A Blast From the Past

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    Well, it’s a couple of months since we had a blog, so I’m taking a leaf out of Athelstone’s book and digging up one of my old blogs from the Cloud. Apologies to any who remember it, but I think it’s one of the more entertaining of my efforts because (a) it recounts probably the nearest thing to an adventure in my generally staid life, and (b) I seem to remember writing it in a spontaneous splurge one Sunday evening under the mellowing influence of a good dinner and a fair amount of wine.

    The Adventure of the Lolly Stick

    I must have been bloody mad.

    Not to go on our first camping and touring holiday in France, but to do so in an eighteen-year-old car. Well, I’d just bought my first car, and I guess I got a bit over-enthusiastic. How else can I explain my belief that it would be practical to drive from London to Dover, get the ferry, and then drive from Calais to the Jura (about 400 miles), all in one day? In a 1960 Morris Minor?

    We got to the campsite, but only late in the evening, stressed out and totally shattered.

    My plans for the next bit of travel were just wildly optimistic: across the middle of France to the Dordogne, another 400 mile drive. After a few days of relaxation in the beautiful mountain scenery, we thought we were ready for it, but was the car? Somewhere in Burgundy, with the journey not much more than a quarter done, the charge light started to flicker.

    It was a bright sunny day, and, ostrich-like, I hoped I was just seeing things in the glare. I didn’t know that much about cars, and all I could think of doing was to carry on. But no, I wasn’t seeing things. Before long the flicker was a steady glow. Well, the car was still going. Maybe we could reach our destination and then see about getting it attended to the next day.

    Oh no, we couldn’t. Gradually, oh so gradually, the car got slower and slower as the spark got feebler. It became dismayingly likely that we weren’t going to reach the Dordogne that day, if at all.

    The end came in the evening as we were trying to climb a long gradual hill leading out of a village in the Auvergne, one of the most bucolic and old-time-y regions of France. The old Morris no longer had the power to deal with the gradient, and spluttered to a halt. Not fancying sitting in the middle of nowhere, we got out, pushed the car across the road, and rolled back down the hill into the village. I managed to bump-start the car on the downhill, and there was just enough grunt left to park in the village square (no French village is complete without one).

    Making it back to the village didn’t help us much. It was quite late in the evening by then, and there wasn’t a sign of life anywhere. There was nothing for it but to get out our sleeping bags and bunk down as best we could in the car.

    Around seven the next morning, a bit stiff and chilled but not seriously harmed, I got out of the car and wandered off to do some exploring, just on the off-chance of finding somewhere we might get some help. And, lo and behold, just round the corner was a garage. Well, the sign said so, and there was a petrol pump outside, but it looked more like an old barn. It was closed, but by the time I’d returned to the car, removed the battery, and staggered back round the corner with it, the door was open.

    I stuck my head into the gloom inside to see a man in overalls, getting on a bit. ‘Bonjour,’ he said.

    ‘Bonjour.’ That was the easy bit. I didn’t know the French for flat, nor even if they used the word for a knackered battery. But if you’re running a garage, and someone appears in your doorway cradling a car battery in his arms, I suppose it’s not difficult to guess what he wants.

    ‘C’est plat?’ he asked.

    ‘Oui,’ I replied thankfully. Another French word learned, and I’ve never forgotten it. As I’ve just proved.

    He took the battery and hooked it up to a voltmeter. When he saw the reading , he whistled. ‘Mon dieu, c’est plat!’

    ‘Deux heures,’ I was told, once it had been put on charge. Two hours to kill in a small village in the middle of rural France. Well, for a start there were two needs that were becoming increasingly urgent: liquid in, and liquid out.

    There was a café. It was still not long after eight, but it was open, and I can tell you that ‘deux grands cafés’ never tasted so good. And while we were sitting there we were treated to a vignette of the old French way of life that was disappearing even then. A white-haired old man, wearing ‘les bleus’, the traditional blue overalls of the French farm worker, clogs, and yes, even a beret, wandered up to the bar, drank two glasses of red wine in about ten minutes, and wandered out again.

    Now it was time to see to our other need. Enquiring of Madame behind the bar, we were directed through an outside door, through a small yard full of chickens, and through another door. It was a hole-in-the-ground, a squatter (of course). There was neither window nor light, and the internal walls appeared to be made of old railway sleepers. It was, shall we say, the most characterful toilet I have ever used. As I relieved myself I swear I heard a pig grunting on the other side of those sleepers.

    There was more fun when I went to collect the battery. When I asked combien, Monsieur asked me for ‘Deux mille.’

    Bewilderment. Had I heard right? Surely he couldn’t be asking two thousand francs just for charging a battery. I didn’t have that much. Nowhere near it. It was more than the whole bloody car was worth.

    God knows how long we might have stood staring blankly at each other if his wife hadn’t happened to be in the room. She thumped his arm. ‘Vingt francs!’ she said, and I could hear the ‘You old fool!’ that she hadn’t said hanging in the air.

    Ah, yes! Back around 1960 the French had revamped their currency, the new franc being worth a hundred of the old. I’d heard that some of the older people had continued to think in old francs (the same way as I still have to convert Centigrade to Fahrenheit before temperatures mean much to me), and here, nearly twenty years on, was the proof. With relief, I handed him his twenty francs and took the battery back to the car.

