12 Jan 2014

Beer and Loafing - A Gonzo Tour Around Europe Part 2

Letter to the Editor / Apology to the reader.  

Forgive me, Matthew. It has been months since my last confession. A wise man once wrote “There is a lot of wreckage in the fast lane... the smart say they can't understand it, and the dumb snort cocaine in rich discos and stomp to a feverish beat”. The Rico assignment has seen me tread the line between dumb and smart, and these last few months have had me occupied with sweeping up the wreckage caused during that week in June. The financial and emotional ramifications have rumbled on right up to this blowy January evening but now, with £11 in my pocket that Gedi has a reasonable claim on and a broken Jaguar still laid up on my mother's driveway I finally feel able to continue the story of how I ended up fitting a tool kit into a guitar case and checking onto a Jet 2 flight from Bergamo a broken man in the summer of 2013.

Read Part 1 of Beer and Loafing here


“Ca va, Monsieur? Pleasant trip?” asked the desk clerk.

“Savvy, indeed, Senior. Awesome. Still peaking.”

I noticed Ged's shoulders drop a little as he shook his head chuckling. Communication issues aside, the hotel in Dijon suited our needs. Despite the size of the Jag I was beginning to feel caged and it was clear I needed to roam and introduce myself, once again, to the rest of the gang.

“The Supercar Boys are here, George. Let's check out some fancy metal.” With frothy Continental, mostly head, beers in hand we went outside prepared to put the morning's brush with the Gendarmes down to high-jinx – after all, had the police stopped us there would have been even more to fuss over.

A Ferrari FF and the GT70 were parked outside the main lobby on the pavement, either because the ramp into the basement parking was at too steep an angle to enter without grounding the beasts or more likely because it was impossible for natives of Dijon to recognise how fantastically wealthy these visitors were had the cars been locked away out of sight.

We made our way over to the Ford, after all, we were due to at the Ferrari museum in a couple of days and Italy was sure to be dripping with prancing horses anyway. The GT70 was a far rarer animal and besides that the FF had a hint of Reliant Scimitar to it.

In order to further enhance the drop dead gorgeous styling of the GT70, a rack of classy neon lights had been installed flanking the monster engine.

“Why don't you just pull the engine out and pop a leg of donner meat in there?” asked Dylan of the 'til then proud owner. I didn't see him talking to the supercar boys after that. In fact soon after that exchange the supercars boys up and left. I doubt it was Dylan's critique of the Mirage that drove them away. One of their number complained that our first hotel on the mainland was lacking in Egyptian Cotton toilet roll and resolved to lead a break away tour. They each produced a transparent plastic bag stuffed with Euros, so far as I could tell for no other reason than to display their vast disposable wealth, before decamping from our not-that-humble dwellings, never to be seen again. I later heard a rumour they had turned up in Cannes trading top drawer French hookers, or perhaps shopping for proper wallets.

Gedi and I joined the rest of the gang at a nearby restaurant that reeked of fondue and proceeded to get embalmed in Ricard, Gedi having a fair amount of catching up to do. Whilst waiting for our dinner I realised the comradery was building already.

“They served a purpose, those posh boys, Gedi. It strikes me that almost everybody here is here for the roads. We'll sleep where the roads ends and eat and drink where we can get it. We don't care if it's a Super Eight or a McDonalds so long as the drive there is great.” I gestured around the fondue palace where there may have been sixty more competitors. “This is our gang already, Gedi, and we only actually know a handful of these guys so far. The supercar guys just aren't in our gang. Hell, the biggest kick they got today was being seen to go fast. It wasn't the actual practise of going fast. Know what I mean?”

“Well, first of all, I can't believe you just made total sense so whatever you just said please note it down and at least make it look like you're on assignment, and secondly, need I remind you once again that you have met every person in this room several times last night.” said Gedi.

“Don't get me wrong, Ged. It still feels to me as though we're on the ferry. Either France is sliding on a very unstable tectonic plate or I'm leathered. In my head there's a disco going down but I reckon i've got the bastard by the reigns. We need a club or something.”

