Modern manners

January 20, 1996

Driving back from Plymouth airport about three years ago, engaged in polite conversation with a hitch-hiker I had just picked up, we were hit by a car coming from the other direction. We shot into a thicket beside the road and overturned. For a moment we were too stunned to speak and we just sat there, upside-down, listening to an Elvis number on the radio. Fortunately neither of us was injured, but my cherished, red and white, X reg., Ford Capri 1600 (L) was sadly unrecognisable.

The other car looked like a write-off too. The driver, a young, fit-looking bloke wearing a Lonsdale tee-shirt, was staggering around in the middle of the road directing the traffic. I thought he was in shock until I realised he was completely drunk. I couldn't bring myself to remonstrate with him, however, as I had two recent convictions for drunken driving myself. And I was driving without insurance. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

When the police turned up we clustered round to blow in the bag. Although he was three sheets to the wind, I admired the way the young man grasped the breathalyser with both hands and blew down the tube with all his might, as if he were competing for a prestigious prize. The police officer took one look at the colour of the crystals, said, "Dear-oh-dear-oh-dear," and opened the rear door of the police car for him like a respectful chauffeur.

My hitch-hiker seemed remarkably unperturbed by the unexpected turn of events. After he had given the police his version of events and assured the ambulancemen that he was OK, he thanked me for the lift, walked a little way down the road and put out his thumb again.

About a fortnight later, as I was beginning to resent being car-less in our small, rather isolated Devon village, and worried about the possibility of a hefty fine for driving without insurance, I received two letters. One was a touching, poorly spelt letter from the drunk driver. He said how sorry he was about the accident and went on to explain that he had unintentionally got involved in an all-day drinking session and took a chance on driving home afterwards as he didn't feel too far gone at the time. I thought this a reasonable and commendable explanation. He also told me his conviction meant he had to leave the Royal Marines-which seemed to me a bit harsh. The other letter was from the TV Times, telling me I had won an XR3i Cabriolet in the weekly phone-in competition.

I can vouch for the fact that the expression "to go weak at the knees" refers to an actual physiological phenomenon; I had to sit down after I read the letter. At first I couldn't remember entering any competitions, then I vaguely recalled that I had entered one on the inside back page of the TV Times several months previously. I had been asked to identify three soap-opera signature tunes: Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Brookside. Just to make sure I wasn't the victim of a cruel and elaborate hoax, I rang TV Times. "Yes, yes. You've won it, you jammy git," said the bloke in charge of competitions. Apparently my entry had been selected at random from 80,000 others.

The competition had been sponsered by a fragrance company as part of a publicity campaign to launch a new range of toiletries. Before the presentation the fragrance company executives took me out to lunch at a country house in Kent. For the main course, I had jugged hare in chocolate sauce. Over coffee they asked me to sign an undertaking to keep the promotional stickers on the car for at least two years. I signed with alacrity. At that point I would probably have signed even if it meant having the company logo tattooed on my forehead and changing my name to Yves Saint Laurent. After lunch they handed me the keys to a brand new car worth ?14,000-taxed and insured for a year-and with enough after-shave and deodorant in the boot to open a shop. The car was a distinctive metallic blue with large orange chevrons down the sides and across the bonnet. As one of the executives put it, it was a "real head-turner."

Once I had got the thing home to Devon and the euphoria had worn off, I found there were certain drawbacks to driving around in a car which wouldn't have looked out of place on the Croisette at Cannes. I was always terrified it was going to be stolen. I was perpetually intimidated by aggressive boy-racers. In towns I was not only stared at, but jeered at as well. I'd return to where I'd parked it and find neat, shoe shaped depressions in the bodywork. The car seemed to provoke people-not only to bitter envy, but, equally unsettling, to excessive deference. Cashiers at petrol stations called me "sir" and the local traffic warden became more accommodating. What began as the innocent joy of driving a new car slowly turned to paranoia and anxiety as I became increasingly defined in the minds of others by my car. It had put me into a game that I had never dreamed existed.

One happy morning, it too was smashed beyond repair in a head-on collision. Although many of my friends offered me commiserations, I wasn't sorry at all. I went out and bought a bike instead. You can keep your fancy motors; give me a Dawes Supergalaxy any day of the week. n

Jeremy Clarke