Mrs Garmin or Mrs Tom Tom?

In the early years of SATNAVs some family members came to visit. These are the relatives in our extended family to whom we are closest, socially if not geographically. They had visited on countless occasions during the twenty or so years we’d occupied our home and while they are not the most punctual of visitors they have travelled to stay with us enough times to know the route blindfold [as it were].

On this particular weekend we received a phone call from them to report progress on their travel. ‘We’re in Portsmouth’ they informed us. Portsmouth? Taking a route from their house to ours via Portsmouth would add a significant amount of time to the journey. ‘But this is the way the SATNAV brought us’ they said. Leaving aside the unlikely event of their losing their way on such a much-driven road we were at pains to understand why the device led them via Portsmouth.

Since then of course most of us have adopted satellite navigation systems in our vehicles, but while they are useful on occasion [especially for finding out-of-the-way campsites] they are not to be relied upon or obeyed without question. Husband, in his map-obsessed way likes to programme with co-ordinates whereas I prefer to key in an address. Both methods can succeed or fail and both are tricky whilst travelling.

For many years we’ve used Mrs Garmin, a stern-voiced martinet who was never able to back down in a stand-off, ordering us to turn the vehicle around for many kilometres past the junction where we’d disobeyed her. As she repeated her requests to take the last exit at the next roundabout or to make a U-turn she would appear to become more agitated, her voice more strident.

Another of her foibles was to lead us into ever smaller lanes until we’d be travelling on narrow cart tracks brushing the hedge on both sides, grass growing along the centre, whereupon the marked road on the screen would disappear altogether leaving the tiny, blue cartoon vehicle rotating in the middle of a large field. At this point the chequered flag was likely to materialise.

Mrs Garmin’s command of languages was also lamentable, her pronunciation of street names often so poor as to be unintelligible. ‘A-vay-noo Gay-nay-ral De-gole’ she would assure us as we followed some mystifying ring road around for the third time.

Sparky, the beautiful, electric wonder that resides in our driveway possesses his own, integrated directions lady. She has a gentile, cultured tone and is never hectoring or dictatorial, although she is at pains to inform me of the same speed cameras with repetitive attention to detail.

Mrs Garmin went on her grouchy way along with Jazzer the campervan when he moved on to a new owner.

Now we have a new van [Cider] and we have Mrs Tom Tom, a slightly nasal creature who is less authoritarian but also less attentive and misses the turning sometimes. She knows nothing about the nearest supermarkets and has a lacklustre display. You can’t win them all…

 

A Leap with a Leaf

On the whole, vehicles are one of my non-interests, along with football and cricket, talent shows, fast food, misery memoirs and a few other tedious topics.

In a discussion on cars I’m interested in reliability first, followed by comfort and economy in equal measure. In a blatant betrayal of gender stereotyping I have opinions on colour, preferring black over any other but accepting of anything except pink, orange, red or lurid.

My first car, like many first cars, was a humble, ancient, faded turquoise Austin A40 with steering wheel so huge that steering around a corner was akin to half an hour’s workout on a rowing machine. Subsequent vehicles became newer, though never new. My least old car was also the worst, an indigo VW Polo that exhibited some kind of electrical fault and let me down with irritating frequency-most famously by giving up at traffic lights at a busy roundabout whilst I was wearing nothing but a bikini and flimsy sarong. Let this be a lesson, readers. This was also before the days of mobile phones.

Now, however it is time for my trusty, comfortable, economical, black Peugeot to find a new owner. It is also time for Husband and me to put our money where our mouths have been for so long and leap into the unknown with an eco-friendly, electric vehicle. They are cheap to run, cost nothing to tax and, most crucially do not belch noxious fumes into the environment. What can go wrong? We’ve adhered to our rule regarding no new cars and have purchased a two year old Nissan Leaf, an alien road ghost with a mysterious array of buttons and beeps.

We’ve begun to learn the ways of this enigmatic machine. We’ve learned that it drives as an automatic, that your left foot must never stray unbidden on to the ‘hand-brake’, which nestles on the floor under your left foot in a sly, provocative challenge as the result is a screeching kind of emergency stop. We know that it will refuse point-blank to cooperate unless your right foot is on the foot-brake [a more benevolent pedal].

