Seat Mii roadtest on a mountain track

Mountain track road test of Seat Mii 1.0 automatic in Crete.

The obvious question is why an automatic? As a younger man, I extolled the virtues of control and the expression of skill that comes with driving a manual car (stick, for my American friends). Now as my life falls into the sere, I find myself heartily sick of changing gears. I’ll take a quiet life, as your man Thom whined.

In this case my thoughts were more practical. I figured driving on the wrong side of the road was challenging enough without right-hand gear changes to tax my malco-ordination. The bus to Heraklion with which I had a very low-speed altercation can attest to the wisdom of this, and also paying for the excess (deductible) waiver.

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This is what happens when the bus you are overtaking decides to move away from the bus stop without looking

The interior is surprisingly roomy and the boot is functional if you buy groceries like you’re on a diet. The pint-sized engine is actually OK for highway cruising and quite quiet at Cretan highway speeds (plus a bit). Unless there is a headwind, in which case get a hotel room and wait for the weather to change because you ain’t goin’ nowhere.

The things you can’t get away from are the ECU and gearbox, and given the component sharing across VAG the poxy things probably infect all Skoda and VW small cars.

Picture the scene: you’re on a twisty, unsurfaced mountain road. It has a spiky, uneven rocky top greased with dust and gravel. You’ve just walked a kilometre back along a gorge from the lovely secluded Agio Farago beach and you need to go up over the mountain to sanctuary at the delightful Monastery Odigitrias.

The first thing the guide books don’t tell you is that this road is only for 4x4s and rental cars. It’s also only one and a half micro cars wide, so if something is coming the other way, one of you has a decision to make.

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This road runs at 90 degrees to the one we took, but you get the idea.

So, you’re on an upslope, steep drop to one side, car breaker rain channels to the other, a sequence of blind hairpin turns ahead. The powertrain is too puny to creep. You give the Mii a bootfull and wait. The kick down gear change is ponderous as the engine, out of its depth like a reception teacher asked to cover the advanced calculus class, hyperventilates.

Sometime later it accelerates, if you’ve planned it right this is before you roll down the road to a comedic but nonetheless fatal end.

You keep your foot in until the last moment. The ultra-light steering is not a problem because the whole car is rattling with road feel and the suspension surrendered a long time ago. You know better than to death grip the wheel, you keep your thumbs clear and your hands soft. It’s a low grip surface, the grim reaper lurking amid the oleanders to one side, you turn the wheel and come off the gas.

Roller skate wheels skitter over the terrain, you’re sideways in a hairpin – that’s good and bad: you’re now pointing the right way but running out of momentum. Another bootfull and… nothing.

Seconds pass, you’re about to stop and roll off the road. “Oh,” says the Mii’s addled brain. “When you stabbed the gas pedal through the fireguard into the engine bay, you wanted me to accelerate. Hold on while I tell the gearbox.”

Certain death in a tin can through the rearview mirror. You’ll be goat food. Eventually, something mechanical happens. The Mii drops a cog. The engine wheezes, supplementing the dregs of forward impetus to crawl up the short straight to do it all again.

Over and over again. Never has a Muslim been so happy to see a monastery.

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Moni Odigitrias. See the church, buy the honey, use the toilet.

On the plus side, should you find yourself inadvertently going up a goat track instead of the actual road (they’re easily mixed up) the turning circle is tiny and a seven-point turn will bring you back to the right path.

Pro-tip: when you have edged to the limit of the road remember to put the car in reverse before you hit the gas again. Fortunately, the engine response is slow enough that I managed to stand on the brakes before plunging down the mountain.

Honestly, I would rather have been in Brooke, my twenty-year-old Renault Laguna. She’s down on power from her glory days, but I know every beat of her faithful heart and so can judge every gear change by telepathy. Better still would be the Monkey Car – my wife’s even older Citroen Saxo (still in the family). No one does fun small cars as well as the French and I have booted that Saxo through Snake Pass, so I know what a hoot it is to drive on twisty roads.

The locations at either end are highly recommended. The drive – well at least you now know what the guidebooks won’t tell you, and which car not to do it in.

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Blessed are the Bottleneckers

oysterpad

The problem with automatic ticket barriers is their propensity to change location. Logic dictates that such essential train station furniture should be close to the entrance/exit and that the demands of space, power and connectivity should limit the options available to planners. Not so in your precious world, my dear bottlenecker, where these most Muggle of items are imbued with a Hogwarts staircase-esque intelligence. For you, these shiny pillars with their drab grey swing gates are a constant source of bewilderment.

You, brave traveller, know that we live in a world of perverse wizardry. Hence you arrive at the barrier wholly unprepared. How could you possibly have predicted that exiting the station may require some form of validation, or that the method would conform to such mundane rules? We should laud your courage in the face of these crippling uncertainties:

– Will there be a barrier?

– Will it be where it was yesterday, and every day before that?

