Never get out of the car …

Never get out of the boat…never get out of the boat…I got to remember: never get out of the boat

Chef — Apocalypse Now (screenplay by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola)

The Highways Agency is running a campaign to advise people on what action to take should their car halt in the middle of a motorway.

The advice is to stay in the car, turn on your hazard lights and dial 999.

Wise advice. If only a good friend (and while I would usually respect someone’s anonymity, let’s call him Reg) and I had known that some twenty years ago when such a fate befell us.

It was my final working day at GEC. A prominent British Industrial conglomerate when I joined it in 1978. At its peak in the 1980s, it employed some 250,000 people. It’s now gone. How the mighty fall, and whenever I think of it, Keats’ Ozymandias comes to mind.

Anyway, back to that Friday in 2002.

In the morning, I did the rounds bidding my farewells while at the same time contemplating the next stage in my career. After that came the farewell speeches, followed by the usual ritual of congregating with colleagues for a lunchtime drink or three to celebrate my moving to pastures new.

I’d surrendered my company car earlier that day with the intent of catching a train and then a taxi home. However, Reg, who, interestingly, I shared a beer with a few days ago, offered to drive me. To be fair to him, he did add a caution that his vehicle was not in the best condition. I should have heeded that warning.

The celebration over; it was mid-afternoon when Reg and I set off on the journey to my then home in Bedfordshire. It meant a drive on the A1, M25 and then the M1. It was on the latter that our journey came to a juddering halt.

We had just passed the junction for Hemel Hempstead when the lights went out. The lights, the dashboard instruments, the indicators. Anything that required electrical power. And then the engine died. We were in the middle lane of one of the busiest motorways on the busiest day of the week and at the busiest time. To paraphrase Tennyson. Cars to right of us, cars to left of us, cars in front of us; hurried and thundered. But not us.

After pausing for thought, we decided foolishly that our best course of action was to get out and push the stricken vehicle to the hard shoulder. Not the current advice! So, very gingerly, we opened our doors and squeezed ourselves out.

Reg’s immobile car trapped those vehicles directly behind us, but those on either side continued to storm past. Fortunately for us, after some moments, drivers across all three lanes realised things were not as they should be. I suspect seeing two individuals standing forlornly in the middle lane gave them something of a clue. So, all around us, the traffic halted. Some friendly souls even helped us push the stricken vehicle off the motorway.

Sadly, Reg did not have roadside assistance cover. Hence, it was a long wait while we found a recovery company who could take us, and Reg’s stricken vehicle, home. That wait was a test of both our patience and our bladders. But at least we had taken our mother’s advice and “went before we left”.

Eventually, a tow truck arrived. That truck deposited me some 30 minutes later at Junction 9 of the M1 to await my wife to complete the final stage of my ‘recovery’. A brief time later, I very much welcomed her arrival.

I spent more than 20 years with GEC. It was the making of my career. Yet, its ignominious end stays in my memory sharper than anything else I achieved there.

As it’s said, it’s not how you start; it’s how you finish ……




In the Renaissance period of my post-career life …

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Harry Watson

Harry Watson

In the Renaissance period of my post-career life …

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