We’ve begun to unravel the secrets of the ‘rapid’ charger at motorway services, having spent a frustrating half an hour unravelling the cryptic instructions for insertion, another half an hour in the dispiriting cafeteria [where you are at the mercy of the provision and the prices] and a further half an hour of mild panic discovering how to remove the charging nozzle.

We now know that the extravagant claims of 100 miles per charge are somewhat exaggerated, that a degree of planning must go into any journey of length and that the prices at motorway cafés render the price of the ‘rapid’ charge a little less economical.

We don’t expect to use the car for long journeys and we no longer have regular commutes to make us dependent. The change is a leap of faith in a time when leaps of faith may seem foolish or imprudent. It isn’t possible to make radical changes in the volatile climate of this unstable world but perhaps taking a deep breath and helping to clean some air is a miniscule step towards improving our immediate environment. Who knows?

A Potted Driving History

I learned to drive when I was twenty four. It was the mid seventies and I had all my lessons in the dark of a snowy winter in London. As my first test approached the instructor suggested I have some lessons during the day because I’d had no experience of driving in daylight.

I hadn’t needed a car for work, as I walked there. I was motivated by a need to be independent. I remember going to a party, staying late and having no means of getting home to my shared flat in Putney. A man I’d been chatting to offered me a lift back to my flat, which I gratefully accepted. Feeling I should reciprocate, when we arrived I offered coffee-an offer that was rejected. He didn’t want coffee, but he did want sex. I considered myself worldly as a twenty something-having been a student through late sixties hippy-dom, the freedom of ‘the pill’ and beyond into laissez-faire student territory, nevertheless I was shocked that someone would offer a lift and expect sex in return.

I needed two tests, failing my first [in Guildford] and taking the second only two weeks later [in Teddington]. Neither test venue was familiar to me. While waiting for the second test, with a new, female instructor we got a coffee and she proceeded to regale me with a tearful discourse on the subject of her messy divorce, an experience that I later conjectured as a device to avert pre-driving test nerves.

I got a car, a classy Austin A40 with a steering wheel so enormous that simply rounding a bend almost wrenched my arms from their sockets and only one door that would open; this was the rear tailgate. Entering the vehicle involved climbing into it and diving to the front seat-not a dignified manoeuvre. None of this mattered. I had my independence.

I got to like driving-I still do, but roads, traffic and vehicles have changed in the intervening years. Here in the UK there are few major roads that don’t become clogged with traffic for at least some time during every day. A few days ago, sitting overlooking the M1 motorway at Leicester Forest services the road seemed like some future dystopian world where colossal titans spewing noxious gas had taken possession of the planet and had multiplied until every vestige of space and air were exhausted.

I’ve also noticed that age strips some driver confidence away, resulting in fearfulness of the speed and aggression you find amongst traffic in large conurbations or on five-lane motorways. I am spooked by angry hooting, vehicles cutting across mine at roundabouts or pushing out from junctions in front of me. ‘Be my guest’ I want to squeak, ‘you go first-if your need is so urgent you must terrify everyone else to satisfy it’.

Symptomatic of today’s society? Perhaps. In larger countries with more space and in less populated areas driving can be reminiscent of my early driving years. This is often true for travel away from the autoroutes in France, although time must be no object. How will it all pan out? I can only imagine the vehicles nose-to-tail habit will progress to being conjoined-and then what? Oh of course-railways.

Oil or Nothing

On the face of it to us proles, it seems like a wonderful, unexpected gift that oil prices have fallen to such an extent. We take our vehicles to the pumps and Whoopee! The price of filling up to the brim has dropped like a brick in a mine shaft.

It doesn’t stop there. Prices of things, dependent on transport costs are also down. Hoorah! Rejoice! This leaves more cash in the pocket. We can travel further, travel more often, buy more stuff, throw old stuff away, make journeys we don’t need to, buy new, bigger vehicles and use more fuel. This is all marvellous…isn’t it?

