Watches

Seiko 7a28 – watchmaking history at pocket money prices

Fancy owning a little piece of horological history? Well, you could head over to Geneva’s Patek Philippe Museum museum with your jemmy, a striped shirt and a ‘swag’ bag and quietly remove their Rieussec Seconds Chronograph.  Feeling even braver?  How about the earliest chronograph yet discovered? The Louis Moinet, in St. Blaise in Switzerland?  Sadly, there are only two ways to get hold of watches like these – theft, – or complex midnight negotiations with a bloke with horns and a pitchfork at a remote rural crossroads.  Like nearly every other mile marker along the road of horological progress, neither the Rieussec nor the Moinet are for sale.

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There is, however, an easier way if you’re prepared to be a little less choosy.  You still get a timekeeping milestone, but not at the cost of time behind bars or eternity somewhere warm.

How about the very first analogue quartz chronograph?  You’d better get a move on though; prices are rising faster than a traffic-jammed Morris Marina’s temperature gauge.

Just think of the history…

It’s 1982.  The Commodore 64 8-bit home computer is launched in the USA.  Heuer are still making watches like the digital Chronosplit and the Swiss watch industry is being stabbed to death with pointy quartz crystals.  But, even though some people think it is acceptable to wear a watch that is also a calculator, a compass, a barometer and a TV combined, there is a sense that digital watches aren’t quite where it’s at anymore. And that’s where Seiko – as they so often do – come in.

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Now, I know some watchie people are sniffy about Seiko.  But it’s hard to be convincingly rude about a brand that makes one of the most accurate movements in the world (the 9F series – that’s +/- 10 sec pa) and that not only grows its own quartz crystals, but ages them for three months to maximise stability.  If that ain’t a manufacture movement, I don’t know what is.

Back in the early ‘80s, Seiko decided that all this LCD technology was splendid, but how about building an analogue quartz chronograph?  One that didn’t go ‘beep’ and flash a lot of scrolling numbers at you.  So, being Seiko, that’s what they did.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the very first analogue quartz chronograph.

They weren’t shy either.  Contemporary ads proclaimed “Watch history being made” and with the watch photographed against the dashboards of Porsche 911s and Ur Quattros, it was clear Seiko were pitching it high.  And they didn’t mess about.  The 7a series does that wonderful Seiko thing of seeming simple but actually being eye-wateringly impressive.

Let’s start with the movement…

7a28 movement 2

Seiko planned to take on the Swiss at their own game.  So rather than a modular, disposable plastic movement, the 7a series had a proper, quasi-decorated 15 jewel metal movement that could be regulated, disassembled and repaired.  It even has a very traditional finger damper spring on the centre seconds pinion.  Seiko really threw investment, thinking and effort into this one.  This explains why, despite often impressive abuse, so many survive.

Notice those little rectangular plates over parts of the movement?  Each of those protects a tiny stepper motor – one for each of the chronograph functions. And that’s what this watch is all about.  Press the button at 2 o’clock and the chrono starts.  Instead of a blizzard of flickering digits, the centre seconds ticks off the seconds one at a time while the 1/10ths dial zips round. In fact, it’s moving at 1/20th second intervals.  The minutes total up over at the 9 o’clock subdial and there’s a running seconds at 6 o’clock.

7a28-1

Today, that’s all pretty unremarkable.  But back in the early 1980s, when most watches had little grey, digital screens, this was serious stuff.  And it got better.  Hit the button at 10 o’clock and the chrono keeps running, but the hands stop.  So not only do you have a chrono, you have a split timer.

If you enjoy fiddling, you’ll discover something else about the 7a series… if you push and hold the 4 o’clock pusher, the two chrono subdials and centre seconds whizz round and reset themselves. And all this for around $250 back in the early ‘80s – that’s a blinding amount of watch technology for a mere $650 in today’s money.

The movement even found its way into watches carrying rather more upmarket logos, including the Ferrari ‘Cal. 531’.

But the lovely thing with the 7a series watches is that they have something for everyone…

If you like your complications, you’ll find something in the 7a series that suits you.  There are tide timers, moon-phases, Sports Quartz, fishing models (the 7A48-7050 Fishing Master with a moon phase and tide indicator), military versions (as supplied to the RAF and the South African Airforce).  If you fancy a military 7a though, you’ll need deep pockets.  Even a couple of years ago, you’d see these for around £300.  Now, they’re being posted on auction sites at up to £995 (although this one from’83 cost rather less).

Seiko 7a28 RAF

Movie fan? You can go after the 7A28-7001 Giugiaro-designed chrono that pops up (along with a few nasty critters) in Alien. Even Bond got in on the action and wore a 7A28-7020 in View to a Kill.

Like horological mythology?  You can happily spend time chasing the ‘Vulcan Flightcrew’, yellow-faced variant, the 7A38-701B.  The story goes that RAF aircrews on the Vulcan long-range nuclear bomber were issued these.  The yellow dial apparently made them easier to read in the Vulcan’s darkened cockpit. One of these went for nearly £600 back in 2011 despite there being no good evidence for the whole Vulcan thing actually being, you know, true.  They may never have been issued watches (the casebacks certainly don’t carry military markings), but they’re still indisputably handsome.

