Friday, November 13, 2009

My cars: a short guide. Part VII - the Cardiff years, my second 2CV, two Austin Allegros and a bloody awful Vauxhall Chevette

My second 2CV gave very good service and saw me through my bleak months of unemployment and landing a job as a sub on the South Wales Echo in Cardiff. When I first bought her, she was in very good condition, despite the bargain price which I paid to make her mine. She first lost a little of her glamour (and why the bloody hell am I referring to her as ‘she’?) on November 1985. I had been unemployed since being forced by a lack of funds to abandon my photography course at the end of the Easter term. I set about applying for jobs as a newspaper photographer, which was not as daft as it sounds. The only major factor not in my favour was my age. Newspapers far prefer paying their staff peanuts and would rather take on an absolute beginner in his or her late teens or early twenties. I was 35, and employers, nor unrealistically, believe that a 35-year-old might be more inclined eventually to complain about low wages and working long hours than an apprentice smudger or reporter in his or her late teens or her early twenties keen to make his or her mark. (One of the scams used by newspapers to justify paying journalistic staff extremely low wages is to claim that working as a journalist is ‘a vocation’ and that anyone who has managed to ‘break into journalism’ should count themselves lucky to be working in such a rarefied profession. It’s complete cobblers, of course, but journalism is one of those profession, like working in the film industry or working for a circus, that has a certain, though utterly spurious, glamour.)
I did, however, get two interviews. One was for a job with a photo agency in Loughborough. I went along, had a chat, showed my ‘portfolio’ and was offered the job. The wage was, however, rather low and as I had also saddled myself with a considerable debt in the CEGB years buying up every last piece of photographic equipment going - such is the expensive nature of most enthusiasms - I decided it simply wasn’t worth it and that if I took it, I would still be in debt by the time I died. So I turned it down. In retrospect, the wage wasn’t all that low at all, just lower than would have been comfortable. Perhaps in my heart I knew that I wasn’t cut out to be a photographer. At about that time I also had an interview with the weekly paper in Yeovil, but was not offered a job.
Apart from applying for jobs as a news photographer, I was also applying for jobs as a reporter, but here I had less luck. I did so because working as a sub on a regional paper is pretty much a question of shovelling as much shit as you can stand - or so it seemed to me - and I didn’t really want to do that again. I got very few interviews - editors understandably ask themselves ‘who is this fly-by-night who is already 35 and hasn’t reported for five years? Do we really want to employ yet another bloody dipso who will probably have his hand in the till the minute he gets here?’ To which the answer is, of course, invariably no: editors might usually be complete shits, but not all of them are stupid. (Incidentally, describing them as ‘complete shits’ might seem gratuitously offensive, but the fact is that the nature of the job demands that the holder is capable of a unpleasantness and duplicity, and, as a rule, certain kinds of people - call them ‘shits’ if you will - are invariably more qualified than others to perform that role successfully.)
The only interview I can actually remember was with the Ox & Bucks news agency which was run by an ex Sun reporter. I went for a day’s trial and was asked to stay on for a second day with the ex Sun reporter offering to put me up for the night. Before we drove to his house we stopped off at a pub for an evening meal and a drink. He told me any number of amusing stories about his time on Fleet Street. One, in particular, amused me a lot: he and a gang of other hacks, both print and television, were in some part of the world or other where the climate was hot. Part of the group was Michael Cole, who was working for BBC television and pissing everyone off with his pretensions and superior manner. While the rest of them were drinking beers and spirits, Cole insisted on drinking white wine and making out he was something of a connoisseur. So they got the waiter to give them a glass, one of the party pissed into it, then it was placed in a fridge for a while until it was chilled. When Cole was due to get his next glass of wine, he was, instead, served up the chilled piss. He took a sip. ‘What’s this one like, Michael?’ they asked. Cole took a second sip and then pronounced it ‘rather dry’.
I remember the ex Sun reporter asking me as we drove to his house, both of us no longer sober: ‘What’s it like driving home with a strange man?’ Hmm, I thought and decided that he was probably a woofter and not in the slightest bit interested in my abilities as a reporter, but rather my attractions as, like him, a member of the male sex. When we got home, I met his wife, stayed the night, worked another day and went back home to Norlan Drive, Birmingham, where I lived. I can’t for the life of me remember whether of not I was offered a job. Perhaps he realised I wasn’t interested in batting for the other side.
I have gone off on something of a tangent here, but this was the life I was leading while I was unemployed between leaving college in April 1985 and starting work on the South Wales Echo in on February 16, 1986. In November 1985, I was in touch with some small cable TV station based in Coventry who were looking for someone to cover for the news producer while he was on holiday. The woman who interviewed heard a tape I had made while on my course (I can no longer remember why), showed me the programme being broadcast live, accepted my assurance that I reckoned I could handle what was involved and me more or less told me I had the job. I knew nothing about that kind of work, but I have to say that it is the kind of thing any reasonably intelligent person should be able to learn quite fast, especially on the job. The woman told me that she just had to have the appointment cleared by the board and would be in touch again in a week’s time. On the strength of that promise I decided I could do with a break and I drove to Edinburgh to spend a few days with a friend. While there I rather spoilt my 2CVs looks. We were driving somewhere in The Meadows near where he lived when in the road ahead of me I saw two 3ft high concrete bollards. I gauged that they were just far enough apart for me to drive in between them. I was wrong. On a 2CV the wheel arches covering the back wheels form a rather pleasing kind of cupola. Driving through the narrow gap between those two bollards, the cupola over each rear wheel was stoved in and thoroughly dented. The best gloss I can put on such a silly incident is that at least the damage to each wheel arch was identical and that the overall impression was, at least, pleasingly symmetrical. When I returned to Birmingham, there was still no word from the woman or the TV station. I waited a few days, fearing the worst, though puzzled as to what might have gone wrong, and then rang up. The woman, I was told, was not longer there and had left rather suddenly. Why, I wasn’t told. But that was the end of that particular opportunity.
