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Roy Lanchester’s New Year’s Eve to remember

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The well-basted car journalist remembers a particularly troublesome start to the year

I will not look back on 2021 with much, if any affection. In that respect, this recently passed year reminds me somewhat of the Renault Wind, though at no point did I accidentally reverse 2021 into an inspection pit. Though I bet the ungracious Renault PR man would have called me an “arsehole” again if I had! No, but seriously, when it comes to the last 12 months it was no hardship for me to say a firm and permanent goodbye (again, like the Renault Wind press car, except I didn’t need to re-attach most of 2021’s bumper with borrowed wood glue first).

For me, ’21 was a frustrating year full of cancelled car launches, re-scheduled car launches, and car launches that I was told had been called-off only to later discover they went ahead but that somehow I was not notified of this. To add to my woes, I lost one of my longest-standing outlets with the sad closure of Industrial Carpets magazine, and I was overlooked for a noble act of charity, that of rescuing a local duck which had got its badly-shaped head stuck in a temporary fence in a local park. For my single-minded bravery in the face of getting pecked do you think I was given a positive mention in the local paper (for once) or clapped by the grateful community upon the doorsteps of Harrogate like our so-called NHS “heroes”? No, I was not. In fact, I was attacked by two of the duck’s friends, one of whom was also a duck.

Speaking of the so-called “National” “Health” “Service”, I was once again forced to take issue with my so-called “GP” this past year as he once again proved my belief that doctoring types don’t know what they’re on about. “Wear masks!” “Don’t wear masks!” “Stop blowing your nose on a mask while you’re in our surgery!” What a bunch of over-stuffed, self-regarding idiots they are, strutting about thinking they know everything just because they went to university for an idiotically long time and now get more free pens than I do! The arrogant buffoon in my case eventually forced me to lodge a formal complaint against him for his unprofessionalism and lack of sympathy, specifically in the area of telling patients not to be “so wet” just because they insist their legs make a funny noise when they crouch or kneel or poo. As a result of the surgery siding with – surprise surpirse! – their own doctor I find myself once again “between GPs” which is something of a nuisance as I’m almost out of the stuff that stops my hand leaking.

As I spent New Years’ Eve alone on account of being barred from my local pub “until your coughing stops” I had cause to reflect on happier times and the timely subject of new year’s resolutions. In particular, my mind harked back to the end of 1998 and the literal arrival of 1999, an occasion I chose to mark in The Poacher’s Arms since the landlady, Pam Ganley, always put on a proper spread, this being several years before she sadly retired and then died.

The evening was, to my best recollection, an excellent one with the beer and snacks and wine and cheese and whisky and sausages and brandy and whisky again flowing freely amongst us regulars. I should state that I was, at the time, suffering from an annoying ear infection possibly caused by spending Christmas in a field in a blizzard in a Rover 75 and this was leading to some issues with my hearing, balance and judgement. As I have stated many times, it was this infection that caused me such confusion at the end of the festivities when I suddenly noticed something rushing towards my face and failed to realise until too late that it was, in fact, the floor. Indeed, such was my confused state brought on by this ear infection that even after the moment of impact I still firmly believed the floorboards had zoomed up to meet my face and head, rather than vice versa. To my chagrin, for many weeks, months and decades afterwards some of the Poacher’s regulars would greet my entry into the premises with my so-called “catchphrase”, to whit; “Your pub’s fucked, Pam”. I didn’t realise at the time that this was not the worst thing to have occurred that evening…

I awoke the next afternoon to discover that the ear infection had also caused me to do some pretty terrible things in my own kitchen but this/these were also not as bad as the week was about to get. No, the full horror of my New Year’s Eve ‘98/’99 would only become apparent the following day, as I was making a third attempt at getting the worst out of the hall carpet. Suddenly my landline telephone rang, as was the style at the time. Curious as to who might be ringing me on a Saturday, I picked up the receiver to be greeted by the familiar tones of Mike Fyley, a friend and a butcher. “Ow do, Roymond,” he began. “Now, about them good deeds thar was talking about in Poacher’s night ‘fore last…”

