Extract from “The Haunting of a Favourite Son” by Noel Hodson*. Childhood memories of holiday journeys – being driven round the bend by a rally-mad dad!
|Edwin Hodson with his TR4 which he drove in the 1962 Monte Carlo Rally|
“Though Father had not yet embarked on his racing and rallying activities he took every opportunity to practice winning. Every car journey was to him a competitive event. With a big family he bought big second-hand cars. We had a black Wolsey, the familiar ‘forties police car. We had a pale-green Rover with a Viking ship on its nose. We had a great Jaguar, racing green with wide running boards and huge free-standing headlamps that Father and I toured Scotland in together. We had an Austin Sheerline, an immense machine with built in under-floor hydraulic jacks and a secret emergency petrol tank that could be switched to from inside the car. These sedate family cars became high revving, Formula One racing machines in Father’s hands.
A holiday would start with the loading procedures, Father was tidy and precise;“Shipshape and Bristol Fashion,” as he put it.
Luggage for up to six children and two adults takes a lot of space. Father despised roof racks for aerodynamic reasons. At least two of the children, at any one time, would suffer acutely from travel sickness, exacerbated by the real leather, the real wood, the anxiety, the tension and, when in flight, the bucketing, pitching and rolling at maximum speed. Father, as driver and captain, had the most space. He needed room to hold his arms straight – as good racing technique demands, he needed clear space around him to ensure his lightning fast reflexes were not obstructed, and he needed clear views in all directions.
Mother was installed in the front passenger seat, apprehensive but silent at this stage. This was before the government decided to insult the inherent skills and good sense of all drivers by insisting on cars having safety belts, so there were no entanglements of that sort to be accommodated. Under her legs would go a suitcase and on her lap would go the youngest child. The boot would be hard-packed with cases and slammed tight. The remaining children and luggage would be crammed into the rear seat and on the floor. Older children would baggsie a corner seat with window, though we were mostly too short to see out, and the younger ones would end up perched on suitcases in the middle of the seats. Sometimes we took the dog with us just to make up the numbers.
Mother would become deeply silent and pale. Father checked the car, checked the house, checked the weather, re-checked the house, used the loo, then did a roll call and then started the engine. At which point Mother would say tensely, “You will drive carefully won’t you Edwin?”
And he would reply “Hrrrummphh!! Hrrumph!! Of course dear, of course.”
Only in towns and built up areas was there a speed limit. There were no motorways, dual carriageways were rare and the ubiquitous lethal three-lane highways to death were highly regarded. On a modern map the journey from Stockport to Llandudno looks short enough and safe enough. In the late ‘forties, on twisting country roads, through market towns, up hill and down dale, in a loaded car weighing two tons, with primitive brakes, puking, bitching children and an increasingly hysterical wife; it was a long, long way. Several times we made the thirteen-hour trip to Cornwall; and of course, back again.
But Father never wavered in his parental duty to get us to the holiday destination as rapidly as possible, dead or alive. On one return journey, with the car bucking and heaving with the terrified family, racing up the busy Chester Road to Manchester, Father dancing the car past all lesser mortals and dodging into spaces two feet shorter than the car at seventy miles an hour, we were followed and were eventually stopped by a police car. The policemen looked perplexedly into the jammed interior. There was no question of exceeding speed limits, as there were none.
“Where did you learn to drive, Sir?” said an officer in a neutral tone, and before Father, shrinking into his seat, could answer…
“…We’ve been following for about five miles, and couldn’t keep up, Sir. You passed four lorries back there into oncoming traffic, Sir,…” He paused then continued admiringly
“...And I’d swear the back of your car shrank as it went through the gap! Mind how you go, Sir.”
Half an hour into a journey, as we left the relative sanity of thirty-mile-limits behind us and as Father swooped past all other road users at frantic speed, Mother’s nerve would start to fail and she would launch into an endless critique of his driving and a continuous prophecy of doom.
“Slow down Edwin! You’ll kill us all. You’ll kill all these children. Oh my God, you nearly hit that van then. Look, he’s shaking his fist at us. Oh My God, you’re going too fast. If you don’t slow down now Edwin, I’m getting out at the next police station and I’ll have you arrested. Look Out! Look Out! Those lights are on red. Can’t you see? Can’t you see? Oh you’re NOT going to try to overtake here are you. You’re a madman. Stop the car Edwin – I’m going to turn you in. I will I swear it. I’ll see you in prison for the way you’re driving. Oh Holy Mother of God save us – look out! look out! he’s pulling out...”
And on and on she would wail.
