Sunday, 22 December 2019

The Ramblings Of A Silly Old Man CHAPTER ONE


For someone who like to think of himself as a writer I just can not find the words I need to express how I feel about being old. I don’t hate being old but then I do not like it either. I do not worry about when my end will come even if I am far from certain there is anything after that end. I am not sure I actually care. I don’t think my life has been a complete waste of time but I do wish I had achieved a bit more than I have.

At the age of sixty-nine is that considered to be old ?  My grandmother, my Dad’s Mum, lived to be ninety-four. She is the central character in my book The Bridge House, My Mum’s Mum lived to be a few weeks short of her one hundredth birthday. My own Mum and Dad are in their nineties so I guess family history would point towards my having a few years left.

I was twenty-six years old when I passed my test and so got my driving license. That document has to be renewed in November 2020 when I reach my seventieth birthday. At twenty-six I remember how I looked at that license and could not comprehend the year 2020 and being seventy years old !  It would never happen.  How I can not comprehend being twenty-six.  I’d quite like to be twenty-six but not the twenty-six I was in my youth but twenty-six in a body with the mind of my present sixty-nine years. Does that make sense ?

The first car I owned after passing my east as a Triumph Herald. A rust bucket I paid £125 for from someone who lived in Hunter Drive, Bletchley if you know where that is. If you don’t then tough luck. Yes, a rust bucket which quite simply a danger to other road users. Now I drive a Jaguar which is a bit like me: it has a powerful engine, a slightly eccentric on-board computer and a bodywork which is knackered.

My dream car has always been a Triumph TR7 sports car. Sadly it has only ever been a dream, I will never proudly have one on my driveway. Even if I do finish writing this book, publish the text and sell a zillion copies I will not buy a classic Triumph TR7 sports car. Yes, I could still fit into the driver’s seat but once there I doubt I could ever get out again. More practical for me would be a Bentley, buy lots of copies of this book so I can afford one. Every day I pass Aston Martin in Newport Pagnell but I have never dreamed of owning one. Nope, I am not a James Bond lookalike. My application for a license to kill was turned down. That has just given me an idea for a story to ramble on about but it will have to wait until later in the book, if I remember.

I used to enjoy driving but now it’s just a process to get form somewhere to somewhere else. How long before it becomes a chore. I know that in time I will dislike being behind the steering wheel, even of a Bentley Continental so I guess I do need to write here a best seller so I can employ a chauffeur.

As this silly old man rambles on can I share a couple of driving experiences with you ? Go on let me ramble and you read.

The Berlin Wall came down on 22nd December 1989. How weird is that ? I am writing this account on 22nd December 2019, exactly thirty years later. I shed a tear as I watched the news reports on TV. As Eastern Europe began to open up the eyes of the West fell upon some sad stories.

Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu ordered that families in his country were to have many children so increasing the population. He and his wife, Elena, were executed on Christmas Day 1989. When it became known just how many Romanian children were living in spartan orphanages as their parents simply could not look after them all kinds of people and organisations in Britain sent aid trucks to Romania. I drove one of those trucks.

It must have been around Eater 1990 I guess that this adventure happened. No satellite navigation n those day, maps of Eastern Europe were not particularly accurate. No internet. No Google. No Microsoft – thank goodness. No mobile phones, smart or otherwise. The drive from Milton Keynes England to Budapest Romania, 1,649 miles, was not without incident. As I recall things there were only a few miles without an incident.

I planned the route via France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary and into Romania. What is it they say about the best laid plans of mice and men ? You won’t believe this rambling of a silly old man.

There were three of us driving the truck. Two hours behind the wheel, two hours navigation and two hours resting.

Leaving Milk and Beans – I mean Milton Keynes – we headed for Junction 13 on the M1. It was closed due to an accident. An alternative route via the A5, Saint Albans and London Colney to the M25.

