I ride back from Heritage Rerstoration – Brentford to Camden – with the Vespa GT200 echoing off the concrete underside for the M4.  The re-growth of the 2cv seemed oddly familiar.  Even the echoes added to the mix of déjà vu and the feeling of an object-lesson in process.  As I pulled up to the lights at Western Avenue, drizzle spontaneously beading in the July humidity on my visor while the heat on my back from the sun made my lightweight Superdry jacket clammy, it came to me.  The tenacity and determination of three-years trying to get the 2cv built fitted exactly with my previous determination to do things my way.

On April fool’s day 1982 I left the dusty comfort of the BBC to set up my own television production business.  Several months before this I had been having early morning breakfasts with a possible investor at his table in The Connaught to plan the break.  At the time I lived a short cycle ride away in St Georges Fields, a gated complex of four-storey ziggurat blocks opposite Hyde Park. It had been designed and built by Group One in 1969 and one day, shortly after graduating from the film school, driving past the site while it was under construction I noticed a sign had gone up.  Underneath some exaggerated architects renderings of what it might look like it said: “Group One Housing Association.  Available, Spring 1970: one and two bedroom apartments”.  A housing association doesn’t sell property, it offers a share in the development which, in effect, becomes the deposit for an apartment.  It seems astonishing now, but having made some money flogging antiques I drove round the back, parked my rattly left-hand drive VW outside the site office, walked in and bought one lot of shares for £125…and then promptly forgot about it.

Time passed.  After getting a three-month contract from the BBC in 1970 I had felt confident enough to get out of the room I rented in mate’s flat and take out a lease (of sorts) on an attic flat in Bayswater from a landlord called Edward Ehlers.  Edward made a speciality of strategically buying condemned property, renting it out, then cashing-in when councils wanted compulsory purchase rights to rebuild a neighbourhood.  After a few months of living alone I started to share the flat with my girlfriend, Janice Everett.  It was tiny, but with my love of compact things, it gave me the opportunity and I set about optimising the space with fitted cupboards, fold down ironing boards – even building my own hi-fi out off Sinclair components.  Most of the material was salvaged from dumps.  For Janice – a textile designer – I converted one room into a studio including a Japanese-style dowelled-and-pegged shelf in hardwood to support a semi-professional knitting machine.

When in 1973 the council decided to knock the property down I had to fulfil my promise to Edward and get out.  With Janice needing more space I bought a sprawling Victorian garden flat in Sydenham for £20,000.  The idea was that it had a gigantic north facing room with big windows: ideal for her studio.  But, perhaps predictably, it rapidly developed into one of life’s mistakes.  Having already had a covert fling with Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto (who at the time was designing costumes for David Bowie) she never really moved in leaving me marooned in a part of London miles from my work and friends and the flat full of her unwanted stuff.  Instead she flew off to live in a New York loft with an Austrian artist called Alfons Schilling (someone who would later become quite a good friend).

I stuck it out in Sydenham for more than four years, buying a water-cooled three-cylinder Suzuki GT750 to commute to Shepherd’s Bush where I worked on Tomorrow’s World in the BBC’s Kensington House offices.  It was a ridiculously unsuitable motorcycle for commuting and after two years of grinding through traffic the Suzuki self-destructed – on a soaking wet night the ‘ball and ramp’ starter motor clutch suddenly engaged while I was doing thirty and erupted in a shower of metal fragments.  I pushed the Suzuki home and into the room that was to have been Janice’s studio.  There, as I fiddled with Japanese O-rings and alloy surfaces that refused to mate, swearing never to run a water cooled engine again, I rebuilt the block until I could ride it as far as the Honda dealer in Eltham and part exchange it for a tough little Honda N600 – a boxy yellow ochre air-cooled twin cylinder car – to continue my Shepherds Bush commute.  If the journey had been a snarled and tedious crawl on a bike, in a car, even a small one, it was hell.  Next I bought a Honda 250 trail bike that turned out to be a near perfect commuting machine and traded in the N600 for its snappier sports equivalent: a Honda Z600: the sporty version of the car in an egg-shaped bright orange body.  Z600s have turned into collector cars and are now worth good money, but mine worked for its living doing two long tours around Europe and many journeys to my sister in Gloucestershire.  It never missed a beat.  Being essentially Honda four-wheeled motorcycles these early Hamamatsu-built cars were astonishingly reliable, if rather crude in the suspension department.  The secret – as with all good vehicles – lay in its engine: a parallel twin with two perfectly swept 275cc barrels (just inside the ideal volume for a four-stroke engine as is the Citroen 2cv6’s 602cc twin) with an overhead camshaft driven by a hefty chain.  The all-synchromesh gearbox drove the front wheels and the whole lot was aluminium.  Being a Kei Car (a restricted Japanese category that doesn’t exist anywhere else called ‘keijidosha’ meaning ‘light automobile’) the Hondas were narrow and short, thus difficult to make elegant.  Honda faced this by creating the orange egg-shaped body for the Z that gave it a cute coupe look.  All very silly really, but great fun because the interiors of Kei cars were extraordinarily well equipped, and in the Z600’s case this meant aircraft type overhead controls for lights and other ancillaries.  It was in the Z that I drove past St Georges fields one day in 1974 and, fascinated to find out what had happened to my deposit, drove into the now well-landscaped estate and pulled up outside the office.  When I said who I was the manager immediately rose from his chair, shook my hand and asked where I’d been.  It turned out that a one-bedroom flat was waiting for me.  I could barely believe it.  After paying another £60 key money I left and when I got back to Sydenham started to pack up the big sprawling place I disliked so much.  It took another year to sell it, but when I did I was twenty-grand better off.  I banked the cash and took stock of my vehicles: the Honda Z, the Honda trail bike and a Solex.  I wanted something bigger.

In March 1977 I was by now the star director on the BBC science magazine programme Tomorrow’s World and on my way to Bologna.  It was just another assignment.  The job: make a six-minute insight into how one man was transforming Italy’s industry in the teeth of communist-inspired union disruption.  The man’s name was Alessandro de Tomaso.  He lived in Modena where his American wife ran a hotel for wealthy car enthusiasts – mostly Maserati owners.  Alessandro had just wrestled Maserati SpA from the clutches the Michelin dynasty and promptly fired the workforce.  When I got there the factory was shut.

Making the film meant travelling with the sharply dressed de Tomaso from Modena by road to Mandello del Lario where the oldest company in his empire, Moto Guzzi, built motorcycles.  Under his Brioni suit de Tomaso packed a Berretta M9 in a tan leather shoulder holster.  It turned out he also owned Fabbrica Berretta d’Armi Pietro Berretta because he had recently bought-out the old owners, motorcycle builders Benelli SpA. De Tomaso was an Argentinian who had driven to victory in Italian Formula One cars made by OSCA, part of Maserati.  As a top industrialist with connections to the Ford family (he had built the fearsome mid-engined Ford-powered De Tomaso Mangusta one of the inspirations for the Ford GT40) de Tomaso had become known in Detroit, and eventually Italy, as “Don Tomato” because of his mafia-like management style.  De Tomaso was inevitably on the left-wing Brigato Rosso wanted list, hence the gun. Alessandro de Tomaso had also bought Innocenti, the Milanese company that had invented Lambretta scooters, and was now building under licence the BMC Mini that de Tomaso had just had redesigned to great acclaim through his recently acquired carozzeria Bertone.  This innovative hatchback redesign was the main reason for my six-minute Tomorrow’s World story topically pegged to British Leyland’s launch of its ill-proportioned and lacklustre Mini replacement, the Metro.  The show’s anchorman, Raymond Baxter, thought my intention to make a film about an Italian Mini rather than the British car was in characteristic poor taste.  At the Moto Guzzi factory with its heroic Fascist test track built into the side of a rocky outcrop above Lake Como, I took a ride on the company’s latest model.  It was called the Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans PR.  PR stood for Production Racer because the bike was a “homologation special”.  That meant just enough were being built by de Tomaso’s factory for it to qualify as a production bike, although it was really a thinly disguised endurance machine for 24-hour road races based on the earlier Guzzi 750 S3.  I was smitten.

Back in London I looked up dealerships for Moto Guzzi.  There were two – one in Guildford and another in Wandsworth.  The Wandsworth dealership was new.  Called Continental Motorcycles it turned out to be a tiny shop at 51 Huguenot Place – now an Asian dry cleaner.  It had one silver-blue Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans.  I wanted a red one, but this was the only version available so I bought it for the list price of £1200.  The following week it was registered TGC 971R and the next part of the story begins.

I rode the snorting Moto Guzzi to work every day and parked it under the bridge that crossed the car park at BBC Kensington House (now a hotel) in a spot just below Esther Ranzen’s office.  Ranzen, who by then was a sort of BBC godess, violently disapproved of the thunderous off-beat noise, often dispatching a young runner called Peter Bazalgette to complain when I warmed up the mighty 850cc V-twin engine.  In the end Phil Daley (known in the BBC as ‘Twice Daley’ because he had worked for Bayer pharmaceuticals) who was Head of the BBC Science & Features Department, ordered the bike to be parked in the street using the full force of a BBC memo copied to the controller of BBC2, Brian Wenham.  Wenham, who had a dry sense of humour and was known as ‘Wenmo’ because of his acerbic one-line notes to people, strolled over to have a look at the offending motorcycle and decided it could stay in the car park as long as it was parked next to the yellow Toyota 2000 estate car belonging to the editor of the Man Alive programme, Desmond Wilcox.  It was Wenham’s idea of a joke.  Wilcox was Ranzen’s husband.

In the summer of 1978 I was in his office working on a Tomorrow’s World special about the revolutionary new fly-by-wire Airbus 320 when Dr Jonathan Miller popped his head around the office door and said he wanted to chat.  Miller had been trying (and failing) to find a way to present a series about man’s perception of the human body.  Large sums of money had been wasted trying come up with a way to do it.  He had heard that I – often seen walking around Kensington House wearing jodhpurs, leather officer’s boots, a pudding basin helmet and goggles – was good at visualising complicated ideas.   Two years after this first encounter I had directed and edited Miller’s thirteen programmes, now called The Body in Question.  Almost all of it had been filmed on Stage 2 at Ealing Studios where The Lady Killers and A Night to Remember had been made.  Standing outside those historic green painted stage doors the silver-blue Moto Guzzi had been an exotic and rare curiosity attracting the attention of any passing motorcycle enthusiast from the leather-clad actor John Gielgud on his BMW R90 to the diminutive ETU shop steward Tommy Moran.  But on a practical level the Guzzi had given me huge flexibility.  It had carried me between the locations, the office and the studios running rings around his executive producer, Karl Sabbagh, who shuffled about in taxis. During one of the rare foreign location shoots for the series in Rome I had persuaded the sharply dressed Italian electricians from Mole Richardson to take me to a performance motorcycle wholesaler for a pair of racing Imola exhaust pipes and two 40mm chokeless Del Orto carburettors.  The electricians closed the shop door and quietly reminded the shopkeeper that I ‘knew’ de Tomaso.  The parts were handed over as ‘gifts’ and taken out of Italy as ‘film equipment’ sans duty.  They considerably upped the performance of the Moto Guzzi…

In the summer of 1980 on a warm Sunday lunchtime I was burbling west along George Street in central London on the Guzzi when an oncoming Mini turned right in front of me.  The bike buried itself in the front of the car and I flew over the roof, landing in the road, bruised and with a fractured wrist.  At first the two blokes in the front seat of the Mini, who had been arguing over a map, would only speak Hebrew, but once the police motorcyclist arrived on his BMW it turned out they were cockney carpet dealers.  It was clear their insurance company was in for a hefty rebuild…

I rebuilt the Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans in a garage attached to the grace-and-favour house of the late Lord and Lady Frazer on Regents Park’s Inner Circle. After he lost his job at KJ Motors my father and mother now lived there.  They had worked out his retirement caring for Lady Frazer until she died.  As is usual with servants of the Queen’s favoured gentry my parents were moved into a grace-and-favour cottage of their own on the Inner Circle.  Lord Frazer had been blinded in the First World War and founded the RNIB, hence the title.  The large white tiled garage where his chauffeur’s pre-war Daimler Fifteen had been stored and where the Guzzi was rebuilt had originally been designed as the abattoir for mad George III where the deer that were driven up to his carriage window so they could be drunkenly shot with his gilt bow and arrow were butchered and hung.  After their death, the Frazer’s spooky and not-quite-empty old house was filmed by me for the opening scene of the thirteenth and final Body in Question episode as a creepy metaphor for the dead human body.  This metaphor acted as a curtain raiser for the infamously bloody post mortem scene in which Jonathan Miller dissected a very fresh human corpse, but after three day’s filming under hot lights it hadn’t been so fresh.  The electrician who was up a ladder above the corpse on the hot morning of filming fainted while trying to put spun glass on a 2k backlight for Jonathan’s head and fell off his ladder into the open chest.

