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The cats have their doubts about caravans………..

Caravanning makes no more sense to me than quantum physics, model railways or the Portfolio Balance Channel (like Disney without the realism).  However, I think the way we British treat caravans is interesting.  The French don’t bother much with caravans – they like motor homes which they call le camping-van.

Caravans are an important part of many British people’s lives, combining an answer to wanderlust and a longing for adventure with fold-out beds and your own loo.

The needs of the spirit and the needs of the body met in one small trailer.

No wonder caravan towers look so happy.  Seriously.  Have a look next time you overtake one.  These are people in touch with their inner viking and their place in the universe.  They know exactly where they are going and it has water and electrical hook ups.

Strangely, the names that the manufacturers of caravans give to their wheeled longships cum shrines to domesticity entirely lack a spiritual dimension – although there was a rather unfortunate phase where Eldiss produced The Crusader.

For a very long time (and caravans seem to last for a very long time) the names were the stuff of Boys Own comics.  The Marauder, The Conqueror, The Challenger, The Buccaneer and The Corsair all channeled El Alamein, In Which We Serve, National Service, Brylcreem and foreign enemies who yelled “Banzai”  or “Achtung!”

These names definitely reflect a time when it was the man of the house who made the purchasing decisions about cars and holidays.

Never mind the kitchenette, Mother, just look at the engineering on that axle.

What woman would ever yearn to buy a caravan called a Hurricane or a Typhoon?

The fact that these are named for an RAF fighter aircraft of the 1940s and a Euro fighter-bomber, lemon class, as well as for destructive winds points to another slightly odd aspect of the British caravan cult: a total lack of irony.  Devotion, yes. Sincerity, yes.  Commitment, my goodness, the commitment.  Sense of the ridiculous at towing a large and cumbersome object called an Allegra?  Not a twitch.

There is, believe it or not, a Coachman caravan called The Mirage.  If only, I say to myself as I sit behind one, sixteenth in the queue of traffic.

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Of course we are all Europeans now and the makers of caravans have begun to notice.  We now have caravans called The Pastiche (I swear I am not making this up)  and the Maestro.  The 1970s have arrived on Planet Caravan UK and they are rocking that British Leyland vibe.  Or something.

So a certain happy innocence attends naming of names in the cult of the caravan.

However, all is not peace and harmony in the sunny uplands of Britain’s caravan sites.  There are ugly rumours of elitism and snobbery amid the membership of the Caravan Club.

Possessed by the spirit of Basil Fawlty, there are those who sneer at members who like to pitch a tent next to their caravan.

As for those who delude themselves that motorhomes or camper vans are a form of caravan, they may expect to experience the Snub Direct en route to the shower block.

The Caravan and Camping Club is said to be much more egalitarian and even includes the word “camping” in its name.  Camping, of course, involves tents and Tent People, as we know, include archaeologists, geographers and people who love Rohan clothing with zip-off pockets that allow access into parallel dimensions. Or their knees.  Heretics and idolaters all to the purist caravaner.

There is clearly something about caravans in Britain that causes otherwise sensible people to become slightly unhinged.  Back in July, the Court of Appeal heard a case concerning a planning decision that centred upon the definition of a caravan.

So far from being disdainful of the mobile roadblocks that attract the scorn of Jeremy Clarkson, Lord Justice Rix was seized with the romance of the caravan.  He produced a footnote on the etymology of the word as part of his written statement.

“‘Caravan’ is derived from the Persian ‘karwan’, so that its first meaning is a company of merchants or pilgrims travelling together,” he explained.

English judges so often offer their own unique brand of surrealism….

Vintage “teardrop” trailers have long cast a spell over enthusiasts.  There are, of course, this being England, rules.  There are two rules regarding teardrop trailers. 1. The galley (kitchen) has to be in the back. 2. You can’t stand up in it.

Well that explains the attraction right there.

Originally designed to provide a quick and cheap getaway, these teardrop trailers are now not just collectors’ items for the true enthusiast,  they are becoming perilously hip, cool and groovy in a retro kind of way.

Anathema to the purist whose caravan is a serious investment in a carefully planned adventure in the last word in comfort.  Otherwise they would be camping.

