perhaps they haven’t cheated at all, just played the game really, really well.

And then I cheered myself up entirely by watching The Story Of The Weeping Camel [DVD] which reminded me that the world is full of people who have no idea about the game and for whom even my bike would be an object of fascinated humour.  Watch it, and be filled with joy (though you might weep even more than the camel).

Only choking

A study reported on the Guardian environment pages today shows the link between children’s exposure to particles from vehicle exhausts and the likelihood of their developing pneumonia.   The research was carrried out by Professor Jonathan Grigg, who has studied the effects of air pollution upon children across the world, including indoor air pollution from stoves in developing countries.  He says, according to the article, that the risk of a child’s developing pneumonia could be up to 65% higher if he or she lives within a hundred metres of a major road.  Though we think of it as a condition of the elderly, around 20,000 children in the UK are admitted to hospital with pneumonia every year.  Of these, around seventy will die.  In 2008, for example, seventy-six people under the age of twenty died of pneumonia here – fifty-two of them babies and toddlers of three or under.  Even my arithmetic can work out that’s one a week. 


This is Barbara Maher of Lancaster University talking last year on the BBC website about exhaust particulates.  Unfortunately, small children don’t usually get the chance to take the wise precautions she recommends – especially when they are strapped into a car seat or buggy just at the height where particulate levels are most intense.  

Professor Grigg, who is hereby awarded the inaugural Decombustion Good Egg of the Week Award,  is hoping to set up a Centre for Children’s Environmental Health, the first in this country.  It shouldn’t cost more than a few lorryloads of swine flu vaccine…


So the Leeds rear-ending (which incidentally demonstrated the resilience of the Nissan Primera, as not even the trifle wedged at the back of the boot suffered any injury, unlike the front of the Rover which had largely disappeared) left us with one car, the aging Jeep Cherokee.  As it was making more and more geriatric noises, we traded it in for a Nissan Serena people carrier.  According to the motoring press of the time, this was so abominable a vehicle as to scarcely deserve the title of a car at all, but it performed sterling work over the next few years, not least by taking us and assorted possessions to Italy where we lived from 2002 to 2004.  We started promptly upon the business of formally importing the car, but so interminable is the grinding of Italian bureaucracy that two years later, when we left, it still had UK number plates and an open file in a grey cabinet somewhere.  Our next peregrination was to County Clare, in the Republic of Ireland where the importation procedure, though quicker and less opaque, was still going to be a hassle and, moreover, to cost a largish chunk of the car’s remaining value.  Having spent a winter living on the edge of a mountain range in what was optimistically called a ‘farmhouse’  (in the sense that cowsheds, barns and donkey sanctuaries could be described as houses  by their more anthropomorphic occupants) the joys of remote country life were beginning to pall and it occurred to us that if we rented a house within walking distance of Ennis town centre, we could dispense with owning a car altogether.  It was worth a try, anyway; we could always buy another later if it didn’t work out.

2 – 1 = a start…

For a few years when we lived in and around Yorkshire we had two cars. It began more or less by accident, with an inherited Montego, and ended entirely so, with a shunt in the middle of Leeds from a young man in a hurry and his girlfriend’s father’s uninsured Rover. While our car was being repaired we realised that we could manage without it, asked the garage to sell it, and used part of the proceeds to buy a trio of Trek hybrid bikes for us and our eldest son and a Burleigh trailer for the little ones. M would cycle the twenty miles to York station to catch his train to work and I would occasionally, in exceptionally fine weather, take the boys to nursery in their trailer, by an idyllic path that skirted fields and went through the middle of a almost certainly enchanted wood.


I haven’t always been without a car, wouldn’t want to create any meretricious greener than thou illusions… While never exactly a petrolhead, I’ve been as susceptible as anyone to the girlier attractions of the internal combustion engine and its various exoskeletons. I had four or five cars of my ‘own’, all of them red, including a BMW 3-series and an old-style Jeep Cherokee which I cherished for the same reasons as all small and nervous women cling to 4x4s, that it sat me high enough to give the illusion that I could see what I was doing, and made the drive up the icy hill to G’s school marginally less scary. The facts that it was corresponding more likely to roll over and to kill anything its impressive radiator grill came in contact with didn’t register with me any more than it does with my neighbours who still drive similar, albeit far more expensive, monsters now.


I don’t know why I hadn’t come across it before, but better late… Highly recommended, especially for those days, like today, when all drivers appear to be blithering idiots. I was forced off the road at lunchtime today by a farmer in a 4×4 (glossy Japanese one, not old Defender) pulling a trailer full of horned rams. He overtook me coming up to the (red) traffic lights, then as soon as the car was past me, pulled abruptly into the left so that the trailer swung in behind him. Luckily I was looking out and managed to scramble on to the pavement before my bike and I were crushed between the trailer wheels and the kerb, with the added excitement of being impaled by the horns sticking out between the bars. Ho hum. Yesterday another one (farmer, not ram) drove past as I was waiting to cross the road to the cycle lane, parped his horn, gave a thumbs-up sign and continued driving at seventy miles an hour with his horn playing like an Italian wedding party. Too much carbon monoxide, I guess.

Bits and pieces

Just a couple of lines to finish off the car hire bit. Russell Howard was surprisingly brilliant, far more substantial in every way (biceps, satire and extraordinary creative energy) than the winsome West Country boy on the box. Highly recommended, if you get the chance to see him live. I took back the car the next day, driving through real snow, which I don’t like, on the country roads and handing over the keys with elated relief. I celebrated with a bowl of sludgy soup and the beginning of Rose Macaulay’s Letters to A Friend (why do I always type ‘fiend’ the first time?) and felt gloriously free. Going home on the bus, after bank & book things in Belfast, was sheer delight; so wonderful to have someone else doing the driving so the only tricky choice is between the book and the iPod.

