Old is the new new
I get a lot of grief from m'colleagues about my 'old tat'. here is my defence of it.....
I can deny it no longer: I’m a collector. Once a staunch defender of the need to drive/ride any machine in your possession on a daily if not hourly basis or be obliged to pass it on to someone else who better appreciates the thing’s abilities, I now must own up to myself and the world that yes, I have more vehicles than I need and that I collect them. I am a collector. There, said it again. The numbers are growing as the space is being stretched. Actually, the numbers are growing rather faster than the space, which isn’t growing at all. I’ve got a lot of old cars and bikes. And I mean really old; dating back to 1925. It’s expensive to keep, it’s leaky and unreliable, some people (James May) believe me to be mad and sentimental about keeping old stuff going and I admit, it would be easier all round if it went.
Old stuff is never as good as new. Of course not; the whole business of evolution rather proves that. With just a few noticeable exceptions – I work with two of them – humankind and indeed animal and plant kind have all improved with every new stage of evolution. Version 1.2 is always better than version 1.1. I don’t drive and ride old stuff because I believe them to be better built or that ‘things were better in the old days’. They weren’t better in the old days. There was rickets and you had to live by candlelight and wash your clothes in a bucket. But old stuff can do something more than bring about a misty eye or create the myth that things really were better made back then.
Old, older, very old.
As an example: I have a 1934 Supercharged Lagonda Tourer, specifically the low chassis model. Or rather, I own it but I don’t actually have it in my possession. Having bought it at auction a few years back, I enjoyed it hugely through its first few months of residence in my barn. James May even had a go and actually admitted to quite liking it – albeit only for the fun of trying to remember that the brake pedal is on the right and the accelerator in the middle; a feature that makes even the simplest junction or country road encounter with a hot hatchback fraught with fun and excitement. And then it slipped into a sort of semi-retirement. Work underwent a bit of a sea-change and that didn’t help. And I started to feel guilty. Passing it in the garage, considering the not inconsiderable value of it and weighing that against the number of times I used it, I felt I should ‘move it on’. Oh God, there I am, using euphemisms for the simple act of selling the bloody thing. It’s not like I was there for all of its 83 years and can have formed some sort of faux-emotional, sentimental bond with it. It’s a heap of steel, iron, aluminium, leather, wood and rubber that has come into my possession having being passed through the hands of countless others as it served its time and witnessed the second world war, the invention of the atom bomb, home computing and the internet, the break up of the Soviet Union …. and there I go, once again, sounding sentimental and soft. I’ve put it with a dealer to sell it. It hasn’t sold and now I’m thinking that’s a good thing and I should take it back.
The fact is, I like it because I enjoy the way it still operates today even given – or perhaps precisely because of - its many flaws and fragilities courtesy of having been conceived, designed and built at a time when the internet was still 55 years away and the idea that a woman could be Prime Minister of Great Britain or a telephone send a picture of your genitals to the other side of the world were as beyond reach and conception as regenerative braking and radar cruise control.
This is not sentimentality….
I don’t find solace in reflecting on ages past when my own, personal life-concerns had yet to exist and into which I can, therefore, project myself as a carefree character; half-observer, half participant, blessed of contemporarily outstanding and valuable insight. I just find it comforting; warming, like a nice girly bath with foam and candles, to immerse myself for a moment or two in the past. It roots me and connects me and makes not a scrap of difference to anyone else in the world so they can sod off whilst I enjoy a harmless pleasure that has its roots, I suspect, in the same drive that sees elephants standing morosely on the savannah, turning over the bones of their ancestors whilst they send Attenborough et al into towering paroxysms of poetry and projection as to the power of these leviathan’s apparent sensitivity, insight and mental powers. They’re just drawn to the bones, the elephants, and if there’s anything deeper going on then rest assured they’re not aware of it and we certainly can’t explain it armed only with the crude, self-conscious languages of speech, science, music and art; tools that we invented not to explain to the universe itself how it works but to comfort ourselves, alone and hideously conscious in that same neutral, uninterested, rolling space. Basically then, I just like to think of the past sometimes because it makes me feel good. Full. Present. And I cannot see what the harm is in that.
Look the other Way: Old is the New New
We don’t know the future. It’s impossible to get a level on it, to project from where we are and predict what might happen next. Perhaps the best we can do is look at the past and draw a level from there to here and then extend it forwards and take a best guess as to where that line puts us in the future. To ignore the past then, is to ignore the only fixed points available to use in having a stab at working out the geometry of the future. I’m not scared of my own mortality; I don’t reach for the past in a reflex rejection of the inevitable future, I see it as a tool, a set of marks on a graph, a chart; the hard points from which to extrapolate and have our best go at getting closest to an empirical crystal ball.
So much of what we are, what we aspire to, what we prioritise, dignify, edify, value and condemn is caught up and expressed in the cars of our times that they cannot help but betray a library of insight into their period when examined after it has passed. A car of a time tells you more than an archived newspaper, which was subject to political interference, avarice and a single flashpoint of commercially-driven reality that was visible and relevant for only a moment before it faded. Fashion stands only for a second when viewed from afar; houses are built or condemned on a brief, political whim according to whatever phase of the political lunar calendar we are in. Cars though, sneak past; they are genuine tells of what we, the public, the masses, wanted and would pay for: They expressed then and now our burning and various desires for power, dominance, speed and possession or to be seen as unwilling to join in with the race or as prioritising our family’s safety or our own style over all else. They are the screens onto which we project, projected and shall project ourselves and they can be viewed, savoured, enjoyed and learned from and are of far more immediate sociological value than the most comprehensive archaeological dig.
My Lagonda then, is such a fixed point, a pencilled cross on a graph from which we can project our future and it is my civic and social duty not to sell it but to preserve it, learn from it and look ahead. Plus I really, really love the faff of firing the thing up, the whole business of priming it, retarding the ignition, hearing it catch as the alchemy of combustion works and then settle into a contented idle and then clattering out onto the lanes around where I live, daughter on board, supercharger whining under load as we pursue a modern car and make Toad of Toad Hall whoops and hollers as we close in on it or console ourselves in our failure with the shared knowledge that the old crate has been round the same block many, many more times than the Ford Focus that evaded us that time. It is, above all else, what it always was: bloody good fun. I can’t get rid of that. And if it suggests that cars of the future might be fun too, then I absolutely must keep it going.