– Who am I? Why am I here?

Bowed down under the weight of doubt it makes perfect sense that you don’t have your contactless payment method ready in your hand. Only when faced with the undeniable solidity of the bright yellow pad should you paw through your purse, or switch on your phone and scroll to ApplePay.

Someone churlish might suggest you could use your time on the escalator to prepare. These mechanical contrivances are long, and you’re clearly not someone in a hurry who walked up. How ignoble to suggest you sacrifice your precious time contemplating the low to high, misery to glory of your own existence, and the posters for West End shows you will never see. Who would not forgive you grappling with your existential angst and your vapid arse scratching?

It’s not as though you inconvenienced that many people at the ticket barrier itself. Most of your fellow travellers are far behind, caught in a pile-up at the top of the escalator. When you stepped off it was essential that you stop and survey this new world the moving walkway had magically transported you to.

How boorish of the people behind to think you should be expected to keep walking. You who have clawed out of the cocoon of the London tube system into a bright reality of backlit advertising. This emergence should be celebrated, not bound by the relentless industry of the escalator, spewing forth the rest of humanity into your back. Why should you, in this moment of rapture, take a single step to the side?

You are a pilgrim through life. Your every step is holy. The world is a cruel and uncertain place, its hallmark is its unpredictability. Its pleasures are few and to be savoured. So pause often, in the tightest of spaces, in the most inconvenient bottlenecks. Make your skin like armour against the barging shoulders and the barbs of “moron” and “imbecile”.

Blessed are the bottleneckers for they shall inhibit the underground.

END

Find out more about my writing here.

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My new book is out now!

My new book is out now!

In 2011 I took my mother and a wheelchair on Hajj. I’m still not sure how she talked me into it. It turned out to be a journey filled with tragedy, comedy and epiphany.

This travelogue gives an insight into the essential and yet mysterious Islamic endeavour of Hajj. It is a guide for the unprepared and light relief for those who, like me, struggle to take things too seriously.

Those of particularly orthodox or conservative religious views should beware.

The ebook is available for Kindle, the paperback is now in a range of retail channels.

Extracts are available on my blog.

Please Read, Rate, Review and Recommend

 

You can see both my books on my author central page

The Unbearable Attraction of Edges

Edges fascinate me.Gravity increases exponentially as I approach. A siren sings “here I am, here I am, let me enfold you.” As I am sucked towards that promise, the lights of the train can be seen down the tunnel. The direct, inviting gaze of the prostitute across the bar, and for a moment I think she may be interested in more than my wallet. There is a dream it would be so easy to fall into.

And then there is noise, an alarm bell of rattling metal and squeaking brakes, the oiled bearings of sliding doors. The moment ends as I scan the carriage for a seat or step aside to let people disembark.

I am scared of falling in the same way we all are. We’re wired to react to the sensation. But I also love the exhilaration of falling. I’m not scared of heights because I might fall, but because I might jump. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suicidal, but which one of us has not succumbed in the moment of temptation to the transitory pleasure of something wrong? And if the ground or the track or the train should provide an instantaneous dash of sobriety, so be it.

Of course the fact I am writing this is the proof of my self control. Beatification is merely a matter of time.

And so back to the edge, and its terrible fascination. Fear is in that heady brew, and I hate the thought of being under the sway of something so weak as fear. My rational mind understands the inverse square law and the properties of concrete and that there is no danger in stepping right up to the painted line. So I thumb my nose at the fear and find myself at the precipice. My conscience says the rational is just an excuse, you came to the bar to hear the song and look into the eyes, and it is right.

I used to work at Kings Cross, that most frustrating of stations which is the confluence of out of town commuters, tube travellers, football fans and tourists. All moving to different speeds and demands and levels of understanding of where the hell they’re going, and in the midst of it all I just wanted to get home.

Worst of all, in the noise and the brownian motion of humanity I could not hear the song or see the hooker.

I took to walking two, then three stops homewards before getting on the tube. It was a good workout, 3 miles every evening walked briskly. It meant that as the quieter station swallowed me I had processed the day into leaky Tupperware boxes and stacked them away in the fridge of my mind. It meant the kids got Dad, not performance appraisals. I lost weight, got fitter and healthier.

It also meant I would be alone on the platform at Tufnell Park, with all the clatter and noise in my head stacked and packed and silenced. The siren would sing and I was the only one to hear her, and the whore would turn her smokey eyes my way and I would get up and walk to edge and think about buying her a drink.

Every day the song became more compelling and the eyes more attractive. Sometimes the only way to avoid temptation is to not go where you might be tempted. I left that job because it might have been the death of me.

The lyrics quoted at the top are from “Song to the Siren” by Tim Buckley, covered hauntingly by This Mortal Coil. That doesn’t mean anything, it is just a coincidence.

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photo taken at Goodge Street, not Tufnell Park.

END

If you are interested in more of my writing please check out my book: Image and Other Stories