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Friday, 1 June 2012

Smoke Gets in your Eyes

This is the latest article to feature in the Derby Telegraph (see Derby Telegraph):

Have you seen those new public service advertisements in which a child in the back of a car appears to be engulfed in a cloud of fumes?  Then it becomes apparent that the 'smoke' is, in fact, invisible and this is yet another dire warning of the dangers of passive smoking.  Memories of car journeys back in the 1950s and 1960s came flooding back on seeing this advert, as this is exactly what it felt like for me, only the smoke was all too real.

I mentioned last month about our epic journeys from Burton to Holbrook, which seemed like a distant land, far, far away in the days before dual-carriageways and bypasses.  More often than not, these journeys were undertaken in Uncle Jim's car, a green Ford Prefect, with me, mum and dad crammed onto the bench seat at the back and Auntie Vera responsible for navigation at the front. 

Uncle Jim's driving was more by consensus than anything.  Auntie Vera's role was to advise on the route, hopefully in good time to make the various turns.  Despite the fact that our path to Holbrook was pretty well trodden over the years, things could and did get a little fraught, with conversations ensuing like:

"I think you should have turned left there."
"Oh, for goodness sake Vera, where?"
"Back there, where there was that signpost."
"Well why didn't you tell me?  I'm too busy watching the road to read every signpost…"

And so on.  The problem was that Uncle Jim's vision was not all that great, which Auntie Vera knew but we didn't.  This was coupled with the fact that he had gained his driving licence in the Army in WWII when, as he said, you only had to be able to get a lorry from one end of a runway to the other to qualify.  As a consequence, his confidence in his driving ability was limited, as was Auntie Vera's. 

None of this would have mattered too much on the sparsely populated roads of those days, except for the fact that both Auntie Vera and Uncle Jim smoked.    As the level of tension rose in the car, and it usually didn't take very long, so did the frequency of cigarette lighting.  Auntie Vera would light cigarettes for them both, and Uncle Jim would then append one to his lip and breathe through it, so that his view was further obscured by a regular volcano of smoke, ash and sparks.

The ventilation system of the old Ford Prefect left a lot to be desired.   Opening any of the main windows just resulted in a howling gale and enough noise to wake the dead, so the only concession to any of my plaintive pleas for some fresh air, usually voiced by mum after frequent sotto voce pestering by me, consisted of the quarter-light in the driver's window being opened, which was as much use as nothing.

Another reason why the journey to Holbrook took as long as it did, was that Uncle Jim was not exactly a speed demon (which I suppose, in retrospect, was a small mercy) and hated having anyone driving behind him.  Therefore, as we wound our way around the various country lanes which seemed to form the bulk of our journey, we frequently had to stop and pull over to allow the traffic accumulated behind to overtake before we could continue.

Our stay at Auntie Mabel's in Holbrook was always considerably curtailed by the need to "set off while it's still light", as driving back in the dark would clearly be a bridge too far.  So the whole process would begin again, with rapidly rising tension in the front seats and a veritable fog engulfing the back.  None of this would have been a matter for particular concern, except that for most of my childhood I was dreadfully travel sick, and being transported in a mobile fog was not conducive to gastric equilibrium.  Why I started to suffer from travel sickness is a story in itself, as I'll tell you next time.