In a sort of retro warp way, these old teardrops are the inspiration behind a new generation of caravans which are called things like the Go Pod and the Turtle micro-caravan:  “attach the optional, full height awning in just a few minutes, and there’s room for all the family to enjoy as well.”   I suppose that means put up a tent…..

So the modern reinterpretation of the freedom to roam and rove blends camping and caravanning.  It still looks and sounds as if it is designed by and for men, but these men seem so much more at peace with their Birkenstocks.

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I think these manufacturers are awry with their naming of these new compact, pop-up, spontaneity-inducing wheely pods.  First of all, the things look disturbingly flimsy – even if they are designed to be lightweight and made of modern tough materials.  Perhaps they could follow the tradition of total dissonance and call these things The Rolling Rock or The Robin Robust.

I put it to you that they could even cut loose and go organic-earth-mother and call them Nests or Havens or even Cocoons?

Reading that back, I realise that I have now succumbed to Caravan Fever and am moments away from sounding dangerously like a High Court Judge.

I  shall leave you with this extract from The Wind in the Willows in which Toad demonstrates once and for all the enduring allure of the caravan to the British:

He led the way to the stable-yard accordingly, the Rat following with a most mistrustful expression; and there, drawn out of the coach house into the open, they saw a gipsy caravan, shining with newness, painted a canary-yellow picked out with green, and red wheels.

‘There you are!’ cried the Toad, straddling and expanding himself. ‘There’s real life for you, embodied in that little cart. The open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs! Camps, villages, towns, cities! Here to-day, up and off to somewhere else to-morrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that’s always changing! And mind! this is the very finest cart of its sort that was ever built, without any exception. Come inside and look at the arrangements. Planned ’em all myself, I did!’………………..It was indeed very compact and comfortable. Little sleeping bunks— a little table that folded up against the wall— a cooking- stove, lockers, bookshelves, a bird-cage with a bird in it; and pots, pans, jugs and kettles of every size and variety.

‘All complete!’ said the Toad triumphantly, pulling open a locker. ‘You see— biscuits, potted lobster, sardines— everything you can possibly want. Soda-water here— baccy there— letter- paper, bacon, jam, cards and dominoes— you’ll find,’ he continued, as they descended the steps again, ‘you’ll find that nothing what ever has been forgotten, when we make our start this afternoon.’

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The cats don’t care about ……..the Scottish referendum

I don’t care about the Scottish referendum either. The West Lothian question and the Barnett Formula make me tired. It is at moments like these – moments when otherwise sensible political commentators hail G. Brown as the saviour of not only the international financial system but the Union – that I turn to books which offer a happy escape. If you too are faced with one of those days when life makes even less sense than usual, I recommend swift immersion in Wodehouse, Grossmiths and Pratchett.

Top of my counter-reality list is The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse. The literary world offers few insights to equal this gem from Bertie: ‘You can’t be a successful Dictator and design women’s underclothing.’
’No, sir.’
’One or the other. Not both.’

I confess a certain anxiety as to whether I most resemble Bertie’s Aunt Agatha (who eats broken bottles and wears barbed wire next to the skin) or his “good and deserving” Aunt Dahlia who “fitted into my biggest armchair as if it had been built round her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight about the hips that season”.

The ludicrous Spode (a send-up of Oswald Moseley and his Black Shirts), that frightful drip Madeline (“every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born”), newt-fancier Gussie Fink-Nottle and the entirely wonderful Stiffy Byng form up to provide a couple of hours of sheer happiness.

All politicians who claim to hear the Voice of the People (assuming it can be heard over the other voices in their heads) should consider Bertie’s warning to Spode: “The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting ‘Heil, Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?

Next on my list of literary refuges is The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith. First published in 1892 – exactly when my Victorian terrace house was built – the Diary records the fabulous pomposity and social ambition of Charles Pooter as he settles in to his new house in leafy Holloway. Pooter, his wife Carrie and son Lupin move within the carefully defined boundaries of the lower middle-class where every social interaction and every possession signals a position within the social hierarchy. Pooter is an oddly touching character – a sort of Everyman for anyone who has ever wanted to improve their life or their home only to discover that things don’t always quite work out the way they planned.