Once the series had been transmitted I completed the rebuild of the bike with the addition of an imported ‘works’ close-ratio gearbox (it came in a wooden box with the Moto Guzzi eagle stencilled on it in black), high compression pistons, a racing camshaft, new front forks and a new paint job in black and red.  It was now to full PR specification – in effect ‘race-ready’.  When the bike was first started the constabulary in Regents Park called round to find out who owned the large calibre machine gun they had heard.  Back on the road and now working on the flagship BBC Horizon science series, I found my office occupied by a young female researcher.  The brightly dressed researcher rode a zippy orange and black Suzuki 125TS trail bike and looked a bit like a Manga doll.  The producer’s film she had come to work on was an idea that he had cooked-up about the technical tangle behind the deceptively simple Underground map designed in 1931 by the electrical engineer, Harry Beck.  It would be a film about London Transport, a typically British patch-up job that had lumbered the capital with a hopelessly complicated mass transit system in need of massive modernisation (a bit like the way de Tomaso’s Bertone bodywork elegantly covered BMC’s engineering lash-up).

As with the Body in Question, the quickest way to get around the London locations for filming turned out to be aboard my now-insane full-blown Production Racer.  Unable to tick over because of the racing bell-mouthed chokeless 40mm carburettors; lethal in the wet because of its semi-slick racing tyres; back-breaking because of its stiff racing suspension, uncomfortable because of its narrow suede saddle; rapid because of its close-ratio gearbox, the Manga doll gamely climbed onto the machine and wrapped her bendy limbs around the producer to avoid being shot off the back under acceleration.  It all turned out well.  We got married – eventually.  In 1982 having left the BBC to start my own production company that expanded on the back of the newly launched Channel Four and my knowledge of industrial culture, particularly of Ford, I was commissioned to make films about it – including the Ford C100, a failed attempt by the company to regain the glory of the GT40 at Le Mans.  As I made more money and my fearsome red Guzzi languished under its covers, I set about restoring an expanding a fleet of rare and often bizarre Italian motorcycles.  In 1987 with no space left for storage I sold the 850 Le Mans PR to European Motorcycles in Shepperton in part exchange for a thirty-year-old BMW R69 as used by TV camera crews to cover the Tour de France (European Motorcycles was run by Steve, son of Jack Lilley, the famous motorcycle trials champion of the mid-sixties).  The BMW R69 he sold to me was the same type that I had first owned in 1970.  That bike had been matched to a Steib 501 open sidecar.  Before I had the Guzzi I had ridden the whispering German combination daily into the BBC when starting my career as a young film school graduate.  One day I had been stopped by the then head of department, a mock-furious Aubrey Singer, who said that if he’d wanted to work with people driving machines like that he would have joined the Wehrmacht – a sentiment echoed by ex-Spitfire pilot and Battle of Britain ace Raymond Baxter!

As soon as it appeared in Jack Lilley’s showroom the gleaming 12-year-old Guzzi was spotted by the owner of an Italian car concessionaire in Egham.  From 1989 the heavily modified, but rather beautiful red and black Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans PR would stand in the concessionaire’s showroom window alongside the equally beautiful cherry-red Ferraris, and on sunny weekends might even go for a spin.  But when the company was sold the bike went too – back to Jack Lilley’s in Shepperton.  After that, the trail goes cold until the very same Moto Guzzi Le Mans 850 PR pops up again near Manchester.  The name of the new owner is Michael Martin.  With no history to go on Martin had little idea of the bike’s internal modifications, but to his credit left it largely unchanged except for a flimsy Ducati-style racing fairing.  Then in late 2002 he advertised it for sale in Classic Motorcycle Magazine and it was immediately spotted by Darryl Fenton in Cornwall.  Unlike Martin, Fenton knew his stuff.  He had read a magazine article I had written describing my painstaking upgrade of the Guzzi.  After a call from Fenton, Martin agreed to ride the Guzzi from Manchester to Bristol where he could meet Fenton off the train from Cornwall.  It was 11 November 2002.  Fenton paid up and rode the snorting Guzzi 160-miles back to his home in Padstow.  The stubby (and illegal) Imola exhausts had gone so Fenton fitted chromium pipes, but apart from that and some over-enthusiastic touches of red paint on things like brakes and shock absorbers the big Guzzi carried its unique and thundering character intact.  Even my hand-made leather and suede saddle had survived.  But on the 30 September 2010 on a curvy road near Padstow, Fenton missed a corner, threw the big Guzzi 850 Le Mans PR into the scenery and destroyed it.

The story was going to end there, but it was then I got an email from Darryl Fenton.  The Guzzi was on life-support and revivable.  He was sure it would live.  The months ticked by.  Another email arrived.  This time the news was better.  TGC 971R was a rolling chassis with new factory parts.  Then another email, with more pictures.  The work was detailed and time-consuming, but the big muscular Guzzi was upright, although rather disappointingly returned to more conventional looks.   Once back on-board any niggling concerns Darryl had harboured about the bike’s damage vanished and the uneven thunder of its vee-twin motor swept him away again, just as it had smitten me all those years ago in Mandello del Lario.  Occasionally, after storing it over the damp Cornish winter months, Darryl told me he had fleeting thoughts of selling the thirty-six year old bike.  His annual ride to the MOT station puts paid to that…

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An H Van is as much part of French cultural history as the 2cv.  Designed in 1942 by the body builder Franchiset and inspired by the rippled fuselage of German Junkers aircraft its exterior panels get their strength in the same way cardboard boxes do, by corrugating thin sheets to create rigidity.  Its petrol engine was the same as the Traction Avant and the later DS except that it was turned 180-degrees with the gearbox at the back, not the front.  I probably saw my first H van in 1960 when I took the Golden Arrow from Victoria Station, this time over the bridge above Sevenoaks Way, to stay with my aunt and uncle in Paris.  He was a Group Captain in the RAF stationed at SHAPE, the forerunner to NATO based in St Germain just outside Paris.  They collected me from Gare de Nord in his new white Citroen DS.  I was thrilled by the car’s overwhelming feeling of the future – soft spongy carpets, combed nylon door cards, wrap-around windscreen, touch-sensitive electro-hydraulic controls, digital speedometer behind a magnifier…and that extraordinary suspension.  Along De Gaul’s ruthless new expressway by the Seine and up into the suburbs it whisked us.  Beyond its hushed royal blue and beige interior flashed a totally French planet filled with creamy blue Panhards, grey 2cvs, pastel duo-tone Simcas, navy blue Renault 4cvs, big black Peugots…and H-vans in a kaleidoscope of colours.  Unlike Britain, France appeared to have taken a turning marked ‘This Way to Science Fiction’.  Even its Mobylette mopeds were coloured gold.  I had left a country where everything was brown and black, and entered a place where music, food, cars, fashion and people were cool.  When we got to their flat my uncle’s Grundig radiogram was tuned using a strange luminous green tube on the front, oscillating like a tiny radar screen until it stabilsed on the prefect signal.  These futuristic French images locked themselves into my brain leaving a template of what France promised.  The memory would never fade, but when I returned in 1968 the template didn’t fit at all.

Six years after my first visit to France I won a place at the Royal College of Art School of Film and Television and in late 1968 my fellow student Richard Loncraine and I set off to start shooting his graduation film about the Royal Picardie Hotel in Le Touquet.  Chris Morphet was on camera and I was recording the sound.  We also took along Marie Danserou, a French Canadian film student who could speak better French than we could, but turned out to be a liability after she was found shoplifting and the Gendarmerie deported her.  We drove to Lydd in Richard’s new VW van and waited for the first Silver City flight to Le Touquet.  The planes were Bristol Freighters with a big door at the front to allow cars to drive on.  The Royal Picardie, known as “Le plus belle hotel du monde” – like Le Touquet itself – had been designed as a playground for the rich.  But the hotel, finished in 1929 and opened in 1930, was to become an instant victim of the depression.  Never completely finished, it staggered on until the economy revived in 1939 only to be plunged into war and occupied by the Nazis as one of their Atlantic wall operational HQs.  Inevitably bombed by the RAF, its undamaged part was reopened in the 1950s by an indomitable local woman called Madame Menardie, then closed again when she ran out of money.  It was a sad story all round.  But like all sad stories it made a great film for Richard that was eventually re-cut and broadcast on ITV by Alan Whicker.  On evening Richard and I met and interviewed Madam Menardie.  Among stories of the hotel in its heyday she told us about a dish named after her when she was the concierge at the Picardie in the late 1930’s. It was simply called Sole Menardie.  She was obviously proud of this accolade and described the dish.  It sounded pretty simple and was still being served in a high-end restaurant along the coast, so we drove there and ordered it – thick cream, butter, shallots, lemon juice and seasoning flambé heaped onto a grilled fillet of sole.  Having probably drunk too much it was indigestible!

In many ways the hotel’s story was a timeline of French aspirations before, during and immediately after the war.  By 1969 a motly demolition squad was occupying the place and we filmed them throughout until the hotel lazily collapsed several hours after having its concrete columns blown out with explosives.  The demolition team’s vehicles were battered matt grey 2cv vans and H-vans treated with total contempt, and at one point six of them actually managed to capsize an overloaded 2cv after a long lunch.  As they climbed out they simply removed their tools, baguettes and boxes of plonk in plastic bottles, then rolled the crumpled car into a ditch and left it.  By the late sixties the French loathed these antiquated vehicles – as they saw them – and if these workmen were anything to go by, yearned for a type of car the British had developed: thickly padded Jaguars, Farina shaped Austins and Rovers.  They were clearly embarrassed by their own groaning tin vehicles, and in a funny kind of way, so was I.  The French rush towards the future had petered out.

With the rebuilt H-van gone from the Brentford body shop the 2cv went in.  Early results were unpromising.  Like the H-van, the car had paper thin metal under the bubbling paint, much of it crumbling to the touch.  But John the panel beater started work, and within a month the rear end was evolving into a better-than-new Citroen 2cv6.  The floor panels were replaced and the new panels – grey and satisfyingly stiff – spread as the work continued.  It gave me an odd feeling, watching this process: something apparently inanimate defeating entropy; a feint ghost of that dark and satanic factory where these cars were conjured from tin then roughly disgorged into the streets as remnants of a Citroen ethos long since gone and, by the mid-eighties, positively disliked.

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I’ve read a lot about so-called ‘Mods’ and I’ve talked over and around the phenomenon with younger friends who didn’t experience it – and those who thought they might have done, but almost certainly didn’t.  For example, when in the 1990s Paul Weller had a flat in the same Hyde Park block that I lived in we had a word about it.  Despite languishing under the moniker ‘Modfather’ he couldn’t be its father or even a modernist, he’s simply too young and anyway modernism is now everywhere.  Only those hitting seventy and who emerged from London’s late-fifties suburbs could have fathered it.

