(5 minute read)
The soot splattered on the stone gable end where it had been fired, its umbra like a hole through my neighbour’s wall. Then it scattered, losing its intensity as the thick black particulate gave way again to stone, but it was that dark centre, that black heart, which foretold its promise. This was the productive diesel cough of my Land Rover, the satisfying tarry-taste of an old man’s phlegm after a night of beer and filterless cigarettes. Simple pleasures, the Land Rover.
Every morning I’d leave the house and note the black daub on that wall. I came to view it fondly, like the worn handle of a favourite tool, that patina, that wooden hoist-up over a stile that had smoothed into a dome under pulling hands, or the cobbles bowed by boots below. It was a mark of work done, of being here, a brusque story of utility and the comforting grind of routine. Backed in carefully, parked, then the next morning hoist up into that cab, prime it, turn the key (almost any key would do) and with a sharp cough the diesel engine would bite, growl and spit out another gobful of soot to blacken that wall. It never let me down.
It was a Land Rover Defender 300Tdi. I got it by recommendation of a friend who was a mechanic and who worked on those big, Atlas earth-shifting machines used in motorway construction and the like. His passion was off-roading in Land Rovers and given his day-job, these things were like lego toys to him. He delighted in pulling them apart and (sometimes) putting them back together again and there must have been enough bits in his backyard to make up another five.
I got the 300Tdi because it was, my friend told me, the last Land Rover you could completely maintain yourself, without resort to computers or knowledge of electronics, and my drive was towards simplification, self-sufficiency in life. Things had got too complicated. I wanted, with some prescience it would now seem given how my country would go on to tear itself apart with the Brexit debate, I wanted to ‘take back control’.
So I traded in the crypton-tuned two wheel drive suburban estate that could, as I was fond of saying, ‘get stuck on a bowling green after a heavy dew,’ and I bought a Land Rover and a bag of tools.
And I put a set of big off-roading tyres on it. I didn’t want to do anything heavy in it, unlike my friend who competed in trials and delighted in taking his machine through improbable terrain and made full use of the wynch attached to the front while doing so. But I did drive the green lanes around my Peak District home.
It was the first snows when I really came to appreciate the strengths of the machine. My friend urged me to come out for the evening and introduced me to the sport of pulling out hatchbacks that had slithered into ditches. It was great fun as people who would curse you as one of the four horsemen of the environmental apocalypse for 364 days of the year were suddenly beside themselves with gratitude to see you on the 365th.
Within half a mile of my home there is a steep, hair-pin bend on a narrow lane. That first night out in snow I was introduced to two Defender staples. In heavy snow the windscreen wipers don’t work. They will for a while but then the range cleared gets less and less until the whining motor leaves you squinting through a letter-box. Then you have to wind down the window, lean out, clear the snow by frozen hand and start the cycle again.
The second is their improbable climbing ability. At that hair-pin bend I looked up and all my senses told me there was no way I was going to get a vehicle up that hill. But I turned the sharp bend and the tyres bit into the snow and we climbed and we climbed. Slowly, but we climbed. I felt as though we could have gone up to the top of the hill and then climbed out into the snow-black sky itself. That night I fell in love with both its idiosyncrasy and its capability.
When the clutch needed replacing my friend took me to his Dad’s garage. It was a freezing February morning and I don’t think the temperature got much above zero all day. “We can either lift the engine or drop the gearbox,” said my friend, in lego mode. We had no wynch so with an elaborate arrangement of straps and slings we ‘dropped the gear box’. I was very much the mechanic’s apprentice. Twelve hours it took us, working in the freezing cold, the air heady with the tin-foil smell of diesel. You make good friends in the world of Land Rovers.
I drove it home with the cosmetics of the cab (such as they could be described in an old Defender) chucked in the back. The gear mechanism was still bare, and under that the box and prop shaft, and you could see the road beneath you as you drove. The noise was magnificent. I wanted to leave it like that forever. Such intimacy with its ground. I wanted to see road and rock and river and mountainside down there, put behind us, passed over by this thunderous machine.
I was fully aware of the implications of that black soot on my neighbour’s wall. I had been a keen environmentalist all my life. But I had watched with dismay as my peers gave up the dream that we could organise the world a better way and descended into the same habits that we knew full well even then were destroying it. Such is the way of things, I thought, this was ‘growing up’. Things were complicated.
I was never very good at ‘growing up’ and the truth is, I never really believed that things needed to be complicated - unless you were looking for excuses to make them so. Maybe none of us did.
The Land Rover was an attempt to escape the dependency of the materialist treadmill. The fact that it did around 28 miles to the gallon and belched out soot like an old coking plant was collateral damage.
I wouldn’t drive that Land Rover now but I don’t regret the experience of having done so. One hot summer’s day I loaded it up, put my three lurchers in the back and we drove to Ireland. I drove all the way barefoot.
We got off the ferry and picked our way through Dublin’s rush hour traffic. The sun baked and everyone had their windows down and their roofs open. We must have made an eccentric sight even by Irish standards and I ended up having loud and friendly conversations in every traffic queue as we snailed through the Dublin streets.
But when we got out of town and onto the main road, that perfect ribbon of the M6, the open sky of Ireland’s summer evening made us miniature beneath its contour. It gathered in what I can only call ‘soul’.
I settled easily and headed towards Galway City at a steady sixty miles an hour. I had my three hounds sleeping in the back and the passenger footwell and seat were full of camping gear and fishing rods. We drove for miles between seeing vehicles. I hadn’t felt such a sense of freedom in my life and I haven’t done so since.
28th July 2020