A P&O ferry to Calais. NO. The French were doing some form of protest, as the French do, at the port on their side of the ENGLISH Channel so an alternative boat to Ostend in Belgium, where the natives would not know a protest if it smacked them in the face, was needed. No problem, a nap in a cabin and we were set to start driving in friendly Belgium.

Germany, ah well !  In 1990 there were two German countries – West Germany and The German Democratic Republic of East Germany. The East being the former communist bit. Our route was through West Germany, the lot we whipped in the 1966 Football World Cup. In 1990 England still was not forgiven. If  Big Time Bureaucratic West Germany was the state then god help those in the former communist sector !

Our paperwork was forensically analysed under a microscope, our passports were photocopies with everything faxed to the exit border control with Austria. We were charged an extortionate fee for the inconvenience and hold up. The border guards wore guns so hold up is not a metaphor.

I do not know if it is still the case but driving in Germany in 1990 was different. On the autobahn, the German motorway system, there was no speed limit. Autobahn – do you know the amazing 1970’s recording of Autobahn by Kraftwerk ?  Shut up rambling you silly old man, get on with the story. OK, yes, give me a minute. Where was I ?

Goods vehicles on German roads were, in places, forced to drive only on the inside lane. The right hand lane as Germany drives on the wrong side of the road. This rule applied when crossing a bridge or driving up a steep hill. I am sure the Germans built extra bridges and navigated heir roads up as many hills as possible just to frustrate our journey. We were not in a heavy goods vehicle, we were driving a seven and a half tonner so not subject to the rule but better be safe than sorry we never knew where the German police would be lurking.

All trucks were banned from driving on European roads on Sundays but this bah had been lifted for all aid trucks en route to Romania. There were so many aid trucks heading for Romania, dozens of them. It was obvious which trucks were on this mission, we would flash our headlights and wave to one another.

Planning for the journey, I had taken empty five gallon containers to bus and coach companies, to haulage business and to filling stations where I put operators under pressure to donate fuel, a minimum of five gallons, in these containers. What’s that you are saying: How many litres in a gallon ?  Sod that, we won the Battle of Waterloo so I’ll stick with British measurements not foreign stuff even if we were driving across Europe. In the back of the tyruck we had enough diesel to take us all the way to Romania and a hundred or so miles along the return journey.

Into Austria leaving Germany behind, phew !  Just to remind you England 4 West Germany 2. We spent the night in a local hotel, very nice, before heading in the morning to Hungary. Not so nice.

I remember as a small child saying to my father that Hungary was an odd name for a country. I am guessing  that would have been at the time of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. My father responded saying it was called Hungary because the people there were hungry.

As our aid truck crossed into Hungary we were not aware that Hungarian truck drivers were in dispute with the government over fuel prices. Trucks were blockading the border with Romania. It looked as if our journey was over and e would have to turn round to head for home. Sod that !  How were the other aid trucks getting through ?

I approached a Hungarian trucker and bribed him with $50 US to let us through. Form him that was almost two weeks wages so obviously he did not turn us away. We were taken down a track and into a field. Then another field, and another field and another field until we were in Romania never having seen a border post.

Reaching our destination we unloaded at the orphanage then turned to head back home. Maps came out, we could not go through Hungary so a circular route round the country was needed. That was going to have to be through Yugoslavia, that country does not exist today, Austria, Germany (England 4 West Germany 2), Holland, Belgium and finally France.

On the way to the Yugoslavian border our truck was stopped at gun point by a lone Romanian soldier. Obviously a conscript he looked all of sixteen years old. With the collapse of communism did Romania have an army anymore ?  This lad was freelancing.

In a friendly and polite way but still with his rifle ready the soldier took me to the back of the truck and had me open the shutter. “Oh you are empty !” He said in English – well I can’t speak Romanian can I ! “What can I have ? Orphans get everything, I need something.”

Back at the cab we gave him a few bits and pieces.  Seeing a torch under the drivers seat he picked it up and said, “For me ?”

No way !  We may need that.  I took it out of his hands. He did not shot me, we shook hands and our truck was on its way home.

