I had everything ready. The new stage legs adapted so they didn’t wobble in their poorly crafted sockets, a few things given a ‘cat’s lick and a promise’ of black paint, trailer packed and double idiot checked that nothing was forgotten. (How did I become such a proppy performer?) I had moved the lorry so I could use my car to engineer the trailer out of the workshop. All ready. Back into the lorry to hitch up and go. Turn the key. Nothing but the ominous click of a stuck solenoid. It had happened a couple of times earlier in the year but had then become magically, mysteriously, or probably just fortuitously unstuck and allowed me to carry on, foolishly ignoring the obvious need for further investigation, remedy and repair. This time it didn’t unstick.
I called Autohome, my commercial equivalent of the AA only to find that the soonest anyone could come would be two hours. I had previously waited five for them so I couldn’t wait that long. A six hour drive in prospect and a long day the following day setting up. I called my doughty guy. The wonderful Paul unfazed by anything Travis. From NPC Commercials in Llay who do my servicing and MOTs. He was there within half an hour, tapped a few things, started it, showed me how to short circuit it from underneath it if it happened again (“Make sure it’s not in gear and be careful of the radiator fan”) and he was gone. It’s people like that I want on my side.
The uneventful but long drive got me to Portsmouth and my overnight stay of choice – the D Day Museum carpark on the front in Southsea. A usually quiet and deserted car park at night.
I whiled away the hours listening to Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke, with a finely crafted performance by Anton Lesser. Phillip Pullman is a man of my generation (he’s 71) and also grew up on Dan Dare and Boy’s Own. His stories have a tension and immediacy about them with chapters like an episode from the front page of The Eagle. The Ruby in the Smoke is a short read by Audible standards, but I didn’t mind splashing out a whole Audible credit on the six and a half hours of solid gold. Reminiscent occasionally of the world of Dickens’ or of Mayhew’s London, the story took me from seedy opium dens in Wapping to the peaceful charm of the Oxford spires. His characters are either endearing or evil with very little in between, in the everlasting traditions of Dan Dare and the Mekon. I occasionally felt we were about to enter the other world of His Dark Materials, Pullman’s superb saga, but this one remained firmly in the world of Victorian reality. I loved it and it took me completely away from the boredom of the long road to Portsmouth and the worry about starting the lorry the following day.
The nights were particularly cold. My lovely wood burner had to be kept full of logs and coal and after a while it began to feel at least comfortable. By 3.00 am on Thursday morning though, the fire was completely burned out and the cold was coming through. I’ve perfected the art of lighting the fire. I reckon I can have it done and back in bed under three minutes. Back to bed enjoying the growing warm as the lorry heats up warm and toasty.
The next morning of course the lorry wouldn’t start so under I went, as warned, out of gear and avoiding the radiator fan, and with pyrotechnic panache it burst into action and I arrived at the dockyard ready for set up day, the first time out for the new stage legs which worked fine despite my reservations about their fabrication. Back to the carpark (this time it started on the key) via Lidl for nosh and an early night.
Just after I fell asleep, it must have been about 1.00, I was woken by a car doing the screechy tires thing around my quiet Southsea carpark. Testing the testosterone. Bloody idiot. But nothing by comparison with what was to take place the following night.
The first day came and went, always a quiet dress rehearsal sort of day but because I’d been up very early to finish the set up I came back to the lorry pretty exhausted and ready for a great night’s sleep.
I thought it was odd to see the refreshment van set up in the corner of the carpark. Ominous. I had a meal in the lorry and settled down for a relaxing evening by the fire. Then it happened.
I have spoken and written a great deal about the romance of living on the road, of the enormous pleasure I derive form living comfortably but simply wherever I find myself. This was a night to remind myself that it can also be anything but.
With half an hour of 7.30 the carpark was full of cars. There must have been three hundred of them. And their occupants had not come to enjoy a pleasant stroll along Southsea Promenade. No they had come to rev their engines, do screech starts and back fire as loudly as they could to the exuberant encouragement and approbation of all those present. The louder the bangs the more they cheered. It went on until after midnight. It was obviously a clandestine meeting of those young petrol heads, but it was also obviously very well organised. I really could have done without it. Eventually I took a sleeping pill, put in earplugs and tried to pretend, unsuccessfully, that I couldn’t hear it.
The romance of the road. Hmmm.
All the best from a road near you,