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I was born in early March 1946.  This means I was twenty in 1966.  Subtracting four years makes me 16 in 1962.  At sixteen most kids are sharply aware of what is going on around them.  I lived in Bromley, a southern suburb of London officially part of Kent but which, even then, was held in the capital’s gravitational field.  Being a mere 20-minutes by train from Charing Cross, which disgorged its passengers almost directly into Soho, Bromley was both physically close yet culturally distant from London’s West End..

 

But even disregarding the pull of the capital Bromley in the 1950s had several significant features of its own.  The first was a store called Dunns.  Its owner, the dandyish Geoffrey Dunn, drove a pre-war Bugatti Typ-57 and was a pioneer purveyor of modern continental design.  Since the mid-fifties, long before Terence Conran had been heard of, his Gropius-style three-story shop designed by Bertram Carter in the Market Square had stocked Charles Eames’ and Scandinavian furniture along with hand blown glass vases, Italian lamps, calico blinds and French linen tablecloths.  Soft modern jazz lilted through speakers from up-to-the-minute German hi-fi sets.  In 1960 it was probably the coolest place to hang out on Saturdays.  The second was the Bromley Court Hotel.  During the 1950s it had dedicated its dance floor and stage to Friday and Saturday night jazz ‘stomps’.  This venue would place Bromley on the early Rhythm & Blues circuit.  The third was Bromley School of Art (closed in 1959) that specialised in fine art.  A school friend of mine had an older sister called Ann who studied painting and printmaking there.  In 1956 she could be seen around Bromley wearing berets, shaggy polo neck sweaters, red ‘chicken slacks’ and ballet shoes.  She was a beatnik and at the age of nine I thought she was wonderfully weird.  So even then, if you looked for it – and I did – Bromley had a slightly arty twist to its shuffling ordinariness. 

 

Escaping the ordinariness would become the main mission for me, and many of my contemporaries.

 

Luckily I had a big extended family spread throughout London with plenty of relatively young aunts and uncles.  One was Uncle Jimmy, who was in the RAF and married to my mother’s ditzy older sister, Betty.  Jimmy had been a wartime Hurricane pilot shot down twice thus earning him a DFC and bar.  As a result he had one eye and a bullet hole in his back and now lived post-war life with a buccaneering couldn’t-give-a-damn spirit that I loved.  In 1959 he was a wing commander posted to Saint-Germaine-en-Laye just outside Paris at post-war NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE).  In 1960 my parents put me on the Golden Arrow at Victoria Station for the journey to Paris to stay with them.  The deal agreed by my parents was that Jimmy and Betty would show me Paris. 

 

I was picked up in their jet-age Citroen DS19 and swept into louche cocktail bars, La Coupole, the Moulin Rouge, the glittering American Drug Store on the Champs-Elysees with Fats Domino records on its jukebox and gazed at the snappily dressed Gauloises-smoking Parisians looking cool around town in their strangely hip corrugated deux chevaux.  Unlike Betty and Jimmy my family wasn’t cool.  My parents were perfectly nice potato-eating pre-war people bent on saving and making do ‘just in case’, but as a skilled engineer and good administrator my dad ran a big ‘main dealer’ garage, so at least we had access to enviable cars like faux-Detroit Vauxhalls and the Italian designed Vanguards of the day.

 

In those days boroughs around London had distinct characters and cultures.  Bromley was solid, conservative and family oriented.  In the late 1950s the town was full of lower middle class baby boom kids of my age.  Like many of my friends I was mediocre at school and hopeless at exams.  In 1957 I failed the vindictive 11-Plus and was duly dumped in a Secondary Modern School: a big tough Catholic institution in Orpington where other boys from Dartford, Bexley Heath, Pett’s Wood, Eltham and Bromley mingled.  It might sound fanciful now, but the subtle cultural differences between these outlying boroughs seemed quite exotic as we described to one another the various things and places they contained (Bromley, with its own football and cricket team seemed to hold some inexplicable magic for these other boys).  Each borough would eventually breed it’s own version of ‘Mod’. 

 

Many boys had older brothers or sisters who had already started buying 45rpm records to play on their suitcase-sized record players.  Some wore still-rare denim jeans or maybe went to the cinema on their own and I would watch them in the summer as Johnny and the Hurricanes wafted from their record players while they joshed and flirted at the various local swimming baths.  By the time I was 13 these fleeting images of a teenage life heralded the first stirrings of something that wasn’t altogether easy to describe, but which felt exciting and new.  Its carefree style offered an apparent alternative to the gloomy post-war world that surrounded me like the dark-stained oak furniture in my parents flat, the endless dance band music on the BBC Light Programme at the weekends, the smell of stewed tea in cafes, the sooty air, the entire patch-up-and-make-do emptiness of suburban British life.

 

But there was something even more deeply American that intrigued me and which seemed completely new and exotic.  Occasionally I would baby-sit for another aunt and uncle who lived in Bromley.  John was my father’s youngest brother who was still in his twenties and newly married to a French-speaking student called Marlene.  They were completely different.  John had a 250cc German Zundapp motorcycle with a red saddle that he’d ridden back from studying French in Paris and he’d also brought back French long-playing records by the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.  Once they had left for the evening I would play Pyramid, Django, Trinkle Trinkle and Billy’s Bounce on their Philips radiogram.  The abstract cool of these disjointed sounds seemed wholly un-British – an imagined soundtrack of an unattainable trans-Atlantic lifestyle.

 

Since I was four-years-old our family had lived in various addresses along one of the main roads into Bromley.  After the war the rows of large detached four-storey Victorian houses behind leafy front gardens had mostly been divided into spacious rented flats and we occupied one of them about three-minutes walk from Bromley Market Square.  Next door was a house identical to ours but converted into a cheap hotel owned by an Italian ex-prisoner of war called Mr Arpino.  His teenage sons still lived in Italy and he often talked about them over the garden fence to my parents.  Then, one morning in 1955, two Lambretta LD150 motor scooters appeared in the hotel’s front garden: a blue-and-white one and a red-and-white one. 

 

I was nine years old and had never seen a real Italian motor scooter before.  What intrigued me was the jet-age detailing: the chubby aeroplane-type white-walled wheels, the curved footboards with pale grey moulded rubber mats, the cream handlebar grips, the dinky aluminium castings and the cheerfully glossy colours.  Added to this the scooters had actually been ridden to Bromley from Turin by his sons: even at my age I knew that was an epic feat even by car.  His sons’ neat Americanesque scooters seemed to symbolise escape.  Mr Arpino’s boys had short dark hair and wore pastel-coloured knitted shirts with cream slacks and soft, cinnamon-coloured suede shoes.  These utterly foreign combinations I noted, and for several days drew careful pictures of it all, creating my own versions on paper.  Unlike the blank wall of academic subjects, I had always been a natural when it came to art and anything involving drawing or making things felt easy and fluid to me.  By then keeping drawing books of stuff that I liked had become a bit of a passion – pages full of imagined submarines, cars, guns…and now scooters and clothes.

 

Because of this, in late 1960 the art teacher in the war zone that passed for my secondary school suggested I attend life drawing evening classes at nearby Sidcup School of Art to help me gain at least one O-level – in art.  After talking to my mother he enrolled me.  It would cost the bus fare from Bromley to Sidcup and my father thought it was a waste of money.  Age fifteen and wearing his old navy blue crew neck fishing jumper and a pair of canvas work trousers dyed a patchy terracotta (the closest I could get to that half remembered beatnik look) I turned up to join a bunch of about twenty boisterous art students around an elderly naked man in a sitting pose to draw for 90-minutes while an alcoholic tutor called Mr Stone tottered around the easels to guide us.  Despite the obvious drink problem Stone’s sharp advice would be eye opening, but even more astonishing were the first and second year students attending the class.  Throughout the two sessions there was a hum of jokey conversation.  Some wore carefully faded jeans, plaid shirts or tight grey tee shirts: one had a zippered bomber jacket.  Several wore suede ankle boots and bright socks.  The girls chewed gum and had darkly made-up eyes: hair cropped Jean Seberg-style or piled high with long necks accentuated by beads.  One scruffier student carried a guitar (it would turn out to be Keith Richard).  These were definitely not beatniks – they were sharply groomed.  All talked in a jittery, punchy style swapping ironic jokes while they scrubbed crackly charcoal on rough cartridge paper.  During the ten-minute breaks for a change of pose I would sit and watch them.  Like Mr Arpino’s Italian sons they seemed foreign, almost alien: their posture, clothes and off-hand manners didn’t fit Britain’s complaining negativity.  They stood out and seemed powered by something optimistic beyond the grey monotony of the suburbs.

 

My spidery outline drawings were utterly different to the students’ bold, black graphics.  The slurring Mr Stone put me right: “First, imagine the scaffolding inside the muscles to get the posture right”, he pointed to a battered skeleton hanging in the corner of the studio.  “Now look hard at the model’s muscle mass and measure the shapes they make.  But don’t draw the model; draw the void-shapes between the model’s body and the background.  Let the model emerge from the void-shapes as you draw.”  It was the reverse of what I thought drawing was – don’t look at the object: look into and behind it: what shapes it makes: see the hidden detail – the structure.  In order to draw like this I had to analyse so hard and measure the tiny nuances of the body so carefully that my eyes hurt and by the end of the lessons I was aware of being as exhilarated and jumpy as the other students.  I was elated by the result.  It wasn’t a picture: it was a blocky graphic simulacrum of what I had seen.  By the end of the term I had also learned to mimic some of the students’ affectations – their loping postures, dynamic hand gestures and statement-based conversation.  I started to pick-up on their ideas and styles while at the same time realising I had opened a secret door into a world where the visual mattered and the detail and origin of those visuals mattered even more.

 

Pinned to notice boards scattered along the 1930s white painted corridors in the art school were asymmetrically designed posters for jazz concerts, postcard invitations to art galleries in a place called Brook Street and dry-mounted examples of third-year students’ graphic work featuring book jackets and press ads.  It became clear from overheard conversations that everyone’s target was to get into somewhere called  ‘the college’.  This turned out to be shorthand for The Royal College of Art, a place I’d never heard of.  But it seemed to have something in common with the piles of magazines in Sidcup’s canteen: chunky Swiss publications called Graphis.  This exotic European magazine turned out to be a portal into the language that Mr Stone had been pushing me to understand, the one that powered the students on their quest to the college.  That language was called ‘design’ – an utterly different vision from the shabby conformity of Britain’s recently abandoned ration-book commerce and an obvious link to those very un-British products in Dunns.  Among Graphis’s beautifully printed reproductions of Polish and Czech posters, picture essays on Italian coffee machines, Swiss signage and German packaging were monographs on strange foreign-sounding artists like Paul Klee, Kurt Schwitters, Moholy Nage, Deiter Rams, Mies van der Rohe and various American painters with German-sounding names.  This was (apparently) the continent’s clean, sharp, post-war modernist future and now I wanted it to be mine.  My dad’s old nemesis, Europe, was now cool.  Against this, Britain’s smoggy, lowest-common-denominator culture felt dead.

 

As September approached I had to decide whether to try for a permanent place at Sidcup Art School or get a job.  My mother and father agued about it and in the end my dad relented on art school on condition that I got a Saturday job that would pay for the bus fares from Bromley to Sidcup.  It was just the sort of petty condition he loved applying.  A worse condition was the new art school entrance exam established for 1962.  I would need a GCE A-Level in Art and two other O-level grades.  I had passed O-Level in Art and in Technical & Engineering Drawing.  This wasn’t really good enough, but I was told that if I passed A-Level Art I might get in on merit.  Applying what I had learned from life drawing I got the grade, and after a rambling interview with Sidcup’s head, Mr Jago, managed to get accepted.