RAF Seiko 7a28 (2)

And because there were so many made – and made well – there is still the chance of turning one up at a boot sale, in a junk shop or on an auction site for pocket money.  Even if it’s not running too well, the proper, metal movement is perfectly serviceable and you can still get parts.  There’s a dedicated (and excellent) forum for the 7a series over at http://www.seiko7a38.com with plenty of help and information.

So, a piece of real horological history, plenty of variation, movie and military cred and robust enough for a (thoroughly repairable) daily wearer.  And change – if you buy well – from £100.  That’s got to be a serious bargain.  And a whole lot cheaper than spending the next twenty years in a Swiss jail.

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In my view, the prices on these are headed just one way.  Get one while you still can.

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Musings, Writing

Being Santa.

December 18th. Nick Whitelock sat at his desk by the window and looked out as the cold, winter rain tracked its way down the pane. “Sleet, more like.” he thought to himself. He was, as usual, the last one in the office. The rest of them would be in the Arms by now, backs to the log fire and pints in hand, an anticipatory celebration of the Christmas holidays.

He looked down as his phone buzzed.

“Nick Whitelock.” That was it. No greeting, no fuss. That was Nick.

“Nick – it’s Sarah from Field Cottage. Can’t talk long – but I’ve been let down and I’ve tried everyone else. Can you be village Santa for the switch-on tonight?”

Ashleigh was only a small village, two-and-a-half-thousand souls, but it had it’s own little supermarket, a proper butcher, a post office and, Continue reading

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Musings

Village Remembrance in Bampton

In need of bacon, as one often is on a Sunday morning, I nipped into the Bampton shop just before the village remembrance parade. A young lad, about thirteen I’d guess, walked in and moved, a little hesitantly, towards a spot just in front of me in the queue. The usual uniform. Trainers. Trackie bottoms. Hoodie.

I noticed he had a handful of change. A couple of pound coins, some silver. As though he’d raided his moneybox.

Royal British Legion poppy

He gave me a nervous smile and said “‘Scuse me…”

He reached past me to the box of poppies and the collecting tin by the till. He carefully dropped his coins into the box, took a poppy and a pin. My turn to smile.

The youth of today, huh?

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Driving, Riding

Splat the rat

Safer roads in Oxfordshire.

Safer roads in Oxfordshire.

Most councils use conflict-based ‘traffic calming’ schemes as speed reduction measures and to discourage drivers from using certain roads.  They call roads like these – the roads people use to get to work, to go shopping and home to their families – ‘rat runs’.

In my own village in West Oxfordshire we have had ‘calming’ imposed on each of the four ‘rat runs’ into the village.  The reason?  Pressure from some residents that traffic was too fast.  Accident history certainly didn’t give a reason for engineering measures – 12 injury accidents in 5 years, not one speed-related – but ‘fear of speeding traffic’ was significant enough to justify pinch-points and chicanes.

Not so calm

It seems Bampton’s calming caused more crashes in its first six months than the entire village had seen in six years.  It certainly caused many column-inches and minutes of airtime discussion in the local press. Even years later there’s still plenty of evidence of conflict – broken glass, bits of bodywork and scraped posts in the traffic calming.  And residents still say speeding traffic is a problem.

The road safety results?  Well, we don’t know.  No surveys were carried out before the calming was imposed, so it’s hard to measure.  

Calming-caused crashes?

Crawley, another rural West Oxfordshire village, has no history of speed-related crashes, but ‘fear of traffic’ was a concern for some residents.  The County Council installed the scheme of urbanised concrete, posts, lights, signs and humps you can see in the pictures.  They also imposed more bumps, a chicane and narrowing on the tight hills leaving the village. 

Approaching, it’s impossible to see if it’s safe to start driving through the chicanes. That’s because they’re designed to force drivers onto the blind side of the road into the face of unseen oncoming traffic. And, just to make sure they don’t make it through the new hazards quickly, the bumps slow them down and keep them exposed to danger for the maximum length of time. 

The new Crawley scheme was quick in claiming its first victim – just a few days after it was imposed.  You can see the results in the pictures. 

What’s the problem?

Conflict-based calming in action.

Conflict-based calming in action.

These schemes rely on bringing road users into conflict. They could almost have been designed deliberately to cause maximum aggression; clearly telling one set of drivers that they have right of way, then forcing other drivers into their path.  It doesn’t slow traffic down, it just promotes tension, aggression and conflict – completely unnecessarily and with absolutely no benefit.

That’s because conflict narrows and concentrates drivers’ perception and observation to dealing with the conflict – not driving safely.  For one group it becomes all about getting their vehicles over the hump, through the chicane and past the road furniture without having an accident.  For the other group, it means forcibly insisting on their right of way by speeding up, driving aggressively straight at opposing vehicles, hooting and gesturing. Perfect for ensuring that both sets of road users are agitated, aggressive and distracted as they drive through villages.

Politics over safety

One wonders whether the politicisation of road safety might be largely to blame.  After all, a councillor faced with a committee of residents railing about ‘fear of speeding traffic’ wants to do the right thing and help.  This means he must do something and, more importantly, be seen to be doing something.  Ideally, “something” for many residents means a scheme that is perceived to punish those horrid drivers who speed through our village – whilst leaving us free to speed through theirs. 

