Wednesday, 23 January 2019
SHORTLY after our return from the Crooked Billet, the Ford Anglia went bang and had to be put down.
Allwood was sad to see it go; this was the car which had soldiered on through many vicissitudes, for example, the salt-in-the-petrol-tank incident (some boys at Pangbourne College having a laugh at the director of music’s expense), which resulted in months of coughing and misfiring; and there were the tyres, which were so worn that in places the rubber had gone altogether and exposed the canvas, which ironically meant that they began to grip again. We had loved that car.
So Allwood went out and bought a Rover 3500. He had a thing about Rovers. If he’d had a dog, he would have called it “Rover”.
The Rover 3500 was a thing of beauty, all sleek lines outside, all leather seats inside. But it was only 200 quid.
I had told him £200 was too little and there must be a trap but he had test-driven it round the block, been impressed and happily handed over the money.
However, as he found out when he stopped for petrol, this particular car would only go forwards; the crafty dodge-meister who had taken Allwood’s money had neglected to mention that reverse gear had broken weeks before.
So it was a great car if all you wanted to do was drive round in circles but, alas, Allwood was a busy musician who from time to time needed to get from A to B and even park when he got there.
Parking was a problem. One often has to reverse. Poor Allwood. A Rover 3500 is a big beast, too heavy to push on your own, so every time he parked he had to wait for the car in front to move so he could get out.
This can be rather time consuming if the owner has emigrated to New Zealand.
I had a better idea, however. Why not learn about cars, so as to be unripoffable?
I decided to look after my beloved Morris Minor van, which I had had since university days, myself. Fired by my success in predicting that Allwood’s Rover would give trouble, I thought I knew everything, and with the cocky assurance of youth I decided to begin by putting some oil in.
Having only previously worked on a lawnmower, where the oil goes in the petrol tank, and never on a car, where it goes under the bonnet, I had no idea where to head for.
In the end I split the difference and found a place about half way between bonnet and petrol tank, in the driver’s footwell.
Under the rubber mat was an attractive little brass cap. I unscrewed it and, as there wasn’t much oil in there, I added a good quantity and did the cap back up, well satisfied with my afternoon’s work. Then I undid it again and added a bit more, for luck.
Alas for youthful enthusiasm! I was unaware that on a Morris Minor this was where you put the brake fluid; nor did I realise that motor oil rots the rubber seals in the hydraulic system faster than you can say “total brake failure”.
For weeks I drove happily round in my little blue Morris, unaware of the disaster brewing literally under my feet.
Another close friend, Paul Burgon, had recently phoned to encourage me to drive down the M4 motorway to Windsor.
“The Dean of Windsor is a really nice chap; he’d love to meet you.”
“What are you talking about? The Dean of Windsor? The Queen’s chaplain? Why on earth would he want to meet me?”
“No, no; he’s a really nice bloke. Very good with young people.”
Paul explained how, back in Cambridge where we’d grown up together, he had happened to meet this fantastically eminent cleric through a mutual friend.
He assured me that I would be warmly welcomed in the private apartments with a nice cup of tea served from elegant china.
Launcelot Fleming would be right up my street: not only had he been Bishop of Norwich, my birthplace, but he was an early environmentalist: his maiden speech in the House of Lords was about cruelty to whales.
So I took my courage in my hands and put through a telephone call to the Dean’s office at Windsor.
To my surprise Launcelot picked up the phone himself: yes, that was fine, he could see me the next day, but not until after lunch. General Montgomery had died; the funeral was in St George’s Chapel in the morning and he, the Dean, was taking the service. I’d be very welcome to come for tea at two o’clock, by which time the Queen would have gone.
It was a lovely spring morning as I left Pangbourne and hit the warm black tarmac of the newly opened motorway. It was not far to Windsor and Elsie and I rattled along happily. I know people’s pet names for their cars are nearly as irritating as pet names for their pets, and I’m sorry to mention Elsie, but as the number plate was LCE 952 it had to happen.
