My father, from a coalmining family in Northumberland, tells a story of the first person in his village to acquire a motor car. It would have been the early 1950s, before Dad moved south. In answer to the question ‘what sort of car is it, mother?’ my Grandmother had apparently replied ‘it’s a blue ‘un’.
When I was young I was amused by the story but later, when I realised the joke was on women, I stopped enjoying it. Then I would reprimand Dad for the sexism inherent in his anecdote. And besides, I told him, didn’t my Grandmother have more important things to think about than the make and model of a car? Could any of the seven men in the family have named the brand of blacking she used on the hearth or the soap she scrubbed their pit clothes with?
My father’s move to South Yorkshire was part of his commitment to self-improvement. He took an apprenticeship to become a colliery electrician and enrolled in night school. He met my mother and by the end of the decade had managed to save enough money for a deposit on their first home.
The arrival of three children in seven years meant Dad had to upgrade his motorcycle with a sidecar to a car. It was a Ford Anglia (registration plate 243 PAU). My father’s commitment to social mobility included the requirement that we speak in standard English rather than the local dialect; if anyone had asked me what colour the Anglia was I would have replied ‘a grey one’
On Saturdays the local newspaper, the Sheffield Star, produced a separate publication devoted to sport. It was called ‘The Green ‘Un’, a reference to the colour of the paper it was printed on. In a soccer-mad city, with loyalties divided between two clubs (Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United) The Green ‘Un was popular and widely read.
My father had no interest in football but my mother was a lifelong Sheffield Wednesday fan. One Saturday evening I was judged old enough to go alone to the corner shop and was asked to ‘go and get a Green ‘Un’. I remember the laughter of the newsagent and customers as I held out my money and asked for ‘a copy of the Green One please.’
The car I have driven for the last nine years is an ex-Motability car which I bought just out of warranty with very low mileage. After a string of breakdowns in my previous car I had decided I needed something more reliable to keep myself and Dylan safe. It is never comfortable to be stranded at the side of a motorway or remote road, particularly as a single woman, but to breakdown while responsible for an autistic adult who lacks capacity and has limited communication is very stressful.
Dylan does not understand any sort of delay or wait. Being stopped at a red light is sometimes frustrating for him so waiting hours at the side of road for assistance (assuming we can get a mobile signal and request help) is a nightmare scenario. As Dylan doesn’t easily take instruction and lacks road awareness, leaving a broken vehicle to get help is not an option. For these reasons I decided that I could not compromise on vehicle safety.
On advice I bought a Skoda Fabia – not a car I would have considered normally but I was assured it would be reliable because Volkswagen (who own Skoda) make the engines. I asked a local dealer to find me one. ‘I don’t care about the colour’ I told him. When he telephoned with one I might be interested in he said: ‘It’s a blue ‘un. Is that OK?’
The advice I received was sound. The only time I ever needed to call breakdown for the Fabia was during a visit to Spurn Point when a grinding noise from the front nearside convinced me I had a wheel bearing problem. It turned out I’d picked up pebbles from the shingly land; all that was needed to dislodge them was to reverse, hard and fast. Not a mechanical failure then…
But last May, when I got the car tested, the mechanic told me my gearbox ‘might be going’. For the next 4000 miles I listened as my Fabia became grumblier. Finally, in September, I decided that after nine good years it was time to exchange rather than repair. Dylan was so comfortable with the Fabia, and it had been so reliable, I reasoned it was probably a good idea to get an identical make and model. ‘I don’t care about the colour’, I told the car dealer.
