Driving, Musings

Brooklands

There weren’t many better places to enjoy clear, blue sky and things with engines than Brooklands last Saturday. It must have been a study for the English country idyll in 1906 when Hugh Locke King (the chap who owned most of Weybridge) decided to build the world’s first motor racing track on his fields and woods.

All the best ideas need a bottle or two.

Like most good ideas, it was hatched over several bottles, a good supper and some good pals. And, despite a conspicuous lack of key performance indicators, service level agreements and “official” suppliers of branded anything, it became the crucible that produced British motorsport and British aviation.

One I was sorely tempted to bring home.

A proper Rolls Royce. One I was sorely tempted to bring home.

The Brooklands banking in sunshine.

The Brooklands banking in sunshine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take Selwyn Francis Edge, a businessman, car importer and noted motoring enthusiast. Even before the track was open, he decided that he would set a record for driving at 60mph over 24 hours.  That was an impressive ambition in the days when cars broke more than they ran and injured their drivers about as often.

Mr Edge and the Napier.

Mr Edge planned to use his seven-and-a-quarter litre Napier with a heady 60bhp, on tyres barely wider than a motorcycle’s, and establish the record over the night of 28 – 29 June. He would start at 6 o’clock in the evening, so he’d still be alert when darkness fell.

The feat meant hustling a car that only its good friends would have described as ‘overpowered’ and ‘skittish’ around a banked concrete oval of 2.75 miles for 24 hours. With acetylene headlights needing – shall we say – a little help, it meant lighting the edge of the nighttime track with lanterns and flares. And it meant sitting on a seat that was really a green buttoned-leather club chair. With brakes that looked better than they stopped – and they weren’t pretty. Oh, and it rained all night. One leading doctor told Edge he’d either die of exhaustion or be driven mad through boredom.

To give a little context, just thirteen years earlier the first motor race had been run from Paris to Rouen. The winner’s average speed? 10.7mph. Although that would now get you a speeding ticket in parts of Islington, back in 1894 it was hailed as a huge achievement.

Mr Edge’s record?

Edge smashed the Paris-Rouen speed and covered 1,581 miles and 1,310 yards of Brooklands track at an average speed of 66mph, near as dammit. That’s an average 66mph. If you think that doesn’t sound very fast, check the average speed display on your modern car – bet it doesn’t say much more than 48mph.

To get a sense of what it must have been like, try steering a wheelchair down the Stelvio pass – blindfolded – while people drench you with fire hoses.

That’s the sort of place Brooklands is. It reeks of history. Still. They made Wellington bombers here (2,500 of them), Sopwiths and Hurricanes too. The Royal Flying Corps’ 1, 8, 9 and 10 Squadrons had their homes on the in-field. Hugh Dowding (he of “Dowding Spread” machine gun harmonisation fame) learned to fly at Brooklands. You can still smell the 100 octane and cordite.

Historics’ Auction

The banking in the sunshine. 148mph, anyone?

The banking in the sunshine. 148mph, anyone?

I’d gone to see some of the cars in Historics’ June auction. There were some real beauties. And a couple I rather fancied. An Amazon 121 combi (that’s the shooting brake version of mine), a little Alfa 1300 Junior, a proper Rover P4 and a T1 Bentley (really a Shadow that reeks just a little less of cheap cigars and sheepskin). Also, to demonstrate what a taste-setter I am, a Rolls Carmargue – they’re soon going to be seriously hot property, mark my words. And a couple of BMW 635CSis.

IMG_8342

No, that’s fine. Rest your catalogue on this E Type’s roof.

IMG_8351

They wouldn’t have let the likes of me in back then.

Some Mercedes are Grosser than others.

Some Mercedes are Grosser than others. Here’s a 600 on the finishing straight

The auction was fascinating. There were serious dealers with every other catalogue page clogged with Post-Its.  There were dilettantes like me, with more hope than expectation. And there were chaps in scruffy jeans with 18ct gold Submariners who, I suspect, owned some of the more exotic kit on offer.

