Monday, 20 October 2008

Chapter 5 The Years BC (Before Charlie) Part 2 - Uni and After

Ellie drives Charlie (age 1) into Glastonbury 1984

Part 1 - Women have always proved to be my downfall....

And so it proved at University. Cast your mind back to the GUURLS of earlier in the Last Chapter. I really had a bit of a problem with these girls. You see, growing up in Oz, and going to boarding school, which I did until I was 16, is generally a very poor preparation for relating to women. Oh, we had the odd ‘mixed dances’ when busloads of the poor giggling creatures were shipped in to my school – St Joseph’s College -for our entertainment, but the zombie De La Salle Monks who ran this august establishment would hover just feet away all night, their black carrion cloaks threatening to vapourise any lad or lass who so much looked like they might be having fun. Alchohol was naturally forbidden, as was dancing in any ‘lewd or suggestive manner.’ These same monks had actually destroyed a Jimi Hendrix poster I’d bought on a rare trip into Sydney for ‘portraying immorality and lasciviousness’ or some such rubbish.

As a result of this conservative and sheltered upbringing, up until the point I started at University all my conversations with girls had been pretty stilted, and by that time it was too late. I spent all my time at Sussex putting them on ‘she couldn’t possibly fancy me’ pedestals, and imagining them all to be divine goddesses who wouldn’t, in any circumstances , want to go out on a date with a lowly worm like me. What I did really well was get them to talk about themselves – something they were usually only too keen to do – and encourage them to think of me as ‘a friend.’ Of course this is the kiss of death to any potential non-platonic relationship, but I liked to think I was manouvering myself ever so skilfully towards plucking up the courage to ask them out. In the course of this ill directed manouvering I discovered that nearly all of these divine creatures would holiday in some impossibly far off destination, usually paid for by their rich daddies, but cunningly disguised as ‘hiking’ or ‘roughing it’ type adventures in order to make their sojourns more glamorous and exciting. ‘Ya, went on the overland trail to Indja last year – only ate brown rice for nearly three weeks’, or ‘didn’t like that Dalai Lama chap, doncha know’, or ‘hiked round Orstalya in the vac, fabby’ were the general kind of stories I’d hear related. Of course, being young and impressionable - even at the ripe old age of 19 - I began to forment my own plans for travel but, wanting to do it in style and comfort, I was reminded of my parent’s friends and the beautiful vehicle they had oh so briefly parked up in our back yard when I was younger. Toad and his gang would have nothing on me I vowed, as I roved the world, Boldly Going Where No Man etc etc.

Part 2 - Work, Work, Work...

However, before getting down to the demands of a roving life, I had to get my degree; something which ended up relying on writing a dry as dust 10,000 word dissertation on ‘The Rise of the British Labour Movement Between the Wars’ and an essay which I got really, genuinely excited about, called ‘Freedom not Licence’ – an exposition of A S Neill and his school Summerhill, which at the time was in the vanguard of the ‘free school’ movement. This meant I reached a point midway through my second year when it became obvious that, in between hanging out at the Virgin shop, getting stoned on the Sussex Downs and listening to Pink Floyd late at night with the lights turned off (scary, man), I would actually have to do some work. So I moved home, enlisted the services of my mum and her trusty typewriter, and began to apply the kind of serious thought processes that the government was generously paying me for, via my grant cheque. My mum was heroic, but in the days of blue copy sheets and Tippex, my juvenile musings would often have to be altered or amended, and she stuck with me stoically and uncomplainingly until the process was complete.

I recently discovered two of these these magnum opi, the laboured results of having applied myself possibly for the first time in my life, tucked away in the back of a folder in a storage box in the loft. The folder was immediately identifiable as a 70’s artefact since it had been covered, in the fashion of the times, with paisley patterned fablon, as well as paisley style doodles obviously crafted during some of the less entertaining sections of the lectures I was obliged to attend at Sussex, but which I often found excuses for avoiding. On re-reading them, I was struck by the high level of intellectual argument, cogent reasoning, skilful exposition and youthful exuberance, not to mention large amounts of pomposity and dogmatism. I was a believer, oh yes, and woe betide anyone who disagreed with me! Fortunately the people who marked my efforts were broad minded enough, and accustomed enough to the ways of callow students, to forgive my rant inspired stylisms, and shock horror, gave me a 2.1 when I graduated. Community Politics On graduating I forgot about globetrotting, and became immersed in local community politics. The fascisti of Brighton Council were intending to close down the local community centre, so I threw myself into a round of campaigning, leafletting, and mini demos which would prepare me well for my looming career as a left wing apparatchick and anti-nuclear activist. This, plus helping out at the old people’s lunch club and socialising left me little time for fantasising about travel – there was important work to be done at home!

