There are some experiences that you know shorten your life, even if only by
tiny increments. One of them is dealing with car trouble and car
dealerships. On Monday I took our Citroën – groovy in design but prone to
unreliability – to the main dealer for a minor service. After several hours
the receptionist presented me with a bill for suggested work. It ran to
multiple thousands. The receptionist’s cheeriness seemed excessive in the
circumstances. My heart beat faster. It was one of those life-trimming
Among the issues were clutch replacement (up to me, of course, but “it could
go any minute” – how many times have helpless motorists heard those words
from a garagist?); a new windscreen wiper; mending of a broken boot lid; and
replacement of a set of tyres.
I thanked the woman, paid for the basic service and drove straight to the
local tyre place where I got the set done for a fraction of the dealer’s
cost. I then rang the family-run Southfields garage, near our house – and
got a quote for the clutch that was half what Citroën was proposing. I
dropped it in first thing, and as I handed the keys to Paul, the boss, he
looked me in the eye, gave me a firm handshake and said: “Right, I’ll get
the boys on to it now.” At the time of writing, the car is being fixed. In
fact, Paul has just rung to update me on progress. He even delivered a
useful lesson on clutches.
What is it about big car dealerships that makes them such horrible places? (I
mean volume manufacturers, not high-end specialists, which are no doubt
better.) They invite you in with their shiny motors and oily sales patter,
but the amiability is paper-thin: the second a problem arises, the mask
drops. They are corporate. They lack the human touch. The small firm, by
contrast, can only thrive if it develops a relationship of trust with the
customer. It doesn’t have the additional pull of being a major brand.
It’s not all bad news, I hope. This was not the first time something had gone
wrong with the car. Early in its life with us, the patented pneumatic
suspension broke. It required lengthy investigations, worryingly just before
we were due to drive to France, and the whole system was replaced at vast
I now gather, however, that Citroën is refunding 80 per cent of the cost of
suspension work on certain cars, after a BBC Watchdog investigation. Our car
may be one of those affected; I emailed the boss of Citroën and a customer
service person is looking into it. I am grateful they’re sorting that out.
But from now on, I’m putting my trust in the family-run garage.
Talking of writing to companies, I sent a letter to the BBC in the Nineties. I
wanted to ask why they’d stopped broadcasting The Rockford Files, that
incomparably brilliant TV show starring James Garner as a private detective
who lives in a trailer by the sea at Malibu. Someone replied to say that
they’d bear my comments in mind. It seems many years since the corporation
broadcast those shows, but at last, they are back.
BBC2 is rerunning the particularly sharp fifth series (1978-9). Many of the
episodes were written by David Chase, who later created The Sopranos.
Episode two, “Rosendahl and Gilda Stern are Dead”, guest starring Rita
Moreno and Robert Loggia, is on BBC2 on Tuesday afternoon. Not to be missed.
Superchef Alain Ducasse has been lobbying the French government to permit the
return of ortolan, a dish that has been banned on EU menus since 1999.
Ortolans are little songbirds, five or six inches from beak to tip of tail;
eating the poor creatures sums up how the French put gastronomy above all
other concerns. The bird is fattened, then drowned in vinegar or Armagnac –
a cruel death, which, according to Alexandre Dumas, “has a beneficial effect
on the flesh”. Then it is baked in a ramekin and munched whole, with a
napkin over the diner’s head. The point of the napkin is said to be to keep
in aromas, or to conceal the mess. More likely, its real purpose is to
conceal the diner’s shame.
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