From Yugoslavia it's back to England again,
with an article by an Australian fan. One thing about fanzine fandom that we like so
well is its globalness. Via fanzines it's possible, without ever leaving the confines
of your home community, to know other fanzine fans from halfway around the world quite
well without ever actually meeting them face-to-face. Many of our Australian readers
fall into that category for us, a situation we'd like to change.
That was an extract from my travel journal dated the evening of Thursday, the 10th of January, 1985. As you may gather, I was a little upset. I was in London with Julia Bateman (to whom I was engaged and who is now my wife). We were holidaying in England, staying with her parents in Mill Hill, and we had wanted to arrange a jolly day trip to Oxford.
That the name of the firm wasn't Lawbury will be self-evident, but if I use a pseudonym, then I'll be at liberty to tell you the whole lurid truth without pussyfooting around, and in this case, truth is much funnier than fiction. Wasn't bloody funny at the time, though.
England was experiencing its harshest winter for ninety years. Or was it Living Memory? Or had everyone over ninety died? I can't remember. In any case, it was excruciatingly cold. What had presented itself to me a week previously as a fairyland of fluffy soap suds on roofs and gardens was now just a stubborn coating of grubby ice on footpaths and gutters, which made walking a precarious step-by-step exercise. It was a miserable cold, a depressing cold. Certainly there were moments of stark beauty, such as skeletal black trees set against sepia-toned skies, but for the most part, reality held the casting vote, and it voted with all thumbs down.
So you've got your setting and you've got your foreboding. You, dear readers, have the advantage of knowing what I did not -- that things were going to turn nasty. I just thought I was onto a bargain. You see, through some telephoning around I had gotten hold of a firm who hired out second-hand cars at very reasonable rates.
"They're not new," the dealer at the other end of the phone was in unexpected haste to warn me. "They're not new, but they're very reliable. Fifty pounds a week with a sixty-five pound deposit. Full insurance, unlimited mileage, and AA membership. Where do you plan to go? Just around the city?"
"Yes, basically," I said.
"Not in the country?"
"No..." I didn't quite his drift. "No, just around London. And a day trip to Oxford."
Sharp intake of breath. Pause. "Yes, that'll be alright."
"Are you sure it's okay?"
"Yes. You can have the Fiat. Very, very reliable little car. I use it myself to drive to work. Or there's the Cortina..."
"The Fiat sounds fine. I'll have that."
The deal was done. He even promised free home delivery. Now who can argue with service like that?
Well, dear reader, you may well wonder what could possibly have gone wrong with just that very situation, on that sombre Thursday morning, as Julia and I stood gloved, coated, and packed in front of her parents' house. The dealer from Lawbury had rung at 8:45 to confirm they were on their way. But one hour, three telephone calls, extensive road directions, and a non-existent minicab later a cheap stooge rolled up in a dirty van. He transported us downtown to where Lawbury Hire Car Service (head office) was located. It was a shop front whose growth had been stunted by the buildings on either side. I followed the man up the stairs, floor by floor, past knee office, abdomen office, chest office, and neck office to the attic which was head office.
It was a shambles of boxes, desks, and files, populated by long-lost clones of Arthur Daley in cheap suits. Displayed on a pin-up board were appreciative letters from happy survivors. In this hive of activity I asked my dealer where the car was. He told me it was downstairs.
Before signing anything (I'm not stupid), I persuaded the junior operative to take me down first and show me the car I was about to shell out for. Not the Fiat, for some reason, but a Very Roadworthy Ford Cortina. There was no carpark, by the way, just opportunistic street parking in the much sought-after Hendon central business district, and so there we found it. In a narrow crook of a back street, there it was -- our sorry little Cortina.
And it wouldn't start.
I discovered this by asking the dealer to demonstrate it before he could run away. Nothing. Undaunted in the face of adversity, he collared one of the mechanics to arrange a new battery. "A five minute job," he promised.