Before the car dealer could find me a replacement, my blue Fabia took a turn for the worse. I decided I could no longer risk Dylan in the car so for the last seven weeks have been managing without a vehicle. This has been tricky as Dylan’s care home isn’t reachable by public transport. Staff have driven Dylan to me some weekends and I’ve planned local activities on foot and by bus for his visit. When this hasn’t been feasible, Dylan and I have had the ‘weekend off’. A couple of times, however, I’ve hired a car…
The first time I was allocated a Vauxhall Corsa. I’d asked for a car as close to a Fabia as possible, in terms of size and style, and was reasonably confident the Corsa would be acceptable to Dylan. My main worry was that it didn’t have a CD player. ‘I’m sorry Dylan’, I said when I picked him up. ‘We’re in a different car this weekend and there are no CDs.’ I felt Dylan hesitate. He scanned the car park from left (the side I usually park) to right and left again. Before I had chance to point out the Corsa, Dylan strode confidently across the car park. His quick sweep of the vehicles had given him all the information he required. Curious to know where Dylan was heading, I followed behind.
With barely a glance Dylan passed a line of cars and stopped by a large saloon. He gestured to me to open the boot so he could put his overnight bag in. The car bore no resemblance to the Fabia or to any other car Dylan had been a passenger in. Why had he decided on this one I wondered? ‘Not this car Dylan’, I said. ‘Ours is the grey one over there’.
When we were settled in the Corsa I realised why Dylan had picked the car he had; it was a ‘blue ‘un’. Perhaps, like his great grandmother, the distinguishing feature of a car for Dylan is not the make or model but what colour it is. I know people who assign colours to words, numbers, feelings and thoughts – why should I be surprised if Dylan categorises familiar objects and processes by colour?
I ran through the colours of all the cars I have owned, chanting their names like pearls…
Silver Renault 4; Yellow Renault 4; Red Citroen Dyane; Green Renault 5; White Renault 4; Sky Blue Beetle; Turquoise Blue Renault 5; Blue Morris Traveller; White Fiat Punto; Blue Renault Scenic; Blue Skoda Fabia.
All but one of the cars in Dylan’s lifetime, I realised, has been blue. Is it such a surprise that he should live by the law that ‘Mummy drives blue cars’ ?
When Dylan was young I tried to teach him to learn his colours through Thomas the Tank Engine. I’m not sure that Edward and Henry helped Dylan to identify ‘red’ and ‘green’ but his favourite engines may well have informed his colour preferences. When I ask Dylan to choose the colour of things such as t-shirts and slush puppies what he could be expressing when he chooses blue (as he tends to) is love of Thomas. Perhaps Dylan simply prefers Thomas-coloured cars?
So, the next time I hired a car for the weekend I asked if they had a blue one available. The customer services assistant seemed exasperated by my requests (could you also put the child locks on for me please and could you please tell me whether it has a CD player). The colleague she passed me to was gentler and I explained about Dylan and why I was concerned about details. He had a blue Nissan Juke that might suit me, he said.
It was one of those weekends when plans go awry. I’d hired the car so that Dylan and I could drive out to the Peak District and do one of our ‘big walks’ but that weekend Sheffield was caught in a deluge which brought floods to the city and surrounding area. The hire car sat unused outside the house until, frustrated by lost opportunity, I suggested to Dylan that we go for a short drive and have a picnic in the car.
Dylan was very happy with this. The car suited him just fine. CD player. Comfy cabin. Nice gearstick (a particular interest of Dylan’s). Blue. It didn’t, however, suit me at all. This was a Nissan Joke, I decided: keyless gimmicks and blind spots. I didn’t mind the colour though. I could live with that. Suddenly it occurred to me that I’d been approaching the process of changing my car from the wrong starting point: instead of asking the car dealer to ‘find me a Fabia’ I should have told him ‘find me a blue ‘un’.
Last week I got a call from the car dealer. He’d told me that he wouldn’t waste my time and would only contact me when he found a Fabia in great condition. As I’d been waiting seven weeks, I assumed this wasn’t proving easy. ‘Am I going to have to compromise?’ I asked him. ‘Well it doesn’t have a CD player’ he replied. I pondered the news. I really needed to get back on the road. It was the mechanical condition and price that mattered, surely? It would be foolish of me to rule out a car on such grounds. ‘Probably not a deal breaker’ I replied.
‘Great. I think you’re going to love it’, he said: ‘it’s pillar box red.’