That was the week that was

Richard Lutz looks back in languor at the past seven days.

“…of Brunel, VW, tired men in pubs and Bristol…”

120px-Lulabelles_Beetle_(7553270770)Ah yes. A letter arrives from Volkswagen inviting me to a posh night at one of its big city centre franchises. I can ogle the metal, hear about torque and brake horsepower and caress the leather upholstery.

Never mind VW is run by crooks who cheated every purchaser with their secret exhaust device and probably heaped lots of extra burden on hospitals as VW owners were convinced it was nice and safe to roar up and down the roads because the Golfs, Passat and Beetles were all super friendly.

A VW dogsbody phones to see if I will attend. I respond in the positive and ask one favour. “What’s that?” asks the voice. “I want my £24,000 back. You cheated me.”

The phone goes cold and we say our sullen goodbyes. The nerve they have trying to seduce us back behind a VW wheel after lying and deceiving the hundreds of thousands of customers who paid the managers’ wages.

To a pleasanter world. Off to Bristol for a day or two to see the city. We forget it is Cheltenham races. More than 67,000 head for the race course and most seem to be on my train, even in my carriage.

There are not only no seats. But nowhere to stand. The beer flows and one punter, flush with dough, says he’s ready to drop about £500. But he remains confident. He asks who I’ll back on this, the first of the four day event. “Seabiscuit in the fourth?” I suggest, sounding barely like someone out of a Damon Runyon script. We all laugh.  Everyone is up for it.

The crowds roar off the train at Cheltenham station. Bristol is a delightful hodgepodge of neighbouhood and traffic jams, its geography a bit of a mess. “A gift from the German air force,” I am told.

One of the gems of this town is the Clifton Bridge which spans a deep gorge that the Avon flows through. It was built by the grandly named 19th engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.



I love this picture of him seen here. He was a cocky five foot tall little rooster who sported his huge stovepipe to look taller; he smoked 40 cigars a day; and, accidentally swallowed a gold coin while doing a magic trick for kids at a party. It lodged in his throat and he invented a device to undergo a tracheotomy on his gullet and also an operating table that could revolve to allow the coin to be coughed out. It finally came out after a month of pain.


What a guy. There is something brash, purely confidant and modern in his eye, in his pose, in the way he stuffs his hands in his waistcoat pockets. I know what it is:  he is rock and roll. You could see the lad on an album cover. I bet he had a sharp mouth on him too, like Dylan or Ian Dury. Y’know, the man with the wisecrack who always had the last word. He died very young.

Later in the week with the sun peeking through the winter sky, I get pleasantly lost in North Worcestershire. This is the industrial part of the  county, or the formally industrial  part. Now, it is a heritage landscape with quiet canals where goods had been transported during Brunel’s time, coal and glass and steel bought and sold and carpets made down the river Stour in Kidderminster.

The walk is varied in the faint warmth: waterways etched into the rock, horse farms, deep woods, small hamlets. We ultimately head for the canalside pub where we parked the car. Inside three old boys tend to their pints of Banks’s bitter. They are so locked into the mid afternoon of this  boozer that they could be painted into the walls. Their silent faces haven’t seen sun in months. They read their Daily Express (racing pages, natch) and look just past their pint glasses and wait to go into the weakening winter sunlight, now losing warmth, for a cigarette to hold in stained hands.