And so there I was, back in the place I had vowed and declared I would never enter again. The local car hire place.

But to explain, we need to go back eighteen years to 1996, when I got rid of my car, as it was costing too much to run and taking up space in the street, and I only ever used it to drive my daughters around. I drove it to Redhill, donated it to a scrapyard, came home and wrote “Bus & Taxi Fares” on an empty ice cream tub. Then I got out all the money I’d have spent on my car (petrol, tax, insurance, maintenance) on a weekly basis and put it in the tub. I’ve never looked back.

But of course occasionally it’s been necessary to hire a car or van. I had to do this while my daughter was at university in Manchester, taking her and her belongings home and back at the beginning and end of vacations. And sometimes there is stuff to go to the tip, or the allotment.

When it was a car I needed, and for a six hour journey, I was stuck with the sort of companies that have national networks (and thus could offer a one-way hire), and reputations to go with that, and think they are God. I got pissed off with these companies always asking for more and more personal details – in particular, on one occasion when I turned up in Manchester and was asked for an “alternative phone number”. I explained that I didn’t have one (maybe what they were thinking of was a work number, but by then I think I had stopped work) and  they explained that I couldn’t have the car without one, and so I very reluctantly gave them the number of my ageing mother, and told them what I thought of them.

For vans, I was mostly happy with using the local place. When, early on, I suggested looking round the vehicle for previous damage, they said “Look, we’re the bottom of the market. We don’t do all that.” As I mostly used the vans for very short runs, I was prepared to take the risk of hiring a beaten-up old thing that looked like it might conk out (and actually did once, at the wrong end of the journey). Well, I shrugged that off, but when a van I hired from them ran out of diesel after only a couple of hundred yards (they hire them out empty – goodness knows why – the official reason being that “otherwise people syphon the diesel out overnight”) that was it. I was jolly well not going back there.

So next time I needed one, I went into a posh-looking place a bit further along the road. They had gleaming white vans outside and men wearing gleaming white shirts and ties inside. The conversation went something like this.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes, I’d like to hire a van.”

“Ah. We don’t actually do the pricing and availability of vans here, but I can put you through to someone who can help you”.

“But you do hire vans?”

“Yes. Would you like to be put through to the relevant person?”

“Yes please”.

He dialled a number and passed me the phone. A woman’s voice said “Can I take your details?”

Somewhat taken aback, I said that I was only enquiring about prices.

“Oh, we can’t give you prices …”

Have you ever felt like you’ve walked into a Monty Python sketch? I was tempted to say to the guy,

“I’m going to ask you one more time whether you hire vans. And if the answer is no, I’m going to shoot you”

– but I realised he probably wouldn’t have got the joke. So instead I just walked out. To be honest, even if they’d managed to give me a price, it would probably have been well beyond my means; as indeed was the figure quoted by the posh car hire place I used to use in the Manchester days, when I went there later in desperation.

So you can imagine that when the car club arrived in town,  I was delighted. Here, at last, surely, was a way of accessing vehicles when I needed one, and it had a clubby, non-profit, local-community sort of feel to it. Car clubs would get all those bumper-to-bumper parked cars out of our streets! It was such a sensible idea – to have a car, and a car of your choice, only when you needed one! I felt like joining purely out of solidarity, even if I didn’t need to use their vehicles very often.

There was just one snag: they wanted my bank details up front. I wrote to ask whether it would be OK to pay my hire bills by cheque as I do for my gas, electricity and phone bills; or, failing that, by bank transfer; but they were adamant, it was bank details or nothing.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if I were to go into a shop and they wanted me to deposit my wallet on entry so that they could take what they wanted out of it and give it back to me on leaving, well, I would walk straight out again. I know some might react differently, and in fact lots of people seem to be quite happy with the electronic equivalent of that, namely handing over their bank details to organisations they know very little about, in the form of a direct debit. But I see my own money as one of the few things I still have control over, and I’m not about to give up that control. I don’t do direct debits and the like. So, reluctantly, I decided against joining the car club.

In any case, it isn’t really a “club”, at least not in the way most people would understand the word, although that is the impression they want people to have – that they’re a sort of co-operative, we’re-all-in-this-together-so-we-won’t-rip-you-off sort of outfit. But they’re not. They are a private, profit-making company and they’re a national chain. They just use the word “club” in the same sense as Premier League football clubs use it, but without the history that those organisations presumably have.

And so that explains why, finally, today I arrived back where I started. At the bottom of the market.

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