 

Turning up in September 1961 for the first term I felt pre-embedded in the culture of the place and quite cocky about being a proper art student at last.  Throughout the summer I had practiced walking, talking and behaving like the second and third year students I had seen in the life classes.  The problem was my appearance: what the older students referred to as ‘the look’.  If my dad was mean about bus fares he was positively hostile to all but the most solid clothes and shoes.  He had ridiculed the Arpino’s sons as ‘probably homo’; regarded the Americans he had fought alongside in the war as ‘hopelessly soft’, and the French as untrustworthy, largely because in keeping with his sweeping generalisations, they wore shoes without laces.  The fact that his eldest son had started to ape all three must have been an ominous sign of moral collapse.  Worse still, he had always insisted on choosing oversized clothes that I would ‘grow into’.  But with secret help from my mother I managed to arrive on my first day at Sidcup in a pair of Lone Star jeans, a green crew-neck jumper and some cheap Italian basket weave shoes bought at Bromley’s open market.  As my father had predicted based on his experience with Italian-built wartime trucks captured in the desert, the ‘wop’ shoes fell apart after a fortnight.

 

The cohort I joined in the first year was disappointingly un-cool.  The new examination had favoured more academic students with O-Levels in Maths, Science and English, whereas the art school intakes before 1962 had apparently strolled in on artistic merit.  The difference was immediately obvious to me, although I suspect I had a chip on my shoulder about this.  Only three of the girls had any style and the males were – to a man – plain or just scruffy.  For me the big quest in that first week was to find the source of the cool look many of the second and third-year students displayed.

 

It didn’t take long.  Two tutors had it, galvanising my growing belief that the key to all this was Europe’s take on American imagery.  One was Michael Tyzack.  He arrived somewhat later in the term dressed in a sharply bohemian style with pressed Levis, ox-blood loafers and black polo neck lambs wool sweaters.  He taught us lithography, but was a painter of such extraordinary precision that his work looked more like car coachwork than acrylic on canvas.  In fact he used pin-striper’s masking tape to achieve the razor-like edges between the coloured strips that marked out his big abstracts.  But the thing that made him special was his love of modern jazz.  His studio was always awash with the sound of rare American Blue Note recordings and at lunchtime he played a trumpet in the cool West Coast manner of Chet Baker.

 

The other tutor who turned up on our first Tuesday was the young Paul Huxley: also an abstract painter just back from a scholarship year in New York.  He lectured us on colour theory as he strolled up and down the studio in that arty loping gait that I’d pretty much managed to copy.  A Tab Hunter lookalike, he wore slim pale grey slacks short enough to reveal a couple of inches of red sock above his soft bull-hide saw-tooth-soled chukka boots.  His shirts were pale blue cotton button-down Oxfords with a smaller button on the back of the collar beneath unstructured blue-and-white-striped seersucker jackets.  His blond hair was inch-cropped and sparkled in the sun.

 

Both men seemed touched by something mysteriously magical that even the coolest students couldn’t match.  Leaving aside the style of their transatlantic paintings, where on Earth would I find these clothes – that look?  As far as I could tell – it had something to do with abstract painting.

 

American painters of the New York school were sometimes featured in Graphis.  One who stood out was Jasper Johns.  His relatively recent flag and target paintings echoed the all-American Levis, tee shirts and puffer jackets that he wore to paint them: no smocks or splashed oils anywhere.  In one issue the magazine printed a series small black and white frames of him painting his flags on the floor of his Manhattan studio and the pictures of him crouching as he worked in his Alpha Industries flight jacket revealed white Converse All Star basketball boots with stripes around the sides of the soles.  I noted these unattainable details with more passion than the paintings. 

 

Three students had managed to mimic this jet-age look.  One was a third-year graphics student called Dave Chaston, another was a second year, Paul Chave.  A third called Brian Boyle had gone way out with a pale gold American drip-dry suit, knitted tie and Gant button-down shirt.  Somehow these students (who seemed to have plenty of money) had found somewhere that sold ‘the look’, but for us first year students – all probationary for the first six months and therefore forced to work really hard – the source remained secret.

 

My father had been brought up in pre-war Bermondsey and during the late fifties and early sixties we’d often drive there through its bombed-out streets to see members of our extended family.  He loved markets so we’d sometimes stop-off at Lewisham or occasionally cross the river to Redchurch Street (then a market) in search of eels, winkles, crab and fresh celery for supper.  On winter afternoons the East End stalls were lit by Tilley lamps and among the cheap crockery and vegetables, one trader – I think it was in Brick Lane –sold clothes ‘diverted’ from American military PX stores under a hand painted sign: ‘Genuine American Imports’.  It was here in early 1962 that I first saw under the baleful light of the lamps stiff new Levi jeans folded in stacks on a stall.  I knew by now that it was essential to get a size bigger so they could be shrunk to fit, but they were expensive and being with my father meant there was no chance to buy them even if I’d been able to afford a pair.  The location was noted, although I’ve forgotten it now, and that small piece of detailed knowledge gave me a bit of kudos when talking with fellow art students.  It was events like this – spotting stuff – that heralded a definite change.  A subculture was developing around products, their design and their availability. 

 

Attending art school and living at home with mum and dad, brother and sister was a life of double identity.  I had to do humdrum chores for my half-a-crown week’s spending money and on Saturday mornings I earned ten-shillings serving customers in an old-fashioned open-fronted hardware shop.  I didn’t mind: it was a financial necessity.  All my old school friends had started full-time employment in banks or offices, usually making tea, doing the post and filing paperwork.  Some worked in their parents’ shops in various high streets and a couple of the prettier girls got jobs serving customers in Dunns.  Almost all hated it, but they had money to spend and for this they could be envied.  In the early 1960s, with Britain’s hire purchase schemes in full swing and import controls lifted, these fellow teenagers could buy things (if they could find them) that I could only dream of.  But news of what to buy travelled slowly so that ideas and trends evolved snail-like over many months. 

 

Apart from Dunns, another place in Bromley where opinions and ideas were exchanged was an Italian coffee bar called Angelino’s that had opened in the high street during late 1960.  By 1963 it had become a popular Sunday morning gathering place when the rest of the high street was closed.  The working kids that turned up in slim-fitting suits or jackets and slacks had often put down deposits on now forgotten small Italian motorcycles and scooters with names like Moto Rumi, Itom and AerMacchi and they would line them up against the kerb outside.  At this time there was no division between riders of motorcycles, mopeds and scooters – or at least not European ones.  It was the machines’ colourful continental cool that the riders celebrated – a cool I had glimpsed eight years earlier with Mr Arpino’s sons and later during my stay in Paris.  Along with the chrome swirls of the espresso machine and the owner’s operatic accent there was something quite different about this sunny world where art students and working kids gathered and where obscure foreign detail slowly came to matter to us all.  For example, in 1961 Alfa Romeo had started to export cars to Britain and a year later a friend’s father bought a blocky, buff-coloured Giulia.  It was immediately noticed that the badge on its bonnet said Alfa Romeo Milano.  The word ‘Milano’ cast Alfas as a cool brand, while almost anything French was cool.  Also cool, once they started to be worn, was the red selvedge cotton on the leg seam of Levis, always displayed with a tiny turn-up – an essential detail that was cool.  The roll of a button-down collar would soon matter, and in turn the curl of the collar would make anything but Brooks Brothers shirts un-cool.  The Vibram logo on the sole of a pair of French shoes once deemed cool would also matter.  Soon every brand detail would be studied and either rejected as un-cool or by agreement classed as cool, but because the only transmission of what was and what was not cool moved by word-of-mouth, consensus was extremely slow to coalesce and more often than not, by the time it had become accepted as cool, something else would be replacing it – one month it was round shoe laces that were cool, the next it would be flat laces, so that by mid-1963 the first signs of an arty movement that celebrated obscure and usually foreign detail had taken root across all classes of kids who met to share ideas.

 

Michael Tyzack read Downbeat magazine.  In the early sixties it was a rare and expensive American publication devoted to jazz and he’d snip out pictures he liked and pin them to his studio wall.  One was of West Coast saxophonist Gerry Mulligan standing in profile with his oversized baritone sax.  He was dressed like Paul Huxley but his short slacks revealed Clark’s desert boots.  It looked really cool.

 

In 1963 Clarks sold desert boots for 29/6d.  A shop in Bromley high street that stocked Clarks school shoes could get them, although they had slightly thinner crepe soles than the US export versions (a detail quickly spotted by the gimlet-eyed art students).  Saving for a few weeks, desert boots were something cool I could afford and get – and they didn’t fall apart.  Desert boots quickly became commonplace throughout art school.  Coupled to parallel-cut trousers they added to that lean loafing gait now laughed at by my dad (Ironically he had worn desert boots himself at El Alamein: hence the name, but always referred to them as ‘brothel creepers’).  The critical thing was to keep them fresh and clean.  Anything scuffed or stained was regarded as sloppy, so it was quickly discovered that Ajax scouring powder and a damp toothbrush could revive the bull hide suede to an even whiter grey than the originals.  Red laces (sometimes flat, sometimes round) were also a fad.

 

Late in 1963 we heard that Sidcup School of Art was to be amalgamated with Beckenham Art School to become Ravensbourne College of Design & Technology located in a brand new Corbusier-style building on Bromley Common (It was from here that David Bowie would emerge).  A separate photography, film and animation vocational group would be sited in the old Edwardian technical school in Bromley town, a stone’s throw from Bromley’s original school of art.  I opted for photography and animation, but for now Sidcup remained vibrant with its sunny 1920’s façade and front lawn a place for guitar jam sessions and amplified record playing. 

 

For some time there had been a style of slow jive stomp dancing that had crossed over from the lingering fifties craze for traditional jazz, particularly among the girls, and to dance this a slow rolling rhythm was essential (Imagine New Orleans funeral processions).  Britain’s recently created pop charts were full of gimmicky ‘twist’ tunes, but a guitar-playing student called Roy Barker brought in a rare Howilin’ Wolf LP and a particular track got played again and again: ‘How Many More Years’.  It had the right beat for the stomp dance and very quickly an entire style of guitar blues took hold of the student group.  It would peak with Tommy Tucker’s rhythm-and-blues hit ‘High Heel Sneakers’ and these uncharted records opened the door to another drive for originality, detail and uniqueness.  Within months it was no good just having the record, it had to be on the original American label, and it would be essential to know about its pedigree and who was playing what on it.  Just like the details on clothes the quest for obscure information and originality became an insane race in pursuit of trivia that would be elevated to ‘gold dust’ (the modernist term for valuable) as the stories about provenances were retold and embellished with yet more facts.  Everything suffered from this obsession with detail.  The inevitable consequence was that things without detail weren’t cool, whereas obscure difficult-to-find detail was cool.  It was becoming a sort of madness.

 

In the summer of 1963 a local Bromley friend who was studying at the technical college told me that he’d heard of a shop in Shaftesbury Avenue selling American clothes.  His name was Paul Scorer and he said it was called Austins.  Shortly afterwards, one Saturday afternoon when I had finished working in the hardware shop, we both took a train to Charing Cross and walked up to Austins.  I had saved most of my money, but when we got there almost everything was beyond my budget.  It had seersucker jackets, soft herringbone sports jackets with hook vents and patch pockets, Levis, ox-blood Corfam loafers, crisp khaki chinos, washable suits, button down roll-collar shirts, cream raglan-sleeve raincoats – almost everything.  Clearly this was the place, or at least one place where the look could be bought.  On the way back we detoured through Carnaby Street.  It seemed quite drab, but there were a few guys hanging around dressed in dark suits and suede shoes with bouffant-style hair-dos.  They obviously weren’t art students, but they were pretty exotic.  They would turn out to be Mods.

 

‘Mod’ was a term that had been around the art school world for years – it mostly referred to those well scrubbed jazz-fan-students I had first noticed in the life drawing classes with Chuck Yeager ‘college boy’ haircuts: sharper-looking than everyone else with their edgy behavioural characteristics – but the term finally made headlines in 1964 when groups of scooter-riding kids hit coastal towns and started rioting.  They called themselves Mods, which was of course different from being called ‘Mod’.

 

What seemed to have happened was that ‘the look’ that art students had gone in search of during the early sixties had triggered an alert among their wage-earning peers in places like Hackney and Lewisham that a certain approach to life and certain stuff associated with it was cool. 

