(from “Baby Driver,” written by Paul Simon and performed by Simon and Garfunkel)
If I could achieve real balance in perspective, if rather than reacting to the good and bad that mum and dad did to us and for us with bursts of emotion whose effects last and last way after their useful life, if I could mathematically weigh it all up with some kind of reason or logic and come to a conclusion, a determination that granted weight where it should be granted rather than where emotion throws it, then all would be well in the world and overall I would have no reproaches to offer them, not for dad’s affairs or mum’s rages or all the moves they thrust on the family or even for that awful year at boarding school, because on my seventeenth birthday in December 1969 my mum and dad gave me a car.
To put this amazing gift in context, since leaving Bristol in 1961 my family had never had a car other than the one dad’s company provided him with for him to use for his job. We used it as a family car on the weekends and a little in the evenings, but during the working week we had used exclusively buses, bicycles and our own skinny legs since I was born. This was the way it was. We took a bus to High Wycombe or Reading to go shopping. I did begin to hitch-hike as I got older and when it became more important to go places, but the range was limited and the journey time unpredictable. Mum had never had a car to call her own, or the means to move around independently. That was normal among most of the families we knew in Marlow.
Yet they still managed to buy a car for my birthday. Of course, this being mum and dad, the present was hedged. The car was stated as being for my mother, who had yet to learn to drive but clearly needed more mobility, but I could use it if I kept it rust-free and clean, and respected it and mum and dad. The last was asking a lot at that age, but this was like the Beatles at the Hammersmith Odeon for a seventeen year-old intimidated by girls. This present had the added advantage of going on and on, and like the Beatles concert made it easy to feel so grateful to mum and dad. Mum’s threatened use of that green Austin Mini, license plate number 805 AUN, four cylinders totaling 848cc, MY first car, never arrived, and from then on in I would always in one way or another have the freedom, the prestige and the sheer joy of adolescence released from its chains. Think of the arrow just after leaving the archer’s bow: all that tension springing free. The bike was fun, and public transport worked, but they had nothing on that fabulous little car. This was what “fab” meant!
Seventeen was the youngest age in England when a child could drive. Mum and dad had promised me a car so that I would forego a motorcycle when I turned 16, the youngest age at which a child can ride a motorcycle. They were convinced that I’d kill myself with a motorcycle. I never quite knew what they meant, but thought that it was great deal: all I had to do was forego one year of motorcycling and I’d get a car. Dad took me for my first driving lesson in his company-provided Ford Granada on the evening of my birthday, because it had an automatic transmission, rare in England at the time, meaning that I could concentrate on the steering. I didn’t like the headlights coming at me, but dad pronounced himself well-satisfied with my steering, and that began the process of launching Ian in the Mini on an unsuspecting world.
The world did not remain unsuspecting for very long. My first car accident occurred within three months. I was a cocky driver, with quick reactions and relatively good instincts, but a bit too sure of myself. John Crocker, a friend from Borlase’s, already had his driver’s license, and thus kindly volunteered to accompany me to help me learn to drive. Under English law, I needed a qualified driver in the passenger seat until passing my driving test. We had some neat outings together, normally with at least two other boys in the back seat. Some took place during the school lunch hour. While before the Mini the West Street Café with its pin tables and cheap fried food was about the limit of lunchtime wanderings, maybe 100 yards from the school gates, after the Mini arrived we explored for miles in each direction. Not all the time, of course, because petrol was expensive and I needed to earn each tank, but enough for us to feel almost liberated while still at school.
Learning to drive was also a valuable apprenticeship in the location of pubs which would serve those who were not yet of legal drinking age. We still had a year to go. After one such visit to a pub about two miles outside town on the Wycombe Road, and a good pint each on an empty stomach, there were four of us in the Mini: John Crocker, of course, I couldn’t yet drive without him, David Milsom, I think Phil Slow and me. We belted down Pump Lane at up to 70 mph. Pump Lane was a single lane road, with winding curves, picturesque hedgerows and the look of what it was, an English country lane. Marlow is surrounded by English country lanes, often single-track, often rambling around the countryside rather than crossing it. Walking along them you can feel the hundreds of thousands of horses and carts and peasants and cows which have made their ambling way on the same path. They are often indents in the fields, like some kind of tarmac streams, the result of being worn down for centuries, literally. Driving along them is a delicate skill, not to be taken lightly or impatiently.
