A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Hooptedoodle #172 - Uncle Harold

Lanchester 10 - Harold's was dark green
Another inconsequential tale of long-dead friends and relations. Unlike my so-called Uncle Arthur, who was featured in a previous Hooptedoodle, my Uncle Harold was a real uncle – in fact he was my dad’s eldest brother, a position he took very seriously. When I was a youngster he was very much the head of the family (or considered himself to be so), and he would take it upon himself to try to mend any feuds which had broken out between his siblings (and there were many such) and to impose his Solomon-like decisions on family matters, often with disastrous or hilarious results.

Problem was, Harold was a likeable fellow, and meant well, but he was not the brightest bulb in the candelabra, to be honest. His most celebrated attribute was the amount of bad luck he had, though much of this was undoubtedly due to clumsiness and poor judgement.

Some tales of Harold, then.

His motoring exploits were the stuff of legend. He learned to drive, like many of his generation, long before there was a competence test. Thus he held a driving licence for many years before he could actually afford to own a car, and those years had done little for his skill, or for the relevance of what he had learned to contemporary traffic laws and conditions. His driving reflected this - he was once in an accident – fortunately without injuring anyone – caused by his travelling around a roundabout the wrong way. He was charged by the police, but for some reason the matter was dropped – the law clearly had better things to do than oppress pillars of society.

Preselector "Quadrant" on a Lanchester - to the right of the steering wheel
He had a series of misfortunes in the first car he owned – a Lanchester 10 – a design which was noted for its weight and strength (Lanchester were eventually swallowed by Daimler, and were also manufacturers of armoured cars and light tanks, which anyone who had ridden in Uncle Harold’s car would understand) and for the fact that it had a preselector gearbox. For those who are unfamiliar with preselector boxes, they were regarded as very exciting in their day from a technical point of view – ERA and Connaught racing cars used them, for example (though they were rather heavy) – a forerunner of fully automatic transmission. The system required that the driver would move a sequential lever to indicate the next gear he would require (preselect it, in fact) and then – when he required that gear – he would depress the pedal which took the place of the usual clutch and – zoom – a very quick and smooth change would take place, enhanced by a special fluid drive and all sorts of neat features.

One potential downside, of course, was that the position of the lever did not necessarily correspond to the gear that the car was in at that moment. This was particularly serious in the hands of Uncle Harold. He would reverse into the parking space in front of his house, next to the kerb, switch off the engine and then move the lever from Reverse into Neutral. If you have been following my rather feeble technical description, you will realise that the gearbox would not actually be in neutral until next time he pressed the pedal. He was caught out a number of times by this, starting the engine when the gearbox was actually still in reverse, and leaping backwards.

Eventually, of course, he leaped backwards into the neighbour’s car. Mrs Preston had a nice VW beetle – a lovely red one – and it was no match at all in such an impact for the Lanchester. Mrs Preston’s car was taken away to have the front end rebuilt and a complete respray, and after some weeks it was returned by the works, on a Saturday morning, I recall. Within an hour of the VW’s shiny return, Harold reversed into it again, once more doing extensive damage to the front end. At this point Harold’s insurers became more than a little stroppy about the matter, and when he did the exact same trick yet again six months later (this time with my grandmother sitting in the back seat of his car), they put their corporate foot down and said that they would settle the claim this last time, but would not insure him any more in any car with a preselector box.

Riley 1.5 - Harold's was just like this one
The Lanchester was duly replaced by a new car. Harold bought a Riley 1.5, which was the twin carb version of BMC’s Wolseley 1500 – for its time, this was quite a sporty saloon, and Harold was surprised that he had to replace the rear tyres quite frequently – he kept finding they were worn smooth. The idea of anyone quite as incompetent as Uncle H driving a sporty saloon on the public roads is unattractive, and it has to be said that if the insurance company unintentionally encouraged this situation by banning the trusty Lanchester then they should be ashamed of themselves. At least the Lanchester, for all its majestic weight, had a top speed of about 55. Inevitably, there followed further misfortunes – at higher speed. The most memorable event happened on an autostrada in Northern Italy (tremble, o reader, at the prospect of Harold’s driving circus on tour), when he passed a serious accident in which he was not involved, and which was in fact on the other side of a dual carriageway. Travelling at some fairly high velocity, he passed through a cloud of glass splinters, each of which pierced the paintwork of his car and slid some millimetres in the direction of travel, underneath the paint, as a result of which Harold’s car had to be completely stripped and repainted, at very considerable cost.

He was outraged when his insurer refused to have any further dealings with him, declaring him officially to be “accident prone”, though this final accident was no fault of his at all. One can only sympathise, though it is, admittedly, easier from a safe distance of 50 years or so.