Talking of books, I’ve just read a wonderful one: The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall. It was published last year, and is set around twenty years in the future, in a post-oil, post-economic collapse Britain. A thrilling story, a bit like a feminist John Wyndham, but very very terrifyingly plausible. Looking it up now, I see that it won several prizes, as did her earlier books. I don’t read very much contemporary writing; am a bit stuck in the middle of last century, but sometimes something gets up and kicks me into the present.

A bit like music, really; it wasn’t until I got the idea of going to Glastonbury next year that I thought I ought to listen to someone who isn’t dead yet. And so to many contented hours wandering around with the Kings of Convenience and Turin Brakes (though I do wish the silent bit in the middle of Rain City could be a bit shorter, it not doing much to while away the drizzling wait at the traffic lights).

Talking of which (quite a little babble of consciousness this morning) I wrote a long email to the entity called Roads Western last month to have a little moan about the woeful pedestrian crossings in Enniskillen. I got a reply the other day, in which they said that pedestrians never have to wait more than two minutes to cross. This may or may not be the case (I need to go out with a stopwatch) but two minutes of standing at the roadside in the pouring rain, watching the cars sweep through the puddles before you, can feel like quite some time. More on this to follow…

Finally, a joyful note. I went to the film club last night (Gerard Depardieu, Quand j’etais un chanteur – beautiful) and walked home by myself under a couple of stars and a space in the clouds with the moon shining through. No one was out, except for a trio of teenage boys, and even the barbed wire outside the Territorial Army was shining. You don’t get that in a car.


To continue (after a break for jubilant elation at the American election result…)

Back at the maths & physics department the car was sitting demurely beneath a street light, safe and solitary, though a lecturer-type man was sidling out of the door carrying a briefcase. I imagined the scene at home, as Sunday supper ended,

‘Er, I think I’ll just pop down…’

Silent sigh. Sometimes she half-wishes it could be a mistress.

Anyway, with only one major circlar tour and map consultation, we found ourselves back on the motorway and with a good chunk of Mitchell and Webb on the CD player made it home without incident by half-past twelve. At three o’clock I woke with the feeling that someone was using a brace and bit drill from school workwork lessons to remove half of my head. I don’t normally get headaches, so was perplexed for quite a few seconds before I remembered.

It didn’t happen for the first year or so of being without a car but lately, every time I’m in one for more than an hour or so, as a driver or passenger, I get this kind of headache. It’s usually quite specific, extending from my forehead backwards, on the left hand side, although later it gets weaker and more diffuse. Compared to the sort of headaches and migraines lots of people get it’s utterly pathetic and wouldn’t be worth mentioning at all except for the circumstances. It seems unlikely that it’s psychosomatic, as it’s so particular, and I never anticipate it, I never get it after travelling on buses or trains, and M gets a similar thing after being in a car. So it appears quite likely that over the years we’ve simply lost our immunity to carbon monoxide and the rest of the exhaust gases, particulates and general nasty stuff emitted by the infernal machine.

As I say, it wasn’t anything dramatic; by lunchtime it had modulated into a general hangoverish feeling (ironic, given my very rare teetotal evening before) and I drove off merrily to fill the car with second-hand books. It does, though, make you wonder about the reality behind the ubiquitous drive-the-baby-around-to-get-it-off-to-sleep remedy. A hundred years ago it was laudanum…

… but I’m better now.

To continue. We got to the car hire desk at the airport early, unconscionably early, when it turned out that a blip in the system (or someone with an over-decimalized brain thinking that 16.30 was the same as 6.30pm) meant that they weren’t expecting us for another three and a half hours. So we sat and watched the airy-planes until they found us some variety of Renault – a Clio, I think it was. It had thoughtfully been parked at the end of the row, so it didn’t matter whether I set off in first gear or reverse, and the windscreen wipers were fairly intuitive – a good start.

After a certain amount of random driving around Belfast we found ourselves outside the Maths and Physics department of Queen’s University. Since the gig (Tim Minchin, in case I haven’t mentioned it) was part of the university Festival we decided that this was probably close enough, and as a group of astonishingly clean and unmistakably maths students decided to call it a Sunday afternoon, we gingerly (no pun intended, Rory) edged into their parking space.

After a pizza and water (see what depths this driving business plunges me to) we got to the venue at around six o’clock, with an hour to go before the doors opened. Keen as we were to get into the first few rows, this seemed somewhat obsessional, so we went for a token walk to pretend that we weren’t that bothered. It didn’t make much difference anyway, because we were still the only ones there when we got back again. By seven there was a respectable queue behind us, enough for a few gasps and murmurs as the man himself strode through our midst, rather taller and less diffident than we had expected, though that was probably a combination of the boots and an entirely understandable desire to get in out of the October chill.

Anyway, it was all decidedly worth it; Rory was the first through the door, so we got our front row seats, about four feet from the stage.

I have a car…

Only for three days, from Europcar, via AutoEurope’s ridiculously low rates. The specific timing results from a combination of the Belfast Comedy Festival and Ulsterbus’s failure to acknowledge that any culchies from the far West might want to stay in the big city later than eight o’clock at night. In between Tim Minchin and Russell Howard it will be called into service as a book-hauling vehicle, as always.

I picked it up yesterday, after my usual pre-car nerves – night spent wondering whether I can remember how to steer, find the biting point, dip the headlights, find the windscreen wipers (most vital part of a car in Northern Ireland) etc. all expressed in the usual way by a dream in which I have to look after a baby. Analyse that.