Father would completely and utterly ignore her and our headlong flight would continue, with squealing tyres, booming exhaust, opposite lock, braking on a sixpence and with all the excitement of Le Mans until an inner-seat child was sick. Inner because the outer children, before they spewed-up usually had time to wind down the window, stick their heads out and, if they didn’t get their heads knocked off by a passing branch or fence or car, they could happily retch and watch the bile liquid spatter onto the rear wing and make its way with the full-speed slipstream round onto the boot. Most journeys ended with both sides of the car thus redecorated and two retching, wretched children in danger of falling out of the back windows as Father negotiated a double-chicane on opposite lock with masterly skill. But Father’s fastidiousness overcame his racing instincts if a child threatened to spew inside the car. By long experience he had learned that sick over his luggage was unpleasant and took a lot of cleaning; so a heaving child without access to a window, could, in extreme circumstances, bring the express journey to a halt. We would all pile out, shivering from the shock of continuous vomiting for a breath of clean air with no sick fumes and Mother would become silent again, gripping the passenger bar and staring palely and tight lipped into the far purple mists of the Welsh mountains still ahead of us.
As he rid himself of the obligation of ferrying his wife and six children, driving fast became Father’s overriding passion and in nineteen-sixty-two when I was nineteen and he would be forty-eight or so, Triumph fitted his two-seater TR4A with engine number one and made him leader of their rally team for the Liège-Rome-Liège Rally. Later that year he also privately entered the car, red, low and lethally quick, in the Monte-Carlo Rally that then still ran on public roads, mostly through ice and snow, from Edinburgh or London and other European capitals, across France, into the French Alps, through the cols and over the peaks, and down after three days and nights of frantic driving, without sleep, to the warmth of Monte Carlo. Of course this event required preparation and practice. The car was equipped with six additional spotlights plus an adjustable spotlight on the roof for examining snow covered French signposts. The engine was tuned to perfection and a new copper straight-through exhaust added, to give it tone. Racks were welded on to help carry the four spare wire wheels fitted with spiked ice tyres. This was Father’s twelfth or thirteenth entry as a private competitor and he spurned the modern, dependent, corporate idea of a support team in a van carrying all the spares they might need.
Perhaps in late latent revenge for the locked lavatory, or more charitably, maybe stirred by a distant feeling for what other father’s seemed to do with their sons, Father invited me one rare snowy evening to accompany him on a practice run. He had to use every snow and ice hour that came, to test and hone his driving skills.
We burbled menacingly out onto the deserted roads of Alderley Edge as snow fell heavily and silently in the darkness. In the passenger seat I was confronted by technical instruments screwed roughly onto the fascia and an additional horn button – all aids to the navigator. The large red horn was to relieve the navigator’s mounting tensions and terrors as the car hurtled into blind corners on sheet ice, on public roads, often with a thousand foot drop at the side. Airplane cockpit type harnesses pinned us into our seats. We turned towards Prestbury and growled through the deepening snow as all the Manchester millionaires withdrew into their mansions and turned up the heating – this was no night to be out and about. The road took us through Macclesfield and up into the narrow stony lanes of the Pennines. As we passed the last terraced cottages Father opened the throttle and fed full power into the new snow tyres, that span and spat grit and stones viciously as the rear of the car snaked and slithered and the exhaust boomed its challenge to all comers.
I pitied the would-be navigator who would sit in this madly bucking seat for three days, inside the protective steel cage welded under the roof, all the way to Monte Carlo, head buried in maps and shouting warnings of what twists and dangers the road ahead presented. We shot up the narrow main road towards Whaley Bridge, slipping and sliding into hairpin bends at sixty miles an hour to skid through them sideways, wheels on opposite-lock, relying on the power of the engine to the rear wheels to thrust the car forward in the right direction at the correct split second, and to avoid cannoning into the murderous black rocks flanking the road. Exciting stuff on the main road but far too easy for Father. At the Highwayman Inn, lighted but closed up and deserted, we turned off into narrow lanes, past the stone inscribed with the mystery of the death of a faithless husband, and scrambled and scraped at dizzying speed through the lanes towards the forbidding and mournful Goyt Valley and its vast, deep black reservoir, as the snow fell ever faster. Now the spotlights came into their own. On a good straight the TR4A would rocket up to seventy or eighty miles an hour making it important to be able to see at least a little way ahead. Brakes were of course completely useless at those speeds; the driver had to rely on rapid gear down-shifts and screaming deceleration to reduce to speeds where we stood the slightest chance of chewing the car through the next unsympathetic bend. The eight lights streamed ahead of us into the snow laden air, forging a fabulous white, glowing, dreamlike tunnel through the black night; a tunnel that we fell down, faster and ever faster. Father, hands in his lap, spun the steering wheel from below at an impossible rate, passing it through his dancing fingers. ‘Never, never, never cross your hands when you are driving’. He would advise his absent audience and whoever happened to be in the car at the time.
