A pair of articles, but the same person, showing how attitudes change over time. . .
In short, I wish we had never sold the Land Rover . Like so many arranged marriages, my relationship with that dear khaki creature was a smooth and well-tempered one, which matured undramatically into love. It is, after all, glamour and passion which makes lives founder on unsuitable cars and partners: the Landy and I were brought together by the safer route of expediency, cheapness, and someone elses conviction that we would suit. In this case, my husband's conviction. During my driving lessons, he had had the opportunity of observing my gear-changing technique. I am not a woman to take any nonsense from a column of alloy in a rubber concertina skirt;I favour a firm, positive approach to getting the thing through its nasty little gates. He concluded that my style would would suit an ancient Land Rover rather better than it did the gearbox of his flash Strada. Also, he wanted something to pull his smelly old horsebox. So I got home one day, like any Asian bride-to-be, to find a fait accompli sitting in the drive: thirteen years old, scratched and battered, and the colour of its native mud. "You'll soon get used to it, " he said, as I stepped pallidly out of of the driving school Metro. "It'll look after you. "
And it did. For a brief, happy summer I battered my way down the country lanes, foot down on its vibrating tin floor, knocking branches off low flying trees with my son crowing in his safety seat and the nanny shrieking blue murder in the back. Let manufacturers puzzle and scheme to produce the ultimate "woman's car", turning out soppy shopping-baskets on wheels with integral handbag-hook and wipe-able suedette trim;what a harassed multiple mother really needs is none of that. She needs a Land Rover. People of all sizes can kick it, scratch it, be sick in it, wee in it, and it doesnt give a damn;besides after a morning's maternal cooing and coaxing and patient nose-wiping, a woman needs a machine which will let her stamp and vroom and wrench with impunity until her frustrations melt away in an atmosphere of healthy violence.
Babies love it, too: at two years old, Nicholas could do a perfect imitation of the Land Rover starting its day: "Aheu-aheu-aheu - ahoo. Aheu-aheu-aheu -aheu-aheu. Oh, soddy, soddy. Soddy bogger. Aheu-aheu VROOOOOM. "For indeed it always started in the end. You just had to humour its morning choke, and which of us has ever had a partner of any sort who did not need some cajoling at dawn?
I even had a brief fantasy (derived, I think, from Jilly Cooper novels) that a pretty woman driving an old Land Rover was a piquantly sexy sight. Alas, my Landy could not lie, and brief glimpses of my red, set face in its peeling wing mirrors showed that on the contrary, at eight months pregnant I looked in my maternity dungarees like exactly the sort of woman who *ought* to be driving a truck. Probably in Russia. But I didnt care. That winter, we sneaked out at nights and went off pulling stuck motorists out of snowdrifts, for the pure joy of it.
Madness then struck. Just for a handful of diff-lock we left it, just for upholstered seats at the back. A smooth, plausible, white Range Rover was dangled in front of us: a couple of years older than our khaki friend, a thousand quid costlier, but seductively pouting its cushions and flashing its effete suspension at us as shamelessly as a monkey flaunts its orange bum. We fell for it, we fell from grace. I never even saw the Landy go, God help me.
Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. Suffice to say that any single fault in a Range Rover costs a bare minimum of 86 pounds for parts and 100 pounds plus VAT labour, and that there's a lot of parts. And that after the hearty macho of a Land Rover, which goes into a ditch and judders a bit and hauls itself out with a manly shrug, the extreme wincey-ness of a Range Rover comes as a cruel shock. One little bump on its miserable nose, one weedy little ditchside tree, and the power steering goes peculiar and various horrid bits and pieces inside come adrift and wander around, and the next thing you know there is a BANG! BANG! under the bonnet and it cant pull itself along, let alone the trailer, and the friendly 4-W-D mechanic sucks his lip, smacks his gut and informs you with relish that, "She's got a rad problem, " and will take a week. And ten days later she comes out going BANG! BANG! just as badly, and the chap says, "Never met this problem before, " rot his black, deceiving heart.
In the end, two or three thousand pounds and ten months later, the gearbox disintegrated with a cheery tinkle, leaving the machine able to function only in third gear. Fortunately-I will grant this, I am nothing if not a fair woman-the genus Range Rover is blest in being able to start off in third gear, at least when parked pointing downhill;and thus we drove grimly around until, like the accursed devil-bottle in the Robert Louis Stevenson story, the machine was at last offloaded to the maddest bidder.