Finally, realising that I would probably have no luck at all getting a job as either a photographer or reporter, I applied for a job as a sub on the South Wales Echo, got it on the spot - newspapers find it difficult to get subs and my experience on the Evening Mail in Birmingham helped. So I packed my bags, loaded up my 2CV and moved to Cardiff.
I can’t really remember what happened next, but I finally got rid of the 2CV. I think it needed quite a bit of work done to it to pass its MoT, and what with paying off my debts, I was rather on my uppers in the early days in Cardiff.
For a while I did without a car and I can’t say it made much difference to my life. But eventually I bought an Austin Allegro, although I can’t, offhand, remember why I decided to buy another car. I certainly didn’t need one. Allegros are widely, and
I think justifiably, regarded by most British drivers as ‘naff’. The word is in common parlance these days but was said to have originated as an gay acronym to describe someone who was not gay and would no be interested in a spot of rumpy-pumpy: not available for fucking. Whether that is true or not, I don’t know, but it is plausible. These days, in British English, it is used to describe something which is the opposite of cool. And Allegros were remorselessly uncool, and therefore not too expensive.
They were produced by British Leyland (or whatever the firm was calling itself in that year. Leyland was in terminable decline, but took a very long time to go bust and in the process kept changing its name as though to stave off its destiny). To indicate just how desperate the firm was, here’s a snippet about the Allegro: when it was launched, its unique selling point was that it had a square steering wheel. Now if the best your designers can come up with to make your new car more attractive to the public is to make the steering wheel square, it really is time to shut up shop and take early retirement. In fact, Leyland stumbled on for another 20 years.
The Allegro served my purpose (whatever that was - I didn’t need a car and can’t for the life of me remember why I bought one) but it had one very niggling fault. The cylinder head gasket went at some point, so the cylinders filled with water. So every morning before I drove to work and every evening before I drove home again, I had to unscrew all four plug and dry them. This was always very inconvenient, but I did it - had to do it - every morning.
In September 1989, I was sacked by the Echo for dropping one bollock too many and decided to set myself up as a freelance photographer. I did get enough work here and there to survive - a local newspaper group was setting up a string of freesheets and I took their pictures and I also took pictures in South Wales for one of the Catholic papers. I also wrote features for the Wales on Sunday and for a while even worked subbing shifts. It was at this time that the Allegro became an ex Allegro when I had a crash with a speeding driver in the backstreets of Roath (a part of Cardiff). I was looking for the address of the woman I was seeing and was not looking where I was driving. A car, driving far to fast came out of nowhere and I went into the side of him. If anything the crash was my fault: I had been looking over my shoulder to try to read street signs and did not see him because I was not paying any attention whatsoever to my driving. But I had a stroke of luck. When the police arrived, he pleaded that as a Muslim he had not been drinking but he had and was over the limit. I got off scot-free. In fact, it never occurred to the coppers that I might have contributed to the accident. I simply made a statement saying that ‘he had come from nowhere, driving too fast, and that, and the fact that he was over the limit, cooked his goose and saved my bacon. The Allegro, however, was a write-off.
I bought another, but that one too, wasn’t in very good condition and a few months later, while on my way to visit a friend in the Valleys, the chassis snapped so that driving became more or less impossible. It was possible, just, by tugging very hard on the steering wheel because the left side of the car was where the chassis had gone was lower than the right, but in truth the car was undrivable, and after a week or so, I admitted as much to myself and got rid of it.
My problem now was that I was working as a freelance photographer and still needed wheels. My landlady put me onto her son-in-law who ‘did up cars and sold them’. He had a light-blue Vauxhall Chevette for sale. I bought it. It was a complete wreck and the MoT, as I discovered, was fake. The
particular trouble was twofold. First, was starting the bloody thing. There were no problems starting it in the morning. Problems only started when the engine was hot. Then it wouldn’t start at all until the engine was a little cooler. So every time I stopped, I had to wait for around 20 minutes before I could move on. The other, more serious, problem was that the whole left front wing more or less didn’t exist. It was completely rusted through. In my eagerness to get a car to get around in, I had given it only a cursory examination and had not even bothered to lift the bonnet.
My relationship with the Chevette lasted only a few months, for come the turn of the financial year, everyone had battened down the hatches and work dried up. So I rang up the Daily Express and landed myself four subbing shifts. That was in June 1990. For the first few weeks, I travelled to London from Cardiff, stayed for several nights, returned to South Wales to doing my washing and pick up some fresh clothes, then returned to London. By this time the differential on the Chevette had gone and - this is no exaggeration - it sounded like a tank. The noise it made was deafening, and driving the 120 miles or so between Cardiff and London was no fun. There was also the problem of finding somewhere to park in London, and once, while parked on single yellow lines outside the Times offices at Wapping, my Chevette was towed away to a police pound in Kings Cross. Getting it back cost me £120 plus £70 for the parking fine, so getting rid of it was the obvious thing to do. To add insult to injury I actually had to pay a scrap merchant £20 to pick it up. That bloody Chevette marked the nadir of my driving career. I didn’t have another car for several years, but from then on, however, ratty subsequent cars were, the only way was up.
Still to come, if I haven’t bored you rigid, is my third 2CV, two Austin Maestros, two Volvos and four Rovers. Once that account is out of the way, you’re dismissed and your time is your own.

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