In fact, shared space schemes would be far more effective in reducing speeds and enhancing the environment.  That’s because they don’t promote aggression and conflict – they promote ambiguity in which road users have to negotiate their way safely as equals.  Shared space does away with the forests of shouty signs, urban concrete and jarring humps – the visual cues road users rely on to know what they should do – and makes the environment more natural and ambiguous.  Ambiguity has the opposite effect to conflict; drivers slow down and observe more widely as they search for visual cues.  Each group is equally discomfited by it, so no-one can aggressively insist on their ‘rights’.   

As Hans Monderman, architect of the shared space concept in Holland, argued:

“Who has the right of way? I don’t care. People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains.”

Perhaps it’s time to stop promoting conflict and one-size-fits-all urban ugliness.  Instead, we could look at schemes that not only enhance villages but make them safer and more pleasant too. 

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Driving

Time to be practical, not ideological, about transport

There’s been a lot of fuss in Oxford lately about Oxfordshire County Council taking £4m in bus gate fines.  Even the RAC has waded in to suggest that the system of fining drivers is ‘broken’.  The fines are an issue, but the bigger issue is the ideology that drives so much transport policy.  “After all,” the argument goes, “bus gates are there to help keep the traffic moving…”  But if that’s the case, why are congestion-busting motorcycles not allowed through?  The answer is ideology.  Buses and taxis are collective.  Cars and motorcycles are personal transport.  Public ownership (or regulation) good, private ownership bad?

But we need to ditch the ideology and get practical.  ‘The Transport Debate’ is still a little like the trench battles of World War One. Both sides have dug in behind the wire and are busy shelling each other – even after years of it doing no good. Progress is being measured in inches, and no-one’s really winning the battle. It’s time to come out to kick a few arguments around in no-man’s land.

Time to update transport policy

Time to update transport policy

Is it all about cars?

It’s axiomatic that the car brings a huge degree of personal freedom – but it brings it at a cost. The cost is decreasing massively as cars and the fuels on which they run become cleaner, but it still needs to be addressed. The question is ‘how’? Is the best way forward to restrict, tax and impose or is it to improve, educate and empower? What’s the best way to give people viable, real-world transport choices?

So far, most of the solutions to pollution and congestion have focussed on making cars harder to use – either financially or physically. Most current transport policy appears to be negative and sometimes seems motivated more from an a priori ideological dislike of cars than a desire to change things for the better.

There is much talk of ‘restriction’, ‘management’ and ‘compulsion’. Looking at some of the concrete wastelands that have grown up to cater for the car, it’s easy to see why. But we need to examine the problem from a different angle.

Rather than emphasising what a bad thing cars are and punishing drivers, let’s push the positives of other modes and try to develop some affordable, efficient car alternatives. At the same time, let’s remove the restrictions and controls that have led to more congestion, more pollution and more pain for drivers as local authorities compete to make life harder for them.

The best tool for the job

There are some journeys where the car is the best tool for the job – generally multi-destination trips, or where public transport lacks flexibility, distances are impractical to cover on a cycle or there’s too much to carry. There are plenty of others where other modes are better and there are some journeys that don’t need to be made at all.

We’ve forgotten the human beings somewhere in all this legalese.

Do we need to commute?

One in every six journeys in the UK are to work, yet many employees do not have to be in the workplace every day, and could easily work from home. Assume they spend thirty minutes each way commuting and you’ve saved half a working day’s travel by sitting in the spare room with a laptop as well as slashing peaktime congestion.

When people don’t have to struggle through the daily commute they’re more efficient too. The Telework Association believes that productivity rises by 10-16% if people work at home. Unfortunately, many employers seem reluctant to give their staff the trust and flexibility teleworking needs and the Government offers them few tax incentives for doing so.

What is an ‘unnecessary’ journey?

Cars are an efficient method of getting around with large amounts of luggage to more than one place. For getting to the office two miles away, picking up a bottle of wine at the off-licence or a host of other in-town journeys they are usually more trouble than they’re worth. This is why – quite reasonably – there is a lot of talk about ‘reducing unnecessary car journeys’.

The problem is – who decides what’s unnecessary? There is no way I would take the car a the three mile round trip to the library, but I’d probably use it to collect a washing machine, yet the two journeys are treated as identical by local authorities and penalised equally. The alternatives – a small council-run fleet of Long John cargo bikes, more short term parking spaces or just plainly less onerous parking restrictions – never seem to occur to anyone. No-one seems to think of promoting motorcycles as a core commuter mode.

Instead, local authorities make it as difficult as possible for me to use my car, but only promote the alternatives half-heartedly.

Promoting the alternatives

We’re told to get out of the driver’s seat, but sadly, the alternatives are seldom promoted positively. There’s a distinct hairshirted whiff of ‘worthiness’ as we’re encouraged to cycle not because it’s fast, fun and efficient, but because we’re ‘doing our bit’

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How much congestion is council-caused?

Then there’s public transport – slammed by the Audit Commission when John ‘Two Jags’ was in charge – as ‘expensive, unreliable…and that doesn’t go where people want.’ At the same time, it’s more expensive than in almost any other country in Europe. The Government spends less than £12bn a year on transport – yet somehow seems surprised when trains crash, roads crumble or there is tube chaos and people use their cars.

Rather than making the car as unpleasant and expensive to use as public transport we need to give people viable transport choices and allow them to choose the mode that suits their journey best. This means empowerment, education and investment not more restrictions, taxes and compulsion.