We zoomed along Pump Lane, brazenly and indelicately taking it very lightly, screaming around one-lane bends, laughing, with hedgerows too high to see what was coming, smoking cigarettes and almost daring someone to come the other way. Nobody noticed the stupidity of the speed we were driving at, nobody even whispered a word of warning. We were teenage boys in an all boys school, and we were allowed out unsupervised in a car at lunchtime on schooldays. We were going to make the most out of it, even if it killed us.
It almost did kill us, but my luck held. The brakes did not. I typically timed braking as closely as I could, from as soon as I was allowed behind the wheel. Driving was a kind of sport, after all. In other words, I drove as fast as I could as late as I could before the need to slow down and stop became acute. As we approached the T junction at the end of Pump Lane, where the main Bourne End road from Marlow crossed the lane, I was doing my late braking trick, with the 848 cc engine screaming as I changed it down from fourth to third to second, but the brake pedal went all the way to the floor, which was not supposed to happen, and the car did not stop until it was about four feet into the Bourne End Road. That was the extent of the overshoot: four feet. But this was England, home of tight, narrow roads, and that particular four feet of tarmac was then occupied by a lorry which duly ran into the Mini’s front end. Another six feet out onto the Bourne End Road, and John Crocker in the passenger seat would have come a cropper, and maybe all of us would have. As it was, the car was half wrecked, and I was prosecuted for driving with defective brakes AND for driving without due care and attention, and found guilty on both counts. Which sounds inconsistent, and did distress me at the time, but it was hard to maintain a feeling of being hard done by when I remembered how fast I’d been driving before the accident.
This was but a minor disturbance in the joy that the Mini brought to me and my friends. I loved to drive that car, which was in many ways perfect for adolescence. It was nippier than the size of its engine would suggest, because it was light and with a very low center of gravity. It must be possible to roll any car, but I took corners in that mini so fast that I was almost daring it to tip over, and it never so much as lifted a tyre. It was superb in traffic on city streets. I could zoom up the inside of standing or slow-moving vehicles, creating my own narrow lane as it were, because it was so narrow, and whip in front of whatever vehicle I chose. The car was so short that it was well-nigh impossible for another driver that saw me coming to fill up the space in front of his or her car before I slipped into it. All that excessive exuberance so well channeled on city streets! We were unstoppable in the Mini: cheap, fast, maneuverable, and great gas mileage. That car should have conquered the entire world. That it did not even make it to the US, abandoning that market to the VW bug, is a damning indictment of the British failure at the time in international commerce.
The Mini was almost collective property. My friends and I went everywhere in it together. We still suffered from boredom, of course, living in a little town whose only legal amusement of interest was the cinema and pubs, but now we could suffer it on the move, which made all the difference. We would explore the area, still pretty sedate at that time, with lots of winding (read “challenging,” with Pump Lane adrenaline) country lanes, and picturesque (read “well doted with friendly publicans”) villages, and even, occasionally in the evening, girls. Maybe we stopped to smoke cigarettes and watch the world go by in a neighboring town, or maybe we stopped down by the river and watched it flow, but it was always more interesting than being limited to Marlow High Street, as we had been before the Mini.
Then there was London. Marlow is only 30 miles from Oxford Circus in the center of London’s West End, and has a direct rail link to London on the old Great Western. You need to change trains in Maidenhead, but it’s a doable day trip. With the Mini, London was all of a sudden a lot closer and more practical. The first segment of the M4 motorway, from our side of Maidenhead to the Chiswick Flyover, had been opened in the mid-sixties. So in a car we were uniquely well situated on one of the first motorways built into London. This did not escape our attention. Plus London was the center of our young world: Carnaby Street was right there, as was the King’s Road in Chelsea, the twin hearts of the “swinging Sixties.” Or was that “swinging London?” A little bit of both, I think. London was Twiggy and Mary Quant, the Who live at the Marquee (“Maximum R&B” said the posters), and every band that you could think of playing in concert somewhere at least once a year. Miniskirts, that extraordinary expression of youth coming out of a post-war haze, were invented there. The maze of topsy-turvy streets criss-crossing London became our playground whenever we could afford the petrol. I could get around some on public transport, but the Mini opened up the city to us.