In Belgrade we were lost. We saw a young man and tried to ask for directions.

“Go down the road, up the hill then take the first right. Go round the roundabout then follow the signs.”

Wow ! Perfect English and perfect geographical knowledge.

Next problem. About ten years earlier while on holiday in Italy I had been on a day visit to communist Yugoslavia. I remembered there were tolls on its motorway system. We had no local currency and did not even know what it was. Fortunately the US dollar, of which we had a good supply, is universal so was accepted both at the toll booth and at the filling station.

Many miles later, and I do mean many miles later, in Calais the French had given up whatever silly nonsense the French delight in, I think it was the fishermen protesting about the size of the holes in their nets, we were on a ferry and back to the calm of British soil, M25 and all !

Honestly, that did happen exactly as I have just told you. Could I do it again today ? I doubt I could even drive the truck to the end of the road.

Originally there was no speed limit on British motorways. It was during the fuel crisis and the three day week of the early 1970’s the government set a 70 mph speed limit to conserve petrol consumption. Although ration books were issued for fuel rationing never actually came into force. Once the fuel crisis was over the speed limit was retained for safety reasons even though any car worth its name could come close to doubling that speed.

In the Spring of 1981 I hired a Ford Granada, what a car that was, to drive to Cornwall. On the M5 south of Bristol I pushed my foot to the floor to see just how fast a Ford Granada could go. It was reaching 102 mph when the cops pulled me over.

“Keep it down to seventy,” the officer said. “You’ll get there just as quick.”

I did not and still do not comprehend his maths.

I was fined £102. Today, driving on the motorway at that speed would mean an instant ban. If I did that, not that I have any intention, I would not need to renew my license whan I reach my 70th birthday.

I am trying to let my mind scramble across the different countries where I have driven a vehicle. England, of course. Wales and Scotland, are  Wales  and Scotland separate countries ? I guess it depends if Nicola, The Wicked With of The Highlands gets her way or not. What about foreign countries ?  France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Hungary, Romania and what ever Yugoslavia is today. I’ve driven in Albania and I’ve driven in Italy. I’ve driven in American and you don’t get much more foreign than that.

Italy, people say there are some crazy drivers in Italy but I did not find them even if many think the steering wheel operates more efficiently if you sound the horn. Barbados, I’ve not driven there but found road manners to be very courteous. What do you expect, after all they drive on the correct side of the road. They do that in Australia don’t they but it’s a bit too far to go and try it out.

Egypt. I did not drive when I was there. Crazy !  Mad !  Insane ! You would have to combine all three superlatives then triple the sum to get anywhere near to what is accepted as normal driving in Egypt.

Why in the United States of America do they drive on the wrong side of the road ? After all wasn’t America originally part of the British Empire ?  They didn’t have cars then you silly old man ! But they did have hoses, which side of the road did they walk on ? Oh yes, I see they were cowboy horses, cowboy drivers so they used the wrong side of the road.

I have driven widely on the Western side of America. From Los Angeles to San Francisco. From San Diego to the Giant Redwoods. From Las Vegas to Death Valley. From Lake Tahoe to The Grand Canyon. In the California Redwoods one giant tree has a tunnel carved through it, you can actually drive a car through it. I’ve done that. In San Francisco Lombard Street with eight twists is said to be the crookedest road in the world.  I’ve driven down there.

Warning, in America the speed limit is fifty-five miles and hour. Break that and the cops all carry guns.

After two weeks in America I was on board an overnight flight back to England. After hours in the sky I woke up and thought to myself that the Boeing 747 had not flown as far as I had driven during my stay.

For the most part driving in America is boring with long, straight roads. I am not planning to return to America and if I did I am no longer brave enough to tackle driving on the wrong side of the road but I have to say I would quite like to drive along John Denver’s country roads of West Virginia.

Right, that’s enough riding along in my automobile from this silly old man. Where now should I ramble to ? I know !

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