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The Scrivener: A Signal Of Social Status

Brian Barratt recalls the days when few people owned cars – and the car one owned could define one’s place in the British class hierarchy.

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After 1945, a few of our neighbours wheeled their cars out of the cupboard, bought some petrol, and were once again on the road. My pal's father, just a few doors down the road, had a Morris 8. He took us for little outings, with three schoolboys somehow packed into the back seat of the small car.

My sister's husband resurrected and renovated an Austin 7, which was even smaller than the Morris 8. One evening, he took us to visit his friend the game-keeper on the Belvoir Castle estate, not far from Newark. I curled into the back seat, which was a wooden plank. Whether or not the car had glass in its windows, I can't recall, but I do remember shivering in the icy blast that came through them as we chugged at a modest pace along the country lanes.

There was a welcoming warm blaze in the fireplace of the gamekeeper's small low-ceiling cottage. We were given a magnificent meal, but we didn't dine by electric light — the only light came from the fire and from hurricane lamps on the table.

At about the same time or a bit later (time flies), a teacher at the local grammar school told us about the street where he lived. It was on the more upper-middle-class side of town. We knew that, because he had told us with tongue in cheek about the British class system. With a mischievous grin, he described how some of his neighbours now had cars parked outside their houses, just to show everyone else that they had them. Whether or not the cars had engines under their bonnets was an open question but at least they indicated one's income level or social status.

Enjoying a different social status, Gypsies in their horse-drawn caravans, all shapes and sizes, passed our house in summer. Dad would go out with a spade and bucker to collect what the horses left behind, for his rhubarb. In 1868, when horses and horse-drawn carriages were a danger to walkers, pedestrian crossings had been installed in London. Black and white zebra crossings were invented in Britain in 1950. They were more successful than the Belisha beacons — large yellow globes on black and white posts — devised in the 1920s by Leslie Hore-Belisha, minister of transport. Parking meters were invented in the USA during the same decade.

Traffic lights as we know them first appeared in the USA in 1914. They were not installed in London until 1925, but they were very much more successful than an earlier version. In 1868, a sort of gas-fired traffic light had been placed outside the Houses of Parliament. It exploded and killed a policeman.

We've moved a long way from Belisha beacons, exploding traffic lights, colourful Gypsy caravans, and the era of the Austin 7 and Morris 8.

Modern supercars are formidable beasts. The Bugatti Veyron has 1,000 horsepower in its 16-cylinder engine. Its acceleration is phenomenal. There are 10 radiators to keep it all cool and a rear stabiliser flap thing to stop it from taking flight. With a top speed of 400 kph it's said to be the fastest road car in the world. If you can spare a couple of million dollars, you too can have one. But where the heck would you be able to drive it? It's suitable for use only on a very long, straight road with no speed limit and a perfectly flat and even surface.

Oh well, never mind. At least supercars signal your social status, something that is now assessed not by a presumed privilege of birth but by how much money you have. Of course, those of us who enjoy a less-than-lavish lifestyle can always stick a sign in the rear window of our car, along the lines of "My other car is a Bugatti Veyron". Or perhaps that should be, with a smile from former years, "My other car is a Morris 8".

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2009


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