 

To art students cool wasn’t the English tab-collar, Chelsea boot-wearing, narrow tie style of the sharp dresser that distinguished cash-rich East End youngsters, but the hip attachment to European influences including American jazz which was a big part of Scandinavian and French culture in the late fifties.  Being neat and cool had rapidly become a counter-cultural movement among art students, a colourful way of life that set itself against, not just urban greyness, but also the sloppy-Joe existential gloom and negativity of beatniks.  Ironically only the salaried kids could afford to fully indulge in it.  Much of the material detail that the art students had identified was simply beyond their own financial (or often geographical) reach.  In effect, the working kids became the carriers of the art students’ fantasies.  It couldn’t last.  Within months (and it was that quick) the working kids adapted it to suit a very non-intellectual street-wise version of the lifestyle.  By early 1964 Mod was nothing to do with jazz or French clothes and everything to do with baked-beans-on-toast and punch-ups: an inward-looking, rather xenophobic, anti-greaser gang culture that would continue to morph, first into the skinheads, then punk, northern soul and eventually acid raves. 

 

Meanwhile art students in 1964, driven by the atrocities of the Vietnam War, quickly politicised themselves, turning against the American consumerism they had celebrated, while the new Mods dived into its new British manifestation to gorge themselves on trash in Carnaby Street’s burgeoning boutiques.  These working class kids crowded into clubs to hear groups like the Downliners Sect, the Pretty Things, Alexis Korner and the High Numbers (later The Who) playing tin-pan-alley versions of the same American R&B material that the art students had unearthed.  Then something strange happened.  The working class kids’ culture completely submerged its art school origins to become a home grown cultural force in its own right.  Mod became entirely British.

 

In 1964 an exhibition at the Tate rounded it all off by bringing to the UK for the first time the original painting and sculpture that had triggered the whole thing.  It was called the 54-64 Exhibition: a ten-year retrospective of American art including Jasper Johns’ targets and flags.  I went to see it in the summer of 1964.  The magic dream-distance that had existed between the reality and the myth was now closed – we could almost touch the work we had idolised through Graphis.  This was the real thing and it felt oddly old fashioned compared with the new multi-cultural frenzy on London’s streets with its West Indian Blue Beat music, increasingly eccentric fashion and crackling squadrons of glittering Vespas.

 

The appearance of red, white and blue roundels, Korean War M51 parkas and mirror-bedecked scooters – hollow echoes of East Coast pop-art and West Coast customising culture – were now anthropologically scrutinised by the very same art students who had uncovered the original versions three years earlier.  This distinctly British modernism was even celebrated in Ark, the Royal College of Art’s house magazine, when in early 1964 it published an article about Eddie Grimstead’s scooter customising business in East London and on its cover showed a pair of the All Star basketball shoes I had spotted in Graphis in 1962. 

 

In less than three years, the obsessive rush to deconstruct everything in search of that elusive cool detail had come full circle.  British street-youth culture’s irreverent take on pop iconography and rare underground music came to the fore and morphed into a completely new form of Mod, emerging as the harbinger of the hard-edged consumerism that would drive the British economy for the rest of the century.

 

In 1966 I graduated to the Royal College of Art, sold my Italian scooter and bought a German motorcycle.

 

-

 

An H Van is as much part of French cultural history as the 2cv.  Designed in 1942 by the body builder Franchiset and inspired by the rippled fuselage of German Junkers aircraft its exterior panels get their strength in the same way cardboard boxes do, by corrugating thin sheets to create rigidity.  Its petrol engine was the same as the Traction Avant and the later DS except that it was turned 180-degrees with the gearbox at the back, not the front.  I probably saw my first H van in 1960 when I took the Golden Arrow from Victoria Station, this time over the bridge above Sevenoaks Way, to stay with my aunt and uncle in Paris.  He was a Group Captain in the RAF stationed at SHAPE, the forerunner to NATO based in St Germain just outside Paris.  They collected me from Gare de Nord in his new white Citroen DS.  I was thrilled by the car’s overwhelming feeling of the future – soft spongy carpets, combed nylon door cards, wrap-around windscreen, touch-sensitive electro-hydraulic controls, digital speedometer behind a magnifier…and that extraordinary suspension.  Along De Gaul’s ruthless new expressway by the Seine and up into the suburbs it whisked us.  Beyond its hushed royal blue and beige interior flashed a totally French planet filled with creamy blue Panhards, grey 2cvs, pastel duo-tone Simcas, navy blue Renault 4cvs, big black Peugots…and H-vans in a kaleidoscope of colours.  Unlike Britain, France appeared to have taken a turning marked ‘This Way to Science Fiction’.  Even its Mobylette mopeds were coloured gold.  I had left a country where everything was brown and black, and entered a place where music, food, cars, fashion and people were cool.  When we got to their flat my uncle’s Grundig radiogram was tuned using a strange luminous green tube on the front, oscillating like a tiny radar screen until it stabilsed on the prefect signal.  These futuristic French images locked themselves into my brain leaving a template of what France promised.  The memory would never fade, but when I returned in 1968 the template didn’t fit at all.

-

 

 A couple of months later my new iPhone chirrups.  It is Darren from Frome 2cv.  He’s had a bit of trouble.  It’s not his fault, but the “bloody company” has gone bust “my friend”.  This time the information is more perfunctory: less emotional, but no less unrealistic.  He tells me that he can still build the car: that he has the parts, the body and the tools.  I know he doesn’t.  His creditors have the parts, the bodies and the tools.  When my company went voluntarily into the hands of the administrators everything was, in effect, impounded – the computers, the desks, the archive, the editing equipment, the cameras the people – the lot.  But the real value was in my head: no one could take my real value away.  My knowledge is mine.  Forty years of working in television has given me a formidable store of valuable knowledge.  My father always said, what you know is who you are.  On that basis I am a practical trader, albeit dependent on the larger survival of the media business.  But writing this I also remember the day the door was shut in my father’s face – not because his business had gone bust, or because he forgot what he was.  He missed death by inches in a car crash.  He was drunk. 

 

 I was in the gallery of TC6, one of the eight BBC studios at the doughnut-shaped Television Centre working as ‘editor of the week’ on Tomorrow’s World.  Just about halfway through that evening’s rehearsal my mother called to say that my father was in hospital suffering from minor cuts and bruises.  But that wasn’t all.  He’d been pulled from his wrecked Triumph Dolomite by the police and breath-tested.  He was positive.  Obviously someone like my father, who regarded anyone in uniform as aligned to the dark forces he had battled against to save England during the war, denied it all.  To him his right to drive a car ‘plastered’ was enshrined in his understanding of liberty and upheld during the war by the knowledge that Spitfire pilots set off after a quick ‘snifter’, or the scotch quaffing officers and beer sodden squaddies who were sent into battle to fight Germans who were led by a control-freak teetotal vegan dictator.  But the ‘Nazis’ from the local police station nailed him and eventually he was banned from driving.  Then the dominos of his life fell in rapid succession.  His position as managing director of Loxley’s (a subsidiary of KJ Motors) was lost: he was summarily fired for damaging company property (the car) and with that he also lost his house that was mortgaged through the company.  Overnight – almost literally – he went from boss to beggar.  Suddenly what I owed him came roaring to the front of my mind.  Standing there, the phone in my hand: the TV monitors flickering; the script under my arm; Raymond Baxter rehearsing his lines; the BBC clock ticking towards transmission; the studio lights glaring, I was transported back – a flashback to another world where my dad was my dad.  A car was a car and I was his boy.

That’s an Austin.  And that’s a Bedford.  That’s a Riley.  I’m six.  It’s 1952 and the road from Bromley to Chislehurst is suddenly empty of cars in both directions.  Silence.  Pigeons rustle somewhere.  There is a smell of creosote.  I sit with my back to the fence on the low white Sandtex’d wall outside the three storey Victorian house where my father rents the big first floor flat in which we live and I name every car that motors by.  “Patrick can recognise cars by their engine sound”, says my rather baffled mother to her even more bemused friends when we are out shopping and I interrupt her conversations to point out a Ford V8 Pilot or a Jowett Javelin.  But today on the wall it is Saturday – half day – and I know my father will walk home about fifty yards down on the same side of the road at one o’clock.  It’s hot: ants in the cracks between the paving stones.  I poke them with a matchstick.  Single deck number 227 buses are boiling their radiators coming up the tree-canopied hill from Widmore Green.  The road shimmers if I crouch low.  It makes the bus swirl like a ghost as it crests the rise.  The ants walk on my fingers.  The garage men, some carrying green tin lunch boxes ‘knock off’ and cross the road to catch the chuckling bus.  Even from where I sit I can hear the ‘ping-ping’ of the bell as the conductor sounds the off.  I memorise my favourite seat; it’s the one over the rear wheel arch that protrudes into the passenger space under a sheet of curved checkerplate.  It transmits the axle whine through my feet if I stand on it.  I like that because I can feel the moment just before the driver changes gear as he touches the pre-selector and the gearbox clutches slacken.  It seems odd to me why men who fuss and toil over glamorous Jags and Vanguards still take the bus.  I’d have a car.  Their rank is clearly visible to me.  Apprentices wear brown overalls.  Mechanics wear blue overalls.  Foremen wear starched white coats and removable cloth covered metal buttons.  Managers wear two-piece suits during the week and double-breasted blue blazers, regimental ties and twill trousers on Saturdays.  My father walks towards me, blazer over his arm.  I run towards him.  Swarfega, petrol, bay rum and his cedar pencil fill the air.  He ruffles my hair and asks what mum has cooked for lunch.  I remember stuffed, braised ox hearts and think of that statue at school of Christ bearing a red heart with flames coming out of it.  Dad doesn’t have a watch, just cufflinks.  He always has shirts with removable collars that never seem to clean properly.  I notice how his neck rolls over the collar when he lifts me.  His moustache tickles.  His hair is greasy black like the ants.  If I’m lucky he will take me back into the garage to lock up.  He slides me to the ground and I notice the ants again.  They are flowing like pepper from under a dandelion against the wall.  Perhaps they’ll fly later.  He always says that the ant that flies the highest gets to be the queen.  I think of my mother.  We walk to the garage.  Imagine a vast breezeblock shed with a lumpy cement floor.  Imagine cream and green paint on everything.  Imagine the Castrol, Jet, Ferodo and Dunlop enamel signs too hot to touch.  KJ Motors in the summer.  My universe of imagined futures is in here.  The workday is over and the Saturday afternoon mugginess hovers on the rippled concrete forecourt.  As we pass the metal-framed windows I can see the daylight shafting through yellowing corrugated plastic skylights that alternate with asbestos corrugated sheets to make up the roof.  The garage was built in three phases before, during and after the Second World War and the joins show.  With the skill of habit he twirls the padlock open and squeezes past the gap in the green-painted concertina door.  I notice cigarette ends jammed in the rail that the door runs in.  The riveted metal label says Jaycee Metal Doors of Coventry.  I follow him.  Inside it smells warm, oily and metallic.  The yellow daylight dapples the part dismantled Standards, Triumphs and Daimlers some jacked up with engines splayed before them like, I imagine, dead men’s guts.  I remember how Chalky our cat killed a rat like that.  A compressor natters some way off in a dark corner then stops: the steady hiss and then the tick-tick of shrinking metal.  His office is made from tall, cream steel sheets with frosted and reeded glass in metal frames filling the top fifth.  The office is really just a screened off space without a roof – I know it is some kind of kit of parts made by a company somewhere.  I think it is modern.  He has a grey metal-topped desk with steel drawers.  They are locked.  He has an ashtray made from an aircraft piston cut in half.  I covet it.  On the wall behind his chair buff cards fill slots in a rack.  Each one is a customer’s record.  Surname, address, then the magic details – Vanguard Shooting Brake, KTN 885, Sold August 1950, steering toe-in adjust, weld chrome and refit damaged O/S rear bumper.  Wash.  Inspect.  Test.  I know my father will do the last two things himself.  Sometimes he will bring a troublesome car home and we’ll drive it around.  I’ll sit in front.  He will stop every so often and make notes and one of the men in brown overalls who call him Sir will adjust it.  I like the funny things he says about cars, like, “This goes round corners like Grandma on gin”.  I like Rovers best because they’ve got toolkits in velvet lined drawers under the dashboard and a light inside the glove box that goes out when I close it.  The seats are usually grey or maroon leather with arm rests that fold out to leave a secret compartment deep inside the seat that no one else knows about.  Some have rear window blinds operated from the front by cords.  Rovers and Daimlers smell of shoes inside, Vauxhalls smell of lipstick and if I put my head in the cupboard under the sink it smells like a Standard because they have wooden bits in them which get damp.  In the sunshine the chrome and rubber gets warm.  Sometimes the bodywork gets so hot that ants die if I put them on it.  My father tells me the story of how he used to fry eggs on lorries when he was in the desert.  I love cars.  I love my father.  The air in the garage is still.  We walk towards the back where the new cars stand with cardboard tied to their doors with hairy string and grease papered hubcaps locked inside the boots.  I notice his brown leather brogues – he only wears them on Saturdays.  It’s a squeeze to get between the waxy cars.  They smell of silicon grease and acetone.  Wax pencil is scrawled in yellow on the windscreens.  “KJ/Bromley” says the scribble – my dad’s place.  And now we are heading for my favourite corner.  We have no need to go there, but my father knows I want to see them.  He holds my hand.  I can see his cufflinks; smell the Swarfega.  In the gloom are two huge sooty metal lumps.  They are the submarine engines – diesel/electric.  Started with compressed air they feed power to the tools installed as part of the war effort in 1940.  He shows me the German labels on the engines and reads out the legend – Siemens.  At school this knowledge is gold dust, “My dad’s got two U-Boat engines”.  By 1962 they will have been sold for scrap but until then, during the regular winter power cuts of the fifties, the garage showrooms will be awash with fluorescent light, the two engines throbbing deep inside what my father always calls “the works”.  The rest of Widmore Road is as black as coal, but the works are as bright as paradise.  I am six.  There goes a Vauxhall.  That was my father… 

