It had been a tough summer. On the second day of the school holiday I’d had my left arm plastered up to the elbow to allow my fractured wrist to heal after my fall from that tree. Worse than the pain had been the walk of shame home from the woods, my thin shorts having snagged on a branch, then being ripped off me whilst I fell wrists-first to the ground. They were to remain up there for several years after, flapping like a resplendent flag at full mast, a gradually weathering reminder of my concession to gravity. On the third day of the school holiday I had my other arm, which had started to hurt in the night, plastered up to the elbow (same X-ray machine, same consultant) to allow my other fractured wrist to heal.
The following week, Mum and Dad drove us to Wales where we eventually found the caravan perched on the side of a mountain. It was small, unsophisticated and remote. There were two amenities – one was a rope swing hanging from a nearby oak. My parents banned me from it. The other, about 25 yards from the caravan, was a rickety corrugated iron hut which served as our primitive loo, containing a wooden bench with a hole in over a dug pit, a piece of twisted wire holding a loo roll, and about three million spiders. My sister was terrified and it made her cry. Being 13, I teased her mercilessly about it, though to be honest I was pretty scared of it myself. All four of us were terrified of it come dusk because of the bats that swooped around outside, forcing us to hold our bladders between 8:30pm and sunrise.
Fortunately it rained a lot because it meant I could wear my parka – the only piece of clothing I owned with sleeves wide enough to give my plasters a joyful anonymity. In short sleeves I looked like a mummy, drawing stares from other kids visiting the Rhondda Museum and Llechwedd slate mine whilst their nosey parents were asking my parents what I’d done.
We returned home to the flushing toilets of Surrey and what was always going to be the highlight of the summer at nearby Sutton and Epsom Rugby Ground. This was a trio of rugby pitches stretching out from a club house between parallel rows of back gardens. The first pitch had floodlights and was used for midweek training – you could hear the grunts, cusses and ambulances from our house 2 streets away. The middle pitch had the slope flattened out of it, the greenest grass and a small stand to hold for the small number of spectators who would turn up for matches. To even look at the grass, let alone play on it would bring an angry shout or two from the clubhouse. It would have been safer to walk on a Somalian minefield than their sacred pitch so us kids kept well away. The final pitch – furthest from the clubhouse, was feral due to its lung-busting slopes and bare patches, and used only for occasional tournaments and by me and my friends for football. Exponents of the round ball rather than the weird oval thing, we played there for hours, safe in the knowledge that no one in the club house could shout loud enough, or be arsed, to get us to scram. Our only consternation came from angry neighbours when our errant shooting launched a ball into their gardens or, even worse, struck their precious wooden fences.
Once a year, the Rugby Club held a summer event. For a few years it was Cottles circus, then it became a donkey derby, with lorry loads of the poor beasts brought to be raced in front of an accompanying fair. This year, 1977, well this was to be a Donkey Grand Prix with local-boy-come-good James Hunt there, yes current Formula 1 Word Champion, James Hunt, and I could not have been more excited.
Today I have no interest in cars whatsoever, short of getting me from home to my destination without breaking down or crashing. As a gardener, my car is a mobile shed, full of muddy tools, muddy boots and mud. I have little regard for cars and no truck at all with Top Gear or the pimp-chromed mobile baubles driven to meet monthly outside the local Burger King car park by their piston-headed owners.
But in 1977 things were different. I loved cars. I even wanted to be a mechanic despite my previous ineptitude with Meccano. Whilst other teenagers may have covered their walls with pictures of Charlies Angels or Kevin Keegan, mine had Jody Scheckter and his super-sexy 6-wheeled (yes – 6-wheel) Tyrre1l, Emerson Fittipaldi’s black beast of a Lotus JPS and best of all, James Hunt helmeted and squashed into his magnificent McLaren M26, it’s chassis daubed in English red and white. So to hear both hero and car were coming to town was more thrilling than the chance of seeing Jenny Hanley’s knees twice a week on Magpie.