Part 3 - French Kisses

So it was, I found myself several years later having done nothing more earth shattering on the travel front than hiking round France and picking grapes for three back-breaking weeks. A friend from University had an uncle who had a farm where they needed some help with the Vendange, and armed only with a trusty female companion I took the ferry to France, and began the arduous and, given my complete inability to speak French, slightly ludicrous task of hiking to Bergerac (no kidding) in the Dordogne region of Southern France. Ah yes; by now I had a girlfriend. Granted she had done all the hard work when we got together – I was still my usual tongue tied self, she had to ask me for a date rather than vice versa, and of course it’s entirely usual for the girl to initaite the sexual agenda, but nonetheless, she was a girl and she was going out with me! Also, her French was brilliant, and between us we managed not only to hike south, but to make lots of friends and have some strange adventures on the way. Ahh.. France! One of these involved a French post van and weapons of mass destruction, and I don’t think you could make it up. We’d been offered a lift by a delivery driver whose cargo was possibly worth more than the annual turnover of Securicor, given the amount of weaponry he sported. In hushed tones he explained to us that he wasn’t really allowed to give lifts, and that if we were involved in an accident of any kind, it was likely to be part of a carefully planned hijack, and that we were to hide behind the seat in the cab whilst he awaited the arrival of the supporting SWAT team, police helicopter etc. Sure enough, after descending a particularly winding mountain road, our Gallic chauffer managed to lose concentration long enough to run into the car in front, and he was immediately out of the cab, waving his shotgun and shouting indecipherable French profanities. We hid for a while, and then in the confusion, crept away, vowing never to enlist the help of the French postal service again.

In another incident which I believe could only happen in France, we were given a lift by a lorry driver, who vowed to make sure that we’d get to our final destination for the day, despite the fact that he was only going half way. How could he make such a promise, we wondered, but was all was revealed when, as he was nearing his drop-off point, we began to career crazily after the lorry in front. The other driver, naturally seeing this as a challenge in time honoured bloke fashion increased speed, and so began a hair raising chase. It ended only when our driver, by repeatedly blowing his horn and flashing his lights, managed to get the other driver to pull over. The ensuing conversation went something like; ‘What’s that all about then?’ ‘These are my friends from England and you must take them to Rouen. I’m not going that far but I see that you are.’ ‘Oh OK then, hop in you two.’ The new driver could see, from our ashen features and staring eyes, that this experience had slightly traumatised us, and he repaired immediately to the French equivalent of a roadside caff, where he bought us a large meal and some fortifying coffee. Afterwards, he took us where we were going, even driving several kilometers out of his way to make sure we got to a campsite by nightfall. Such events restore faith in human nature.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Chapter 4 - The Years BC (Before Charlie)

Charlie, Ellie and Paul - Glastonbury 1986

The BC (Before Charlie) Years Part 1 - Uni

In 1970 my mum decided that she’d had enough of Australia, and decided to settle back in the ‘old country’ in Brighton. At the time I had just ‘matriculated’ (very painful Australian way of passing exams) to Sydney University, but Brighton’s proximity to Sussex Uni led me to apply to do a history degree there instead. I was accepted, having been interviewed by a cigar smoking FEMALE professor (hi, Carol Dyhouse), and started in 1971.

The main trouble with University is that it’s just stuffed full of girls. Well, GUURLS and DRIIINK as Father Jack Hackett would have it, but mainly girls. In the summer they’d sashay by in tight fitting see through cheesecloth shirts and impossibly figure hugging blue jeans, in winter would resort to velvet dresses with chokers and afghan coats, and all had long blond hair and were called Sarah, or Deborah, or Natasha, or Katharine, or anything from a Dostoevsky novel. They’d simmer in provocative style in tutorials for which I was more than adequately prepared, having read myself into a stupor of knowledge the night before, but on catching site of them my mind would descend into a fog of fevered ‘cor baby’ style Austin Powerisms, and I would have to be led out later, dribbling and drooling and muttering incoherently.

Girls were the main reason that I did absolutely no work in the first two years at Sussex, although I must also confess that my copious ingestion of ‘mary jane’ didn’t help matters. Oh, that and hanging round the Virgin record shop for hours on end listening to mind altering albums by Can, Gong, Matching Mole, Caravan and Joe Cocker (are you sure). I think Richard Branson came in one day and tried to buy some weed off me, but then, people always (mis)took me for yer average friendly neighbourhood dope dealer in the Virgin shop, so I could be mistaken.

At the time I think the store in Brighton was one of only two, and may well have been the first. Absolutely no expense has been spent researching for this, so loads of you are going to write to me telling me that hey man, the first Virgin shop was in Bognor Regis or Outer Mongolia or something, but that’s not the point. The point is that the place was absolutely fantastic. It had a long semicircular reclining area where you could sit on cushions and listen to the music of your choice, and staff who were actually interested in music, and could tell you the exact chronology and track listings of all Jimi Hendrix’s albums, or the exact year Spirit recorded ‘The Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus’ (not difficult really - 1970) as well as the lineup and the reason that one of them looked so old: he was someone’s uncle apparently.