 

 The road he’d been driving was the A233 from Bromley through Biggin Hill towards his house near Westerham.  He had known the road since the war.  For a short time after he was demobbed he and my mother had lived a few miles away in Cudham with my grandmother and grandfather.  Later I would often stay there.  Even by the 1970s the roads in the area hadn’t changed, but the traffic and more importantly the design of cars had.  The Triumph Dolomite Sprint: a short, sporty, overpowered saloon that would influence the power-to-weight ratio of many better cars to come was a handful to drive.  It arrived at the dawn of the fast executive saloon: a sector opened up by the Ford Cortina 1600E and the Rover 2000TC, quickly followed by the all-conquering BMW 2000. 

 

 

The Dolomite was always in a state of ‘development’, endlessly being ‘fixed’ by British Leyland that was building it after absorbing the Standard Triumph brand.  The Dolomite, like so many British vehicles, never settled into a state of improved refinement.  It merely struggled to remain viable suffering from the chronic underinvestment and dizzying array of meaningless badges that native British motorcars struggled with until Leyland eventually crashed-out and overseas companies moved in. 

 

 The Citroen 2cv was very different.  It had been a long time in gestation before being launched.  From the outset the little car was designed to be light, radical, low-priced and rugged, enabling two peasants to drive 100kg of farm goods to market at 37mph and if necessary across muddy tracks.  In the 1930’s France still had a widespread and very large rural population and, due to the cost, few of them had a car or even a farm truck.  Most used horses.  The French automotive industry’s unifying body had run a competition to design a simple car for the masses: a people’s car.  The specification for the original 2cv stipulated it should use no more than three litres of low-grade petrol to travel one-hundred kilometres: that’s an astonishing 95-miles on a gallon.  It didn’t emerge until after the war in 1949.  Despite it’s unconventional design the 2cv was a huge commercial success.  In the months after going on sale it had a three-year waiting list of potential owners.  By1950 Citroen was bashing out four-hundred 2cv cars and vans a day.  In 1960 as production finally caught up with demand and the market stabilised the original 2cv was updated: slightly refined in token areas like upholstery and brakes, but generally it remained – like the American Jeep – an icon, some might say a dead-end, of automotive pragmatism.  What had worked so well in Paris after the war was continued until the last one swayed out of that factory in Portugal.  All very different to my dad’s ill-fated Triumph built from a bin of ever-changing parts, condemned to various drive configurations and lumbered with extras that showed-up its weaknesses rather than enhancing them. 

 

 Two aspects of his accident can be drawn from this.  First, if he’d been driving a slower 2cv with its limpet-like road holding it probably would not have left the road.  Second, if it had crashed he’d have doubtless been killed.  The Dolomite might have been tricky to drive but it was a tough steel box and despite a scaffold pole smashing through the windscreen and clipping his right ear the body shell  did not deform as it rolled down the embankment.  All four doors could be opened with a click.  I remember him meeting me for the first time after he’d lost his job his driving license and his pride.  He cheerfully said, “If your number’s on it, your number is on it”.  Oddly, it’s exactly what Frank Williams would say to me when I interviewed him in 1987 for a Channel Four film I made called Toys for the Boys, just two and a half years after he’d been condemned to a wheelchair after smashing a rented Ford Sierra into a ditch in Provence.

 

And so back to project to build a 2cv.  The weather is grey and cold for late August.  Drizzle sweeps across the Shogun’s windscreen.  The wipers smear a greasy slick towards the edges where it runs along the A-pillars in black rivulets.  The traffic is heavy, nervy: erratic.  It takes over an hour.  I arrive.  Climb out onto the slimy concrete.  A call from Jamie Piggott has brought me to his muddy ex-farmyard outside Barnet.  Here, under cover of a wooden cow shed is my 2cv, or rather its bits.  It is my second visit to inspect the slowly growing assembly of mostly black components that have replaced the rusting junk discovered under the rotting body of the donor car.  The brand new chassis – the original French design, not one of the stiff galvanised chassis that everyone seems to fit – has sprouted suspension, a fuel tank and some pipe-work. 

 

But it is obvious the whole thing is a sideshow to the much bigger more complicated work going on around it: gutted Citroen DSs and IDs jacked-up on hydraulic lifts being fixed for clients, or under tarpaulins awaiting parts.  My 2cv is a mere walk-on, something for Jamie and his team to do when they haven’t got anything else planned.  Paul, his second in command, seems confident the chassis will rejoin the body at the panel beaters quite soon.  “They need to put the body onto the chassis to keep everything true”, he claims.  I’m sure he’s right.  Nothing on the 2cv is rigid, particularly the rusty body of the car dragged up from Devon: everything moves around and nothing fits perfectly.  It is supposed to be this way.  In fact, that is why galvanised chassis are not acceptable, and in Germany a car fitted with one cannot pass its TUV test (Germany’s MOT), and why the French will not insure them.  The stiff steel girders, while looking like a better bet in that they are thicker and heavier, prevent the 2cv chassis from behaving like a real 2cv chassis: flexing on the corners to aid that legendary agility and road holding.  Throwing a 2cv into a bend with confidence is what makes them quick.  The trick: avoid braking on the approach so the momentum is maintained.  The body roll is alarming, but the result is totally neutral with just a hint of front-drive over-steer if the power is fed in on the exit.  We discuss this at length standing in the lee of the barn cradling steaming mugs of tea as the drizzle drifts over the Essex countryside.  I shoulder my Pentax and grab some pictures.  It’s not a pretty sight.  Not, that is, unless you understand the sophisticated beauty of the 2cv.

 

A fortnight later an email pops up.  Attached: a photograph taken by Paul of the new chassis with engine, wheels, steering wheel, everything mechanical assembled and ready to roll off to the body builders.  After so long and so many stops-starts, twists and turns it seems that things are –finally, literally – rolling.  But then it stalls.  The body shop turns out to contain a decaying Citroen H Van.  It had gone in as a quick body fix, but closer inspection revealed terminal rot.  The entire, vast corrugated thing needs to be reconstructed from scratch.  I’m sidelined again… 

 

-

So as I stood under the dripping canopy of Quirky Classics on that Monday morning with memories of steamed-up 2cv’s with inadequate wipers, the dilemma was which way to go.  Should I cut and run, or throw more money at Rob Merivale in the hope that it would re-ignite his enthusiasm for my project?

Quirky Classics was an obvious case of a personal enthusiasm for the deux cheveaux cobbled into a business plan that couldn’t work.  But like so many businesses of this type (my own old company included) it was undercapitalised, marooned in a hand-to-mouth eddy of debt.  As we walked around his bins filled with large and small parts of 2cvs the exercise seemed to re-animate Rob.  He knew everything about every single component: he knew 2cvs inside out.  Soon he was bringing me samples of roof material, matting, various grille options and explaining an apparent gearbox problem that haunts all 2cvs – so-called ‘un-spooling’.  It was clear that a glimmer of enthusiasm still burned.  I decided to proceed.  I described my project as a “quirky conceit”: a relatively new 2cv6 rebuilt to an exceptionally high standard in old colours and with some old details.  But the deal was that he must start now.  I asked him how much it would cost me to jump the queue of customers he had failed.  The deal we came up with was that I should buy a wrecked car from his him complete with registration A2 CVD (This could become, A 2CV D).  He would start to build on this chassis and I would pay a premium for the clever number.  We shook hands and I drove off into the gloom.  From now on it was to be known as Patrick’s Quirky Conceit.  He would email pictures of the progressing build to me and this would release payments.

A month passed and – encouragingly – some pictures arrived showing 2cv panels in a state of being readied for painting.  Rob called asking some questions and in return I sent a cheque to ease his cash flow.  Another month went by but this time no pictures.  Several times I called him.  Eventually he replied to an email.  He had – he claimed – been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  He was depressed.  He had lied.  He was sorry.  And from now on his father, the Reverend Christian Merivale would handle enquiries.  Christian Merivale seemed pleasant on the phone and later wrote a straightforward letter repeating Rob’s claims.  He promised to pay back my deposit in monthly instalments.  In return I offered to buy outright the dismantled car with the registration number I wanted.  In other words to round up the money I had paid for it and just take what was left.  He would simply repay the original deposit.

It was back to square one.  Clearly recycling a car – even a 2cv – is as murky a business as any in the motor trade.  I Googled 2cvtv, a website devoted to the cars and all their variations.  It wasn’t a lot to go on.  There were plenty of bearded enthusiasts in remote parts of Britain offering advice, but nothing solid that I felt trustworthy enough to pay.  I needed someone I could visit – someone I could watch over and advise as the car took shape.  In short, I needed someone in London.