Immediately I replied in a sceptical tone: Good deeds? These did not sound like the kind of things I would have proffered, ear infection or not. Yet Fyley was resolute and brought forth more troubling informations which gave a chilling picture of just how infected my ear must have been that fateful Eve. Mike explained (I won’t do the accent anymore) that some time late in the evening the talk at the bar had turned to new year’s resolutions and I had not only pronounced that I was going to do good deeds in 1999 but that I had specifically agreed to work with Fyley at the Harrogate-based A Helpful Hand organisation which assists the elderly and alone with various tasks they have become too lazy and/or incompetent to complete themselves. Worse yet, Mike added that I had been boasting quite loudly about the then-new Land Rover Discovery Series II which I had on test and how its seven seats would easily permit me to “drive a load of old dears to bingo”. All of this was fresh information to me on account of my ear infection but I felt backed into a corner and when Mike then proceeded to tell me he had a job for me and “that fancy Land Rover whatnot of yours” I couldn’t think of an excuse fast enough to get out of it.

The only plus from this whole awful situation was that Mike wanted me to collect only one old dear, rather than an entire 4×4 full of them. This was a relief for a number of reasons, one of them being that a sole pensioner rather than half-a-dozen reduced the amount of urine and biscuit crumbs likely to get on the Discovery’s seats. This was of great importance since I was bracing myself for some stern words from the Rover Group press office as it was, having ‘misplaced’ their Rover 75 press car the previous week. Indeed, this had already led to an argument with the man who had dropped off the Land Rover the previous Wednesday who was expecting to receive a saloon car for his return journey, not some hasty instructions for how to find the station. Anyway, this was now the least of my worries (or rather, lower down my list of worries, level-pegging with concerns about my hall carpet and whether my neighbour had worked out my role in what happened to his cat). My major concern was that the next day, a Sunday, I was required to drive an old lady to Ripon to have a cup of tea with her sister, and I had to use the precious diesel Land Rover had given me inside a new Discovery in order to do it. How much was I being paid for this task, you might wonder? The answer, as I swiftly discovered when I double checked with Mike Fyley, was zero pounds!

As you can imagine, I was not in the best of moods the following morning when I arrived at the address Fyley had provided to collect Fanny Lemon, which turned out to be an 84-year-old lady and not a thing I once saw in a Floridian gentleman’s club. Besides, that was a lime. Two, actually, now I think back. Ms. Lemon turned out to be one of those old birds often described as ‘sprightly’, though from her opening words to me upon opening her front door – “You’re late!” – she was also clearly a rancid old twat. Still, an agreement had been made and there was no way to get out of it, apart from running back to the Discovery and driving off, but it had been a total neckache to get it into the space near Lemon’s terraced cottage in downtown Harrogate and the time required to extract it again would have undermined my fast getaway. Instead, I forced a smile and said in my best chauffeur’s voice, “Ms. Lemon, your carriage awaits!” to which the manky old skeleton snapped, “Don’t get smart with me lad.” After this, the rancorous bat pulled on her coat and stepped out of her house to follow me to the car muttering, “Slow down boy, I’m 84, not a marathon runner”, a comparison that didn’t quite make sense, though I refrained from pointing this out.

Upon arriving at the handsome maroon Land Rover you can imagine my surprise when the bony old shit insisted on getting into the back seat! Clearly sensing my surprise at this she snapped, “You said you’re my chauffeur, didn’t you?” to which I noted that I’d actually said her carriage awaited. “Same difference,” she grunted. “Now less backchat, if you please.” As you can imagine, by now my jaw was on the floor (not literally) as I simply couldn’t believe the rudeness of this wrinkled old hag. I must confess, for a brief moment I considered closing her door, locking the Discovery from the remote fob, and simply walking away while making a mental note of the address so that Land Rover could come and collect the car and the blue-haired bag inside it at their leisure. However, I was once again mindful that the previous week’s Rover 75 incident had probably left my copybook somewhat, shall we say, ‘blotted’ (i.e. all smashed up in a field).