They would also take pity on you if you could plead poverty skilfully enough. ‘Like well man, my grant cheque’s late this term, my rent’s late but I gotta have this cool album by Pink Floyd, I’ll pay you when the dosh comes in’ usually elicited a favourable response, and as a result the shop ran on a level of trust and understanding impossible to believe nowadays apart from in some remote rural areas, where they’ve resisted the coming of post modern urban cynicism and mistrust quite successfully. I always paid my tab, but then I’m an honest geezer.

From this grew the mighty Virgin empire we know today. Although they’ve long given up on the music side, it often strikes me as sad that today’s glass and chrome flagship stores have almost completely betrayed the original vision of what was once musical innovation and passion, content as they are to flog us X Factor nonsense or offerings by Boyzone or Take That by the bucketload. Charmingly however, I have discovered a couple of staff buried deep in the bowels of the Oxford Street store (that’s in London, England for all you American readers) who still love music in all its forms, who understand the ‘deep magic’ and are as conversant in John Coltrane or Charlie Parker as they are in Led Zeppelin or Roy Harper or the Clash. These are people to be treasured, lest they become extinct.

The other big problem with university is that from day one you just know that everyone there is sooo much smarter than you are. In fact, logical evaluation will reveal that you are a completely moronic idiot who is lurking on campus under entirely false pretenses – like those guys who live in airports for years on end – and that you are likely to be found out and thrown off site at any moment. This feeling usually reaches it’s zenith (or nadir or whatever) on your first day. You don’t know where anything is, what the hell is ‘Cultural and Community Studies’, why is everyone else ‘reading’ applied geo - astrophysics or studying the ‘alliteration, metaphor and resonance inherent in the writings of J R R Tolkein?’ What will I do if Asa Briggs (revered historian and Vice Chancellor of Sussex at the time) pops out of the bushes and questions my bona fides by setting me a multiple choice quiz on the rise of the British trade union movement between the wars? All I’m here for is to ‘do’ history, and I don’t even know which period of history I’m supposed to be ‘doing.’

Sitting on a bench in the splendid grounds – spoilt only slightly by the weird Henry Moore sculptures – of Sussex University on a crisp Autumn morning in 1971, all these thoughts, and more, were going through my head. I was rescued from my internal reverie of negativity and self abasement (look it up) by a tall, thin, impossibly English sounding guy with huge amounts of hair, flares and a smile as big as the moon. ‘Mind if I share your bench?’ he enquired in the plummiest sounding accent I’d ever heard. I immediately thought ‘ah – this is a proper English hippie come to talk to me’ and the cares of a few moments ago melted away as we got chatting, realised that both of us were interested in ‘folk’ music, and discovered that he felt as unsure and lacking in confidence as I did. His name was John, and we became, and remain to this day, firm friends.

Merrie England

John introduced me to English pubs – bear in mind I wasn’t long off the plane from Oz, where we still had sawdust on the floor – and to a level of musical sophistication I’d not thought possible before. Mind you, on the way there was the pub where time stood still, dominated as it was by one of those huge mock antique timepieces with faded nicotine stained yellow edges and slightly disfigured hands, which had permanantly stopped working at just short of 11pm one night. Whether this was in homage to chucking out time, or simple mechanical frailty, we never discovered, but the ale was good, and I resisted John’s attempts to get me to drink wine fell on deaf ears, because in Australia, wine was for blokes who are ‘really comfortable’ with their sexuality, or for sheilas, and I was neither. Nowadays I’m much more comfortable with both my sexuality, and wine, of course.

He was more successful in his musical choices, all of which were folk flavoured. Overnight, Planxty became one of my favourite bands, and Alan Stivell and the Watersons weren’t far behind. One misty, magical night we went to a student party somewhere in Hove via the Victorian England of Sherlock Holmes, Hound of the Baskervilles and all. The people hosting the party only seemed to have one album – but what an album! Leige and Lief by Fairport Convention played continuously, and we were transported back in time to a land of jesters, minstrels, earth spirits, duels to the death and medievil banquets. It was the very apotheosis of merrie England I had imagined in Oz, and I became a Fairport fan for life.

John also introduced me to Lewes Folk Club, and the Lewes Bonfire. One night every year the good people of Lewes come together to have the most extravagent ‘no popery’ celebration, commemorating the memory of 17 Protestant martyrs who were burnt at the stake in the town during the Marian Persecutions of 1555–1557. This is an ancient tradition going back many years, and involves fireworks, blazing tar barrels being rolled through the streets, various floats based on topical subjects, hog roasts and at least one huge effigy which is burnt as the evening culminates, usually accompanied by even more fireworks and much rejoicing.

