Saturday, 5 April 2008

Jeepers and Creepers

Many years ago in the early morning in the reporters’ room of the News of the World, smelling the ghosts of ancient chips, surrounded by mugs of cold tea, waste paper and egg stained supper plates, another reporter called Mike Friend and myself worked out what we would most like to own.

We dismissed yachts and stately homes. We decided we could manage without vintage cars and Savile Row suits, beats on the Test, hunters and a river in the garden. The one truly indispensable thing, we finally agreed, was a fountain pen that worked in those pre-Biro days when the pencil was king.

In the course of a lucky life - and richly underserved - I have fished the Test, hunted with the Cheshire, rented and lived in two country houses with rivers in the grounds, squired titled ladies, leased a racehorse and eaten in the finest restaurants in Europe. I have yet to own a reliable working fountain pen. My two favourite possessions have been a duffle coat and a Series One Land Rover.

I am still the proud proprietor of a duffle coat but my Land Rovers are, alas, fond memories. As is the Lada I bought for transporting my bloodhounds, which still shines among the best, most reliable motors I have owned.

But the Land Rovers reign in my heart. Supreme over the Lagonda LG6 and the MGTD, the BMW, the VX490, the Jaguar and all the other follies I have owned. We used to call them Anglesey Rolls Royce because they were developed from a Willis jeep by two Anglesey farming brothers who were also directors of Rover Cars. The brothers are buried on the island in a village called Dwyran and the last time I looked their grave was shamefully overgrown.

I wonder what they would think of the furore their 4 x 4 inspiration has caused. Present day owners of 4 x 4s are mocked because they don’t use their motors across country. I owned a Series One and a lightweight air portable which had toughened glass for arctic motoring and a special radiator grille and fan to deflect sand in desert conditions. My son-in-law pointed out scornfully that these were affectations because I only used the vehicle to go to the pub. I did not tell him I had no idea how to operate the four wheel drive.

That wasn’t the point.

Behind the wheel I was Walter Mitty, Mark 2. I was Billy the Liar Recividus, every fantasist except Geoffrey Archer, because there are limits. I came embarrassingly near to buying a pair of camouflage trousers so carried away was I with my dream life.

The attraction of toys for grown up boys - and I include fishing and other field sports - is the thrill of dressing up in special clothes. Any fisherman worth the name has got more kit than he could possibly use. It isn’t necessary to wear a red coat to go hunting and the toy ducks and whistles and curiously carved walking sticks you find in many a gun room give the game away.
Two hundred-mile-an-hour sports cars in a country where the speed limit is not much more than a quarter of that?

I have been amazed at the useless things I have collected, as hobby succeeded hobby. Guns, rods, LPs of every Shakespeare play, four desks and a library that filled three rooms. But the biggest fantasy for me was playing the countryman with my Land Rover and my gum boots.

I am particularly fond of gum boots and surprised that no-one has written a sonnet about them. They are the most comfortable items of footwear in my wardrobe. I can stomp about in them for hours like some overweight Paddington Bear. In their own clumsy way they are dashing and evoke the 18th century and the Great Duke of Wellington who made them fashionable.

Wearing gum boots is an unalloyed joy. Getting them on without outside aid is another matter. Goodness knows, socks are bad enough but at least they are malleable. When the Princess finally comes round with a crystal gum boot seeking the hand of the foot that fits it, I hope the Head Ferret is at home. Otherwise the pumpkin carriage will remain a dream.

There was a time when I could not reach my ankle. Now the calf is Terra Incognita. My belly is the last unconquered summit. The arm cannot climb over it and God, whose design abilities you may recall I do not admire, has so constructed that luckless limb that it is just too short to go round it. It may be his idea of a celestial joke but the only way to grip the gum boot is to stand on one leg with the other at the high port. This involves much spirited hopping and is deeply undignified.
For this service alone the Head Ferret is worth every penny of the three half crowns she cost me all those years ago.

A Land Rover encourages altogether nobler aspirations. It carries you high enough to look over hedges and down at other road users. Odd that the more expensive the motor, the greater the servility. So low is the driver of the Lamborghini, he almost slithers along the road.

Mulling over this essay, I recalled that my Noble Friend, as a 90th birthday present, has bought himself a quad bike and is currently roaring round his estate terrifying the peasantry. What fun, I thought, to commemorate my 79th birthday in May by buying myself a Willis Jeep. After all, I had never paid more than £100 for my Land Rovers. With the help of friends I tracked a number down.

Alas, the Willis Jeep is in such demand that prices for them start at £4,000 and since my next reincarnation cannot be all that far off I don’t think I can justify spending £4,000 on a whim.
AH WELL………………………………..


My work as an Army PRO was praised only once. I had written a feature about a Catholic Retreat Centre the army opened in the country home of the German Distiller Steinhager. It appeared in the Catholic newspaper The Universe, where it was seen by Cardinal Griffin, at that time Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, who liked it and told my boss, a Field Marshall, what a clever chap I was.

My reward was a trip to Brussels with a photographer to cover a world motor cycle championship race in the Parc de Centenaire in which two soldiers were taking part. Everyone was delighted except my driver, a bad tempered Gordon Highlander who thought he should go to Brussels too, because he had driven us to the Retreat. In protest, he went absent without leave on the day we left for Brussels and did not return for several days. It fell to me to put him on a charge and march him in front of the camp commandant, a Cheshire regiment major called Latimer.

His defence brought tears to the major’s kindly eyes.

“You may have been aware, sir, that Sergeant Skidmore has recently been honoured by the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. Very properly he was sent in reward to Brussels and I wanted to honour him in my own small way.

“The unit jeep was sorely in need of a re-spray but Workshops couldn’t do it in time to get it back before his return. So at my own expense I took it to a German civilian garage and had it re-sprayed. Naturally, sir, since it was WD property, I could not leave it unguarded in former enemy civilian hands. So I stayed with it.”

I thought the major was going to burst into tears. He pulled himself together and with what sounded suspiciously like a sob found my driver not guilty, ordering me to stay after he was marched out.

The nub of the dressing down I got from that old warrior was that he was sick of National Service NCOs bullying soldiers who had fought with him in the desert. Soldiers who were trying in their simple way to demonstrate pride in their unit.

When he had finished, I asked him to look out of his window at the motor park where the HQ’s olive green regimental jeeps were drawn up in lines.

“Mine,” I said, “is the only one that is Pea Green and if you go near it you will find it has been hand-painted with a wide brush.”


Well not mine actually. This comes from reader Revel Barker who published my book “Forgive Us Our Press Passes” and is offering it at £9 post free, if you have Paypal, on;

A New Zealand man who claimed he was raped by a wombat and that the experience left him speaking with an Australian accent has been found guilty of wasting police time.
Arthur Cradock, 48, from the South Island town of Motueka, called police last month to tell them he was being raped by the marsupial at his home and needed urgent assistance.
Cradock, an orchard worker, later called back to reassure the police operator that he was all right.

A wombat like that allegedly involved in the incident
"I’ll retract the rape complaint from the wombat, because he’s pulled out. Apart from speaking Australian now, I’m pretty all right you know. I didn’t hurt my bum at all."
He pleaded guilty in Nelson District Court to using a phone for a fictitious purpose and was sentenced to 75 hours’ community work.
Police prosecutor Sergeant Chris Stringer told the court that alcohol played a large role in Cradock’s life.
Judge Richard Russell said he was not sure what had motivated Cradock to make the extraordinary claim. In sentencing Cradock, he warned him not to do it again.

And for two more good reads try