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Musings

RAF Manston officers’ mess party tricks. Revisited.

It was in 1993 when she was 70.

I’d thrown a party and, of course, Ma was invited too.  She wasn’t the sort of mother you’d leave off the invitation list.  Not only were parties her natural element, but all my friends adored her.  There would have been trouble had she been left on the bench. She drove up from Somerset in her venerable automatic Volvo 323, in which she could out-corner and out-face most other drivers on the road.

She arrived on Friday night and, as ever, we did a little damage to a bottle of gin as I cooked supper.  Her, leaning against the kitchen worktop, peppering the conversation with tips; “Splash of sherry vinegar with that, Darling.”  She told me about her old people; the ones she visited and went shopping for.  She was still managing a local charity shop – full time – and keeping the local Parochial Church Council on the straight and narrow.

She recounted all the news over the meal, how she’d sent her latest fundraising idea up to head office, how the new vicar was settling in (“I think he may be a little evangelical for St John’s.  He won’t sing the gospel the way Geoffrey used to”) and her plans for holidays with her thick-as-thieves friend Christine.

The next evening, the party started.  Friends rolled in from across Oxfordshire and from far further afield.  Bottles were opened, glasses filled and, as ever, Ma held court from her accustomed chair.

I loved the way friends who were barely a third of her age would gather around her, keep her glass filled and listen to her stories.

And such wonderful stories.

And she looked so innocent.

And she looked so innocent.

She’d grown up in Kent in WWII, where she’d lied about her age to start driving ambulances and nursing at Dover’s underground hospital.  She’d tell the story of how she’d cycle to work through German air raids, sticks of bombs plummeting from ‘planes overhead “And of course, I knew I was safe. I had my tin helmet on.”

She’d tell the stories of how she used to be invited to cocktail parties at RAF Manston where various pilots would vie for her attention, plying her with cocktails.  “Well, I’d drink the first couple then tip the rest away under my chair.  I do wonder what the poor mess steward must have thought the next day.”

1940 was as real to her as yesterday.  She’s watched the Battle of Britain wheeling above her from the clifftops at Dover.  I once took her to a concert at Blenheim Palace where the highlight of the evening was a flypast by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.  As a Spitfire’s supercharged V12 howled overhead, she held my hand tightly as she wept.  “So many wasted young lives…so many friends.” she whispered, looking into the distance, watching the ‘plane as it slowly disappeared.  She kept them alive with her own memories, which she’d sometimes share.

She was in the middle of one of these stories – about one of her mess party tricks – when something happened that will stay with me always.

“So, I’d balance a pint of beer on my head, get down on all fours, then lie down, light a cigarette and then stand up again.  All without spilling a drop.”

A barked laugh, and “Ha! I’ll bet you couldn’t do it now!”

One of my friends, intending nothing but a little joshing, instantly ended up on the pointy end of Ma’s gimlet stare.

“Would you get me a pint of beer and cigarette?” He looked relived to leave the room, but came back a few minutes later bearing the beer and a scrounged packet of Marlboro.

Ma stood up from her chair, thanked him, smiled broadly and took the pint from his hand.  After a typically comic sham of being the worse for wear (she could drink me comfortably under the table) she placed the pint on her head. With both hands, just to be sure.

Ma never needed to say much to command a room. Just walking in would usually do it.  So by this point, other conversations had died and everyone had turned to watch.

She loved it.

She went down on one knee, then the other.

Absolute silence.

From there, she lay flat on the floor, her arms in front, the pint of beer still perfectly balanced.

“Still so sure?” she grinned up at my doubting friend as she gestured for him to pass her the packet of cigarettes.

He did.

She called for a light.

She flicked open the packet, drew a single cigarette, put it to her lips and, despite having given up twenty years earlier, lit it and drew deeply.

Ma, doing what she did so well, larking around.

Ma, larking around, as she so often did.

The beer barely rippled.

Then, she drew her arms towards her, straightening up.

In a single, fluid movement, she stood. She put the cigarette in one hand and took the pint glass from her head.  She took a sip and passed the glass to her provocateur. A pause. “I never really liked beer.  Would you get me another G&T?”

I only heard the second part of the sentence because I was standing next to her.  The rest of the room was cheering, clapping and toasting her.

My mother achieved a huge amount in her 80 years.  But I was never more proud of her than at that moment.

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Driving, Riding

Say what you mean

Councils and the public sector are very careful about how they use language.  This is no bad thing.  It demonstrates an understanding that language is massively, foundationally important. The National Council of Teachers of English rightly says “language plays a central role in the way human beings behave and think.”

But language can be used to obscure as well as illuminate.  For example, earlier this year on Radio 4’s Today programme, a Head of Social Services was discussing the problem of dementia patients in care homes forming ‘inappropriate’ relationships with other residents.  In other words, of lonely, scared elderly people daring to fall in love. She talked with earnest concern of how one elderly lady was ‘supported to leave the room’ when their new partner walked in during a family visit. Translated, this meant she was bodily manhandled and frogmarched out against her will. Dolores Umbridge would be proud.

All this care with words makes the language local authorities use about the private car all the more remarkable. Or perhaps it simply shows what they really think of drivers and motorcyclists.

Let’s start with ‘traffic calming’.