To mark the demise of the 17 martyrs, 17 burning crosses are carried through the town, a grand and slightly surreal sight. The whole evening assumes a dream like quality, possibly as a result of the constant effects of large amounts of smoke from the fireworks, the blazing torches, loud explosions, steam from the tar barrels which end their journey in the river, and the reduction in vision that results from all this. In 2001 an effigy of Osama bin Laden ensured that the annual event received more press attention than usual, and unfortunately, over the years the evening has become such a huge attraction that the little town of Lewes is swamped each year in a welter of tourists it cannot possibly sustain. The Lewes Bonfire Society website now pleads with would be visitors, urging ‘people living outside the town not to try to attend the annual 5 November celebrations.’ More encouragingly, it has safety advice for people who are likely to ignore this, so I guess the public nature of Bonfire carries on.

This was also the decade where because of the striking miners the lights and the tele went off at 10 each night, everything came in either brown, cream or orange, Leibfraumilch was the height of wine drinking sophistication, and holding fondue parties or holidaying in Spain was something to aspire to. This all passed me by – I was too busy enjoying my version of merrie England.

The Students are Revolting

University authorities in England in the early 70’s were running scared, and Sussex was no exception. Looming large in the background were the student riots and protests of 68, and the powers that were had decided to liberalise the curriculum in an attempt to appease the ‘revolting students.’ What this meant for me was that I was given an impossibly diverse choice of courses to sign up for, even though my major subject would concern Britain Between the Wars. As a result I found myself studying, amongst other things, The Cultural Revolution in China, Epistomology, The Romantic Poets, Ancient China and Understanding Children.

I’m not sure why I did this, other than that I could, but I’m glad that such eclecticism was available; it helped shape my world view in a way that my narrow and confined courses in Australian High School never would have. I had gone from a fairly staid and somewhat oppressive background to an environment where people discussed Marx, Engels, Mao, the rise of the working classes, philosophy, music and politics, with enthusiasm and real insight, and I loved it. We once spent a whole morning discussing whether or not the tree outside the lecture room really existed (Epistomology), and were then asked to write a poem about how it made us feel. Scary stuff for a country boy from Dubbo, but at the same time, brilliant!

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Chapter 3 - Mechanical Interludes (Part 1)

Charlie at Glastonbury 1984
Mechanical Interludes (Part 1)
About six months after Katharine & I had bought Charlie, the engine started making a faint popping noise. Now when you live with a VW aircooled engine long enough you begin to be able to diagnose the difference between the normal chugginess – as someone once said ‘it sounds like a tractor’ – and the portent of something more serious. I could tell that this was more than Ron’s ‘blowback’ gotten worse, but was not yet sufficiently versed in the specific sounds that emanated from the rear of the van to be able to make a firm diagnosis.
At the time we were members of the ‘South London Anti Nuclear Group’ and a bit of what is now called networking established that the man we needed to talk to was Christof, an infrequent attendee of the monthly meetings, but someone who apparently knew his way around anything & everything mechanical. Christof lived in a squat in Stockwell, South London, having moved to the UK from his native South Africa a few years before. He was one of the biggest people I’d ever met, almost as broad as he was tall, but all muscle, and a constant smile of delight and merriment illuminated his bearded, bear-like countenance. He posessed a booming voice to go with his physique, and no feat of physical or mechanical engineering was ever a problem to him. In fact, as far as I could tell he wasn’t constrained by the same universal laws as you or I, and could easily have been a member of an advanced species of beings from outer space, sent to help us puny earthlings. In the time I was privileged to know him, I saw him lift a VW engine (Charlie’s actually) unaided, demolish almost the entire side of a house extension in a day and re-build it in almost as short a space of time, install plumbing and heating systems of fiendish complexity, and drink more home brew in one evening and remain standing than anyone reasonably has a right to. He was one of those rare people who seems to know something about everything without being a know-it-all, and who lights up your life for a brief period and then is gone – in Christof’s case back to South Africa, about two years after arriving in the UK.

He was also a qualified VW mechanic, and his initial dignosis of Charlie’s popping noise was not encouraging. ‘Missing on one cylinder’ was all he had to say after a cursory inspection and a brief period listening to the van. ‘Probably a blown valve’ he added after a while, ‘need to take the engine out and get at the heads’, and then, seeing the look of anguish on my face as I contemplated a hefty mechanics bill, added kindly: ‘Won’t take more than a few days, shouldn’t cost much, you can do it in the garage round the side, and I’ll give you a hand.’ He went on to expain that VW aircooled engines almost invariably had problems with the inlet valve on the No 3 cylinder – mainly because this is the one which gets the least amount of cooling from the fan. I suspect its also part of the cosmic joke inflicted by the VW engineers which dictates that everything that is most important is almost completely inaccessible and that everything that can go wrong will involve having to remove at least three other pieces of kit before you can get to the real culprit.