Elsie and I arrived at Windsor Castle without incident. The crowds had indeed left and it was oddly simple to announce my business to the porter and knock on the tall oak door of the Dean’s office.
“Come in, Andrew, lovely to meet you. Come through to the drawing room. Tea?”
The place was predictably palatial. The armchairs were heavenly and the April sunshine streamed in through the huge windows, gleaming off the polished blades of several oars attached high up on the walls; clearly Launcelot had been a considerable rower in his younger days. I had coached a little on the Thames at Pangbourne, so a mutual interest in rowing made conversation easy.
We chatted about this and that. The man was simply wonderful. I had only ever met one famous person before (well, since you ask, it was the Reverend Professor Sir Owen Chadwick OM and I’d only met him because he was my dad’s boss).
So the great Launcelot Fleming could have been intimidating but he wasn’t so at all, in spite of the awe-inspiring name. I’d be famous if my parents had called me Launcelot; they missed a trick at my baptism.
After tea this kindly, modest man made the time to show me St George’s Chapel.
As he pointed out various features of the breathtakingly beautiful building, there was no sign that he must have done this a million times before. What a gent! We went back to the office to pick up my bag and it was only then that I noticed one of the names on the oar blades:
P. R. Politzer. Peter Politzer! What a coincidence!
Peter was one of my colleagues at Pangbourne, a heavily built teacher of whom all the boys and most of the staff were terrified.
I wasn’t surprised to see that according to the list of names on the blade he had rowed at stroke, the biggest man in the boat.
Peter was a formidable character. He ran his house, Illawarra, like a military camp. It was deep in the bluebell woods, far from the rest of the school. No one was sure what dark deeds used to go on there. Illawarra was an early Slytherin, Politzer a dry run for Snape.
So Peter Politzer had been in the same boat as Launcelot Fleming at Trinity Hall, Cambridge! Delighted, I pointed out the happy coincidence.
As I left, the Dean shook my hand warmly and said: “When you get back to Pangbourne, do give Peter my love.”
I drove back in blithe spirits, windows down, the scent of a thousand bluebells wafting in as I headed up the school drive.
After a sharp bend at the top, the familiar, impressively large parade ground came into view. Pangbourne Nautical College, as it was called before my time, still dressed its pupils as sailors and so it gave them plenty of room in which to march up and down.
At the far end of this space I spotted another coincidence lurking. There was Peter Politzer himself, sitting in his car, engine off, chatting to a friend. The friend was just saying goodbye and walking off as I came round the corner; a perfect opportunity to surprise Peter with an unexpected greeting: “The Dean of Windsor sends his love.”
I have an idea, I thought: Peter will be so pleased to hear from an old rowing friend whom he probably hasn’t seen since university days. I’ll make this really dramatic; I’ll drive at full speed towards his car, scream to a halt just in front, leap out and say: “Hi, Peter! The Dean of Windsor sends his love!”
Now I was really getting into the mood. For good measure I sped up a bit across the flatness of the parade ground, lining Elsie up with Peter’s front bumper.
I was going about 30mph when I judged that it was time to throw out the anchors. I was about ten yards away.
I just had time to glance up and see a look of alarm on Peter’s face. This gave me great satisfaction. “The Dean of Windsor sends his love“: what a surprise my colleague was about to get!
Right foot hard down on brake pedal. Brake pedal unresisting straight to floor. Car same speed. Grab handbrake instead. Handbrake not working. Oh dear.
Elsie was a plucky old girl and I’m not sure she didn’t smile as she gave Peter’s Vauxhall the full frontal treatment.
As we smashed head on into his radiator grille amid a welter of broken glass, spilt battery acid and boiling radiator water, I realised that putting engine oil in the brake system had not been the best idea.
There was only one thing for it. I got out, walked round to Peter’s driver’s window and greeted him cheerfully: “Hi, Peter! The Dean of Windsor sends his love!”
31 December 2018
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