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Saturday, 18 May 2019

Checked Out

A wet day at the Eden Project

Among the parking machine tickets of the last post was a small sticker from The Eden Project in Cornwall – a horticultural attraction near St. Austell in which plants from diverse climates and environments are housed in enormous transparent bio-domes. It reminded me.

It was a wet day with over an inch and a half of rain forecast (4cm), so along with thousands of others we drove to the Eden Project where we would be under cover. We were thankful of the bus from the car park. The bio-domes were packed and the rain on the roofs deafening.

Inside is like walking around large gardens: a tropical rain forest garden in one dome, a Mediterranean garden in the other.

I had been walking along with my ten-year-old daughter some distance behind my wife and son for some time. She was taking lots of photographs of flowers and plants; there were over a hundred in the camera.

We entered a bushy side channel off the main path to look at a coffee plant. Immediately an officious-looking woman came up behind and said, quite unexpectedly, “Sorry we haven’t any red ones for you at the moment”. There ensued one of those polite but unwanted conversations with an intrusive stranger about there not having been enough sun to turn the pods red, there being two beans in each pod and it taking about thirty pods to make a cup of coffee, and how busy it was today because the rain brings in the visitors, which was a pity because they then miss the 75% of the project outside.

It was a while before I noticed she was wearing a small Eden Project badge. All the other staff were in Eden Project polo shirts. She strode off purposefully through the crowd without talking to anyone else.

Is this what it comes to? After a certain age when your brown beard is turning grey and your hair is falling out and you look a bit like a seedy Harold Shipman, and you are innocently enjoying a day out with your daughter, they pick you up on CCTV and send someone to check you out as a suspected paedophile.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Parking Machine Tickets

Could this be the most boring blog post ever: parking machine tickets?

One of the door pockets in the car we sold recently contained an assortment of tickets acquired over our period of ownership except for the first couple of years when we must have kept it tidy. Many of the tickets were local, but those from further afield provide a record of our journeys, mainly day trips and holidays, albeit not a complete collection.

Bloggers usually post photographs and postcards from their travels. Instead, here is our record told through a hundred and thirty pounds worth of parking machine tickets.

July 2010: The Lake District with a short stop at Richmond on the way home

August 2010: Cornwall

2011: North Wales (note the Welsh language), and trips to Filey and Beverley

July 2012: North Devon

August 2012: North Wales again

2013: Not many this year. The first is from Blackpool and the second Appleby in Westmoreland on our way home from a week in Scotland

2014: The Yorkshire Coast, including the North York Moors Railway at Grosmont

2015: Pembrokeshire (South Wales)

2017: Cumbria, Whitby and Lincoln, but also a longer trip to West Sussex from which the Wakehurst ticket is the only reminder

2017: Exmoor (Devon and Somerset)
2018: a trip to Chester in January and Dorset in the summer, with an afternoon on Brownsea Island

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Every Car We’ve Owned

Ever wondered what happened to your old cars? Here’s how to find out.

This is looking like a month of car-related posts following our recent change of car.

When you buy a car in the U.K., you now receive an official document called the V5C registration certificate, historically known as the “log book”. It shows you are the “registered keeper” – not necessarily the same as the owner, as in the case of a company vehicle, for example.

Our new V5C came through the post with a reminder that it was our responsibility to ensure the vehicle had been taxed – “tax it or lose it”, it said. In other words, to ensure that Vehicle Excise Duty had been paid, also known as the road tax, the tax disc, or, as I sometimes call it, the Road Fund Licence, a remnant of my days in accountancy many years ago. We don’t even have physical tax discs for the windscreen any more.

The reminder pointed to a web site where you can check your vehicle’s road tax and MOT test (roadworthiness) status: It confirmed we’re all legal, even though I knew that already.  The page also has a link to an insurance checker:, which reassuringly confirmed that our old cover had been cancelled and the new cover was in force.

Interestingly, these web sites let you check any car at all. Want to know about your friends’ or neighbours’ cars? Just enter their registration numbers and look (although the insurance site does warn that it is a data protection offence to look up the insurance status of a car you are not permitted to drive).

It set me thinking about all the cars we had owned, like my 1966 Morris Mini in the blog banner above, bought in 1972. Unsurprisingly, neither that nor its short-lived predecessor appear in the database. It was too long ago. 