Not all of that part of the Pennines is uninhabited. There are remote hamlets, lonely farms and gaunt isolated houses with immovable rusted gates set into unwelcoming stone, blackened by the industrial revolution. The taciturn and hill toughened locals mostly have the wisdom to lock their doors and stay off the roads in snowstorms. But sometimes, just sometimes, they have to venture forth. Thus it was, as we thundered down to Wild Boar Clough, through a snow tunnel on one of the rare straight stretches, at eighty miles an hour, with eight headlights searing through the snow tunnel, with the narrow lane reduced to less than a single track by new snow banked down from the walls, banked over the rocks and spread blanket like on the verges, that the local district nurse, out on an errand of mercy, nervously steered her black Morris Minor 1000 through a right angled bend in the snowy night and came face-to-face with us at the bottom of our straight run. Our six spotlights and the two headlights were all full on. As we plummeted towards her, every minute feature of herself and her car’s interior was blindingly illuminated. She was driving, sensibly, at about five miles an hour, we were plummeting down at her at eighty miles an hour and behind her was an unforgiving, craggy rock-face that marked the tight bend that she had, a moment ago and a lifetime away, so carefully negotiated, little suspecting that within a split second she would be in the limelight and facing total annihilation.
I knew that our time had come and was able to reflect briefly on my short life and its adventurous end. I could hear Stephen Court, my long headed, fatherless, young-fogey friend who owned the shoe-shop on Heaton Moor Road and who warned us constantly of the apocalyptic Yellow Peril that would soon invade the district and who greatly admired Father’s driving, breathing in his hushed slow baritone, ‘Magnificent’ as they untangled the tortured red metal and chrome lights from the Triumph embedded in the staid black metal of the Morris, and tried to reconstruct the deconstructed people. I dispassionately noted the hairs on the mole on the District Nurse’s completely startled face, the minor red veins in her popping blue eyes and the wording on her jaunty little hat. The phrase ‘Rabbit in the headlights’ came easily to mind. She in her turn could see nothing. She was blinded by the light and transfixed by panic. Instinctively, and some might say, intelligently, the District Nurse stopped her car in the middle of the snowbound lane.
Father, hands flying from steering wheel to light switches to gear stick, feet tap-dancing back and forth to effect a double de-clutch, feather the brakes and modulate the accelerator, muttered “Bloody Fool.” at the hapless nurse, flipped the red missile, TR4A, engine number one, up the snow bank on our left, on my side of the track, at a forty-five degree angle, where the ground miraculously held firm, around the paralysed Morris Minor and its briefly illuminated woman driver and down again into the roadway with just enough time and space, about forty yards, to get the hurtling vehicle into a sideways drift at ever reducing velocity, into the right-angle of the bend, from where we screamed out again in second gear, full power to the bucking and slithering back wheels, to regain the speed the bloody fool of a nurse, now plunged back into total darkness and undoubtedly composing a UFO report, had lost us by freezing-up in the middle of the track at such a crucial moment. On a racecourse, such as at Oulton Park, her obstruction could have cost a split-second - and the winner’s laurels.
“If only…” Father might say,
“…if only people would learn to drive properly before they took to the Queen’s highways, the world would be a better, happier and a safer place.”
Some years later, as a Justice of the Peace on the Bench, to Mother’s eternal embarrassment, Father enjoyed a moment of infamy. He was interviewed on TV by the fearsome, merciless intellectual Bernard Levin, and was caricatured in the Daily Express by the famous cartoonist Giles, for refusing to try motorists who exceeded the new seventy-miles-an-hour speed limit; on the logical grounds that if everyone drove at that same low speed, they would lose concentration, drive in convoys and it would cause Motorway pile-ups, killing God only knows how many district nurses in the ensuing chaos. And who, apart from Bernard Levin, in the light of subsequent events, could assert that he was wrong? - a Prophet in his own time and country. And we, the loyal family even including Mother, after full consideration, concluded that Bernard Levin had at last met his match.”
*USA: http://www.amazon.com/Haunting-Favourite-Son-True-Story/dp/1413707912/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1417095204&sr=8-6&keywords=Noel+Hodson (USA)
*UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Haunting-Favourite-Son-Noel-Hodson/dp/1413707912/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1417097017&sr=8-3&keywords=Noel+Hodson (UK)