Traffic calming

The term implies that traffic is so aggressive and beastlike that it requires constant ‘calming’.  Councils spend millions on humps, bumps, chicanes, gateways and pinchpoints.  Any motorcyclist who’s tried to negotiate the mess of overbanding mastic, poorly-maintained bumps and displaced gravel on a dark and wet February evening will not be calm. Drivers and riders are pushed, hooted and faced-off with oncoming traffic, made aggressive by artificial constraints. But in Councilland, this deliberately provoked and facilitated, full-on road user conflict is called ‘calming’.

Strangely, most traffic is a lot calmer without it.

No conflict here. Move along now.

No conflict here. Move along now.

Thumps

In some parts of the country, drivers and riders are faced with slippery, hard-edged, jarring thermoplastic humps.  If you have a back condition, these can be agony to traverse at any speed.  If you’re a motorcyclist riding in the rain at night, they’re as slippery as a slug and lethal.

To your local council, they’re ‘thumps‘. Yes, that council that does soooo much to avoid even the faintest trace of conflict and demonises ‘hostile’ language calls these ‘thumps’.  But, maybe, they just think those evil, private car and motorcycle users deserve being hit up a bit.

Pinch points

Safer roads in Oxfordshire.

Safer roads in Oxfordshire.

Pinch points are designed to let just one vehicle through at a time. It’s clearly fine to ‘pinch’ drivers, rather as a spiteful schoolchild might pinch another when teacher isn’t looking. By forcing only one car through a gap at a time, councils promote conflict, anger and immense frustration at peak times. Giving those nasty drivers a quick nip when no-one’s looking is absolutely fine.

Village gateways

In ‘traffic management’ (there we go again – the implication that drivers can’t be left to use their own intelligence) terms, a ‘gateway’ is designed to protect a village and keep those nasty drivers out.  The very antithesis of of the faux-equality and ‘inclusion’ espoused by council thinking. Gateways narrow the road so that vehicles are forced to cross into the opposite carriageway into direct conflict.  Drivers and riders are forced into the path of oncoming traffic with the intention of reducing speeds.

Gateways also illustrate – beautifully – a complete lack of understanding of human nature.  Of course everyone should play nicely, giving way, not rushing, not pushing and not being aggressive.  But gateways encourage and promote the opposite behaviour as drivers insist on their rights of way by driving uncompromisingly straight and hard at oncoming traffic. Others try to sneak in the wake of a lead car in an attempt to get through.

It's all about safety, mostly for councillors' electoral chances.

The sign says ‘Danger! Road safety measure ahead’.

Pedestrian refuges 

See those poor, terrified pedestrians.  See them cower in the face of the evil drivers.  See them huddle, clutching each other on the isles of the pedestrian refuge.  The language is absolutely clear – the car is evil and a threat from which defenceless pedestrians need protection.

Clearly, cars are not driven by normal people with children, families and hearts. They are driven by the sort of people from who society needs to seek refuge.

Severed roads

“Severed” is a pretty strong word. An unusual one too. The dictionary has it as “divide by cutting or slicing, especially suddenly and forcibly.” Powerful language from organisations that would describe the frogmarching of a pensioner from a room as ‘enabling her to leave’. Someone must have gone out of their way to choose such a deliberately aggressive term.

They’re described thus; “Severed roads… provide the ultimate deterrent to rat running.” And imagine a councillor or council employee describing any other group in society as ‘rats’. They’d be taken away for reprogramming faster than a final council tax demand.

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Those damn ‘rat-runners’ trying to get to work to support their families.

Dragon’s Teeth

Another wonderfully hostile term describes white, spiked markings at the entrance to towns and villages.  Dragon’s Teeth.  Cornwall County Council’s website describes them thus: “Dragon’s teeth provide a visual change and narrowing of the road. They are suitable for village entry points. Cost £4,250 – 5,500.”

Designed to give those nasty, selfish drivers a visual nip, the language used is, again, clearly and openly hostile.

What does it all mean?

In the real world, this forensic persnicketiness about words doesn’t matter.  Despite what the language police think, normal, everyday people use unintentionally loaded, prejudicial and caricaturing terms all the time and don’t mean a thing by it.  But councils understand the power of words.  They treat language very carefully and thoughtfully indeed with the white-gloved care one usually gives nitroglycerin.

To hear council employees talking about using ‘thumps’ and ‘pinchpoints’ against any other group in society would be unthinkable. Yet it’s not only acceptable but encouraged when directed against private motorised road users. When councils talk about ‘severed roads’, and ‘refuges’ they’re making their position and view clear.

Their language caricatures drivers and riders as an aggressive, unpleasant, animalistic subgroup.  Certainly, in a minority of cases that’s a fair description.  But the mass of normal drivers and riders are far more considerate; just decent and perfectly normal people going about their everyday business. But private cars and motorcycles has been so successfully demonised that it’s absolutely acceptable to ‘manage’, ‘restrict’ and ‘control’ their use.

There is no other group about which officials would use language like this. So perhaps its time to stop using it about drivers and motorcyclists. Either that, County Hall, or fess up and admit you simply don’t like us.

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Driving

Up the Amazon without a paddle.