Whilst the offer of help was mildly encouraging the idea of me giving Christof a hand, rather than vice versa, was pretty disconcerting. Did he not realise - I was afraid of oil, and had never used a spanner in anger before! I was also less than enamoured with the ‘garage round the side’, which turned out to be a very basic ‘lean to’ type structure with a leaky corrugated metal roof, no doors to speak of, and a dirt floor. I agonised about security, picturing the local populace visiting my precious vehicle at night and removing anything of value, or even spiriting the whole van away – busted engine and all. When I explained this Christof raised himself up to his full six foot ten height and assumed a look of such ferocity that I immediately knew the local criminals would never contemplate such rashness or temerity, and was reassured.
While we were working on the van Christof found time, in amongst holding down a job and regularly raiding Smithfields Market for out of date fruit and veg, to put up some doors. In true Christof style, they were beauties, strong and well crafted, and certainly had the effect of deterring any would be villains from attempting to steal my beloved machine. We began work one balmy Saturday afternoon. Christof in fact took charge, and I did very much become his assistant during the whole process. He worked with dazzling speed, barking orders and keeping up a running commentary. I was required to fetch tools and label various parts, including nuts and bolts, as we went: ‘so that you’ll know what to do when you’re putting it back together’ smiled Christof, and I hoped he was only being semi-serious. We had the engine out in under three hours, but he told me this was ‘very slack’ as the official time in a VW garage was about 35 minutes. Despite having a state of the art set of ‘Snap On’ tools, he was unfazed by the lack of a hoist or any of the the other hi-tech gizmos found in most modern workshops, and once all the ancillaries had been disconnected lifted Charlie’s engine out using only a makeshift trolley and a huge amount of brute strength. Once we’d gotten the engine out the serious business of stripping it down began.
This is probably a bit of a petrol-head moment, so for all of you who aren’t interested in the interior workings of of the aircooled engine, I’ll cut straight to the chase and tell you that Christof’s initial diagnosis about the blown valve was correct, and that eventually we replaced several valves and had the heads re-polished. This all took a week or so – we had to wait for parts, and my mentor could only work on the job in the evenings. Once back together and re-installed, the engine purred in a highly satisfactory manner, as much as an aircooled engine can purr, and it was several years before we needed any further major work on the engine.

Mechanical Interludes (Part 2)

This didn’t however spare us from some of the other tricks Charlie had up his sleeve. On the first trip to Ireland for example, a roadside picnic was followed by a complete refusal on the part of the engine to start. By this time I had considerably more mechanical knowledge, and armed with ‘The Compleat Idiot’s Guide to the Volkswagen’ by John Muir, I eventually diagnosed a stuck solenoid on the starter motor. This is a fairly common intermittent fault, and all that was required to get the engine turning over was for someone (me) to crawl under the van with a screwdriver and cross the two terminals on the solenoid. Muir’s longer term advice on this is fairly obvious; replace the solenoid you idiot – a fairly easy and cheap expedient – but in fifteen years I somehow never got around to doing this, and from that point on Charlie would regularly refuse to start - often in the most inconvenient situations – in traffic jams, on ferries, going through customs while smuggling dope, in motorway service stations, on muddy camp sites, usually in the pouring rain. I (and it was always me) would then have to perform what became known to the family as ‘the old screwdriver trick’, bringing entertainment and amusement in varying degrees to whoever comprised our touring party at the time. My response was always depressingly similar – bitter complaints followed by an avowal to ‘get a mechanic to fix this as soon as we get home’, but it all came to nought. Eventually we came to think of it as Charlies’s way of reminding us about the uncertainty of all things, and learned to live with it, if not to love it.

On this last note, I think we’ve lost something in our digital propelled, jerky video, soundbite driven age, something that people used to understand instinctively. I’m talking about the idea that things can take time, that the unexpected is often just around the corner, and sometimes we need to embrace life’s by-ways, diversions and frustrations, and not expect everything to work perfectly. We’re so used to getting in our cars and driving long distances without any problems that we’re offended by any difficulties that may arise, preferring not to think about the people we might meet and the challenges that might ensue if our mechanical contrivances did not function so perfectly, and we were to be thrown back on ‘the kindness of strangers.’ Every journey in Charlie was an adventure, partly because we always picked up a hitch-hiker or two along the way - and they were nearly always interesting, but mainly because we were never absolutely certain of reaching our final destination, and this turned every trip into an exploration of life on its edge, rather than on its periphery. As the sage probably didn’t say: ‘its better to travel than arrive.’
Charlie may have liked playing tricks on us, but in the big things he never let us down. No matter where we were in the world, even severe mechanical failure was seen by Charlie as just another challenge to be overcome. He never failed to get us home, and for this we were always inordinately grateful. 