But the next one I had does: a flame-red 1972 Morris Mini Van I bought when it was three years old. It shows it was first registered in 1972, that its tax ran out three years after I sold it at the end of October, 1984, and that there is no current MOT test certificate in force: as expected because I know that the person who bought it from me ran it for three years and then scrapped it.

It is also possible, in the case of any vehicle on the road after 2005, to check the MOT test history from the link at the bottom right of the screen above, which is This records the date of each MOT test, the vehicle mileage at the time, whether it passed or failed, and if it failed, the reasons why. The database also holds the location of each MOT test but you need to have the latest V5C number to access that, so you can only see it for vehicles you currently keep. Even if there are no tax details, there may still be an MOT history.

Well, as the kind of nerd who delights in these things, I wanted to check up on every car I or anyone in my family had ever owned. There was at least partial information for every vehicle I could remember except my first two mentioned above. It reveals some fascinating details.

For example, the eleven year old Golf Estate we sold recently to The database shows it passed its MOT test two weeks after we sold it. During this time it gained a further 377 miles on the clock. How can this be while it remained untaxed and uninsured? I am certain of the numbers because I noted the mileage when we sold it, and the MOT history shows the mileage when it passed its MOT.

Or my 1985 Talbot Samba, previously blogged about here, the first new car I ever had, and by far the worst. Within months it began to suffer all kinds of corrosion and mechanical problems which Peugeot-Talbot, basically, refused to acknowledge. It was in a terrible state when traded in after five years and 59,000 miles. I am, frankly, astonished to discover it ran for a further five years. Pity the poor owner. Unfortunately, it was too early for a record of the MOT details.

Our later cars lasted much longer. A Ford Fiesta we took over from my dad in early 2002 after he gave up driving, eighteen months old with only 1,500 miles on the clock, ran for a further nine years and 70,000 miles after we traded it at the end of 2006. Its MOT record suggest no major problems other than brake pipe corrosion, until near the end in 2015 when, at fifteen years old, structural corrosion seems to have done for it. 

We also had three VW Polos which lasted very well. One of them we had from three years old in 1993 until 2001. It then ran for another six years until, over sixteen years old with a mileage of 117,145, it failed its MOT test in January, 2007. From the list of faults (see screen image above), it looks like a sensible decision to give up on it.

But the longest lasting is an oceanic green VW Golf Estate, a lovely car bought new in February 2002, part-exchanged in 2008 at six and a half years and 55,000 miles, which, according to the latest records, is still on the road with 120,000 miles on the clock.

We’re now on to our seventh Volkswagen. It could well be my last. We must like them, although everyone has their preferences.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Review - Gyles Brandreth: Have You Eaten Grandma?

Gyles Brandreth
Have You Eaten Grandma? Or the life-saving importance of correct punctuation, grammar, and good English. (5*)

You might expect a book about punctuation, grammar and usage to be useful but dull. Useful: it certainly is. Dull: nothing could be further from the truth.

Described on the book jacket as a writer, broadcaster, actor and former MP, Gyles Brandreth sounds like one of those metropolitan smarty-pants always on television telling you how clever they are. He is, but differs from the others (e.g. Fry, Self, Coren-hyphen) in being rather likeable. If you have seen or heard him on The One Show or Just A Minute you will know of his unstoppable exuberance and unassuming sense of fun. They permeate this book and make it a joy to read.

Yes, it is a useful volume to keep handy by your desk and laptop to check on all those things you are never quite sure of. Should the full-stop go before or after the closing speech mark? Am I making correct use of the colon? What’s the difference between an n-dash and an m-dash? Should that be practice or practise, aggravate or annoy? There are hints, tips and lists of irregular plurals, internet acronyms, bad language, innocent place names that sound rude, rhyming slang, annoying words and phrases such as upcoming and no-brainer, euphemisms, useful Scrabble words, rules for writers … in fact everything to do with language.

But it is the way these things are described and handled that make the book stand out. I was surprised it was so laugh-out-loud funny:
  • Asterisks, we learn, can be used to show the omission of letters to help disguise words – e.g. President T**** is a w****r. A footnote then tells us that President Truman was indeed a wonder, the only President with no name to go with his middle initial.
  • The Brandreth rule on hyphens: hyphenate only for clarity, otherwise don’t. For example, a real newspaper headline, ‘Students get first hand job experience’, needs a hyphen either between ‘first’ and ‘hand’ or between ‘hand’ and ‘job’, depending.
  • How to remember the spelling of ‘diarrhoea’: Dash in a real rush – hurry, or else accident!
  • From the texting guide for seniors:  BTW = bring the wheelchair.
I’m not going to pinch all his jokes. You’ll have to buy it for the rest.

Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.  

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Petrol Cans

Did you know you can’t siphon petrol any more?

Petrol Cans

We decided to change our eleven-year-old car; not an easy decision because it has low mileage for its age and could easily keep going a fair few years yet. On the other hand, it does need well over a thousand pounds spending on it (tyres, major service, MoT test, dented front wing, one of the back doors no longer locks and the air-con smells terrible, and those are just the things we know about), and it has let us down a few times recently (flat battery, faulty ABS brake sensor, petrol leak). We need a car we can rely on as one child still needs ferrying with a full load several times each year to and from university 125 miles away, and the other will soon be going 50 miles in the opposite direction. And I suppose we’ll have to visit them. And we use it for holidays. I know that some people these days manage to run cars for twenty years and 120,000 miles, but I don’t feel it’s extravagant to say we need a better car. We found one but had to wait.

Still waiting, and anticipating a couple of longish journeys in the next few days, I filled up to the top with petrol: fifty-five pounds worth. The same afternoon, the garage rang: they had the car. Well, I know when it comes to buying cars, fifty-five pounds is small change, but it’s not an amount I would willingly give to a motor trader if I didn’t have to. I got out the petrol cans from their longstanding hidey-hole at the back of the shed and spent an hour cleaning off the cobwebs.

I can’t remember when they were last used. There are two five-litre plastic cans, a larger ten-litre metal one, an ancient two-gallon can with ‘Pratts’ embossed on all four sides, plus spouts, pipes and funnels. The Pratts can and at least one of the five-litre plastic ones came from my dad’s house. Together, they would hold over half a tank full.

Pratts Motor Spirit Advertisement 1930s
Pratts Motor Spirit Advertisement, 1930s
Or perhaps not. The Pratts can is dodgy. It must be from the nineteen-twenties: the kind you strapped to the running board in case you couldn’t find a petrol station. It would once have been spruce green but is rusty all over now. It looks all right inside though, and the heavy brass screw-cap is as serviceable and satisfying as ever. It would spray-up nicely for a vintage car owner. Pratts of Duckinfield: suppliers of motor spirit and lubricating oil, later part of Anglo-American Oil and then absorbed into the Esso empire around 1935. Strangely, the screw-cap bears the Shell name.

From an earlier post (link at end), here is my dad in 1928 standing in Uncle Jimmy’s Bullnose Morris. Below him is what could be the very same petrol can. 

At least the big red metal can looks all right. It still has its label: Paddy Hopkirk Products. That must be the Paddy Hopkirk who won the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally in a red Mini Cooper S. His petrol can, the label says, “has been manufactured using only the best materials available to the highest standards demanded by Paddy Hopkirk”, and, most importantly, “... has been individually checked by me to guarantee it leaves our factory in perfect condition.”

Wow! Individually checked by Paddy Hopkirk. That explains why it is still so good after forty-five years. I bought it around the time of the 1973-74 oil crisis and kept it full of petrol under the seat of my red Mini Van. That never won the Monte Carlo Rally. It went like a bomb though, or could have done at almost any moment. 

Having cleaned up all the petrol cans, I pushed the flexible hose into the car filler pipe, and pushed, and pushed. It went in a long way, but when I sucked all I got was petrol-flavoured air. No petrol at all. I’ve siphoned petrol many times in the past and know how to do it, and how not to get a blistering mouth full, and the other hazards, but it would not work at all this time.

I didn’t know that cars have anti-siphon devices now.

As things turned out, the Easter weekend intervened and we used more than half the petrol. We took the old car to and they did. I expected respectable premises, not a lad on his own with a computer in a smelly Portacabin surrounded by dirty skips. All he did was record the numerous marks and scratches and check that the engine started. When the computer said yes, and how much they could offer, I forgot to argue.

As regards the new car, well, it’s like a spaceship – six gears, adaptive cruise control, electric handbrake with automatic hill-hold, parking sensors, automatic stop-start in traffic queues, satnav “infotainment” screen – almost like learning to drive all over again.

You might also be interested in:

further reflections on old and new cars.

more about Uncle Jimmy, the owner of the Bullnose Morris

Thursday, 25 April 2019

The Wrong Door

At one university where I worked, Diana, the Departmental Secretary, had to put up with men walking into her office in the process of absent-mindedly unzipping their flies. It was down a long corridor of identical green doors. Her office was next door to the men’s loo.