“Are you still on it? I'd be dead.”

“Who told you? You're English. Where are you from?”

“That's Leon,” said Ged. “We did this last night. He's one of us.”

“I want to dance, Leon.”

I could raise very little interest in adjourning to a nightclub. Where I had just wafted my way across France in a limousine, mostly everyone else had banged and crashed their way through seven hours of rock hard sportscar. The only aftershow that night would be back at the hotel bar.

The admiration of our choice of vehicle was evident as we continued drinking in the hotel lobby. One shaken individual who had been riding shotgun in a Noble went so far as to offer to buy passage in the sumptuous Jag – an offer I should have taken seriously in retrospect as my biggest customer had decided to withhold the payment that was set to fund the rest of the trip. Fortunately Leon had agreed to buy their campervan for the final sum of my tab which was running somewhere around two hundred Euros a day so far. Still a bargain for a £20,000 van.

“We saw you, sprawled out with a guitar in the back. We had our luggage between us up front.”

“This guy,” said Gedi “couldn't open a pre packed sandwich but he never missed a beat on that guitar.” Ged rushed to the elevator to grab the guitar to prove the point. Only now the drugs were tapering and I was beginning to realise I was in the grip of a 48 hour piss up. My eyes would not focus on much and what I could make out was faces that I may or may not have upset the previous night in Kent.

When Gedi reappeared I was too far gone to even tune up and the extra weight of the guitar was disturbing my balance on the bar stool.

“Monsieur, this bad noise is upsetting our guests” said the lady behind the bar before assuring me they had run out of beer.

“Ere, Terry,” shouted a fellow participant at Ged, “I'll bet five Euros you're wearing the chauffeur's cap again tomorrow. Arthur there ain't driving.” The man's wife offered a corroborating observation but I was so drunk and she was so Midlands all I heard was vowels. I covered one eye to focus, then the other.

“How dare you” I shouted towards the hazy trembling mass of figures. “I'm the wheelman. This gentleman is my photographist and he has merely taken my seat whilst I recover from an ocular trauma. I will take your bet, and in turn your Euros.”

I shifted on my barstool and fell towards the hotel kitchen looking for my bed.

Day 2; Dijon to Italy. Christ, was it only day 2?

Minutes later I woke with a start as Gedi slapped my feet me before leaving saying something about programming the sat nav and needing to find a petrol station. What kind of cruelty was this? It was only moments ago that we had been downloading the best of Credence Clearwater for the next leg, yet here was Ged, washed, fed and ready for the off. The door clicked shut behind him as I fell through the shower and into the elevator with all our chaos packed into an argentine leather holdall and a guitar case. From slumber to the underground carpark can not have taken more than seven, maybe eight minutes.

I still had not really come to my senses when I found myself stood in the basement car park pretty close to where I was sure we'd left the Jag, only there was no Jag. Perhaps I'd broken Ged already, but I had assumed he would have flown himself out of there rather than pinching my Jaguar and leaving me high, as it were, and dry. Dry certainly. For even if the Jag was there it was on fumes and I still hadn't been paid.

I wondered if my eyes were playing tricks on me but it was impossible. The only vehicle that out bigged the Jag was Rico's Dodge Ram truck so if it was in there I would have seen it. It was too soon for Gedi to be so freaked out that he would run and those seven or eight – maybe ten minutes now – would have been more than enough for Ged to raise the alarm if she had been stolen or impounded.

“Has anybody seen a big green man and a tall Jaguar in a Fred Perry shirt?” I asked the emptying lot. Leon told me there was a man who matched that description parked outside the lobby looking for a half cut half blind journalist. Putting two and two together, I picked up my guitar case and leather holdall full of chaos and walked up the down ramp and into the French morning sun.

“That would have been more efficient if you'd stayed put, Gedi. My head went to pieces down there.”

“Your head's been in bits for days, mate. That's why I parked the Jag right outside the lobby – so you'd see us when you checked out.”