I called a chap in Battersea who claimed to rebuild 2cvs.  He said he couldn’t be bothered.  London seemed to have nothing: no one who could or would recycle a 2cv.  Next I emailed a company called 2cv City in Halifax.  There was no response.  Then I called Frome 2cv Centre (alas in the west country again) and a chatty bloke called Darren jumped at the chance.  We were off again.  He was full of encouraging suggestions.  Yes, he would go and rescue my car from Rob’s abandoned workshop.  Yes, he would collect a vanload of parts from him to offset the cost of building my car.  Yes, he would keep me informed.  Yes, he would do everything to any specification.  It was a far cry from the gloomy Rob and his mumbling reluctance.  But then Rob knew the writing was on the wall even before first I called him.  Being at the helm of a company going bust is a queasy feeling.  You either admit it, or clutch at straws.  Merivale clutched at straws.  When it happened to me I wrote a note.  I called it ‘The End’:

So this is how it ends.  Sitting at a desk in a room waiting for the Inland Revenue to claim their money.  No amount of goodwill, promises or friends will help now.  It doesn’t matter that the company is due almost as much money as it owes.  No matter that it is trading quite well with work underway and more work commissioned.  What really kills in this business is that a previously happy healthy company respected for its craftsmanship, storytelling and skill goes out of favour.  Quite suddenly the era changes and the company and its values are history.  The ground shifts.  The structure wobbles.  No one panics.  After all, the television business is cyclic isn’t it?  But the drift south starts.  No one wants to admit that the company’s carefully constructed resources have changed from something to boast about to dangerous deadweight.  Trying to get people to agree that downsizing is essential is like asking cavalry to walk.  They agree, but not their bit – not their horse (You walk, I’m riding!).  Then the momentum south picks up speed and the bank notices.  Now the downsizing looks more attractive, but the tidal wave of debt has become a towering wave-wall of red ink.  Stay calm.  Think it through.  Analyse the figures.  New commissions are just around the corner.  Turn the suppliers into bankers for a while – make them give us credit.  Put on a brave face.  It’s gut churning under such conditions, but we are used to that.  We know that television programmes are not widgets.  Each programme steals a bit of your soul as you make it.  In the same way the company has stolen bits of our souls.  So knowing what failure feels like, we continue to believe in our souls.  Television is soulful and sure we are heroes: we all know how to rescue a programme and turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.  Being brave about life is what makes television producers good; saying something is going to be great when you know it is horribly difficult.  The company’s journey south is now in the metaphorical Roaring Forties.  No amount of helmsman-ship will steer this.  Ditch the deadweight.  Ditch the shocked, the infirm, the sluggards and the worriers.  Ditch the hope for a turnaround and instead try to anchor somewhere, anywhere.  But there isn’t anywhere.  Just spuming red ink from horizon to horizon.  Now the only question is, are you going to stay on the bridge and go down with it?  Or save yourself…

Re-reading that now I can sense the stress: the gnawing terror that grips you when the obvious is going to happen, but you can’t do anything about it.  Rather, I imagine, like a condemned man feels awaiting execution.  This is why I had such calm patience with Rob.  I knew he was in a hopeless place.  I knew he just wanted to run away, but he also wanted money like I had done and I was there to give it to him.

-

By the time I started big school we had moved to number 135 Widmore Road next door, rather than above KJ Motors where my father worked. The garage had been started in the 1930’s by a moderately successful racing car driver called O. Wilson-Jones and another man I knew nothing about called King: hence KJ. By the time I knew him Wilson-Jones was an immaculately dressed elderly man who drove a maroon Jaguar Mark VI. But his fame – in my eyes – was attributable to two other things: holding the under 2-litre outer banked lap record at Brooklands in an Itala, and the installation of two WW1 German Seimens diesel electric U-boat engines in the garage to generate 110 volts of electricity. Apparently KJ Motors, built on the site of a defunct farm, had been the first place in Widmore Road to be illuminated at night. When war came he was able to use the 110 volts to power American lend-lease machine tools and keep the place lit during the regular power failures immediately after the war. I remember the paradise of flourescent light in the blackness of those mid-fifties power cuts: the gleaming cars in the showrooms staring out into the night. The garage workshops were a series of brick and asbestos sheds visually held together by cream and green painted sheet metal and glass showrooms. In front of the showrooms was a forecourt selling National Benzol petrol from cream-painted pumps and Castrol oil in a green steel cabinet containing three levers to ‘pull’ the oil into the green jugs kept on a tin shelf inside the cabinet. The concrete forecourt was painted burnt umber with white lines marking the curbs and stop points for cars so the pump attendant could place the petrol nozzles into the fillers. Behind the garage was ‘the dump’, two four-wheeled high-sided steel trailers with tri-angular tow bars parked on an oil-stained concrete standing. The dump was officially out of bounds as a play area. My sister, my brother and our friends played on the dump every day. We would rummage for valuables among the discarded carbon paper, leaky shock absorbers, burnt valve springs, rusty exhausts and old Lodge spark plug boxes. Occasionally I would find a ball race but not often. They were always recycled along with other metal collectables like piston rings, camshafts and cylinder heads.

Like the whiff of baking cakes or snuffed church candles, my Proustian memory is the perfume of used engine oil. It might be silage or bonfires for farm children, or the hum of Chanel No7 for the daughters of the rich, but for me it is the odour of a garage. So when on the soaking-wet Monday morning of 21 January 2008 I stepped into the chilly workshops of Quirky Classics there it was again: that honk of carbon, oil, rubber and cellulose. I had driven through torrential rain to the village of Umberleigh via Barnstaple from Saunton Sands to catch up on the progress of my 2cv6. The A377 had been awash with coursing water and the unlovely little garage low in a gulley by a river was a pretty forlorn sight. As my steaming Shogun pulled up behind the row of rusting French cars Rob Merivale stopped sweeping his oil-blackened concrete floor and stepped towards me. We shook hands and I immediately realised that Quirky Classics was a project going wrong. Rob’s first announcement was that my 2cv did not exist. He had – he said – had to “fire his staff” because they would not build the cars to his exacting standards. From the look in his face this was an obvious lie. Looking around it was clear to me (I had run my own company for twenty years before it had eventually fallen into the hands of an administrator) that his enterprise under the dripping winter trees of north Devon was in a bad way and £5000 of my deposited money was embedded in it. Obviously he had no staff because he couldn’t pay them. He couldn’t pay them because he had no money. Without money he couldn’t continue to earn money. This vicious circle is called ‘cash flow problems’ and Quirky Classics didn’t have a flow of much of anything, or if it did they were tears.

On the previous Saturday morning my wife Sheila and I had bundled the children, Frank and Dorothy, into the leather clad warmth of the Mitsubishi Shogun and headed out of London towards the M4 for north Devon. Sheila loves organising and she had planned my first visit to Quirky Classics with military precision based around a family weekend at the Saunton Sands Hotel: a vast concrete resort built in 1934 and used as a backdrop in the famous 1946 Powell and Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death (The year the pre-war 2cv project was restarted by Citroen and the year of my birth). This was a film in which the ex-UFA studios set designer Alfred Junge portrayed heaven as a monochrome Bauhaus modernist paradise: a concrete roof with portholes through which the deities watched mankind below. In the year production of the 2cv was stopped some young architects used Junge’s vision of paradise as the inspiration for the new bus station in Walsall, perfectly capturing the weightless idea that the German émigré designer had sought. But unlike the Powell and Pressburger film, Junge’s film set, the Walsall bus garage and the 2cv, it is immediately obvious on arrival at the Saunton Sands Hotel that it was never a piece of weightless modernism: more a thudding twenties depression dream of a sunny thirties future poured onto the dunes above the beach like a cement pillbox. We pulled into the hotel’s inadequate parking lot in slashing rain at about teatime. It had poured for most of the journey and while sitting at the wheel of the Shogun I recalled similar journeys in my yellow puddle jumper when weather like that had made it almost impossible to see what was ahead or behind as the condensation inside the car developed a damp and foggy microclimate. I had fleeting second thoughts about the beauty of the 2cv’s simplicity.

A Matter of Life & Death – a porthole in the concrete heaven and David Niven on Saunton beach

The hotel was packed. At some point a complete refurbish had ditched the flapper embroidered 1930s plasterwork and ushered in an era of Vegas-style tat. Everything from the wallpaper to the food reeked of tasteless cost cutting. Beyond the double-glazed plastic framed windows gales whipped the sand and ripped at the wiry dune grass while in the roiling grey waves the windsurfers’ acid coloured sails leaped them over the spume. Yet the weekend was good fun. The rooms were disappointingly tiny: the restaurant overblown and filled with the sour odour of gravy soaked carpets. Sheila caught a cold. The children hated the wild windy beach, but the indoor spending spree was an enormous success: heated swimming pools, brightly lit one-arm bandits, a vast snooker hall…and on the Sunday a weird wedding dress convention culminating in a ghastly fashion show featuring local ‘models’ sporting nasty little tattoos and wearing mountains of satin and lace wired into stiff bondage tops over G-strings and uplift bras. My determination to prove a point and make a modest-yet-reliable recycled car that would carry a family of four on 602cc of power had got off to a carbon-indulgent start.

-

The Q-type was the British truck (the others were American Packards) my father as a Royal Engineer had kept running on the army’s breakneck advance through the desert. But by now these blunt-nosed four-wheel-drive lorries were at least twelve years old. As decommissioned army surplus they had an after-life as tow trucks and with heavy haulage contractors but were still serviced by Bedford dealers like my dad’s garage. Later he would give me a complete Q-type steering box to dismantle which I would turn into a gun that could fire ball bearings through wooden fences using Jetex as the explosive propellant. Jetex was a tablet of compressed gunpowder sold in tins in model shops. When used properly two tablets and a piece of steel gauze had to be clipped inside a tiny steel canister with a stiff cotton-like fuse poking out through the nozzle and then loaded onto a celluloid model boat. With the canister in place the boat was put on the pond, the fuse lit and after a short fizzing pause the Jetex ignited and the boat shot off skimming the surface until the fuel burned out. Jetex also powered model planes that, with minor modifications using cigarette lighter fuel, could be made to explode in mid-flight. Playing with Jetex was really exciting because it required matches, explosives, fuses and dangling over deep ponds to retrieve the little boats. And it was well worth the pocket money because the modified tablets when all used in one go had the power to propel much more than a celluloid toy. And the hollow steering tube of a Bedford truck made the perfect howitzer. It could embed a ball bearing in a tree or kill a fox.
Across the counter explosives..

Sometime the following week I started to take two large ball bearings a day to school with me – one to barter, the other to play with. In The War Picture Library comics British prisoners always carried earth dug from escape tunnels in their trouser legs and then strolled out of the prison huts to sprinkle it away in the compound under the noses of the Germans. Mimicking this trick I hid both ball bearings in the lining of my scorched blazer sleeve (retrieved from the bin by one of the monks) by unpicking the threads at the cuff and fiddling one into each arm to where I could hold them – unseen. I liked feeling the weight of the big steel balls during classes: I imagine it was a bit like the power of a hidden gun.

Ball bearings being smooth dense and heavy run very true when rolled and don’t rebound. Used in a game of wall marbles they were almost unbeatable. Through the unchallenged supremacy of ball bearings I rapidly accumulated a large quantity of glass marbles particularly ‘Stringers’ with their wispy threads of colour that were rarer than the regular ‘Cat’s Eye’ type, all carried in my green linen plimsoll bag made by my mother from a pair of my dad’s old fishing trousers. The trade-able value of the ball bearings lifted my stature in the top, but because it would have been foolish to show off marbles to the big boys in the yard, let alone reveal that I had ball bearings, I had avoided catching the attention of the alley guards. One day not particularly needing a pee I wandered through the green arched alleyway between the top and the yard and walked up to one of them. I think Xavier already knew I had access to a supply of larger than normal ball bearings. This was enough for a conversation to break out, rather than gruff demands. After a few minutes I plopped one into my hand from the sleeve of my jacket and held it between my forefinger and thumb. What would the guard give me for it? “Dunno”. I demanded free passage to the lavs for a term? That is what I got. And he got one rare oversized ball bearing. Now the initiative was mine. I had something they wanted but they could only get by being nice to me. If they roughed me up, or anyone I named, the supply would stop. The problem now would be keeping the supply line open and my dad wasn’t a pushover when it came to breaking open old bearing races to remove the balls.

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The church next to the playground was called Holy Innocents. The playground was anything but. At my first mid-morning playtime it became clear that the classes and ages were ruthlessly divided. The eleven-year-old ‘new boys’ and the second years rushed into the playground called ‘the top’, just another grim quadrangle surrounded by tenement-like school buildings, while the third and fourth year ‘big boys’ were segregated lower down in ‘the yard’. The problem was the lavatories. They were in the yard. To get to the ‘lavs’ from the top meant passing through a narrow arched brick alley painted a thick greasy green. Doubling as a back exit for the kitchens and smelling of rank boiled cabbage and rancid fat, it was known as “the pass”. In effect, it was bandit country.