I blame my pal Damon. I’d always coveted his Amazon 131, slowly converted a part at a time for classic rallying. Every so often, he’d send me pictures of it going sideways with him grinning like a loon behind the wheel. The pictures would usually be accompanied by the line “Bought one yet?” His Amazon is a staple of our biennial Le Mans Classic convoy, so this year I was determined I’d be rolling off the ferry behind the wheel of my own Amazon.

I got to work. I’d toured the UK looking at 121s, 131s and 123GTs variously described as ‘perfect’, ‘immaculate’ and ‘superb’. ’Sheds’, ‘heaps’ and ‘wheeled chicken coops’ would have been more accurate. This was a little more challenging than I thought it would be.

But, on the way to a client meeting, I spotted a beauty of a 121 parked less than ten minutes drive from my village. There was only one problem. It wasn’t for sale.

It’s not for sale, y’know.

I wasn’t about to be put off by a little thing like that. Lifting the sprung chrome windscreen wiper arm (they made ‘em properly in 1966), I left a note with my email address. Three months passed with no news. Clearly, the 121’s owner had decided to hold on to his car. I poked at more rust-infected skips, kicked the rotten tyres of ‘recent restorations’ and peered earnestly at ebay pictures. Then, on Christmas Eve 2013, I got an email.

“Hello Mark – Funny enough while I have been over in Afghanistan I was feeling guilty about leaving the Volvo out in the elements and I made my mind up to find it a good home on my return. I put your note on the radiator to dry out so I hope I have the correct email?”

I headed to Faringdon in the pouring rain, took the old girl for a turn round the lanes to make sure everything worked and handed over the cash. I’d done it. I had an Amazon. A made in 1966, powder blue, single carb 121. It was as original as it left Göteborg and as well-built as a Bramah lock.

Built to last. Allegedly.

Built to last. Allegedly.

Dynamo. None of yer fancy modern alternators. Sealed unit, single candlepower headlights. Fear assisted, non-servo brakes. The two front static seatbelts clamped onto a central hook that had presumably seen duty as a storm lashing on the Tirpitz’ gun deck.

The Amazon and I rapidly became inseparable, if not actually rapid. For the first five weekends of ownership I drove, tweaked, adjusted and improved. I knew the engine would have to come out because she marked her territory by leaking emphatically from the rear crank oil seal. We visited family, clients, moved my partner Pip into her new clinic in Witney. We filled the huge, walk-in boot, rather appropriately, at Ikea.

P1010951

Who says classics aren’t practical?

Driving to the office each day I fell easily into the torquey, ‘stick it in fourth and leave it’ Amazon driving style. Even forty odd years after it rolled off the line, I could see why these daftly capable cars were so popular.

Lowering the tone at Spa 2015 (in the background)

Lowering the tone at Spa 2015 (in the background)

Oil consumption overtaking petrol consumption was the first early warning that I might not have bought a pristine car. That and the oily smokescreen that forced even the worst of the photocopier reps in their Audi A6s to keep back on the motorway. She needed rings, clearly. Possibly even valve seals. So I did a quick compression test to be sure. Then, because I didn’t believe the numbers, I did another one. How does an engine manage to run on 20% of its original compression, get up to 70mph and still do 29mpg?

Scrap. No, really. Total scrap.

Scrap. No, really. Total scrap.

Despite this, the call from the engine builder wasn’t encouraging. “The block’s OK, but everything in it’s scrap.” The fuel pump leaked. The single, ancient Zenith carb was shot. The rear crank seal didn’t. The door seals were older and leakier than a politician’s promise. The car was a mess. And the choice was between selling her as the shell for a classic rally car or immolating my wallet on the altar of a full restoration.

I took the coward’s way and offered the old girl for sale. I wrote the listing. I felt mean. Grubby. Faithless. I felt even worse when there were two buyers bidding and keen to trailer her away.

I was at the point of agreeing and waving her goodbye when another pal, Doug, called. As the owner and restorer of a 1930s Roche Talbot, he knows all about the ups and downs of classic car ownership. He took me to lunch and talked some sense into me. No, I didn’t want to sell her and buy a Mercedes 190 Cosworth or an E28 M5, he said. The Amazon suited me, he said. She was lovely, he said. I should keep her, rebuild the engine and restore her, he said. By the time we’d agreed to split the second bottle of red, I was thoroughly talked round and nipped out of the pub to make the call to the engine builder before I sobered up enough to think straight.

In the meantime, I went carb hunting. I knew the original Zenith wasn’t fit for service as a doorstop, so research began into the options. Initial ideas of a Weber twin-choke were dampened by asking a few Amazon afficionados. The view was that if twin SUs were good enough for the rallying 123GT, they were good enough for me. The initial pair I liberated from eBay had been carefully stored for the last six years in chicken guano. No amount of cleaning was going to work. The second pair just needed some advice on needles from Burlen in Salisbury and a rebuild kit.

I wanted the car to look as close to ‘factory’ as it could, but be properly uprated to survive lane 3 jousting with those Audiborne copier reps. So the engine builder (who used to build racing Aston Martin engines) rebuilt the engine from the block up. It’s now running a K cam, lightened flywheel and lifters, a gas-flowed head and a few other trick bits and tweaks. About the only original component is, as he predicted, the block. It goes well enough even if the driver doesn’t.