The Mini was useful for visiting friends from Borlase’s in Wycombe and Maidenhead, each about four miles away over the hills, and for my hobbies, which still tended to involve moving around. Train spotting held less interest since British Rail had become a rational business and the steamers of my childhood had disappeared for scrap. But plane spotting became the hobby of the moment for a couple of years. It was just like train spotting: a book listed the registration numbers of all civil aircraft owned by airlines, and the spotter noted and underlined the numbers as he spotted them on the planes taxiing by at airports. Unlike train spotting, you couldn’t indulge your hobby during the trip: you needed to spot planes at an airport.
Marlow was only about 12 miles away from London’s Heathrow Airport, which helped make the hobby desirable. It was a difficult trip then by public transport, train from Marlow to Slough, changing at Maidenhead, bus from Slough to the airport, but I made it regularly before the Mini arrived, and from time to time dad would drop me off or pick me up there on a business trip. Once at Heathrow, access to the roof of the Queen’s Building, in the center of the airport, was free and made the challenge of spotting planes all over the airport a feasible proposition. Mum and dad had given me a telescope for my thirteenth birthday, and with it mounted on one of the walls of the building’s terraces I spent many happy hours pursuing the numbers of as many of the planes then at Heathrow as I could discern. The registration numbers were normally on the planes’ tails in relatively small print, and catching them far away on the enormous areas of concrete that were Heathrow’s taxiways and runways was harder than it sounds. Plane spotting, like train spotting, was a great way to pass the time.
One evening in the Mini, my familiarity with Heathrow in earlier years came into play. Slough was one of the eastern places included in our wanderings at night, but it was a big rough town that did not interest us. In fact we rarely ventured there: not a lot of point. But late one long evening, we were heading east out of Slough on the old A4 and arrived near Heathrow. Feeling adventurous and always ready to explore new ground, I turned off toward the airport. Airports then were much more open-plan than they became, wide spaces of concrete interspersed with enormous hangars and acres of grass. I turned this way and that, looking for airplanes or anything else to brighten up the late evening. We drove past hangars, a few dating from before the war, when Heathrow was not even London’s principal airport, and others more modern monster buildings with gigantic doors holding Comets and Boeing 707s, the newer jets. We drove past some turboprop planes still and silent on the tarmac: I think that they were BEA Viscounts. All of a sudden we realized that we were no longer on a normal road. We were casually driving along the widest road that I had ever driven on, the dotted lines were wider and longer than they should have been, and there were literally hundreds of enormous intermingled tracks of burnt rubber. We could barely see the edges of this extravagant road: it was wider than the M4, a mile or so to the north.
It took us a while, but then we figured it out. We were happily driving down the middle of one of the principal runways at London Airport, Heathrow, already one of the busiest airports in the world! You can imagine the noise inside the car as we realized where we were, heads twisting and turning, laughter mixed with incredulity. As there could be no obstructions here in the sleeping airport, I put my foot down. We roared along, abruptly steering into a sharp turn here, a straightaway there, wheeling around on the runway, inventing a route for ourselves, burning rubber and having a blast. We laughed and laughed before, inevitably, someone started to worry. This was Heathrow. One anxious voice immediately caused discretion to become the better part of valor again. I made a beeline for the exit at full speed across the runway and along the linked taxiways, terrified that we would be arrested for trespassing or worse. Nothing happened. My guess is that we were not even noticed. Heathrow was closed all night to planes and passengers to reduce the noise inflicted on the airport’s neighbors. What could possibly happen on a runway in the middle of the night? Nothing back then. We were just excited teenagers, nothing worse, excited teenagers in the best toy ever invented for teenagers: a car!
© Ian J. Stock
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