Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Shark

It's Friday and Anton and I are heading to Hertfordshire on a mission. To buy a new car for Anton. I am going along in my role as friend and, because I have owned two Jags, as 'expert advisor'. Because Anton is not just going to buy a car. He is planning to buy a Jaguar XK coupe. The classic grand tourer. And although second-hand, this is still a financially ball-busting purchase and needs to be handled properly.

In any case the fact that this trip is taking place at all is partly due to me. I have felt for some time that Anton needed a Jag and have told them so. It has to be said that what I consider gentle persuasion, pointing out the many interesting features of the modern Jaguar, Freia perceives as a sustained and subliminal war of attrition. An attempt to turn her husband to the dark side of motoring. Personally, and considering that Anton once bought a Fiat Multipla, I see this more in terms of motoring salvation.

"But I liked the Multipla" protests Anton "people used to wave at me".
"Yes" I say "there are reasons for that".

I should say immediately that Anton and I have very different approaches to car buying. Take the occasion when I bought my present car. Jag 1 was crashed at 8:30 AM, written off by the insurance at midday. Jag 2 was test driven at 5 PM and bought at 5.30 PM. Let's just say I don't like to let the grass grow under my feet.

Anton on the other hand (and this may have something to do with why he is wealthy and I'm penniless) is Dossier Man. He is the same with jobs, holidays etc. He believes in doing his homework and making sure that nothing is left to chance. In fact the complete opposite to me, Impulse Man. Strangely, we get on brilliantly and have done for years. But that's friendship for you -- no rhyme or reason!

I phone Freia on Thursday evening to check that Anton is still up for this trip. He is, and according to Freia, has produced the kind of dossier that would shame a government quango. What feels like every Jaguar XK in the south-east of Britain has been subjected to Anton's eagle eye. No detail is too trivial to be entered in the database. And as if printing a rainforest of literature is not enough, there is also an Excel spreadsheet of a size associated with Third World debt relief. Anton has excelled himself. For what seems like every Jag in the Southeast, Anton has information. He knows how many miles it has done, how many owners it has had and which extras the car has. We're talking numbers of cupholders here. Everything is logged.

I turn up at their house, as agreed, at 10 AM. Freia opens the door with the world-weary look of a woman who just wants this to be over. "Please don't let him return without a car" says Freia, now reconciled to the inevitable and, in any case, increasingly worried about the ongoing deforestation in their household.

"No problem" I say "we're 80 miles from the showroom, we have a full tank of petrol and we're wearing sunglasses". Freia gives me one of her "whatever" looks, clearly missing my Blues Brothers reference. Anton makes two espressos and we sit down over the dossier and spreadsheet. He is keen to compare his short list (of about 20 cars) with mine (about two cars). I take the view that this is rather like Blind Date and that we should go and see the cars for real. Hear them roar, see them glint in the sunshine, smell the leather.

Eventually we have married up shortlists, and are on the road. At a snail's pace. This is the worst I have seen the M25 in years and by the time we arrive at the garage, we're much later than we had expected. But the garage itself is Jag heaven -- an independent retailer specialising in high performance Jaguars. If we can't find a car here, there is no hope.

Anton's eyes dart hither and thither. "Just stick to your guns" I say "remember what we came for". The salesman largely lets us be. No high-pressure sales here -- he knows these cars sell themselves. He starts up a few cars and boy do they sound good. We wander round the forecourt, sit in several, rev up a few and finally pick the one we wish to take out on the road. It is a brute of a car -- metallic charcoal grey, with shark gills on the side, brushed aluminium interior and just enough space in the boot to fit two cricket bags.

Getting the car out onto the road proves quite a challenge. Rather like one of those puzzles where you can only move one square at a time, the salesman shuffles XKs and XJs until he has finally liberated The Shark.

"You know something Jon "says Anton as we sit ready to testdrive the car "I've never driven an automatic before".

I quickly run over the salient points and Anton is good to go. Fifteen minutes later and his mind is made up. Actually, if the smile is anything to go by, his mind is made up the moment he presses the start button. Half an hour and a bit of forthright financial negotiation later, Anton signs on the dotted line. The car is his.

The M25 is even worse on the way home. We eventually return to base around seven. Anton is babbling. He is one happy bunny. While Anton jabbers on about the car, Freia opens a bottle of wine and puts a portion of soufflé in front of me.

"Thank you" she says.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

"Abroad' and other places

The summer of 1970 was a watershed for the Stamfords. Over the previous decade we had explored all the obvious British holiday destinations. We had watched the waves at Whitby, eaten crabs in Cromer, played pirates in Penzance and boated on the Broads. Stopping short of Butlins, a Rubicon none wished to cross, we had done it all. But where next?

"There's only Europe left" said father, somehow managing, in five words, to condense an entire continent to a single destination.

And so it was, faux de mieux, that we took we took our First Foreign Holiday. To Austria.  Quite why, as our first continental excursion, we chose far distant Austria rather than practically-on-our-doorstep France, I will never know. But that's what we did - ten days in a pension in Austria, bracketed by more than two thousand gruelling miles of unfamiliar motoring.

Being neophytes, we chose a package holiday, organised (if that is the word) by a tour company called Universe or something similar. They discharged their duties as holiday operator by booking approximately the right number of rooms at the destination and stopovers, and issuing all drivers with a faded photocopied itinerary in a near illegible hand. This geographical inexactitude was further compounded by my father's penchant for using what maps he had rather than what he needed. Even at age twelve I knew that any chart depicting the Maginot Line was probably not the absolute apex of 1970s cartography.

It was also soon clear that the photocopy's estimated daily mileage was based on the flight of crows rather than the contact of rubber and road. In practice, it took three full days to travel from Doncaster to Sellrain, each involving around four hundred miles of motoring. It looked even worse in kilometres.

A typical day might start with an hour or two of serpentine circumnavigation around one of those Belgian towns that appears on most maps under a French name but is known and signed locally under an entirely different Flemish appellation. This, remember, was nearly three decades before the advent of satellite navigation. Often the only navigation was in the form of my mother, God rest her soul, who struggled with Welsh names, never mind Flemish. An innate inability to distinguish left from right lent a further frisson of uncertainty to her verbal instructions. And the map, left by Grandad George, said less about the roads than the deployment of the Welsh fusiliers.  Sometimes an ill-considered remark by father would trigger a protracted sequence of non-cooperation from the navigator, often accompanied by an invitation to deploy the map into a location where steady sunshine could not consistently be assured.

Arrival at each stopover was less a cause for comfortable satisfaction than bladder-bursting tears of relief. Usually the hotel restaurant was long since closed. Reception too sometimes. Stale baguette and saucisson replaced the promised feast that had bought eight hours of our silence during the day's travel.

And while my mother flopped into bed in a huff, my father would make light of the cold war that had been that day's journey from Liege. From a suitcase he would pick out a map he deemed suitable, or at least usable, for the following day's journey. "Quite a tough day tomorrow" he said, pointing to a road that climbed some five thousand feet with more hairpins than the Andrews sisters and that we would have to negotiate in the twilight.

I stared at the map. It was indeed to be a tough day. Waiting for us south of Munich, was the 23rd Panzer Division.