Perhaps the best example of this came in Scotland in 1984. Storm force weather on the Isle of Arran meant the cancellation of what remained of the summer programme of ferry crossings, and we were lucky to be on the last boat to leave the island before two weeks of complete suspension of the service. Back on the mainland, it was raining in pretty much tropical fashion, while a gale of hurricane like proportions began to blow. Charlie was clearly uncomfortable with all this, and stalled several times in the first fifty miles of driving, necessitating ‘the old screwdriver trick’ in atrocious conditions. Being wet and thoroughly miserable, it didn’t improve my humour to discover on my second sojourn round the back that the engine had developed a crack in the crankcase through which large amounts of oil were being forced out under pressure. In any conventional engine this would have been a death knell, and knowing that its approximately 500 miles from Glasgow to London, my usual optimism began to desert me. Surely not even an engine as sturdy as Charlies’s would withstand such a journey? I was not relishing telling the others about this, but they would have to know, and with a heavy heart I explained what had happened.......(to be cont)

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Chapter 2 - How Not to Purchase a VW Camper

Kath in the Peaks - honeymoon 1982

Part 1 - (Dis)organisation
 'The fact that one day this schoolboy dream eventually became a reality, was due almost entirely to one man’s lack of organisation and the quick thinking of another…..'

Few people are foolish enough to purchase their first serious car in the dark, and without having driven it! Yet this is exactly what myself and my partner did in 1981 when we invested what, for us, was a considerable sum of money in our first Kombi van. In fact it was a 1972 Camper van – known as the Type 2 or T2, converted by a company called “Devon”, with a cooker, sink, coolbox, and two bunk beds in the roof. It had a radio cassette player – a fact the owner was proud enough to record on our receipt – and came with the original instruction manual and service record. It cost £1500, a princely sum in 1981.

That the purchase was made in the dark, without a test drive, was due almost entirely to my impatience to own a VW camper…any VW camper, as well as a complete ignorance of all things mechanical. It could have cost us dear, but in fact was probably one the best decisions we’ve ever made. Responding to an ad in Loot – in the days when ads for air cooled VW’s in Loot ran in the hundreds – I had a brief telephone conversation with the owner, and heartened by the fact he was an expat Aussie on his way home, agreed that he would bring the van to our flat in Croydon for a viewing.

Not completeley unaware of our mechanical naivety, we had hatched a cunning plan. In the flat downstairs from us lived a driving instructor called Ron, and in our eyes, well, a driving instructor must know a thing or two about motors, surely! Ron had agreed, in what I retrospectively diagnosed as a furtive manner, to give our prospective purchase the once over, hence the need for the mountain to come to Mohammed. By day, Ron was a mild mannered driving instructor, but at night and at weekends he became Medallion Man, replete with shirt unbuttoned to the waist, a chest wig, and more gold jewellery than is healthy for the average adult to wear. He had only two records – one by Demis Roussos, and the other Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield - which he played continually, at volumes loud enough to be heard clearly in our upstairs flat (god, how I grew to loathe those records), but he was generous of nature, and had clearly taken pity on us and our state of mechanical virginity.

So there we stood, in the street, on an early spring evening in leafy Croydon, watching the time slide by, and waiting expectantly for the bus to arrive…..and waiting…..and waiting….'till night arrived with her purple legions' as Jim Morrison puts it, with still no sign of the van. Then in the distance, the (what was to become) familiar chunter of the air cooled engine announced its arrival. The owner apologised profusely for the lateness of arrival, got lost at Bexleyheath, terrible traffic etc etc, but he may as well have been talking Martian, because by this time I only had eyes – and ears – for the awesome vehicle in front of us. ‘It’s got blow back Dick” Ron’s voice rudely interrupted my reverie, “It’s blowing back.” Ron had astutely diagnosed an age old failing with VW vans – the heating to the cab is piped in through vents running from the engine, and sometimes as metal fails and pipes corrode, the proximity of this system to the exhaust vents results in an acrid – and potentially poisonous - cocktail of fumes swirling around the interior. My only previous experience of ‘blow back’ however involved illegal substances and unhygenic practices, and I brushed Ron’s protestations aside with a feeble, albeit determined, wave of my hand.

To say I wanted this vehicle would be an understatement, I was drooling with the kind of fanatic desire that only afflicts the truly deranged, and my partner, Katharine, who has a profound understanding of what drives me, gave the go-ahead. It was in fact her money financing this mad indulgence of mine, and she was entited to her one condition. This was that we see the van by daylight, which we duly did the following day. The sale was sealed, our friend Becki (of who more later) was enlisted to drive it home for us – neither of us had licences at the time - and in due homage to John Steinbeck, we named the vehicle ‘Charlie’ after the great author’s final book: ‘Travels with Charly’. We mis-spelt ‘Charly’ but what the heck, the idea was a good one.