With a weary sigh I therefore installed myself behind the large steering wheel and started the engine so that we might begin what I sensed would be a long and rather testing journey to Ripon. Sure enough, no sooner had we set off than the odious cow in the back seat began carping about being “too hot” at which, attempting to be a good chauffeur, I adjusted the Discovery’s climate control in the appropriate direction. Moments later, however, she began to carp about being “too stuffy” at which I used the switch which fell easily to hand on the centre console to discreetly open her window a small amount. “No, no, no!” she yelped, horribly. “That’s too cold!” Biting my tongue (not literally) I raised her window again and instead turned up the fan blower in the hope that this would quell her piss-sodden chittering. Which indeed it did… for a few minutes. After that she began to complain about my chosen route to Ripon, this being the most logical and direct path along the A61. “Why are you going this way? Oh no, I don’t like the main road. It’s too fast. They drive like maniacs down here. Take the other way. Peter knows it. Go the way Peter goes.” I refrained from asking who Peter was, though if he regularly drove this bitter Lemon I can only imagine it was literally Saint Peter himself (not literally).

Taking a deep breath I growled, “I’m not Peter and we’re taking the A61, okay?” which did nothing to suck the musty wind from this ballache of a battleaxe’s sails as she mumbled, “Well I never… can’t believe it… how rude” over and over until I took her bony bait and asked if there was a problem. “There most certainly is,” she hissed. “I’ve never been spoken to like that in my life!” I took issue with this remark on the basis that she had been around for 84 years and was clearly a complete thorn in the anus of everyone she ever met but she was unbowed and asked once again if I was going to take “the proper route” to her destination. Fearing that I was about to lose my mind I had no choice but to give in to this talcum powdered terrorist and at Ripley we veered off the A61 onto the slower and less direct B6165. If I had hoped that this would silence her relentless coffin-dodging jabbering I was sadly mistaken for now she began carping about my driving which was variously described as “too fast”, “too jerky” and “too bumpy” until finally, near Bishop Thornton, I snapped.

“Tell you what, Ms. Lemon,” I growled. “Let’s take the scenic route…” and with that I turned sharply into a narrow lane to my right, mentally noting the impressive control of the Discovery’s state-of-the-art Active Cornering Enhancement chassis system, and then moments later steered sharply left through a gateway and began charging across an open field using all of the power from the Land Rover’s muscular five-cylinder engine. “Ha ha ha!” I laughed loudly as from the back seat came various cries of, “What are you doing?!” and “Have you lost your mind, man?!” My revenge was delicious, but also short-lived.

Those of you familiar with the terrain of North Yorkshire will know that our landscape is full of undulations which, while attractive to the naked eye, can conceal a variety of features until they are sometimes too near. Likewise, anyone who test drove the excellent Land Rover Discovery Series II will remember that it had powerful anti-lock brakes and the world-beating Hill Descent Control system but that both of these items required activation in a timely manner and were less effective if, for example, the vehicle had already entered something large and previously unseen, such as a lake.

It is to my credit that I was able to react instantly to the new and rapidly developing situation by immediately opening my door and exiting the car into the icy water from which it was a short, hurried swim to the bank, followed by a slightly longer and less frenzied walk back to the main road and then along it to The Chequers Inn from where I was able to telephone for a taxi and dry off with a pint while I waited for it to arrive.

Overall, I was highly impressed with the Discovery Series II and found it an impressive update of the already excellent Discovery we had come to know and admire. I was therefore pleased to learn that Land Rover was eventually able to recover this car from its watery resting place although I’m not sure what happened to it after that as the PR man was in no mood for light chit-chat when we spoke on the phone a few days later.

Likewise, Mike Fyley was in less-than-jaunty spirits when next we met in the Poacher’s Arms, using some over-dramatic language such as “unbelievably left to die” though when he explained that the mangy old bat Fanny Lemon was safely rescued by some men in a dinghy I was able to point out that he should stop carping since technically the story had a happy ending. Several, actually, since Mike never asked me to chauffeur any disgusting pensioners ever again and if anyone else asked about the incident I could blame the whole thing on my ear infection! Merry new year!

Roy Lanchester is a car journalist and the motoring correspondent for Which Kettle? magazine. He is the author of two books; the memoir How To Be A Motoring Journalist, and the Cold War thriller Steel Flies.