Harold had a misunderstanding with a local builder which I recall with some fondness. He had bought some lovely little Spanish wrought-iron window frames when on holiday one year, and the next Summer he took the opportunity to get the builder to work on a small extension to his living room while the family were going to be away. He talked through the drawings with the builder – in one side of this extension would be one of the Spanish windows – glazed. Since the other side faced directly into his neighbour’s garden (not Mrs Preston – the other side), Harold’s plan was that a dummy window should be sunk into the wall on that side, featuring the matching frame but “glazed” with a mirror. The builder had great difficulty with this – he even came back for a second look at the task, and went away shaking his head. When Harold came back from his holiday, he found his extension complete, but the dummy window was not there – there was just a plain wall. The builder, it seems, had been so confused by Harold’s instructions that he had assumed it was a joke, so had just ignored that bit of the spec. Harold didn’t seem too bothered, in fact, but I remember that the extra window frame lay in the garden shed for years afterwards, like a sad, sacred relic.

Late edit: I checked this strange story with my mother, and she tells me my version of it is not quite correct - the builder did think the design was bizarre, but while Harold was away on vacation the "dummy" second window was, in fact, installed, complete with mirror, in the wall opposite the genuine window, but it was countersunk into the outside of the extension wall, where it was only visible from the next door neighbour's garden. The extra window frame in the shed was, it seems, a spare one. I think accuracy is important in these things...

There are a number of treasured family tales concerning the poor organisation of outings and picnics – including a group visit to Birkenhead docks to watch the firework display for the Festival of Britain which, by oversight, did not include provision for transport home afterwards – and there is a shadowy legend of how he once fired a shotgun out of the bedroom window (at a rabbit) at 5am, while his wife was asleep in the same room.

Birkenhead bus of appropriate vintage - note the rail on the platform
However, my last Harold story comes from his long saga of ill-fated DIY projects. He converted some bedroom cupboards into wardrobes, and one Saturday he went into Birkenhead to get some suitable clothes-rails – and he bought a seven-foot length of chromium-plated brass tube of the appropriate section, which would cut up nicely to provide an excellent set of rails. Pleased with his purchase, Harold got on the bus with it, but the conductor would not allow it inside the bus, and Harold had to stand on the open platform at the rear. You may imagine him, like Horatius, standing with his pole. Sadly, in the busy Saturday traffic, a passenger missed the bus at a stop, and ran after it to jump aboard, taking hold of Uncle Harold’s prize pole in the mistaken belief that it was a part of the vehicle. In his surprise, Harold let go of it, and the bus drove off, with the newcomer left standing in the street, holding the pole, the pair of them staring at each other in bewilderment as they faded into the distance. He never saw it again, of course, and had to go and buy another.


  1. Your Uncle Harold sounds like quite a character! Fun stories.

    Best Regards,


    1. I was very young, and I mostly remember him as a very cheerful man, given to sudden moments of inspiration involing the entire family going to Llandudno in a fleet of cars for a picnic - invariably in the rain, and the likelihood of everyone making it both ways was mathematically related to the number and age of the cars involved. He was, basically, a menace...

  2. Those are very entertaining stories about your Uncle Harold.
    Great stuff!

  3. Unlucky he may have been, but your tales of his exploits are certainly entertaining :-)

  4. Your Uncle Harold must be related to my mum in spirit. She once bought a long wooden pole during her lunch break and had to bring it home on the bus. She was sitting in an aisle seat with the pole held upright before her.
    Perhaps it was the same short-sighted chap who got on and had to stand in the aisle, happily clutching mum's pole for support. Obviously, mum didn't like to say anything. I mean, what would you say?
    It was ok until the bus came to a rather aggressive stop going down a steep hill, throwing the poor chap forward. He ran the length of the bus still clutching mum's pole, to painfully encounter the bulkhead behind the driver with a damp splat.
    "Next time that happens," said mum, "I'll say something."

    1. Good story - I think she should have said something. Apart from anything else, he might have been a habitual pole-thief.

  5. Great stories. Not suggesting anything but do you ever ponder possible genetic factors and implications?

    1. I have no idea what you can possibly mean. My case comes up next week.

  6. Thank you all, gentlemen - it's a sign of advancing age, I'm sure, but occasionally I find myself sitting laughing at things that happened so long ago that hardly anyone remembers them - sometimes it feels almost like a duty to write them down. On a more serious note, my father used to tell stories of his adventures as an apprentice electrician on Liverpool Docks in the 1930s, and I used to nag him constantly to write some of it down - at one point, I even contacted a Liverpool historian to see if we could arrange some sessions. It never happened - it was agreed in principle, but both my dad and the historian died within a year. Which just goes to show you - never put things off.

    On the other hand, if we recorded everything that ever happened, the world would collapse under the load, and no-one would read it anyway.

  7. Wonderful... I spat half a mouthful of coffee all over my keyboard at the shot gun story...

    1. Harold's life wasn't an endless uproar, of course, but the things I remember about him are mostly amusing - maybe that says as much about selective memory as it does about Harold.

      Not sure - if people only remembered funny stories about me then I might not be best pleased, but it beats heck out of being remembered for being a misery - or not being remembered at all, I suppose.

  8. You have the makings of a sitcom here Tony.

    Is Ronnie Hazlehurst still with us?

    1. Hi Chris - I checked - it would be tasteless to suggest that Mr Hazlehurst now spends his time decomposing, so I shall say nothing.