Upstairs we went to sign the papers. Cringe, dear readers, cringe. But don't be too hard in your condemnation of my dealings. Just imagine the scene -- you're flustered, anxious, most of the morning has just ticked by, Oxford is looking ever more distant, and you've been assured that with the new battery the car definitely will start. So like a punter I paid my money and took my chance.
Down we went again. The new battery (he nervously explained from around the corner) was installed, but being exceedingly conscientious, the mechanics had decided to do the spark plugs as well. This fact seemed to be corroborated by the sight of said mechanics tying the car to a repair vehicle with an old piece of rope.
Back upstairs we staggered, at my polite request, to obtain the keys to that very, very reliable Fiat instead. Downstairs again, and the dealer fought a vicious battle to finally beat the very, very reliable Fiat into life. What a nice man -- he would amend the paperwork accordingly later. "He's new in the game," the mechanic had confided. "He doesn't know anything about cars." I told myself that he'd get on, though. Forensic pathology is a booming science.
So Julia and I climbed in and were on our way. It was my first venture into suburban London traffic, in an unfamiliar car with a dodgy accelerator and a fogged-up windscreen, looking out either side for a petrol station. (This was the company's special drive-'em-away-empty policy.) A quick fill-up and we continued, and however bad this part was, the real horror was finding ourselves on the M40 motorway.
What a car! To call it the Fiat Worse Than Death, actually, would be to give death a bad name. It was dirty inside and out, the doors wouldn't lock, the clutch slipped, the hand brake wouldn't work, and the left rear window slid down if you hit it. As vehicles were in front of me, a fine mist of mud slowly caked itself on the windscreen until it became mostly black and opaque. The wipers sort of smeared it about a bit. At fifty miles per hour, all I could do was to keep pointed straight and thank God for intermittent rain. The fifty mile journey was the longest I can ever remember having gone between heartbeats.
Julia and I spent two splendid hours in Oxford. We had lunch at the Chequers pub refectory, a lovely, cosy rabbit warren off an unseen alleyway that catered to the latest of two centuries of students. Mushroom omelette, chips, salad, and half a pint of bitters. When the sun broke through, there were blue skies and a brief spell of warm weather. It unfolded for us a vision of beauty, a city of ornate, ancient buildings glowing in the liquid afternoon sunshine, of streets and spires, of hazy clouds, of lawns and roofs, emerald and white. It was the Oxford that lived in my dreams, the Oxford of Tolkien, the verdigris Oxford with the dull copper sun.
Then came the drive back. All the way, I fumed and cursed the name of the Lawless Hire Car Service, especially whenever the car stalled and would only restart under threat of torture. I would trade the Fatal Fiat for the Cadeveric Cortina and be done with it.
So I negotiated my way back to Hendon, drove around the block a few times, located a parking space and nosed into it. The Fiat stalled. I started it again and tried to angle it a bit better. It stalled again, still sticking out. Stalled and died.
That was the last sign of life ever to be seen from the dreaded machine. That day, I swapped the Fiat for the Cortina just to get home, and the next day I returned the Cortina and haggled back my money (less one day's hire).
I won't laden you with the catalogue of woes of the equally dreadful Cortina. Suffice it to say I was well rid of them both. And I'm not known as a very forthright man, but when it came to the showdown with the Lawsuit Hire Car Company, I stood my ground and took no more talk of 'five minute jobs'.
I have no doubt that the Lawbending Hire Car Service and Part-Time Sardine Packaging Company will live on. There'll always be brave folk willing to lay their lives on the line the line for the saving of fifteen pounds a week in rental. A middle-aged German couple seemed to say it all. They were asking whether, if they picked up any parking tickets along the way, they could flee the country. They wanted a cheap car and a cheap holiday, and you can bet your bottom traveler's cheque that they'd get the cheap they deserved.
As for my style of cheap, dear reader, I know my false economy dumped me into a predicament that I wished at the time had never happened. But invite me around some evening, and I'll show you just how many times I can dine out on it.
All illustrations by Craig Hilton