    It would have been wiser, of course, to have got him to look at the car to get the problem fixed, but, apart from the difficulties of explaining the situation in French, we were already running a day late, and there was no telling how long it might take to get hold of parts for an obsolete British car in a rural backwater in the middle of France. Where would we stay in the meantime? It had taken most of the previous day for the battery to give out, and I was hoping that, freshly charged, it would last until we got to our campsite. Still, it was a hell of a risk. I must have been mad.

    Except that this time the risk paid off, and we reached the Dordogne in the middle of the afternoon and found our campsite, with the engine still running strongly. After we’d settled in to our tent, MrsB went for a wander round the site while I got out my tools and opened the bonnet. I thought I ought at least to take a look, just in case it was something so simple even I could fix it.

    Right. Not enough charge. I’d already checked for loose connections, so the first suspect had to be the generator. Yes, fortunately it was an old-fashioned dynamo, O Level (GCSE to you) physics stuff that I could understand, rather than an alternator. I took it out and, because it was the easiest thing to do, started by removing the brushes and examining them. Their faces were dull. It looked like I had found the problem.

    Electric motors and dynamos are basically the same thing – they just work the opposite way round to each other. In a dynamo, if you spin the bit inside, called the armature, it produces an electric current. In a motor, if you feed in an electric current the armature spins. The current gets into or out of the armature via ‘brushes’, which aren’t usually really brushes but chunks of carbon, held by springs against a part of the spinning armature called the commutator. That’s a lot of high-speed rubbing, so if those pieces of carbon are dull rather than shiny black, they aren’t touching the commutator. So, no current in or out.

    The brushes were worn out. They’d worn down so far that the springs couldn’t press them against the commutator. But I wasn’t likely to find any replacements here. What I could do was to put something between the springs and the brushes, to press the brushes down harder. Little slivers of wood would do. I had a Stanley knife. Were there any twigs lying about? Not ideal, but it might work.

    At that moment MrsB came back. ‘They’ve got these Grand Marnier flavour lollies in the shop,’ she said. ‘Would you like one?’ And she held out a lolly to me.

    Light-bulb moment! A lolly stick was just the right thickness for my purposes. I ate the lolly, cut a couple of slivers from the stick, put them in the dynamo, re-installed it, and tried starting the car. It fired straightaway, and the charge light went out. Eureka!

    I shall never forget the dinner we had that evening in the campsite restaurant, a room in an old converted farmhouse complete with open fire. When you’ve been worried and stressed and the pressure’s come off, even small pleasures can become major events, and this was no small pleasure. At our table arrived in turn soup, snails, trout, steak, cheese and dessert. (Yes, they do it that way round in France. Got to have something to finish the wine with.) It was all delicious. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a meal more, before or since.

    That lolly stick got us home. True, the exhaust started to fall to pieces a few days later, and we rolled into Calais sounding a bit like a Spitfire coming in to land, but that’s another story. The moment of that holiday I remember the most vividly is my wife holding out an ice lolly to me…


    Great blog, Richard. You captured both the disaster of the car journey and the pleasure of the holiday. Perfectly done.

    With modern cars, it’s easy to take things for granted and forget that comparatively recently many things about cars were surprisingly simple, if not primitive. Heating is a classic case. Today many vehicles have in-car air conditioning that could service a small house. Yesterday we had a series of pipes directly connecting the engine cavity to the passenger compartment, with a fan to pull air through. Turn the controls to cold and a flap switched the pipes to get air from outside. There’s nothing quite like being stuck in traffic in the scorching heat of summer low on oil or water with the heater on full blast and all the windows open to prevent the engine seizing.

    Not that long ago, it seems (but probably many years), I pulled into a garage with a spluttering engine. “It’s not a big job but it’ll be all day,” the mechanic apologised, “we have to wait for Ken to finish what he’s on.” Seeing three mechanics sipping tea and chatting I asked why so long. “Well,” he said “the carburettor has to be stripped and cleaned and Ken’s the only one who’s ever worked on one.”


    I have a friend (though I don’t see much of him now), of a much more practical bent than me, who for nearly twenty years kept the first new car he’d bought back in the seventies (a Vauxhall Viva – remember them?) doing all his own maintenance and servicing. He doesn’t do that anymore. You can’t service a modern car without a garage’s specialist computer systems.

    I wonder what that old geezer in that garage in the Auvergne would have said about waiting for Ken? ‘Merde,’ probably.


    That used to be the way of it, doing all your own basic (and sometimes advanced) car maintenance. Sadly it was all mixed up with “manliness” which meant that if you didn’t know how to refit a complete gearbox you were somehow not quite fit for the gene pool. As I also lacked any interest in football, I was widely viewed as a bit of a no-hoper amongst many people I met as a youth.

    That said, it can be quite satisfying to fix something yourself. My daughter’s car, a Fiat 500, had an instrument console failure. This is a complete unit located behind the steering wheel. The local Fiat garage offered to replace it for £530 plus VAT. A little research online suggested that hers was a common problem caused by a poorly designed circuit board and several companies offered fixes including return postage for around £200. The downside was that you had to remove and refit it yourself. Very daunting but I did manage to turn her car into something resembling a half-gutted chicken and then reassemble it all later as though nothing had happened. Except that the panel worked properly. Of course these days, for most of these tasks, you can usually find a Youtube video that somebody has made showing how to do it.

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