Came the day, came the weather. It was glorious. Damn. I wanted rain – as heavy as the Japanese Grand Prix where James had won his trophy mere months before. His rain put arch rival Lauda out of the race, while mine left me with Mum not only refusing to allow me to wear my parka, but insisting I wore a blue denim cap to thwart sunburn. By now my casts were showing signs of age, beyond grubby and covered in signatures, ketchup stains and grass burns as I walked my lanky, half plastered, bell-bottom-jeaned self excitedly to the Rugby Ground well in advance of the gates opening.
Once in, I ran to the enclosure which penned the McLaren. In the sunshine it shone as sleek as a panther covered in red and white icing. It seemed huge yet small, so still while full of latent power. The tyres were fat and black and big enough to land jumbo jets. It displayed the number 1 – as designated to the current world champion. The tannoy said James was arriving at 3pm – I had 3 hours to gloat at his mechanical monster. A board said they would take your photo in it for £2.50. I checked my money – I had £1.32. I had no alternative. I ran home to ransack my bedroom for coins then plead with my Dad for the rest. He came up trumps – I returned with £3.50 and a grin wide enough to swallow the McClaren’s stylish rear spoiler. By now the queue for photos was enormous, so I decided to look at the fair until it had died down.
I kept my hands in my pocket as I passed the lucky dip, coconut shy and other temptations – except one. Wow! On our football pitch, straw bales had been laid down to mark out a circuit within which, for £1, you could ride 3 laps on a small Yamaha monkey bike. I looked at my battered crumbling casts, thought for a moment of the consultant warning against boisterous behaviours and decided that it could only be a good idea to have a go.
Lap 1 was a circular struggle as I fought to coordinate throttle and steering. Lap 2 and I was Barry Sheen, wind in my unhelmeted hair. Lap 3 I banked too hard, dragged a pedal into the earth, bucked off and lay on the ground as the rotten bike’s chain bit into my ankle-flapping jeans and chewed a good legful of denim before the brutish operator yanked it off me, disgorging my jeans from its gnashing teeth.
I was unhurt, but was now reduced to one and a half trouser legs, a trail of ripped material with oil stained teeth marks hanging below my left knee. The operator glared at me as if it was my fault, and it probably was, so I left to rejoin the masses, a bit trembly but eager not to be shouted at – I figured I’d get enough of that from Mum later.
Eventually James Hunt arrived to great cheers. He acknowledged the crowd, declared the Grand Prix open then was placed on a donkey for a race. He looked a pillock with an undersized riders hat crushing down his famous golden halo of hair, and his long legs hanging either side of the donkey so close to the ground that he could almost have picked it up and run with it, Anthill Mob style. The donkey proved to be the Austin Allegro of the equestrian world and James came in last to everyone’s laughter and cheers. He took this potential humiliation in good spirit.
They announced James would be by his car to meet people as they had their photos taken in it. I was so excited it really didn’t matter that the queue was as long as the Nürburgring circuit. Eventually it was my turn and I walked up, unspeakably star struck and looking like a cross between a Dickensian urchin and Ramesses III to share short but unforgettable discourse with my hero.
‘Bloody hell – you’ve been through the wars a bit’ said the Formula 1 deity.
‘Not really’ I replied, trying to sound cool and hard but probably just rude.
End of short but unforgettable discourse with my hero.
I climbed into the cramped monocoque shell of the M26, gripped the tiny steering wheel and looked up at the camera, giving it my best chilled look as if I sat in grand prix cars all the time. That was it. I paid my £2.50 and left James laughing with the next far more eloquent and personable fan.
Somewhere in my Dad’s house is the black and white photo that was delivered an excruciating 10 days or so later. My outstretched arms clutching the wheel still look gawky and thin despite their covering of half-rotted plaster. The denim peaked hat made me look as camp as a picnic with the Village People, and my cool expression? Well, I look as miserable as a boy missing It’s a Knockout each week as his mother made him go to cubs to try and engage him with other boys his own age. But that’s another story.
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