The brilliant Rob and Emma at Amazon Cars in Suffolk put everything back together, fitted overdrive, a new gearbox and the twin SUs. They also added 123 electronic ignition and an alternator.

Clearly, a gratuitous watch shot. Redeemed by Amazon car keys.

Clearly, a gratuitous watch shot. Redeemed by Amazon car keys.

Yes, I know I should have checked compression – and a whole billful of other things – before I bought her – but I’d argue that buying a classic with your head means you have no heart. If you’re not smitten, look for something else.

At Railway Wood outside Ypres

After that initially shaky start the story, nearly eighteen months later, has a happy ending. The Amazon is back, parked outside the cottage, and does duty as daily transport. I don’t get as far as clients’ reception areas anymore – they spot the car in the car park and come out to see it. When I stop, people talk and tell me about the Amazons they’ve owned. Yesterday, at Wellesbourne Airfield, an ex-Amazonian told me about the 123GT and string of Goteborg’s finest he’d owned. It seems they’re cars held fondly in a lot of memories.

There’s not a Classic this year at Le Mans. Instead, the Amazon and I rolled off the ferry at Zebrugge on our way to the Classic at Spa Francorchamps. And before you ask, yes, we made it back too.

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Watches

My guilty secret. Vintage digitals.

In theory, we should all love digis. Ask a digi-wearer the time and assuming he’s not an actuary, he’ll tell you, precise to the minute. It’ll be “five-forty-seven”; none of this vague and analogue “about quarter to six”. Digis are robust, never need servicing and are ready to go as soon as you drag them from the watchbox. But for most, they’re the watch equivalent of the slightly seedy uncle who insists that bri-nylon shirts are a good idea.

A G-Shock may still be as socially acceptable as a cartoon character tie, but that distant bleeping you can hear is the start of the vintage digi revolution. While most watchnerds have been busy drooling over the latest ultra-mech innovations, vintage digitals have been quietly lifted out of the musty charity shop glass cabinet into the auction catalogue.

There was even an LCD Speedie.

There was even an LCD Speedie.

It’s started with the earliest LED (light-emitting diode) glowing-digit Pulsars from the 1970s. To get a P2 under your paisley cuff in 1973 would have cost you $395. That’s $10 more than a Sub. Today, apart from being sufficiently well-built to double as a lump hammer, a decent early Pulsar P2, even in stainless steel, will set you back around £350. OK, that’s nowhere near the stratospheric rise of the Sub, but five years ago the ladies at your local Cats’ Protection League shop would have turned up their noses at it. For horological history at pocket-money prices, vintage digital can’t be beat. And, yes, it was the one Roger Moore wore in Live and Let Die… Making it the coolest digital ever made by default.

For example, an Omega TC1 – the Time Computer – was Omega’s first venture into LED watches. Like the Pulsar (it shares much of the technology), its red LEDs peer out from an elegant case that feels as though it’s been hand-milled from billet stainless. But you set the time, not with a button on the side or a crown, but by unclipping a tiny magnet from the strap’s clasp and placing it in special slots on the caseback. And you’ll find one of these – the first prestige digis – for under a thousand today.

But LED is for the truly dedicated; the digi-faithful who want a watch with a firm place in history. They are practical everyday timekeepers in the same way that an Aston Martin Lagonda would make a good daily driver. Move to LCD (liquid-crystal display) and more established brands and you’ll get a watch that will stand up to being used and where you don’t need to press a button to find out the time.

The early Seiko M series LCDs are a fine bet. They share the robustness of the Pulsars, but with rather more style and a less bulimic attitude to batteries. A chunk of 1970s cool for around £100. This M159 even has the address of its previous Californian owner’s ‘70s, ice-cold plateglass and concrete Capistrano Beach house engraved on the clasp.IMG_6853

Omega weren’t slow in developing their own movements. The cal. 1620 powered a series of new watches from the mid 1970s including this 1977 Constellation. Omega only produced the Constellation with the cal.1620 quartz LCD movement for 18 months. Typically for vintage digi, the movements are exceptionally well made – this one even has a tiny circuit jumper to change the display from 12 to 24 hours. But they weren’t around long. Back then, quartz was still wallet-meltingly expensive. One like this barely makes a dent today at around £500, but they’re going up fast. A '77 Omega Constellation. More functions than anyone had a right to in the '70s

And it’s a fascinating field. Who knew there was a digi version of the iconic Speedmaster and Seamaster, each sharing a calibre with the Constellation above? There’s the jam factor too – for most people, vintage digitals are just ‘old watches’, so there are still plenty of bargains around. The market has started to get smart though… you’ll be lucky to find an Omega or a Pulsar at the local jumble sale, but you can pick something remarkable up before most people get wise.

Omega LCD Constellation

Omega LCD Constellation

Significant mechanical history pieces are out of almost every watchlovers’ reach. Fancy an early Louis Moinet chronograph? Best take up burglary then. One of Rieussec’s? Time for the jemmy, stripey jumper and swag bag. But an example of the world’s first digi quartz chronograph? Get on the web, two clicks and it’s yours for under £500.

Digitals won’t be like this for ever. They’re unlikely to reach the stratospheric heights of vintage Patek or Rolex, but the signs are the better known brands are already on the up. Digis are engaging, a real piece of horological history and they won’t cost you a fortune. In fact, just sell your watchwinder and you could probably pick up a couple of good ‘uns.