But I am not over it. This double flirtation with four-wheel-drive has left me with perverted, incurable leanings. I like it. I yearn for it. I have tasted the rough earth beneath my wheels, whizzed over snow and slime, parked blithely in mudholes, and I am hooked. I do not want a dull plain car that goes along boring roads with two weedy wheels to pull it. Alone in my bed of nights, I draw out from under the pillow with trembling hands a copy of "Off Road and 4-W-D" magazine, the only periodical to be written throughout in a low, throaty, mencing roar;I fantasise about sand-crunching and green-roading and feel my old clutch foot stamping holes in the sheet when I read heady things about Max Traction and reinforced steel roll-bars and how good the torque always was on the Series 111.
I tried to compromise:I flirted briefly with the idea of getting one of those Japanese off-road "concept" posing-jeeps with pseudo-chunky tyres, I actually bought and drive a square little Panda 4 X 4, but it is no good. All these ersatz King's Road four-wheel-drive showoffmobiles have soft seats and "good-mannered" pedals, almost normal gearboxes and nothing to stamp on. None of them is khaki enough or dirty enough or has that special tinny Aheu-aheu-aheu sound that spells freedom, and sweaty satifaction, and sod-you-Jack
It is no good. I want my Landy back.
Like all restless unsatisfied perverts, when filthy literature is not enough I resort to gadgets. One gloomy day I sneaked off to Ipswich and got my poor little Panda fitted with a big black cowcatcher on the front, what we 4-W-D folk call a Nudge Bar. I tell people that it is merely a protective device, necessary because I shop a lot in Aldeburgh, and Aldeburgh has its own unwritten Highway Code (if you are over seventy, knew Peter Pears, and belong to the Yacht Club and/or Festival Club, you are exempt from using your indicators or looking round when reversing. Paul once had an old Aldeburgh lady slide effortlessly backwards in her Mini on to the front of the Land Rover, on a slope; she never even glanced round. Just thought her hill-start had gone a bit better than usual when she left)
But really, I bought the Nudge Bar as a consolation prize, because what I truly want is a brown box with a spare tyre plonked uncompromisingly on its bonnet and scratched tin benches in the back, and because I havent yet got the bottle to buy one. But I can dream. Outside the school gates, I may look a sober Mummy fetching home my little one and his latest bit of potato printing;but at my front wheels lies an imaginary desert, a bleak snow-bound moor, a flash-flood in the Atlas mountains. I am ready for it. To hell with the handbag-hook.
The daffodils are up, the hedges are growing fluffy, and if you crush the gorse you can suddenly smell summer. Some nights it is warm enough to admire Hale-Bopp for a full ten minutes without a coat on. High time, then, for every citizen to dust off John Stuart Mill On Liberty. Only he can save us as the Easter exodus to the country gets under way. Wordsworth or Laurie Lee may set the mood, but Mill is fundamental.
He wrote: "The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited: he must not make himself a nuisance to other people." Perhaps the Millennium Commission should have those words carved into a million rustic planks and placed discreetly adjacent to every lane, track, footpath, bridleway, cycle-track, clifftop, towpath, beach, gate, stile and verge. Any spare planks could be posted or thrown with some violence in the general direction of the Ramblers Association, British Horse Society, Country Landowners Association, RSPB, and the governing bodies of every pastime involving off-road vehicles. It could also be engraved on dog identity tags, stamped into the bridles of horses and boxed in the corner of every Ordnance Survey map and tourist leaflet.
For this is a densely populated island, and being part of a dense population means that consideration meek milksop, despised virtue! has to be second nature. If you want to be free as a hawk and beholden to no man, then walk to the South Pole. Take outdoor pleasure here, and you have no option but to accept the limitation of not being a pest.
What brings all this on is a small but curdling row sparked off by the Princess Royal in the current National Riding Week. Most of HRH's utterances have been sensible. Yes, horses are a treasurable part of national life. Yes, riding is a unique therapy and pastime for the disabled, a popular spectator sport and excellent for children. (Unless, of course, it makes them into grasping snobbish little brats; but horses do not achieve this unaided. It takes solid parental effort to produce a really nasty pony-child.) The Princess does well to point out such things as the punitive rates levied on small riding schools. However, in an interview with her local paper, she incautiously bracketed together as threats to bridle-paths "off-road vehicles, scramblers and walkers".
Uproar. The Ramblers Association demands an apology, commentators snarl that she has an atavistic horsey sense of superiority, and there is an upsurge of instant mutual hatred. These days Henry Higgins would observe that an Englishman need not even open his mouth to make another Englishman despise him: he has only to set foot in the countryside. In our pastoral idyll walkers find horsemen arrogant, riders reckon walkers are in the way, birdwatchers hate dog-owners. Moreover, fast riders hate slow bumbling ones, cyclists curse horse-dung on their tyres, doggy types lambast one another for poor control, the RSPB warden becomes a figure of hatred and ridicule for trying to stop people blackberry-picking with one foot off the path, farmers are cursed for growing crops, and environmentalists bitterly resent everybody for having feet. Feet wear out the ground.