But I hadn't checked out, largely because the staff at that time of the morning were the same shift who had caused some bad feeling an hour or so earlier when they closed the bar on me. A little ashamed at the fuss I was pretty sure I had made, I took the elevator straight to the car park.

Feeling understandably vacant still, I agreed to let Gedi take the first stint behind the wheel – a three hour stint to a service station in the foothills of the Alps close to the Italian border. Even with the time I wasted stood in the basement trying to comprehend why I was no longer in bed, we were still ready to leave with the rest of the group, only Kathleen was bone dry so no sooner were we rolling we were forced to detour for fuel, casting us adrift from the field before we had even hit the open road outside of Dijon.

“We'll find 'em soon enough, George. The road's practically straight and I got one of these whilst you were bewildered in the basement.” The Gedi handed me a walkie talkie. “When we get within half a mile range of any other car on the rally it lets out a beep, and by the time we can see them we can talk to them”.

I had a feeling Gedi wasn't telling me the whole the truth. Something in my gut told me the walkie talkie was there for his benefit so he could call for help. He was rattled already and I couldn't tell if he was more comfortable with me riding in the back, out of striking distance.

Despite the straight road and ample horsepower, the complete Credence Clearwater Revival collection had played out and I was more or less sober but still we had not seen another Rico car, let alone the Texaco checkpoint listed in our itinerary, when Gedi's emergency radio bleeped into life.

“Was that Rico's truck at the Shell station there? Surrounded by Ferraris and fast Mercs and stuff?”

I got on the walkie talkie as quickly as I could.

“You bastards. That's not even a Texac-...” The radio bleeped, signalling we were out of range of the parked cars. The same turn of speed that had served us so well in catching the pack had betrayed us just as we had the chance to make contact.

“So what,” said Gedi. “I'm no geologist but those up ahead look like mountains so we'll crack on”.

“I thought geology was weather”.

“Meteorology is weather”.

“Which one's maps?”

“Does it matter? We've got apps, not maps.” Gedi tapped his I-phone and mashed the throttle.

Another hour passed. We saw no other cars we recognised, remembered that cartography was the production of maps and found ourselves well on our way up the Alps before I gave in and suggested that perhaps we were lost. I sent one of the organisers, Rick, a text message asking in no uncertain terms just where the hell we were as we appeared to have messed up driving on a straight road, but before we received a reply Gedi's emergency radio beeped once again.

“Are they half a mile from us, or are we half a mile from them?”

“I have no idea, Gedi. Hold steady for a while.” We were travelling at around 90mph. We briefly heard some garbled nonsense before the signal was lost again.

“Sport me, George,” Gedi nodded towards the 'sport' button located so impractically out of sight that should the driver search for it himself his eyes would be off the road for a couple of hundred yards at least. “They're ahead.”

The Jag lurched towards the redline and we were back within radio range in minutes.

'Sport mode' as a concept has come a long way in 24 years. On an ancient Jaguar there is no firming of the ride, tightening of the brakes or steering assist. Pressing that button, hidden away down by your hip, simply makes the big auto hold onto the gears for an insanely long time whilst the thirsty cat gets its feed and exercise in one costly dart. Yes, it is fast, but in all other respects she's still a barge and we were just passengers on a Blue Ribbon ride when the Mercs came into view.

The garbled nonsense on the radio became clear nonsense.

“That Jag's just appeared from nowhere. Seems to go well for an old girl.”

We maintained radio silence but between us we knew we were cool bastards.

“Styling it, George.”

“Winning, Gedi. Rick's replied. He wants more information regarding our location.”

“He's having a laugh. I'm no Cartographist. In a Jag, behind a Merc, in a tunnel.”

With that that the AMG and the SLS Mercs were unleashed and the tunnel sounded like an artillery barrage as hundreds of thousands of pounds of Germanic warhorse fired from its rifled depths.

Safe in the knowledge that we were sandwiched between at least two groups of cars, and keen to claim my winnings from the doubting gentleman and his Black Country wife of the evening before, we pulled off the carriageway and I assumed my rightful place behind the wheel for the first time since leaving my Manchester workshop.