Part 2 - Organisation
I, of course was the disorganised man in this story.
The quick thinking one had made a decision some 35 years earlier which was to have profound and far reaching effects, not only for Volkswagen the company, but also for millions of people who subsequently had what can only be described as irrational, but passionate love affairs with VW campervans. His name was Ivan Hirst, and he was a Major in the British army tasked just after the war with producing some cheap, easy to manufacture vehicles to transport army personnel around Germany. Since the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg came under British jurisdiction this seemed like an ideal place to start, and rather than start from scratch, Hirst decided to use the materials he had available.

Popular legend has it that since the Wolfsburg factory was in a badly bombed out state, all the machine tools necessary to make VW’s were seconds away from destruction (by the ignorant, unromantic Yanks of course), but that Major Hirst intervened, stopping the demolition crews at the very last minute, thereby single handedly saving the VW brand, including the campervans so loved by hippies, surfers and counter-culture revolutionaries everywhere. This story has to my knowledge not been verified, even so, seen only as an apocryphal tale it is still fantastic, and I for one, firmly believe it!

It is also slightly amazing that a vehicle now synonymous with peace, love and surfboards was inspired by one of the great monsters of the 20th Century – Adolf Hitler. In 1933, Hitler proposed a people's car that could carry 5 people, cruise up to 62mph, return 33mpg, and cost only 1000 Reich Marks. He enlisted car designer and manufacturer Ferdinand Porsche to come up with a vehicle that could be purchased for the equivalent of an average working mans yearly wage. It was as much an opportunity for Porsche to push his idea of a small car foward, as it was to help Hitler get a real people's car for the citizens of Germany, and in 1938 pre-production of what was to be known as the KdF Wagen began. With the onset of war this never progressed past prototype stage, although the factory at Wolfsburg produced many vehicles known as the Kubelwagen. The K├╝belwagen was a simple looking military vehicle that used the same parts as the KdF Wagen, but had a flat-sided body, and increased ground clearance. It was basically Germany's jeep in WWII. Within a year of the end of the war, and with some revisions to Porsche’s original design for the KdFwagen, some 10,000 VW’s had been produced. The British renamed the factory Wolfsburg – the name of the local castle - and the company became Volkswagen. The rest, as they say, is history.

History courtesy of:

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Chapter 1 - The Old Main Drag

Charlie in Arran 1984

This is kinda what I call a 'Histoblog.' In other words it's about stuff that happened in the past which I hope some people might find interesting. I'm going to add to it every few weeks, and tell the story of my family's life with a much loved VW camper van.

Part 1 - Discovery

In 1967, when I was 14, a momentous event took place that was to affect the course of much of the rest of my life. Friends of my parents, who were travelling the world in what I later discovered to be an early model Volkswagen camper van, came to stay with us at our home in Dubbo, Australia. Dubbo was at that time a medium sized town in New South Wales, slap bang in the middle of the wheat – sheep belt. The earth for many miles around was bright red, sandstone in origin, and indeed Dubbo is the aboriginal word for ‘red earth.’ Farms were so massive we talked proudly of owners who had to drive 50 miles to the front gate to pick up the mail (almost certainly an exaggeration), or who took most of a day just to drive round the perimiter fence (almost certainly true).

To be 14 in such a town can only reasonably described as long periods of tedium interspersed with longer periods of tedium. This monotony was ocasionally interrupted by the odd bout of sheep rustling or kangaroo invasion, and once, most famously when when the population reached the dizzying heights of 20,000. This landmark event inspired the powers that be to declare Dubbo a city, and begin a week long jamboree of celebration involving the Premier of NSW, a circus, dancing girls, an official launch, a parade, and a motorcade which toured regally up and down the two main streets - Macquarie St and Talbragar St – for most of the day.

For all I know they’re still at it: the ritual was well known, and probably survives to this day - up Macquarie St, turn right into Talbragar St, chuck what is affectionately known as a uee (u-turn) at the end of Talbragar St, left into Macquarie St, uee (pronounced ewe ee ) at the end of Macquarie St and so on, until terminal boredom or death intervened. I always hoped that girls in short skirts would intervene – but it rarely happened.

Given that the nearest cinema was a mere 45 miles away in an even smaller and marginally less interesting town called Narromine - this ritual was a popular pastime the local (male) youth used to mistake for entertainment on a Friday and Saturday night. It involved sitting in bright metallic purple utility trucks (Utes), and parading slowly up and down the above mentioned circuit – the main drag – smoking, trying to look hard but casual, and whistling at the local girls, who carried out a similar perambulatory pattern, but only on foot. On such small things are childhoods built, and mine was certainly enriched by this weekend promenade, but somewhere at the back of my mind I suspected that there should be more to life, and I was soon to be proven right.

Of course, at that age I was still slightly too young for girls, and instead had put my faith in musicians such as the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Cream, and my romantic – but hazy – idealisation of all things English: Carnaby Street, swingin’ London, football - although I had little idea of how this was actually played - and for no particular reason, fish and chip suppers, which I imagined fondly to be enjoyed by salt of the earth types on their way home from the football through the mean - but still romantic - streets of Bradford or Bingley or somewhere similarly industrial. As far as I was concerned (and still am, having now lived here for 30 years) England was the cradle of civilisation, the font of all things good, and home to some wicked rock music.

