My main association to Volkswagen was my school-friend Geoff’s mum’s VW Beetle. Sitting in the back of one of these things circa-1985 meant that you were sitting right on top of an extremely noisy engine, that vibrated so much that your vision would blur as your eyeballs rattled in their sockets. Conversation from the front seat was lost in the noise, and a kind of blue haze seemed to permeate the interior as the engine leaked fumes while it rattled itself to death. Due to the combination of winding, hilly streets of my childhood, fumes, deafening noise a bone-rattling vibration, VWs are associated quite strongly with a sense of queasy dissolution for me. It might have just been Geoff’s mum’s VW, though.
I believe most people have a fondness for VWs. The cute chubbiness of a Beetle as it waddles it’s way up the street (often in a great suffocating cloud of smoke) has something of an innate appeal. They somehow touch on the same parts of the brain that make us turn a bit mushy when we meet a cute baby. The headlights imbue it with a personality, and seem to droop shame-facedly, as if it’s just been scolded for maybe throwing a ball through a window. The darn thing has a face.
The VW van always appealed to the hippy, surfer centre in my brain. The ultimate in what I and my fellow schoolboy erudites would refer to as a “Shaggin’ Wagon” as we jealously eyed it, and imagined the carnal acts that might be carrying on within. Imagination cloaks this model in a cloud of smoke also, but this one made up of marijuana and cigarette smoke. The owner of this vehicle did whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted, most likely with some bikini-clad hotness on his arm, stoned off his tits. And he really could do this wherever he damn-well pleased, because like some hipster snail, he carried his house with him, a tricked-out exo-skeleton parked up in an idyllic beach scene.
So it is not without associations that we embarked on a journey to a VW show out in Sussex, a couple of weeks past, in a VW – but a Golf, not a Beetle. I admit to reservations, as I generally shy away from anorak-wearing/fan-boy passions myself, and find it difficult to admire them in others. This stems from my early rejection of authority, and its associated philosophies – as a young urchin, I remember loudly and forcefully discussing my lack of commitment to the enforced absolutions and apparently daily ceremonies of a Catholic Holy Week. This early rejection developed into support for ordered mayhem and civilised anarchy as I aged – and an inability to truly accept any pastime, way of thinking or philosophy – even on a lesser scale such as a pure, simple and edifying love for a vehicle.
The great advantage of this grouchy, misanthropic view of the world is that sometimes I am beautifully surprised by that self-same world and its inhabitants.
An early, early summer day in South-East England surely makes a difference to this world. Despite this last being a very mild winter – very little snow, very little rain – winter inevitably casts a pall over London. Dark, grey, cold. The seasons seem to switch from one to another within a couple of days (not always in the correct order) – just a few days prior, we began to see the first inklings of spring, and the place seemed to be waking. So we are already used to – and excited by – the idea of spring, but this day really is one from the box. This day is summer, pure and simple – the sky clear, a stunning blue, not a cloud, the sun so warm on our backs.
We’re here now, in this new place. I love underground communities, although it is hard to place this VW stronghold – in its sheer magnitude – as the device of an “underground” community. But once they leave here, and dissolve back into their usual lives, they will be underground again, they will become a minority once more. Whilst here, they are “out”, they have set and are displaying the dominant culture. What relief this must be! To be hidden, and now to have a place where one can go to be oneself – One Self! How must a truly persecuted and hidden culture feel relief when it strengthens and develops, and becomes public, and is able to express itself openly, honestly, loudly, proudly and melodramatically.
This is a form of that wonderful sense of connection when you become involved in something outside the norm. I used to play in a Samba percussion group, in the relatively small city where I lived. I had been aware of this group for so long but once I joined them I discovered there were many adherents, plus a couple of connected communities involved in Salsa and capoeira. This “underground” community was in fact a “scene”. And everywhere I went in that small city, I was connected to at least half a dozen people in the room.
As we walk around the showground, the three of us – one a VW aficionado, the other two merely along for the ride – we realise we are a perfectly realised subset of the visitors to this event: the anorak-wearing aficionados; others interested but perhaps more into just selling or buying a vehicle than joining the underground, unknowingly doing exactly that; and those of us I once heard Mark Knopfler refer to as “Tourists” – not real fans, but intrigued, along for the ride, open-minded. Soaking it up, falling a little in love.
And the shame, the dark secret of Herbie – one of the actual cars from the actual movie is on show, this one the racing version of the car. There is also a drunk version, apparently – although thankfully not on show here. Who would want a drunk Herbie running amok in such a friendly environment?
The ones I am most attracted to are those that have been restored faithfully to their original condition. Where every headlight, dial, knob, grill and vinyl cover have been restored to specification. Forget what I said earlier about the anorak-wearers, the train-spotters – these people have an encyclopaedic knowledge, and the skill and determination to piece together these museum pieces. It might be a bit like your grandfather’s shovel that has had the head and the handle replaced 3 times, but there are many examples here of VWs – vans especially – that look as if they may have just rolled of the production line. I can’t imagine, having spent so much time and money restoring this thing, ever letting anyone get near it or touch it – let alone drive it.
But the owners are magnanimous, welcoming and talkative. Some you just have to avoid if you don’t want to lose the entire afternoon discussing the specifications of the Volkswagen Type 2. Some are just here for a day out, meeting friends, and enjoying the labours of others. We spoke with one who had spent about 15 years restoring his vehicle, which he used very much as a family holiday vehicle – his children would get excited by it when they were young, embarrassed by it as teenagers, and are looking to inherit it when he dies. His look humorous, rueful, with a twinkle of hope that the van might pass to the next generation. Hopefully they will respect and love it as much as he evidently does, and will hold on to it and bestow it to the next generation.
And it’s maybe this aspect that is important – passing down knowledge, and craft, and hard work. It’s about making a mark on the world – partly as a memorial – so borne out of self-interest, and preservation, and fear of disappearing into the void. But also there is a strong element of pure, simple unadulterated joy “Hey! Look at what I found! I know all about it. Want me to tell you?” It’s the equivalent of being able to label & describe every marble in your marble bag; or give a run-down of each and every car model on the road, as my own son can do; or talk about a book, or a theory, or a movie that you watched – to be able to talk about it, and sound knowledgeable about it, and really, actually, joyously know about it.
It paints us as the social creatures that we are – we have such a great desire to connect with each other on these fundamental levels. When you have a chance to donate your knowledge to the great miasma, you are surely going to take it.
We don’t want to take anything away from the world, or even leave it as it is. We simply want to add to the world, even infinitesimally – and make it a little bigger, a little more important than it was when we arrived in it. We want to leave a trace, however faint.