Soon after rejoining the carriageway we were riding with a flock of Porsches and an Aston Martin en route to the the Col de l'Iseran pass through to Italy but we hadn't got far up the track when we encountered some other teams heading back down.

“What's occurring?”

“Pass is closed... tried... giant rolling boulder...” It was difficult to make out the details over the engine noises, perhaps the walkie talkies would have been more effective, but from what we could make out there was a very real danger of rock / car interface issues for anyone who attempted to run the barriers and make the pass. I pulled to the side of the road to consider our options.

The other drivers were heading to Turin via the quicker highways where they were going to console themselves with sightseeing and pasta, but we weren't so sure the pass was the only means of crossing the Alps. The main draw of the Rico Rally was the promise of some spectacular roads where other events offered only motorway miles from one hotel party to another.

Whilst Gedi jabbed and tapped at the sat nav Rick blew passed us in his E39 BMW, pursued by girlfriend Claire, who's Z4 I knew only too well having painted the alloys three times the previous week in the search for the perfect shade of gun metal grey, and another press car.

The Jag spat gravel and we headed off, edging towards Italy sandwiched between a Kermit green 370z and a Skyline. We carried on for another mile or so before finding a gaggle of cars parked up outside a small ski resort. It looked a little like the closing hours of a siege and we were waiting for orders to charge the village, but in truth we were just kicking around in the dust while Rick went up ahead to garner local intelligence as to which passes were still open.

Over the next half hour we were joined by near enough the rest of the gang with exception of those who got the fear after the landslip and bolted to Turin. Even Rico himself, a slave to a hangover despite turning in before me, joined the car versus mountain stand-off. Such was the strength of our numbers we created an impassable gridlock of high powered machinery, presenting the natives with an impromptu car show. They photographed us and we photographed them photographing us until Gedi could stand it no longer.

“Fuck this, George. Just go. Follow the diversions and try to keep heading south. Italy's down there.”

Gedi was right. Somebody had to make a move. For all we knew Rick might have bolted, his head fried from constant phone calls asking what was going on. Anticipating the steep ascent I shifted the Jag into second and pulled around the stalled grid.

“The Big Cat's making her move, Lads, “ said Ged as he leaned out of the window. “We're going to Italy.”

A couple of capable looking motors followed our lead into the village that marked the start of the Col de Mont Cenis Pass but we soon lost them as they cautiously navigated their super low machines around traffic calming measures and pot holes.

Once out of the tiny populous we began to climb a series of switchback hairpin turns and the air became as thin as the view spectacular. For the first time the Jag felt heavy and, glancing down the mountain, I was surprised to see we were keeping a consistent distance between us and the following pack. We reached a picnic area that we took to be the summit and parked up to wait for the rest of the rally.

As the teams assembled, all barring the quitters who had taken the easy way to Turin and now Rico, who had beaten a quick path to the hotel complaining of Babycham induced nausea, an impromptu driving range was established. Before long golf balls were soaring to tremendous heights at absurd distances before raining down on the pretty village rest stop below.

The Finnish team told us how they had made it to one of the snowier peaks and, by their calculations, we had half an hour before that pass too was closed. We made a dash for it, snaking around road blocks only to be intercepted by what was rumoured to be a furious Frenchman rolling boulders at the lawless English motorists. A mountain track is no place to exercise a three point turn in a limousine but I tackled the challenge with gusto and expertise, avoiding the sizeable tumbling rocks and rejoining the rally on the D1006 approximately midfield.

Beep. “Does the Jag have a radio? There's smoke billowing from the wheels.”

Beep. “Probably wearing smoking jackets.”

Beep. “Probably smoking a bong, more like.”

I couldn't see the smoke, but I was aware of the problem and the unmistakeable smell of baked friction linings was heavy in the opulent cabin.

“Yeah, we've got no brakes. If the smoke is bothering you then you're welcome to get in front of us.”

