Saturday, April 09, 2005


You could get a lot of things in Bishops Stortford in 1974. A decent pint, a Grateful Dead album, a good selection of outdoor wear at Millets in the high street, and all manner of illegal stimulants. You could probably even buy a pretty useable working van - a Ford Transit, say - if you were so inclined.

What you couldn't buy there was a freak bus. No sirree. For that you had to go to London. To R&R Services of Vauxhall, no less.

Beats me how Yaya found them. In a newspaper, perhaps. The Ex-Military Echo or something. Or maybe someone at Stansted Engineering knew exactly where decommissioned Royal Navy ambulances could be tracked down. Whatever the source, I can remember him breathlessly explaining that he'd thought about it and thought about it some more and decided the only possible thing he could do with his accumulated van driving wealth was to buy a suitably sized military vehicle and what's more he knew the very place and would I like to drive there with him and check out the options.

‘Of course I would,’ quoth I, probably on the phone from Victory Square. Conveniently forgetting to mention pension funds and property investments and all the other wonderful things Yaya might have done with his money.

I've conveniently forgotten something else here. Victory Square didn't have a phone. Let’s be honest: it barely had plumbing. How on earth did we communicate before mobiles came along?

Payphones, that's what. And telegrams at a pinch. I have a faded yellow communication from Simon, sent to Victory Square sometime earlier that year, that perfectly illustrates why telegrams were simultaneously more fun and less reliable than texting. In fact I’ve posted it already. See below. I’ll try and figure out how to blog two images at once before I do that again.

It was an awesome concert, by the way. Alexandra Palace. I have a sneaking suspicion that the success of a Grateful Dead gig is measured in strict proportion to the amount of smoke in the air, but hey - there really is (was) nothing like a night out with the Dead.

So: I've no idea how we made the arrangements but I'm dead (pardon the pun) certain we drove to R&R Engineering, either from Bishops Stortford or down the road from Camberwell, in Yaya's other vehicle: Auntie.

Here's a picture of Auntie. You can see why Yaya dreamt of something cooler...

Auntie Posted by Hello

Auntie was an Austin 1100. See my earlier observation on the British car industry if you haven't come across the brand before. I didn't drive at the time (in fact I was dead grateful pardon the pun for any kind of lift anywhere) but even I knew that Auntie was, frankly, a dog. And not even a particularly faithful one: she's broken down in the picture above, about 200 yards from the Chiswick roundabout on the North Circular.

Auntie's saving grace, for passengers at least, was her comical side. To understand this, you have to picture Yaya behind the wheel. 'Adequate legroom' is a meaningless concept when you're 6'8": in Auntie, Yaya often seemed to be steering with his knees. In the orthodox 'ten to and ten past' position, even.

You should have seen him in a mini.

Bertha, on the other hand, was Yaya’s ideal from the moment we saw her. There's a scene in a Furry Freak Brothers cartoon where the brothers decide to buy a camper van from a used lot full of shiny new Winnebagos. They’re undecided at first, but then the wily salesman takes them to the back of the lot and shows them a rusting vision with cobwebs hanging down and the wheels at funny angles: the 1930s Phutney-Screech Land Yacht. The freaks fall instantly in love.

It was a bit like that with Bertha. She was hidden away too, behind a wall of corrugated sheeting that faced onto the road away from Vauxhall Bridge round about where the pleasure gardens used to be in the eighteenth century but now consisted only of a long line of junkyards and Arthur Daley yards with ugly plastic lettering and those triangular flags they always use to brighten the frontage of places where old vehicles come for one last crack at life. There were all manner of jeeps and trailers and possibly even gun carriages in the yard as well. But there was only one truck to catch our eye: a 1950s Royal Navy ambulance with a six cylinder, 3.5 litre engine, four bed frames (oh all right - stretcher frames) in the back, windows at the side to look out on the world, and even internal plumbing. Our very own sink.

To Yaya's credit, he said he'd think about it. That might have been because we’d come in Auntie and didn’t want to offend her, but I suspect it had more to do with the £400 price tag.

You could buy a lot of Grateful Dead records for £400 in 1974…


Blogger Deirdre said...

I think you're being unnecessarily cruel to Auntie. She's not a dog; she looks cute.

9:18 am  
Blogger Mark Gamon said...

Deirdre, you're a star. Always quickest to comment. I need to study the time zones to understand this phenomenon.

Yaya will come to Auntie's defence. She did have a good stereo, now I come to think of it...

9:35 am  
Blogger broomhilda said...

I agree with Deirdre, Auntie is adorable.

4:18 pm  
Anonymous caroline morphess said...

This site is the only one my old man will read. You could well see him on the bus, what with him being... *ahem*... of a certain age and all.
And yes, Bertha's a sweetheart.

8:36 am  
Anonymous yaya said...

I am slowly emerging from the shock of Mark calling Auntie a "dog". Thank you all for the support. Also the implication that she was uncool even for the seventies is a slight too far. Just look at those lines.
How many thousands of miles did we all travel around the country before and after Bertha. and now I find out that people put up with this magnificent machine solely because she went from A to B, and of course the comic relief of watching me steer with my knees.
My paranoia has surged greatly. All those ,what I thought were, glorious stoned giggly moments had nothing to do in fact with the affects of the drugs but the sight of me wedged behind Aunties steering wheel.
Mark is right though, she did have a damn fine stereo.

PS. I seem to have lost the "B" off the registration plate in the photo.

11:55 am  
Blogger Deirdre said...

Aren't you too tall to be paranoid, Yaya? Isn't there a height restriction?

Have you seen the SunClock, Mark? It's a nice quick way to see which areas of the planet are in night or day.

3:00 pm  
Anonymous yaya said...

After you've smacked your head as often as me then you know the world is against you.

4:48 pm  
Blogger broomhilda said...

The world isn't against you Yaya, you just need to learn how to duck.

7:48 pm  
Anonymous caroline said...

Oh goodness, got my cars muddled, apologies. They all look the same to me. No, they really do, I'm just trying to be supportive.

9:39 am  
Blogger Deirdre said...

I'm with you, Caroline: four wheels + engine = car, any car, all cars. (Auntie does look cute, though.)

2:27 pm  
Anonymous caroline said...

And colour Deirdre! I do colour.

12:00 am  
Blogger Omykiss said...

Thanks for the new insight into telegrams. I always thought they were used only when someone was dying and the only words allowed were 'fill_in_the_blank is dying STOP come at once STOP’

1:52 am  

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