This article originally appeared on the splendid, but now sadly deceased, Prodigal Guide. Now – even more splendidly – to be found on Medium: https://medium.com/the-prodigal-guide  

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Musings

Rock ‘n Roll actually *is* noise pollution.

Oxford City Council has opened a consultation about the dreadful menace that is “non-compliant busking and street entertainment”. Presumably, this will mean that only council-sanctioned, compliant busking and entertainment will be – at a push – acceptable. In the meantime, there will have to be auditions…

Council-sanctioned fun only.

Council-sanctioned fun only.

The scene opens on a meeting room in the City Council offices. At a table sit a group of councillors and council officers.

Officer 1: (shouts) “NEXT!”

The door at the far end of the room opens and a musician peers nervously in, clutching a guitar case. He walks to the chair, puts the case down and sits.

Musician: “Hi – busking auditions?”

Councillor 1: Yes. That’s us. But before we listen to your, er, material, we need to make sure that it is properly compliant. Could you tell us what you propose to perform?

Musician: Yeah, no worries. I’m gonna sing some of the stuff I do on a Thursday night down the Bullingdon Arms.

He reaches down and starts taking out his guitar.

Officer 1: Just one moment, candidate. We’ll consider hearing you sing when we know more about your material. What songs do you believe are suitable for an Oxford audience?

Musician: Well, I do a bit of Zep. Thought I’d kick off with “Stairway to Heaven”.

The officers and councillors whisper as they confer.

Councillor 2: Ah. Have you completed an RA65?

Musician: RA65? Hang on – lemme check.

He reaches into his guitar case and pulls out a sheaf of forms.

Musician (mutters): Gender inclusiveness form…racial awareness form…climate change questionnaire…sustainability form…religious neutrality statement…

Nope. Don’t think I’ve got one of those.

Officer 3: (bristling) If you’re about to sing about “Stairway to Heaven” we’ll need to make sure there are no issues around working at heights.  So it’s a risk assessment, of course.

Councillor 3: I’m not sure about this “Heaven” business either. Don’t think we can really be seen to be promoting religious themes or upsetting people of different faiths. I really don’t think that one will be suitable.

Musician: But…

Councillor 1: (cutting him off) What else have you got?

Musician: Well, how about a bit of Thin Lizzy?

Officer 2: That could be acceptable… it certainly sounds as though it’s advocating healthy eating and weight loss.

Musician: Great! I could play “Whisky in the Jar”!

There’s a collective intake of breath around the table.

Officer 1: Oh no, no, no – that won’t be appropriate at all. If you really must, you should be promoting responsible drinking. Can’t you sing about something non-alcoholic instead?

Councillor 2: Come on, Nigel – I think you’re being a bit hasty here. It might be alright as long as the whisky stays IN the jar?

Officer 1: Well, we’d need to check the lyrics to ensure it’s properly compliant. (To the musician) Would you pass us a copy of the words, please?

The musician hands them over.

Officer 3: This won’t do at all. “I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was countin’.” – that’s obviously promoting the bribery of public officials in breach of Bribery Act of 2010. You’d need a firearms certificate for that next line – I’m assuming you don’t have one?

The musician shakes his head, baffled.

Officer 3: Suspected as much. And as for this: “Whack for my daddy-o” – that’s practically advocating domestic abuse.

Musician: (rather more subdued): How about a bit of Slade? You can’t argue with that – there’s The Slade in Oxford. Practically a local tune.

Councillor 2: That’s a fair point, candidate. What’s it called?

Musician: It’s one of their best – “Come on Feel the Noize”.

Officer 1: No.

Musician: “No”? But they’re an iconic British band!

Officer 1: Surely it’s obvious? Noise at the level where an Oxford resident can feel it would clearly be in contravention of the Noise and Statutory Nuisance Act 1993. Haven’t you got anything a little more compliant?

Musician: Oh. Right. Sorry. I could try a couple of Muse numbers – how about “Psycho“?

Officer 2: Nope. Mental Health Act 1983.

Musician: Deep Purple? You can’t mind “Burn”, surely?

Councillor 1: What? In flagrant disregard of the Climate Change Act 2008 – and Oxford’s a Smokeless Zone. Next.

Musician: ZZ Top? How about ZZ Top? Surely they’re OK?

Officer 3: Maybe… which song?

Musician: Well, one of their best has got to be “Legs”. How about that?

Officer 3: No. Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Next.

Musician: OK. You win. The only other song I’ve got I know you’ll hate. And I’m not a fan of his stuff either. I think he’s a sexist git.

Officer 1: Don’t be so hasty – we’re the judges of what’s sexist here.

The musician rummages in his case and reluctantly hands over a song. The councillors and officers huddle around. Soon there are nods of approval.

Councillor 1: Why didn’t you show us this before?

It’s just what we’re after – First line, “Everybody get up…”, encouraging moderate exercise. “If you can’t hear what I’m trying to say…maybe I’m going blind…” Good, sound, inclusive lyrics, those. “If you can’t read from the same page” – just the thing – after all, we can’t promote elitism in literacy, can we?

Yes, yes, this will do splendidly.

I’m not sure about the songwriter’s name though. “Thicke” seems a little judgemental. Maybe if you changed it to…

The councillor is cut off in mid flow by the audition room door slamming shut.

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