“Erm... no thanks, doesn't sound as though you're likely to hold us up any.” The pursuing Porsche complained no more about the smoke.

The Jaguar's velocity increased, relative to the sharpening incline, as did my concern. Thinking quickly, I developed a radical technique for our extreme slalom. The power steering on the Jag was thankfully light but at high speeds the vessel was prone to massive weight shift and understeer. I turned this characteristic to our advantage, slamming the car into full lock 20 to 25 feet from the next hairpin, allowing the old battleship to scrub off any excess straight line speed before nailing the throttle on the apex to bring the back end around in a true bank robber fashion. On the first effort I almost brained Gedi, who had been taking a photograph through the closed passenger window and had not seen the approaching bend. To this day that window still bears his likeness in a greasy startled smear. Subsequent bends were tackled with the full attention of both driver and navigator.

I learned later that night that some drivers had joked about using us as a pace car, only to lose all sight of us as we fell into Italy like a luxury meteorite.

By the time we reached the pretty border town of Susa the brakes were completely ruined and the fluid all but evaporated so I rammed the Jag into a high curb forcing an abrupt stop diagonally across traffic. Ged and I went for a beer whilst the discs, blue-hot by this point, clicked and clacked themselves cool.

Our hotel for the night was around an hour outside of Turin and part of a luxury entertainment complex with a cinema, spa, swimming pool, restaurant and a bar full of petrol heads sporting Rico tags. I collected my winnings, after all I had not only driven but done so like a champion, and settled down to my first proper meal since Manchester.

As seemed to be custom already, we enjoyed an evening of drink with Oli and Dylan. The measures offered by the bar staff were so huge we could not split one bottle of tonic between four highball glasses of vodka. Not surprisingly, by sundown we were blind drunk. It was around 10pm when we heard the tyre squeal from the basement. Jake was performing a stunning drift routine in his Sylvia, gliding inch perfect between the supporting columns of the complex. Oli was keen for me to follow suit in the Jag but I politely refused knowing full well the Jag would not drift, it would simply demolish the columns bringing the whole structure down as if Fred Dibnah were on the job. However, our Yorkshire drinking buddies were clearly devoted to mischief and by 2am an opportunity presented itself that was too good to miss.

Outside the hotel lobby was a sort of podium – the kind they use to showcase new cars to well healed business travellers. When we checked in it hosted a hideous 'green' electric micro car but now it was temptingly empty. Ged had turned in for the night and I was smoking somebody else's pot with Oli and Leon when Dylan started braying for the keys to Oli's S3, parked in the basement.

Dylan, who so far had not driven a single yard in the rally and was without question, and for want of a better word, shitfaced, seemed to be gone for an age before we heard the whistle and blow of Oli's turbocharged Audi.

“Shit,” said Oli, “help me move these barriers.” We cleared the on ramp to the podium as the sound got closer. Although still out of sight, it was clear Dylan was travelling very quickly. I realised what was about to happen and for the first time considered the size of the podium. Dylan was now performing some kind of rally stage figure of eight pirouette in full view of the restaurant. The podium was probably two feet wider than an Audi, maybe three or feet longer, flanked by heavy steal columns and accessed by a slippery looking aluminium ramp. Even the approach to the ramp was dicey and needed to be tackled mid turn.

“Oh fuck,” said Leon as the penny dropped there too. “This is going to end in tears.”

Shocked guests stared open mouthed as Dylan hit the ramp, sure enough mid turn, at what seemed to be near enough 40mph. With Playstation precision Dylan jammed on the handbrake, adjusted direction and stopped the speeding S3 perfectly dead square on the podium, falling out of the car and blipping the central locking in one flawless motion marking what I have no doubt will remain the finest piece of driving, drunk or sober, that I will ever witness.

“I'll give you a thousand quid and a replacement Jag if you do exactly the same and punt him through the restaurant window.”

I should have taken the bet. Italy was set to beat me for the second time in as many visits but I was too far gone to make out the writing on the wall.

“No thanks, pal. We're winning.”

To be concluded... in a timely fashion, this time.