Harry’s Ramblings Petrol in the early 1960s
When I was a lad, we lived in a village called Great Bookham. It wasn’t particularly great, but there was a Little Bookham.
Great Bookham and Little Bookham were both the same size on the map, showing in rural Surrey to the south of a larger place strangely called Leatherhead.
Great Bookham was on the main road to Guildford, which by-passed the small high street and parish church, situated on a crossroads. Opposite the church was the Crown pub. Fifty yards down the road was the garage.
There was a slope down off the road to the garage forecourt, which had two islands for the pumps, a large gap in between sufficiently wide for two cars alongside each other, a little hut for the attendants to shelter in with the till, and the main feature, the showroom and workshops.
I fell immediately in love with the owner of this place of employment, so rich with smells, atmosphere, noise, and money. Her name was Patsy Burt.
She was twenty years older than me, a wealthy garage owner, didn’t even know who I was, except for the Saturday boy on the pumps. Ron Smith was her personal and business partner, a lovely man who always said hello.
The garage sold four star petrol at 4s 10d a gallon, so if the customer wanted four gallons, could easily pay one pound and say the magic words ‘keep the change’. However, Redex lubricant was 1d per shot, so the tip would be smaller.
The main full time attendant was a Frenchman, Pierre, who claimed to have been in the resistance. Maybe he had, I don’t know, but he was a well presented white haired man with small moustache in his late forties. Slim, he always wore his white coat with pride, whereas mine was far too big, sleeves rolled up, almost touching the ground, you could fit a Ford Prefect in with me.
Pierre always watched me like a hawk, checked the change in the till, always knew which customers tipped, made me hand over half of mine as he said they were his right. My simple philosophy was half the tips were better than none, especially as I had an extra incentive. My lighter.
By 1961 I was 14 and smoking, with a horrid metal petrol lighter that had to be dissembled so the fuel could be carefully inserted into the absorbent cotton, being very careful not to spill onto the wick which was ignited by the flint which was sparked by the wheel, turned by my right thumb. Sounds more complicated than it was, but my perk was when I had dispensed the petrol into the tank, the customer had driven off, there was a small residue in the pump handle. This in turn could be filtered into my lighter. For free.
Great care had to be exercised, because if not, then the spark from the flint could ignite the cotton, conflagrating the whole lighter, which would be in my left hand. The lighter would be dropped onto the garage forecourt, to be immediately stamped out. Pierre wasn’t happy with this, so I had to wait for his break.
Miss Burt was a successful racing driver, specialising in hill climbs, the garage was doing well with servicing vehicles as well as other competing cars, and occasionally Miss Burt would drive in with a cheery ‘Morning Pierre’ and a smile for me. That was sufficient.
But one day a customer had a Lotus Cortina. I was 15, he ordered ‘fill her up while I go into the showroom. Park her up over there when you’ve finished.’ Of course, I had tried driving cars, but being trusted with a racing saloon car, albeit for only a few yards. Such excitement. Pierre was seething. I was happy.
Petrol inserted as quick as possible, I was behind that wheel, happily revving away. There was a tap on the window. Ron stood there, wagging his right index finger slowly at me. I gave a resigned grin, Pierre took my seat, the car of my dreams was parked. Just not by me.
Ever wondered what goes wrong on funerals? Harry Pope has been involved in the profession for well over forty years, writing a successful anecdotal account called Buried Secrets.
Ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of a family owned hotel? Harry and Pam owned one in Eastbourne, he has written an hilarious account called Hotel Secrets.
Harry is an accomplished public speaker, as well as a cruise ship lecturer. For six years he was Eastbourne’s sight-seeing guide. You can always write to him on email@example.com