The auctioneers had a perfect line in cynical, slightly combative patter. To a buyer offering a £100 increase “Ah, a squeak. I see we now have a mouse-bidder” and, to another reluctantly plodding bidder, “I asked you for £50,000 twenty minutes ago and now you’ve just bid £50,000. You could have saved me the time, couldn’t you?”  All splendidly good natured.

Auction prices.

The first lot of the day – bits of a Bentley 3 1/2 that the uninitiated would use to make a garden shed – was expertly auctioneered up to just over £1,100. A white Bentley Continental R with under 50k on the clock sold for under £25k. Even if it was lard-white, that’s still insanely cheap for a soft top Bentley. A Noble Ferrari 330 P4 replica with a £30k reserve hit just over the target – which may have been bargain of the day. And a Delorean DMC-12 with barely delivery mileage and the factory papers still in the window clocked up a busting £57,120.

As a Z3M headed north of £17,000 I decided I’d stick with the Amazon.  But my Carmargue didn’t sell, so there’s always August’s sale…

The Brooklands the council wanted rid of.

So I left the chaps with wads of fifties that could choke a racehorse and went to look at the other Brooklands – the banking and the airfield.  There’s not much of it left now after decades of development and incursion from the surrounding area. But the finishing straight is still there, with the WWII air-raid shelter off to the right.  And the Members’ Bridge and banking.  A very special place.

On a summer Saturday I was expecting it to be packed. Instead, I had it to myself.

I walked in the sun up past the old Bofors gun towers and a soon-to-be restored AC Aceca and, simply by strolling through a gap between a couple of barriers, I was there on the pitted, concrete track.  I soaked up more sunshine as I walked what’s left of its length. Without doubt, this is the most important and significant piece of motor racing heritage in the world.

This was where motorsport records started.

Men and women with more ability than sense hurled unstable, overpowered and underbraked machinery round with little regard to their own mortality. Courage like that seeps into the stone.

An AC waiting to be restored.

An AC waiting to be restored.

A couple of other solitary pilgrims were walking by now. One father was telling his increasingly wide-eyed son about Birkin and Barnato’s Bentley Blower No1. I walked on, thinking that it must have been a wonderful, if closed, world for those fortunate enough to be part of it.

What would they have thought?

I sat down on what would have passed for a crash barrier and thought about how important this few square metres of racetrack are to British motorsport and aviation. And then about the chain-shop retail park that now sits at its south western corner, thanks to the local council’s decision to trade motor racing history for cash in the 1980s. And the risk-assessed, compliance and procurement-controlled corporate offices within its ambit.

And I wondered what Edge, Barnato, Dame Ethel Locke King, 84mph Joan Richmond and 143.44mph John Cobb in his 24 Litre Napier-Railton would make of it.

Not very much, I suspect.  But then they’d probably have taken the same view of an ex-comprehensive school lad from a rather different sort of estate hanging around their track.

Progress ain’t always a bad thing.

Advertisements
Standard
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

Standard
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?

Standard
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.

Standard
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.

Standard
Musings

Top Gear = Middle Lane

The camera pans onto the three new presenters of “Middle Lane”, the BBC’s replacement for the disgraced Top Gear.

They are John Prescott, Boris Johnson and Harriet Harman.  Each sits on a special chair, crafted from recycled Routemaster seats, complete with tartan upholstery.  Prescott gets two to himself.  They sit around a (fairtrade) coffee table made from bits of old railway sleeper.

Prescott: Fnarble wibble, where’s my Jag, blurble fnurble?

Harman: Now, now, Johnny. We all know that cars are inappropriate, don’t we?

Boris: (quickly) Oh yes, Harry – errr, absolutely!  Would you like a ride on my bicycle instead?

Harman: Boris! How many times to I have to explain?  My name is Harriet, not Harry – which is a male name and thus symbolic of masculine oppression.  And as for your bicycle, that’s just… ewwwwww!  What’s this?!IMG_0005

Harman, disgustedly with her thumb and forefinger, attempts to pull a blob of chewing gum, perviously attached to the bus seat, from her trouser suit.  The gum stretches as she does so.

