Sunday, 25 July 2010
Four wheels bad
Sounds okay, right? Very nice, in fact, four-wheel drive cars being the vehicle of choice for many a suburban family these days. Well, no. Not okay at all, for two reasons. One, this was in the 1970s, and two, this was Belfast.
In the 1970s, the only people who drove Land Rovers were farmers and soldiers. They were utility vehicles, not family cars. Our Land Rover was undercoat-grey (come to think of it, it may indeed have been painted just with undercoat, and remained unfinished, a bit like the house). The interior was finished in a fetching combination of rivets and bare metal. The seats were upholstered in bum-numbingly hard plastic. In lieu of a boot there was a loading area with a handy integrated folding shovel. Just what every family needs.
Being driven about in this grey tin box was mortifying. My friends' dads drove proper cars, with velour upholstery and radio-cassette players and windows that wound down with a handle, not ones that slid down with an alarming crash when you released the catch. One of the back windows had been replaced with clear plastic sheeting, the glass having been broken long ago. I occasionally got a lift to school with a friend whose dad wore leather driving gloves while driving their Ford Grenada, the executive car of the day. I say they were friends, but actually, these girls just happened to go to the same school as me. They spotted me at the bus stop one day, pointed out to their dad that we went to the same school, and he stopped to offer me a lift. And there was another difference between my father and other people's fathers. He never, ever, once, drove me to school. I don't think he ever just gave me a lift somewhere, anywhere. Given how much I hated the Land Rover, I should have been grateful for that, but of course, it was just another point of difference between me and everyone else in the world.
Of course, it wasn't just social embarrassment that was wrought on us by the Land Rover. Like I said, only farmers and soldiers drove Land Rovers in the 1970s. In Belfast, the only other Land Rovers on the road were painted camouflage green and driven by British soldiers. So there I was, a Catholic girl in a sectarian city with an English, Protestant father who drove a Land Rover but who wasn't a soldier, who was in fact a university professor with middle-class tastes without the middle-class income. In a city where your cultural identity was everything, I didn't have a clue who I was.
There were times, however, when the Land Rover came into its own, never more so than when we went on holiday to Donegal. With its four-wheel drive, the Land Rover happy trundled down onto the beach. On more than one occasion my father helpfully towed away other cars that had foolishly followed him onto the sand and promptly got stuck. With its back door swung open, the Land Rover provided a changing room, a place to make sand-free sandwiches and a spacious shelter from the rain. The folding shovel was often used to dig sand wells - my father would dig holes in the sand so deep and wide that he had to cut in steps to climb back out again, after digging down and down until he hit water. The plastic spades other families bought from the harbour gift shop were no match for my father and his proper, made-for-emergencies shovel. Other fathers tried to dig similar wells, perhaps driven by spade-envy, but they never made better than ours.
One year, finally, the Land Rover failed its MOT so comprehensively there was no saving it. It was so dilapidated and full of rust that it could only be sold for scrap. And that was when I discovered that there was one thing more socially damning that a Bad Car, and that is No Car. For a while (I don't know how long, but it felt like forever) we had No Car. I didn't know anyone else with No Car.
Luckily, the only way you can go from No Car is up. One day, on the back of an advance from his publishers (I think) my father proudly brought home the Princess. That wasn't some sickly pet moniker we gave the new car, that was the actual name of the model. The Austin Princess. It was royal blue and had proper windows and a boot. And a few years after that, oh joy, the Audi Quattro. White with those three distinctive black rings emblazoned on the side. Not only did we have a car, it was a Cool Car. Change came to my family in what felt like an avalanche in the 1980s. My mother started a new career in financial services and all of a sudden money was something that came out of the hole-in-the-wall on demand, not a scarce commodity carefully counted out from my mother's black cash tin. Cars came and went - company cars changed on a whim. But the funny thing is, I hardly remember those cars. But the Land Rover, much as I loathed it, was a member of our family, and being eccentric and awkward and downright bonkers, it fitted right in.