My younger brother went to work in London. He was the manager of Burtons, Hammersmith. It was a fleeting post. We all went down there in a Transit Luton full of second hand furniture and moved him into a flat in Slough; late in 1979. But by the summer of the next year it was time to return. Tom was not around so I hired another Luton to go and get him. These were hard times. I could only have the fan for twenty four hours. So it was not going to be a leisurely expedition. I went with a friend called Tommy Samways.
Let me tell you about Tommy Samways. He was a happy life loving scally with a huge heart and a huge stomach. With his girlfriend Jane, he was a common sight in the Nelson pub laughing and joking. Tom had time for everyone; he’s probably still like that today. Anyway, Tom and I set off in a slow lumbering old van trundling towards London.
The journey was tortured. With a top speed of 58mph the old girl fought the a head wind and shimmied like an overweight belly dancer to the blast of passing coaches. It was a bit like a fairground waltzer. Nothing exciting happened until we reached the end of the M1. It was 1980. The M25 did not exist so I had to do battle with the North Circular. “Burton Hammersmith,” my brother said. I looked it up on a map in the local library.
At the end of the M1 turn right, at Hangar Lane turn left. It seemed simple. It wasn’t. I needed my wits about me. Arriving at Hangar Lane at four thirty meant buffeting into the early rush hour.
I turned right. With eyes screwed onto local signs, I found my way to the Burtons shop. It took over an hour fighting through thick bad tempered traffic.
It was my first time driving in London and I was empowered with a sloppy rice pudding of a Transit. Around me buzzed the irritable traffic of the ever so important non-entities assuming I was there to be abused. Was that my first experience of road rage? No! I decided that the only way was to drive like a nutter.
After six hours of soporific motorway tedium, this may have not have been the best approach. But bollocks to it all; I went for it. The only disappointment was the weak lily-livered plaintive warble that passed for a horn. Here I was, surrounded by the honking of superior two toned tenors with nothing more than the cracked voice of my ageing (blunder)bus.
Tom was yapping away happily about times gone by as I swerved and dodged through a cacophony of aggressive dogged insects, determined to get the next lights in front of me. Somewhere along the line I passed a similar yellow Transit which also said “West Wallasey Van Hire”. The waving was frantic. The poor man seemed beaten by the burden of his journey.
And where could we park? “Just stop outside the shop,” suggested Tom. The thought of a ticket flashed through my mind. But hell no; I’d arrived on time and without a map. I was so money supermarket.
My brother greeted me with an air of expedience. “Can you help us load these suits into the back of the van?” he asked expectantly. I looked confused. “We have to drop these off at Wasps Rugby Club before they go off on their tour of the far east,” was the officious reply.
No quick pint of Young’s Special in the Bricklayers’ Arms for us then. The car park at Wasps was filled with sparkling new sporty things. Beneath us was loose gravel. Oh how I sprayed these little sharp bullets into the air as I finally managed a wheel spin on the way out.
On the way to Slough was Southall High Street. It was heaving with life.
Hordes of people marauded along pavements and across the road, scurrying around endless rows of market stalls. It was my first glimpse of a living working ethnic community.
Nowadays I’d think nothing of it but then? I was used to Liscard with its frantic shoppers and shifty half humans, sliding their skinny frames around open tills and loose handbags. I’d never seen a shopping hub were people seemed so happy. I could have been anywhere in the Indian sub-continent. Even the potholes and demented driving seemed to belong.
The first thing I noticed when I moved to London ten years later was the state of the city’s roads. Nothing had been repaired properly. It was a suspension graveyard.
In Slough, on the first floor of some anonymous shop on an equally anonymous high street, we shifted the furniture. Phil seemed slightly giddy. After what he was leaving, Wallasey was going to seem like some form of urban utopia. The loading was hard hot exhausting work. And when it’s all done and nicely secured demonstrating an uncanny awareness of expedient spatial management, what would you like to do? Sip cold beers in some rose-laden beer garden cooling in the twilight? No you’d much rather journey through the night in an even slower old bus, risking total fatigue, falling asleep and waking up in a West Midland hospital bandaged from head to foot. No contest.
It didn’t happen. Spurred on by the steely determination of my obdurate self-sacrifice, we reached the M56 as dawn was breaking. Fuelled by motorway service station coffee and cake of a standard equivalent to the foulest dive in the foulest, most stinking hovel on Quaid’s Mars (Total Recall; belter of a film), we were on the home strait.
I ignored the dancing gargoyles lining our route.
I ignored their writhing shadows creating a hypnotic lattice across the road ahead.
By eight o’clock the load was dropped and I was having some decent tea at home. It’s only at times like this, when you’ve stretched the limits of human endurance, one’s logic steps into the realms of Billy Bonkers and his nutters from the edge of Uranus.
The van was due back in half an hour but the fuel gauge wasn’t empty. So I had a burn-up on the King’s Parade trying to empty it. Then I walked the two miles home enjoying the fresh soft light of the morning air. Did I go to bed to get some much-needed sleep? Well no.
With the wild wide eyes of the demented soul that I am, I started to reassemble the worm and wriggler steering mechanism of my elder brother’s Colt Lancer. Why such a modern car did not have rack and pinion is still a complete mystery. But a bit needed replacing because my usually careful elder brother had rammed the front end of a Morris Minor belonging to the nice chap who used to give my nan a lift to mass every Sunday.
Sometime in the afternoon I finished only to pick up the phone to learn that I had a piano pupil waiting for me at the studio. I calmly cleaned up, tidied away my tools and jumped on my bike for a power ride up the hills to Oxton. Panic was pointless. I simply charged along emitting the sweet sanitary stink of Swarfega.
“Sorry I’m late,” I blurted. “It was that red light in Watford.”
Thank-you for reading.