This is not the moment to go into legislative remedies, partly because I am trying to operate an election-free zone here, but also because legislative remedies go only a very short way. Some things are impossible to police, and for as long as the British countryside is recognisably itself there will be paths and tracks vaguely shared by walkers, riders and cyclists. Lanes, made and unmade, have in addition a rolling population of pony-traps, tractors, locals who stop while passing one another to wind down the window and exchange gossip, tourists, parcel-vans bringing review books to downshifted literary dreamers, feed-sales reps in a hurry and people with dinghies on trailers who can't reverse for toffee.
We can only live together by daily remembering Mill's sentiment about freedom and nuisance, and so curbing a tendency to stand on rights. I live on a quiet lane, and any drive involves inroads on my "freedom" which can be as grave as a city traffic-jam, if more subtle. Bonnet-to-bonnet with another driver in a lane you do not think of your rights. You assess the opposition in a spirit of chivalry, the courtesy of the strong to the weak. Has he got an awkward trailer behind? Is the lady in the Lada too old to turn her head comfortably? Or is she young, with distracting children shrieking in the back seat? If so, even though the nearest passing place is farther from you than the opposition, you resignedly reverse a quarter of a mile along the twisting lane.
When you finally pass, each of you gravely raises a hand in salute. You are saluting not one another but the unwritten code that both have observed. The same quiet signal is exchanged when the tractor which has been making you miss your train for three miles of lumbering along a B-road, finally finds a spot to pull out of the way; when the cyclist lets you off your duty to trail behind him at 7mph by diving into the verge and stopping; when a driver has lagged prudently behind a nervous young horse and passed wide and slow. In coastal Suffolk, beyond the commuter belt, the code is remarkably intact. It is always a shock to drive into Kent and see how far the culture of hoot and swerve and V-sign has spread into the country lanes.
Such resigned chivalry applies equally to footpaths and bridleways. Riders shouldn't thunder round blind corners; dogs should come to heel when called; dreamy lovers and irritable old ladies should force themselves to smile upon shrieking toddlers who break the peace; parents should keep children off growing crops; farm gear and stock should be respected, but so should walkers. Shouting "Fascist!" at a farmer is as pointless as a farmer's threatening one lot of ramblers because another lot dropped litter. These things are obvious. We are all here, and interdependent.
But the very obviousness of the principle is the reason why at a certain point lines have to be drawn, before the whole fragile structure of mutual consideration breaks down. They always were by law, even the most beloved and otherwise harmless dog is shot if it chases ewes and lambs. Now a new line is needed, because there is a new kind of path-user which of its nature cannot join in the game of showing consideration: the sporting motor vehicle.
Cars are bad enough on roads: abetted by planning which has unthinkingly given them precedence in both city and country, motor vehicles have shattered an ancient social balance based on eye-contact, smiles, scowls and instinctive empathy. Even a rider or cyclist, even the driver of a trap or an open-sided tractor, is close enough to the pedestrian to share some fellow-feeling. They all feel the rain on their neck and look one another in the eye. Even the haughtiest coachman could have his reins caught by an enraged parent whose child he threatened. A motorist, however chunky and safari-styled his four-wheel-drive vehicle, is unnaturally insulated from everybody else. He is comfortable and invincible in his steel box; and a motorcyclist is almost equally isolated inside a thick helmet and a wall of growling sound.
On Tarmac lanes the motorised can just about live with the unmotorised, who can just about see the justice of giving them a share of the general consideration. Jolting and roaring on unmade tracks, they are an aberration, an invasion from another world, moving too fast to look back at the mud and ruts they leave. Mud and ruts, in any case, are part of their particular fun.
Their freedom, much touted by the off-road lobby, is no doubt exhilarating. The snag is that it is a nuisance to everybody else, asking no consideration and giving none. It is outside the magic circle of tolerance, and can be limited without anyone feeling guilty about doing so. Let them hire their own roads and stick to them.
The extraordinary thing about society at present is that because we think so reverently of pleasure as part of freedom, we shrink from such obvious decisions. We tie ourselves in knots offsetting the personal choice of the off-roader against that of the walker as if they were equals. But they aren't equals, because they aren't an equal nuisance. It's as simple as that. Happy Easter.