Part 2 - Slight Diversion

I know that by now you’ll be tapping your fingers and thinking to yourself “when is he going to tell us about this ‘momentous event’ – bet it turns out to be a damp squib”, but I need to digress slightly in order to explain the background to all this. You see – and invariably people in the UK are shocked to find this out, believing completely in the Australian twang which even after 30 years remains in my voice – I was born in England. Ipswich to be precise, but I guess nobody’s perfect. My hankering after the ‘mother country’ was therefore fuelled by not only by rememberance of a former life but also by the smouldering indignation that I’d been removed from all the happenings at home, just as they’d started to, well, happen.

It had come as a complete surprise, when, at the tender and impressionable age of ten, my parents - who had never previously done anything more interesting than getting out of bed - announced we were to circumnavigate the globe and settle in a small town in the middle of Australia. My father – a doctor opposed to the NHS just as everyone else in England was getting into the idea, had met a man in a pub who turned out to be another doctor, and in a rash, presumably drunken moment the two had agreed to join forces to set up a practice in the smallest, remotest place they could think of – in this case Dubbo.

I don’t really remember a great deal about life up to that point, but I do remember having been quite content in Ipswich doing the usual stuff that kids did in those days – playing marbles in the school playground, listening to Round the Horn and The Goons on the radio, playing cricket, football or any game involving small spherical objects in the street, playing with my go kart (also in the street – why were the streets so much safer then?) and hearing for the first time the strains of She Loves You wafting out of someone’s kitchen window. This latter event was also fairly momentous, but is another chapter in this story.

It followed then, particularly given that I shared the innate conservativeness of most young people, that I didn’t really want to leave Ipswich, but felt that humouring my parents was probably the best policy. Subsequently – following an eight week voyage that involved the Suez Canal and stops at various exotic locations - we found ourselves in a strange and inhospitable looking country where huge water tanks and strange metal windmills inhabited a landscape made up of of red earth, red dirt that blew with every gust of wind, roads that ran straight for hundreds of miles, scrubby bits interspersed with more scrubby bits, and houses built on stilts with wooden verandahs all round. Australia is of course so much more than this, as I later discovered, but it’s amazing how much of an impact early impressions make on us and how long they stay with us.

And so back to where I began. You may have guessed from the title of this tome that whilst this uprooting of home and country was certainly a momentous event, it is not the one referred to earlier. The one I’m talking about was of an entirely different magnitude, being an inspirational rather than physical jolt to my comfortable location in the space /time continuum. Just a few times in an average person’s life they feel lifted, transcendent and aware of something almost spiritual, and nothing had quite prepared me for the experience I was about to encounter. In later life I encountered it again when I got married and when each of my three children was born, but until that point I had no idea that anything quite as uplifting could exist.

That the feelings of entirely new possibilities, of endless open roads and windswept locations, of driving through the night for no other reason that it was possible, of different cultures and exotic beaches, were engendered by the squat and somewhat dusty object that had come to rest like a beached whale under the canopy leading to my parent’s garage, came as quite a surprise. I’d always been aware, in a Roy of the Rovers way, of the role played by discoverers and adventurers, but they’d always seemed distant and remote and required to wear ridiculous pith hats or say things like ‘This tomb is cursed, I can just feel it.’ This was not a particularly cool or desirable way to carry on in my view, but the vehicle that sat in front of me now was decidedly cool and pointing to a future of seductive shininess.

It had a slightly menacing split windscreen, giving the appearance of an aeroplane (a Messerschmitt I decided, which given its origin was quite an educated guess), and this impression was heightened by the small cooling fins that ran across the side doors and down the sides at the back. It was obviously a vehicle intended for transporting people in style, but it was also more than that. It had – oh joy - a cooker and a sink and sometimes in the evenings my parent’s friends would sit in it on the step, cooking meals which evoked images of far away places. Particularly important in my estimation, it had bunk beds where you could sleep, which suggested this was a travelling home you could take anywhere – something we now take for granted in the age of huge American motor-homes, but at the time completely revolutionary. It carried the spare tyre on the front, giving it the rakish appearance of something that really meant business, and I was told, although I never got to see this bit, it had a roof which could be elevated, thereby making the inside so large you could stand up.

It was love, or maybe lust, almost at first sight. Like Toad I could see myself thrilling to the joys of travel, proceeding through deserts, mountain ranges, rainforests with equanimity, always with a “yarn” to tell, always being bought a pint in some far away outback bar. I decided, before my parents’ friends drove away into the sunset, that one day I would own such a wonderful machine.

The fact that one day this schoolboy dream eventually became a reality, was due almost entirely to one man’s lack of organisation and the quick thinking of another…..