Driving can be an adventure
"Of course, this would have cost you a lot less if you had joined the AA earlier," said the man on the other end of the telephone.
I suppose – as I gave the agent my card details – that he felt obliged to make this point. He probably believes that everyone should be a lifelong member of Britain's Automobile Association.
The rain streaked disconsolately down the windscreen, and the inside of my stationary car was steadily growing cooler. A dark, dank Glasgow winter evening at about 6:30, just as you are finishing your fish and chips, is probably not the best time to discover that your car has suddenly decided to resist all forms of forward (or, for that matter, backward) impulsion.
Six years on the road and this fine Japanese vehicle had never once misbehaved. One grows only too accustomed to this kind of reliability.
But now I had no choice. And, of course, before the knights of the road would send me a rescue party, I had to join. It was not going to be cheap.
"Ah, but think," I replied, "how much money I have saved in the past six years by not being a member."
"Hmm," he said.
There was a time, some years ago, when I would never have dreamed of not being a member of either the AA or its rival organization, the Royal Automobile Club (RAC).
But in those days the dependability of the cars we bought was what you might call an open question. It wasn't that they were secondhand and decrepit. The chief problem seems to have been that they were not Japanese, but British.
As a nation we never quite got the hang of the idea that a car might be designed for consistent and permanent performance. That wouldn't be quite sporting, would it? How unadventurous it would have been if a driver could set out on a journey absolutely sure that he would arrive without breaking down. It would have taken all the fun out of the thing.
So our "homemade" vehicles had features built in that might at any time cease to function – tires that didn't quite fit wheel rims and so might deflate totally and without warning, sparking plugs that might, under certain conditions, not spark, clutch pedals that could suddenly become flaccid and ineffective, gears that ground to a halt ... all very exciting.
So the land was littered thickly with tall, foursquare AA roadside telephone boxes. You had a member's key with which to open them, then you entered and phoned for help.
Also, the roads were patrolled by a vast army of AA men on yellow-and-black motorbikes with sidecars (not for passengers, but for tools).
If you were a member, you had a badge on the front of your car, and approaching AA men were obliged to salute you. If they failed to do this, we (as children we were watching keenly) would be quite indignant and feel that the certainties of the world were starting to erode. "He didn't salute!" we would yell from the back seat.
Eventually, of course, the number of cars on the road increased to the point where it was no longer reasonable to expect AA men to salute everyone, so they abandoned the practice. A much earlier practice they had also abandoned was the courtesy of warning members that there was a police trap, determined to catch you speeding, up ahead. All part of the game.
Having taken down all my details and told me the unbelievable costs of basic membership that I had now incurred, the agent kindly informed me that due to winter conditions it would be up to three hours before I might be rescued. I settled down for a long wait. Fortunately it was only a rehearsal of a play I was missing, not a performance.
In fact, it was only about half an hour later that my mobile phone rang. There was a text message telling me that an AA man would be with me in the next 10 minutes. He arrived in three.
It was my battery. "Still," my rescuer said, "six years isn't bad." After pumping it up – or whatever you do to batteries – he assured me it would work fine for now, but that I should probably buy a new one quite soon. I signed a form, and off he went. Off I went, too.
It was about a week before I could find enough time to go for a new battery. It was installed, paid for, and I was told it was guaranteed for two years.
Three miles down the road I pulled up at the farm shop for some pellets for the ducks. When I tried to set off again, the car once more refused to start. And once more I had to call the AA. And once more the AA man arrived sooner than promised, pumped up the battery again (well, to be fair, he charged it), and off we all went. Three miles back to the repair shop, and a second new battery was installed.
This one seems fine. But now that I am a member, who cares? I'll keep a good book in the car, ready. And a rug for warmth. It'll be just like old times.