Actually, while I am as pleased as anyone else at how cheap it has become to fuel the car, I have to confess to feeling uneasy about the falling petrol prices. Yes, we are all enjoying the benefits, but when the price of petrol and oil was prohibitive who didn’t rein in accordingly? There can be few ordinary people who didn’t count the cost of superfluous journeys or make other, thriftier arrangements for regular travel. During a particularly expensive period of fuel prices and shortages when I was still travelling for work I car-shared. Since then I’ve made every attempt to get to places by bike or on foot.

During the recession people bought less ‘stuff’. They made do. They decided they didn’t need the gargantuan flat-screen TV, the new Land Rover or the bespoke kitchen. They could fling a colourful throw over the tired sofa, buy a cheerful rug to cover the worn carpet and make the ten-year-old hatchback do the school run a bit longer. It was bad news for the retailers of course, but if it had continued, wouldn’t new, re-conditioning industries have sprung up? Years ago appliances could be repaired. Now there is no one who will mend a washing machine or a vacuum cleaner.

I’m not saying I want to go back fifty years in time. Heaven forbid! But isn’t it time we progressed past the ‘petrol-head’ stage? The car manufacturers ran out of inspiration for their ads years ago. It is time to make green, clean and mean on fuel sexy, not fast, enormous and petrol-glugging.

I know I’ve banged on about the odious ‘Top Gear’ and its moronic presenters before, but it is dispiriting that it should be one of the best-selling TV shows around the world. If the BBC can’t ditch it because of the revenue, surely it could be given a more eco-friendly slant? But now that oil is cheap this is even less likely to happen.

It has been proposed that the view that our house faces, the English Channel, should house an extensive wind farm. The forest of turbines would be visible like a distant swarm of insects from our decked balcony. It is a scenario that many cannot contemplate but myself, I would welcome the construction of the plant. We are all accustomed to electricity pylons-why not wind turbines? And after all, what alternatives are there?

Smaller is more beautiful…

                In a somewhat treacherous and hypocritical move, we have executed a kind of ‘upgrade’ of our travel vehicle and are now using a slightly larger camper van. I say this because I’m aware that I posted on the pecking order and the relative sizes of travel vehicles at around this time last year. We were always the smallest unit in the village, the runt of the litter, dwarfed by the gargantuan motor-homes that surrounded us. The ironic outcome of this change is that we are still the smallest camper van wherever we go, owing I presume to the fact that everyone else has acquired a larger one also.

                Husband mourns the tiny van and was reluctant to exchange it for the current home-on-wheels. I accept it is trickier to manoeuvre and cannot be used as an extra car at home, but the advantages are undeniable. It has a large, comfortable bed constructed from the two plush sofas lining the walls, a walk-in shower and toilet cubicle, a cooker complete with oven, swish windows complete with blinds and pull up insect screens, skylights and a wondrous amount of storage. All this luxury is quite enough two people. It makes me a little curious to know why other couples would need such enormous wheeled dwellings. And how much must it cost in fuel? And where on Earth do they keep it, assuming they have a bricks-and-mortar house elsewhere?

                How bizarre it is that in the present day, when technological advances seem concentrated on producing ever smaller devices- tiny ‘watch’ style internet consoles, Google’s strange glasses with internet screen [won’t everyone be bumping into each other?] etc, other items become larger and larger. TV screens, lattes, beds, cruise ships, aeroplanes, McDonalds’ meals and people are growing bigger by the day.

                Wouldn’t make more sense for the collected, obvious genius behind such marvellous and desirable, tiny objects such as slimmer tablets and phones to direct their talents into technology that reduces our need for so much power to use them?

                The French have constructed a cunning new law for owners of motor-homes so massive that little cars needed to be towed behind them. A HGV licence is necessary for the additional vehicle to be hauled along behind the mother ship. The lack of these small cars rolling along behind is starkly noticeable, although how the inmates are coping with their daily needs is not altogether clear. For us, little in this respect has changed. We shop in between one destination and another, we park up, we free our bikes from the back and use them to collect what we need. We also get to cycle around the lanes in the Provencal sunshine looking at the rural landscape and stopping at an occasional hostelry for a glass of vin [me] or a beer or two [Husband].

                We have learned not to dash around ticking off sights in an ‘if it’s Wednesday it must be Rome’ way, getting to know a small area; the beautiful, medieval villages, the vineyards and the orchards-currently clouded with pink blossom. Small [even if a modicum bigger] really is better.