If you are a bandit what do you do? War Picture Libraries said you guard the pass. What did the big boys do? They guarded the pass. Bursting for a pee at break time meant negotiating the narrow alley. Handing over valuables to the gang-members who ran the big boys could be (but wasn’t always) rewarded with the relief of a pee. Resisting meant wetting yourself later in class or peeing in the playground. Both, if spotted or reported, earned six strokes of the cane. The top big boy’s name was Francis Xavier, presumably not his original name. He was a ‘border’. At almost six feet tall with alarming frizzy hair he looked like the wild-eyed Zulus in my Empire Book for Boys. I was a “day boy”, ginger haired and freckly. Borders had no homes. Since the mid-19thCentury the school had not been a school at all but an orphanage. From the end of the war it had morphed into a secondary school of sorts with a dwindling number of orphans left in it. These were the borders, homeless African or Irish boys rescued by the Presentation Order in the hope of educating them into a Christian life. The teaching agenda of the monks was at best the four R’s (if you include religion). At worst it merely drilled agricultural skills into the waifs in the motley allotments and chicken coops spread out behind the school. The borders’ agenda was not vegetable growing, it was ‘day boy’ robbery. On my first morning through the narrow green-painted pass I lost my Dan Dare penknife, several cigarette cards and some string. I’d left my tuck-shop money in my satchel hanging in the cloakroom (Later I’d find that had been filched too). Cards, string and a “twits” penknife allowed a pee, but I discovered it wasn’t enough to let me back into the top. Getting back into the top meant offering something else. With nothing to offer I was frog marched to the tall industrial dustbins behind the kitchens, tossed in and burning newspaper thrown in on top of me. The lid was slammed shut. The bin filled with smoke. With limited oxygen and some frantic patting the damp paper went out, the smouldering glow along its edges making enough orange light for me to spot the old cabbage slime stuck to the galvanised insides of the bin. The lid was flung open and in a mushroom cloud of smoke I was hauled out slapped on the back and escorted to the alley like an escapee dragged back behind the wire by the Gestapo. My new shirt was filthy. My tie was singed. The new grey flannel shorts wet with grease from the bin. My blazer gone! But my pride was intact. I’d survived the yard and got back to the top, probably something of a hero.

During assembly I had been standing next to a small shy boy also called Patrick. This other Patrick, who’d already told me he famiuly was leaving England for New Zealand, hadn’t been so lucky. He’d wet himself arguing with the bandits at the pass only to be dragged into the lavatories. He was robbed of his new belt before being pushed head first into a lavatory pan. It was flushed. He was dragged out and peed on then kicked back into the top. On return to the class both of us were sent to Brother Dominic’s office. Brother Dominic was the head master, a short square monk with a permanent six-o-clock shadow and a brogue so rich everything he said sounded like poetry. The poem that afternoon was an SS-style questioning session. On our knees on the parquet flooring of his office, hands behind our backs we were told to name the culprits. I had a pretty good idea he already knew who had done it, but he needed a verbatim account: a confession – a witness. Within minutes the other Patrick was crying. At this point – our first day – neither of us knew the names of the wild-haired Zulu and his gang. We couldn’t have told Brother Dominic even if we’d wanted to. After what seemed hours we were instructed to walk in step back to our classrooms. My co-defendant got some rank navy blue football kit to replace his pee-soaked clothes. I kept my dirty uniform. Both of us got twenty lines to write out on the blackboard. “I must respect the school uniform at all times”.

In one of The War Picture Library classic stories a captured RAF pilot inevitably called ‘Shorty’ Long gets his nitwit Nazi tormentors to give him privileges. Instead of getting pistol-whipped by his snarling guards he entertains them with his ability to play banjo and sing vaudeville songs. Of course he changes the words to insults, but dopey Fritz can’t understand and just claps like a clockwork monkey. Shorty’s stature among the other prisoners rises, but crucially his skills earn him cigarettes and sausage from the guards. Eventually his playing gives him almost complete control of the Germans. Sitting in class that afternoon I decided Shorty’s persuasive methods would be my approach to the big boys.

In all cars and trucks of my boyhood a crucial component was the ball bearing, some as big as gobstoppers. But they were rare. Hard steel was still in short supply in the mid-fifties and ball bearings are very hard indeed. Intercepting worn out ball races once they had been removed for recycling was impossible. Only my dad had that power.

My mother had collected me from my first day at school and I had managed to clean up a bit. She seemed to accept the “fell over” story as we hurried back to Orpington station. When my father got home that evening to ask how my first day at big school had gone I made up a long partially true story about playing marbles and needing some king-sized ball bearings to play with. Boys graded glass marbles into half-inch diameter ‘One-ers’, three-quarter inch ‘Three-ers’ and one-inch ‘Fivers’ – each claiming their value in ‘One-ers’ in a game.

Rarer steel ball bearings in circulation as marbles roughly matched these sizes, but their value was more than triple that of a glass one. If you won a game of marbles with a ball bearing you could take at least three similar sized glass marbles for one matching ball bearing or three times the value in any other size, or you could take a ‘One-er’ ball bearing for a hit with a ‘Three-er’ glass marble. And for oversized inch-plus ball bearings you could barter.

The following Saturday my father, back from his half-day at the garage smelling as usual of pencil sharpenings and Swarfega put ten oversized ball bearings on the wooden kitchen table and rolled each one to me. They clonked satisfactorily as one after another the shiny spheres accurately nudged the others in his tabletop mimic-game of marbles. I swept them up into a row and hugged him noticing as usual the black Parker pen, black Lucas screwdriver and the chrome Firestone tyre gauge clipped into the top pocket of his Saturday sports jacket. He then took the nest of ball bearings, five in each fist like a croupier, and asked which part of a machine they could have come from. I’d get one ball for each correct part of the answer. I said the wheels. Close, was the answer. Steering? A ball was rolled my way. This went on until the labyrinthine layout of a four-wheel drive ‘Q’-type Bedford truck’s ball and worm steering gear had been mentally deconstructed: one ball bearing being rolled out for every correctly answered clue: spherical steel ‘gold dust’ in ten weighty lumps.

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Face to face negotiation is a fundamental business skill. My dad had taught me that too. But in the summer of 2004 I was cycling up Newman Street in London when I heard someone call my name. It was Peter Moore. Peter had been the Head of Documentaries at Channel 4. When the channel, and UK TV culture as a whole, started to change Peter left the channel. Like me he had reinvented himself as an Executive Producer for hire. It was in this role that he had started work on a format imported from America by Freemantle Media, the owner of Talkback Thames based in Newman Street. Standing there in the hazy Soho sunshine he said gnomically that he had a project that might interest me. We agreed to meet up and after the second meeting he handed me three DVDs of a new American series. It was called The Apprentice. I was hooked. But it wouldn’t translate across to the UK without a major rethink. Most obviously the 40-minute American duration would have to grow to 60-minutes but it also needed a voice-over narration for the more ‘observational’ style we were giving it, plus other additional features like ‘the losers’ café’ and a bigger role for the two assistants (eventually Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford) and of course a British Donald Trump character for the candidates to aspire to. After the usual early struggle to find the right millionaire for a British – or rather BBC – audience, Peter decided that Alan Sugar might be the UK’s ‘signature boss’. Sir Alan Sugar (or SAS as I dubbed him) is my age. He had been brought up in a Hackney council flat. I had been brought up in a Bromley company flat. As we warily got to know one another it was clear his experiences as a child and teenager in post-war Britain in many ways mirrored my own, except he had become an accidental millionaire and I had become a hand-to-mouth television producer. Alan Sugar likes to think of himself as the consummate salesman: ‘haggling’ as he calls negotiation, is his cockney mantra. In one sense successful negotiation is a form of bullying, but it’s also more that that because bullies don’t have thick skins and to be a ‘haggler’ you need to be very thick skinned. Most important of all, you need something to buy or sell and you need to negotiate face to face. And my experience with Sugar in the light of my later problem with Quirky Classics got me thinking about my own lesser skills in the essentials of commercial negotiation. No doubt like Alan Sugar’s and many other people’s, my ability to haggle was honed in school, particularly secondary school. I failed my Eleven Plus in 1957 and that meant Grammar School was not going to be my destination.

At the price of one shilling the War Picture Library were the manuals of my boyhood: small, solid, book-like comics filled with dynamically drawn stories based on ‘facts’ about World War Two. Facts like Germans are ‘dolts’ who die in a hail of hot lead and most Brits are chums who get shot in the arm. Stukas blow up if you so much as look at them, while Spitfires barrel roll in blue skies as their chisel jawed pilots wave to haymaking girls in the Land Army below. These comics, the world war that ended the year I was born and my dad’s stories of it left images, sounds and attitudes that would become the templates for my early life. And the fortress-like prisoner of war camp in the comics (and real life) called Colditz Castle would be the most enduring.

St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Secondary School for Boys in Orpington jutted darkly above the trees on a bluff running along Sevenoaks Road from the embankment of the sooty tunnel under the rumbling Southern Region electric railway to Green Street Green at the other end. The railway tracks carried the daily Golden Arrow hauled by semi-streamlined 4-6-2 Battle of Britain class steam locomotives on their way to Paris. Whirling our satchels in the air and making noises like a helicopter we’d run into the tunnel to hear the expresses thundering above us.

But that would be later. On my first day, bound for secondary school wearing a new maroon blazer that was far too big, a cap, grey flannel shirt, maroon-and-gold tie and knee-length grey shorts held up with a maroon and orange elastic belt with its S-shaped buckle like a snake, my mother and I turned right at Tubbingdon Lane from Orpington Station through that tunnel and out to where I got my first glimpse of the grim brick school that to me instantly became “Colditz”. But that would be later. On my first day, bound for secondary school wearing a new maroon blazer that was far too big, a cap, grey flannel shirt, maroon-and-gold tie and knee-length grey shorts held up with a maroon and orange elastic belt with its S-shaped buckle like a snake, my mother and I turned right at Tubbingdon Lane from Orpington Station through that tunnel and out to where I got my first glimpse of the grim brick school that to me instantly became “Colditz”. This bleak silhouette was to be the springboard for my future: a school run by black-clad Irish Catholic monks called the Presentation Order in a building that looked escape-proof. The year was 1957. My mother left me in the so-called playground that I quickly learned was called “the yard”: a rectangle of scarred tarmac sunk on three sides between the tenement-like terracotta brick-work of the classrooms and on the outward (cliff) side by a low red brick wall with sharp blue cap stones in a graphite glaze: designed so they couldn’t be climbed on without maiming yourself. And even if you did, you’d fall the thirty or so feet into the brambles below.

At my first morning assembly of old and new boys standing in rows in the yard under a light September drizzle the welcome consisted of dire warnings. The list was long. To me it was nothing less than my War Picture Library’s “Kommandant” giving his frosty lecture to the plucky Brits in his care. It was delivered in Brother Michael’s Irish brogue, but I heard it in the ‘donner-blitzen-himmel’ clipped snap of comic-book German:
Answering back zwie strikenz oft ze kane
Dumb Insolence (not answering back) two strokes of the cane
Leering two strokes of the cane
Ignoring a teacher (attempting not to leer) two strokes of the cane
Putting your hand up last one stroke of the cane
Putting your hand up first (with wrong answer) one stroke of the cane
Hands in pockets two strokes of the cane
Sly hand gestures (hands not in pockets) two strokes of the cane
Loitering two strokes of the cane
Running two strokes of the cane
Fighting (often the entire playground) six strokes of the cane
I would discover later that caning the queue of multiple offenders from playground fights could sometimes take an hour: all of us standing to attention while the punishment was administered in the open yard in front of the entire school – again, echoes in my head of that imagined Colditz. Finally the punishment that rang out across the yard that first day to us all for religious-related offences would involve, after six strokes of the cane, kneeling (in football shorts) on the iron ventilation gratings set into the stone slab floor of the school’s gloomy Holy Innocent’s church (circa 1908) while saying out loud one hundred Hail Mary’s. At the end of the year all offences would be added up and the top six offenders would be filed into the end of term assembly in the yard to receive six strokes of the cane. Discipline was nothing if not consistent.

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