When you’ve done it once, you don’t do it again. 

Friday, 19 April 2019

Easter 1971

When The Police Told My Parents I Went In Pubs

The Green Bottle, Knottingley (c) Betty Longbottom, Creative Commons

My generation was nothing like as open with our parents as our children are with us, at least not in my part of the North of England, or maybe it was just me. I never told my parents I went in pubs. Not even when old enough. The police told them. It was Easter Sunday, 11th April, 1971.

It was the day after I had been with three friends to The Green Bottle in the curiously named Spawd Bone Lane, Knottingley. The pub was packed with noisy, holiday-weekend drinkers, and we took little notice of a short-haired man in a suit sitting alone at a table in the middle of the room until he asked us one by one to go over to have a few words with him. He was a detective investigating a vicious attack on an elderly lady the previous afternoon.*

I can still remember some of what he asked – name, age, address, where I been between 4.30 and 6.30 the previous afternoon, and where I worked. I told him I was a Chartered Accountants’ articled clerk with Goodwill and Ledger in Leeds (actually, I did give their real name), to which he said, “Oh! Do you know Mr. Black?” I said no, there was no Mr. Black where I worked, to which he replied that he worked at the Huddersfield office. It so happened that we did have an office in Huddersfield, and being naïve and trusting, thinking it a genuine question, I said I wasn’t sure but thought I might have seen that name on the letterheads, and that Mr. Black might be a partner at the Huddersfield office. It seemed to arouse the detective’s interest. I had never been grilled by the police before, and found it unsettling, although I tried hard not to show it.

The detective moved on to my friends, one of whom was in the middle of a Fine Art degree, with a bolshy “I’m an art student” attitude, full of the deep and mysterious philosophies to which such beings are prone. He was going through a phase of always answering straight questions with enigmatic answers, that’s if he could be bothered to answer at all. He had once been approached on a train in the Midlands by a woman carrying out a travel survey and told her he was on his way to Johannesburg. No matter who was asking, or how serious the situation, he took the same line. It was also the case, coincidentally, that he had the same surname as me, which drew the obvious follow-up from the detective.

“Oh! Are you related?” the detective asked.

“I suppose we must be,” he answered.

“What does that mean?”

“Are we not all related in some way?”

The detective was suspicious. Did he think I had given him a false name, that of my art student friend? We had a bit of a laugh about it afterwards.

When you consider the gravity of the situation, it was not really funny at all, but we were still at that stage of youthful innocence which takes little seriously. Without actually being part of it (as I said, I was a Chartered Accountants' articled clerk), we liked to imagine we followed the trendy, counterculture of underground bands and magazines such as Oz which was about to face an obscenity trial. You don’t realise now when you see old clips of bands such as Black Sabbath, just how excitingly anti-establishment they seemed, even in name. The police were joked about: you would see “Screw the Pigs” scrawled in four-foot letters on garage doors. This pushing of the limits, I would now say, was only possible because England, on the whole, was a much safer and law-abiding place than it is today, which makes the attack on the old lady all the more shocking.  And of course, we did not yet know the awful details of the incident. 

The following day, Easter Sunday, I was upstairs at home, going through the pointless motions of revising for my accountancy exams, when my dad called me down to the front room where two more short-haired men in suits wanted to see me. “These two gentlemen are police officers,” my dad said, “and would like to ask you some questions.”

Being the sort of person who feels guilty even if not (you know, when the teacher asks who peed on the floor and you go red, terrified she thinks it was you, even though it was someone else), it really scared me. I had to explain about the pub in Knottingley and about being questioned, and the two detectives went off satisfied, but it felt very awkward.

And that’s how my parents found out I went in pubs, although, they probably knew already.

The Green Bottle, Knottingley

There is now no sign The Green Bottle ever existed. It closed for good and was boarded up by 2009, burnt out in 2010, demolished, and the site redeveloped as business units.

*From newspaper archives, I can see that the elderly lady was 88 year-old Mrs. Dorothy Leeman. She had been beaten around the head, bound, gagged and robbed of £80 on Good Friday in her roadside shop at Hilltop, Knottingley, Yorkshire. She never properly recovered and died less than six months later. It was an appalling attack and I don’t believe anyone was ever caught.

Attack on Mrs Dorothy Leeman, 1971