In our house we use the verb “to pooter” to describe outbreaks of delusional DIY. “Dad is pootering” is a signal for a hastily staged diversion to cover the hiding of drill bits, saws, screwdrivers and other implements of mass destruction.

Here is an extract in which Pooter has fallen under the spell of a pot of red enamel paint:

April 26.—Got some more paint (red, to my mind, being the best colour), and painted the coal-scuttle, and the backs of our Shakespeare, the binding of which had almost worn out.

April 27. – Painted the bath red, and was delighted with the result. Sorry to say Carrie was not, in fact we had a few words about it.  She said I ought to have consulted her, and she had never heard of such a thing as a bath being painted red. I replied: “it’s merely a matter of taste.” Fortunately, further argument on the subject was stopped by a voice saying, “May I come in?”  It was only Cummings, who said, “Your maid opened the door, and asked me to excuse her showing me in, as she was wringing out some socks.” 

April 29, Sunday. – Woke up with a fearful headache and strong symptoms of a cold. Carrie, with a perversity which is just like her, said it was “painter’s colic,” and was the result of my having spent the last few days with my nose over a paint-pot.  I told her firmly that I knew a great deal better what was the matter with me than she did. I had got a chill, and decided to have a bath as hot as I could bear it. Bath ready – could scarcely bear it so hot. I persevered, and got in; very hot, but very acceptable. I lay still for some time. On moving my hand above the surface of the water, I experienced the greatest fright I ever received in the whole course of my life; for imagine my horror on discovering my hand, as I thought, full of blood.  My first thought was that I had ruptured an artery, and was bleeding to death, and should be discovered, later on, looking like a second Marat, as I remember seeing him in Madame Tussaud’s.  My second thought was to ring the bell, but remembered there was no bell to ring.  My third was, that there was nothing but the enamel paint, which had dissolved with boiling water. I stepped out of the bath, perfectly red all over, resembling the Red Indians I have seen depicted at an East-End theatre.  I determined not to say a word to Carrie, but to tell Farmerson to come on Monday and paint the bath white.

The Diary of a Nobody is tremendously engaging. If you saw and enjoyed Grayson Perry’s Vanity of Small Differences you will love the Pooters. Thought-provoking and very, very funny.

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Terry Pratchett has created an entire parallel universe in his Discworld novels and all of them from Mort onwards offer a haven of clear thinking and astute social observation:

“Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time.” Hogfather

“No one knows how to do officering, Fred. That’s why they’re officers. If they’d knew anything, they’d be sergeants.” Guards!Guards!

“She hwas dusting,” said Mrs Whitlow, helpfully. When Mrs Whitlow was in the grip of acute class consciousness she could create aitches where nature never intended them to be.” Moving Pictures

You can’t trample infidels when you’re a tortoise. I mean, all you could do is give them a meaningful look”. Small Gods

“Probably the last sound heard before the Universe folded up like a paper hat would be someone saying, ‘What happens if I do this?” Interesting Times

Pratchett has created some of the best characters in modern English literature including Death, Samuel Vimes (Commander of the City Watch and Blackboard Monitor), Nanny Ogg, Grannie Weatherwax, Archchancellor Ridcully and Lord Vetinari. I am particularly fond of Death probably because he likes cats: “I meant,” said Ipslore bitterly, “what is there in this world that truly makes living worthwhile?” Death thought about it. CATS, he said eventually. CATS ARE NICE.” Sourcery

I also have a soft spot for Lord Vetinari whose antipathy towards mime artists equals my own towards whistlers: “a strange aversion, but there you are”. “Anyone in baggy trousers and a white face who tried to ply their art anywhere within Ankh’s crumbling walls would very quickly find themselves in a scorpion pit, on one wall of which was painted the advice: Learn the Words”

So between Pratchett, the brothers Grossmith and P.G. Wodehouse I think we have a brave redoubt against any sudden outbreaks of weltschmerz or fits of the vapours brought on by over-exposure to Alex Salmond,Alastair Darling and Call me Dave.Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 14.09.25