Ashes to crashes: Bowie, Essex and the car accident the day before I turned 20

Oh, that twenty something photo thing on Facebook.

This is the tale of a car: my second car, a metallic grey Ford Sierra 1.6. I can even remember the registration number, BWHV134.

This lovely bit of kit was my 20th birthday present from my father, and as he already owned it I was allowed it a couple of weeks early.

In fact, with a lovely bit of coincidental music thing, the car even played a part in kickstarting the Bowie fanboy in me.

On a grey midweek day sometime in April 1984, dad asked me if I wanted to accompany him to Essex to pick up his brand new car.

“Essex?! Why do you have to go to Essex?,” enquired this spotty, spiky-haired Buckinghamshire boy.

“It’s the best deal, and they’re taking the Escort,” meaning he was trading in his mark III Ford Escort for a substantially roomier family car.”I looked at the map and realised the auto dealer was only a few miles from a well-known record shop called Adrian’s Records in Wickford, a comprehensive collectors’ emporium that would specialise in rarities, imports, demos, promos… and Bowie.

Lots and lots of Bowie. They were one — if not the — leading vinyl emporiums that debuted a huge section of stock to all things Dame David.

I’d already obtained their doorstopper of a mail order catalogue and would regularly scan their huge Bowie section just to marvel at the dazzling display of past picture sleeves that illustrated a long and bewilderingly shapeshifting career that all bore the Bowie name yet looked like at least a few dozen different faces. 

I found it almost impossible to know where to begin, so I hadn’t. I had not a single Bowie record in my collection, but after borrowing a friend’s Changestwobowie compilation I knew that would change… at some point.

Realising I could wangle a day off school and hopefully peruse the hundreds of Bowie titles in the flesh I said yes to Essex.

We stopped off at Adrian’s on the way back, in the shiny and new Sierra. Centred around Wickford High Street, Adrian’s had been in business for as long as I had been on the planet, but it was the 1980s that saw the independent retail trader explode, and they found themselves with four retail establishments within 50 metres of each other.

I entered the vinyl shop with a mixture of trepidation and unfettered excitement. Their Bowie racks were amply stuffed, though not everything in the catalogue was on display. I looked up and saw on the wall, to the right of the till, were a selection of twelve-inch singles and albums that were deemed special enough to warrant pulling out to stand pride of place high above the counter hatch.

One record in particular stood out, sporting a familiar looking get up that I immediately knew as the first visual image I can remember associating with this odd-eyed Bowie chap.

A padded costume, ghostly make up, a pierrot clown

It was Ashes To Ashes, and I was miraculously transported back four years, to a 1980 edition of Top of The Pops where I put the words David Bowie to a visual image for the very first time.

The sleeve was emblazoned with a title strip that bore the past legend “Super-Sound-Single 45RPM” (it was) and “Disco-Remix” (it wasn’t, just the full length album version from an LP I had yet to hear called Scary Monsters).

On closer inspection the twelve-incher was an imported pressing from RCA Records in West Germany, and it had a track called Alabama Song on the B-side. How exotic, how throughly international, I thought to myself.

Dad’s new Sierra transported me and my prized new addition to my record collection back to the leafy outskirts of Milton Keynes, a ninety minute journey that felt like 90 hours when you can’t wait to play your latest purchase.

Zipping forward to June 1989, and my father had decided to upgrade his wheels to the latest Sierra Sapphire and thus, with my impending ascent into my twenties rapidly approaching I took over ownership of the silver dream machine. 

I had a joint birthday party with three friends and former colleagues booked in at the Friendly Lodge for Friday the 30th. They were still working at Unisys training college in nearby Fox Milne and I had moved on to British Telecom, who were based at the now legendary Bletchley Park site where Alan Turing and the codebreakers had saved our bacon in World War Two.

On the preceding Sunday 25th I was showing off the new motor to one of them, Judi Forsyth, and was driving two of us through Newport Road, a country lane in Woughton On The Green that I had travelled down innumerable times in the Eighties.

Judi and I were chatting away, and just before we reached the village’s thatched country pub, the lovely Ye Olde Swan, I half noticed that a young kid had appeared from nowhere from outside the pub and cycled furiously across the road to the side of the local church. The car in front of me slammed on his brakes and made an emergency stop to avoid hitting him, but, alas, I was probably going a little too fast for everyone’s good and I crashed into his rear end.

After a multitude of expletives, what does Judi do? Slightly breathlessly she tells me she’s nipping into the pub for a minute. 

“Er, OK….”

She reappears several minutes later with a new packet of cigarettes. 

Not being much of smoker, bar the odd fag with a drink to appear “social”, I didn’t make the connection and sounded the alarm.

“We’re in a road accident and all you can do is think of is fags? Couldn’t you wait?” I blurted out, with some bewilderment. Thankfully Judi wasn’t anything like as combative or brusque as silly old me.

“I need them to calm my nerves.”

It probably took me years to realise the psychological dependence smokers have to those dreaded white sticks.

Anyway, we were unharmed, as was our friendship.

After exchanging details with the driver I reluctantly drove my Sierra back to my parents’ house, mangled bonnet and all, worried at my dad’s reaction at my having had the car for less than a fortnight, and turning 20 the very next day knowing the birthday would be not exactly the greatest start for a twenty-something.

Judi and I moved to London, my birthplace, three years later. And the charming changing a tyre pix are outside the first place we rented before that big move, in Malletts Close, Stony Stratford. The first house we ever rented in fact. But not the last.

Life is much more simple when you’re young. 

Isn’t it?

Steve Pafford

BONUS: Somewhat coincidentally, the very same model and colour Ford Sierra appeared in the 2014 movie Pride, a touching tale of how the gay and lesbian community joined forces with the coal workers during the 1984 miners’ strike against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Even more bizarrely, the scene set in the Welsh valleys follows one that was filmed on the London street in West Hampstead I moved to after Judi and I went our separate domestic ways.

There’s nowt as queer as coincidence.

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