Prescott: Harrrr, harrr, wibble, kids today, bless ’em, never allowed gum in me youth, shoebox in’t middle o’road, fnurgle…

Boris: Look, Harriet – don’t worry about that. It’s time for this week’s Mediocrity on a Reasonably Priced Bicycle.  And this week, we’re going to make sure everything’s fair – and nobody loses – by making sure the bicycle has flat tyres!

Harriet: What a splendid idea, Boris!  And let’s make it even fairer by not timing them either!

Prescott: Fnurble, schnurble, well, that won’t be very interesting, will it?!

Harriet: Now, now, John. It’s not about being interesting, is it?  It’s about being fair to everyone.

Harriet disappears offstage… the lights dim.  Then, a single spotlight picks out a white clad figure in a cycle helmet and anti-pollution mask.

Boris: Some say she can telepathically understand Stagecoach bus timetables.  Some say she’s even able to afford a first class rail ticket without dipping into her expenses.  All we know is…. she’s called The Prig!

The lycra-clad and anoracked audience erupts into polite clapping.  Off stage, the BBC Management Committee smile quietly to themselves.

Standard
Musings, Writing

The curse of sounding professional.

A while ago, I was amazed to get a letter from my bank telling me I was in credit on my credit card.  I came across it in an old file today – and it’s just as I remembered.

It was from a real person – Paula Stevens from Card Operations.  But it didn’t really sound like she’d written it.  Instead, it had that slightly remote, finger-wagging, milk-monitorish tone that banks sometimes unintentionally adopt.

Not a very good letter

It was also a bit convoluted:

“You may be unaware the bank requests you do not place your account into credit; this is stated in our Terms.”

I particularly liked the capitalisation of “Terms” – they must be ever so important if they need a capital letter. I also liked the implication of “You may be unaware…” – it’s always good to call your customers ‘unaware’; goes down well.

Instead, how about something like this:

“We’ve noticed you’ve overpaid your credit card account. Please call us and we’ll transfer your money to your bank account – or you could use it to start a cash or equity ISA with us…”

Simple. Easy. Understandable. And even an attempt to sell the customer something. Hell, why not?

But it got better…

“Therefore would you please contact us, supplying a UK sterling bank code and account number, so we may return these funds to you.”

I’m sure that Paula Stevens from Card Operations doesn’t speak like this. I’ll bet she’s good fun, enjoys a laugh, uses the word “money” more often than “funds” and would never call a customer “unaware” (although I’ll bet she thinks a lot of us are utter morons – and fair game, we probably are).

Why sounding ‘professional’ is a disaster

It’s not Paula’s fault. Somewhere along the line, someone’s told her she needs to sound ‘professional’.  In most businesses, that means sounding a bit like a cross between a robot and a traffic policeman.  Replacing short, everyday words with long ones.  Using too many of them. Nailing them together in sentences that stretch off into the distance with more clauses than Santa’s family.

It’s the difference between being literate and actually communicating.  The whole ‘sounding professional’ thing is getting in the way of being understood.  It’s no good being literate but ending up with stuff that communicates about as well as a page of Linear B.

The corporate process doesn’t help either.  Paula drafts a letter and it all makes sense.  It goes to her manager, who changes a few things, rewrites a paragraph and sends it on to her manager in turn.  She does the same thing.  Then the letter goes to the Compliance and Risk department.  They add in the various bits of required FCA wording – word for word – and change a few more things.

How professional is it when the poor old customer has a gnat’s chance of understanding the end result?

I know enough customer services teams to know that they’re not like this.  They give a big fat damn about their customers and doing right by them.  The customer service advisors who’ve come in on Christmas Day – off shift – to fix problems.  The ones who’ve got into their own cars after work, driven forms to customers’ houses and helped them complete them – on their own time.  Most people go into customer services because they’re interested in helping customers.

So – here’s a challenge… There are so many brilliant customer services people behind the bars of that opaque, jargon-ridden, convolutedly structured, difficult language.  It’s time they escaped.  I’ve started the first tunnel – who’s with me?

 

Standard