Saturday, October 23, 2010

Petrol crisis

Fun and games last week. Had to go to England and submit some paintings for a Guildford Arts show. Couldn't fly or go by train because the paintings were far too awkward and cumbersome to carry. So I decided to go by car and cross-channel ferry. Big problem though: France is in revolt and petrol stations are fast running out of fuel. "No problem," said neighbour Christian, "just nip down the local petrol station, fill up your car plus a couple of my 20 litre jerry cans." Headed down there but then discovered I was only allowed 40 litres for the car and 'no filling of jerry cans'. Hmm..., now had a full tank but I had doubts about making it to the ferry port of Caen without filling up somewhere along the way. And news reports said petrol stations were closing down all over France. All a bit risky. Any sensible person would call the whole thing off. Only a nutter would go ahead.

I went ahead by virtue of a cunning plan: simply siphon petrol from the car into the 20 litre jerry can plus a couple of 5 litre cans then refill the car and stash the cans in the back. Easy peasy. So I cut a metre length of tubing, shoved it in the petrol tank, sucked up some petrol and began pouring into the cans. At least, that was the theory. The reality was somewhat different and resulted in three or four mouthfulls of petrol, swollen lips, burnt throat, collapsed lungs, poisoned stomach, and no sign whatsoever of induced petrol flow. Gave up and spent the next hour recovering. Time was rapidly running out (it was early afternoon Thursday and I had to set off first thing Friday morning) so I had to think of another solution pretty damned quick.

Cunning plan number two: drag BMW motorbike out of shed, fill her up, ride back, disconnect fuel line from tank, shove tube under petrol tap and pour into the jerry can. Brilliant! Worked out at 20 litres exactly. That plus the 5 litre can of stale petrol I had hanging around in the shed should do it (maths - 25 litres, that's 5 gallons, which is about 200 miles). No problem. Wagons roll!

Set off Friday morning at 7.30 in the smelly old Citroen dogwagon fully loaded with paintings, petrol cans and a couple of excited terriers. Bit chilly with the windows open so we could breathe (the car stank of petrol). Unloaded the dogs at the kennels at 9am then hit the road north from Limoges. Stopped off at the first autoroute service station for a petrol top-up, fully expecting the pumps to be closed. They weren't. So I topped up. Stopped at a few others on the way and kept topping up. Petrol crisis? What crisis? Come mid-afternoon I was only about an hour from Caen and feeling a bit panicky about not being allowed on the boat driving a four-wheeled bomb. Decided to hide the cans somewhere ready for my return journey ('fuel dumps' in military lingo, as utilised by armies in retreat) in about five days' time. By then the petrol situation would definitely have worsened. Might be impossible to re-fuel anywhere. But where to hide the damned stuff?

With Caen getting ever closer, I decided to nip up a country lane and hope something would turn up. Found a little cul-de-sac in the middle of nowhere. Sign said 'no dumping'. Dead-ended after about twenty yards with a few old tyres and a burn-out metal oil drum, all covered in weeds. No sign of footprints or recent activity, so hid the 20 litre jerry can behind one of the old tyres. Ain't perfect but it'll have to do. Hit the main road again, made a mental note of the turning and headed for Caen. Arrived at about 5.30. Far too early. Killed the next five hours by wandering around the port, driving up the Ouistreham coast (some fascinating seaside houses), reading a Telegraph, having a few coffees, then a few more, noshing fish'n'chips with a beer and a cognac, then finally wandering around the check-in area for nearly an hour, bored stiff. But at least I'd made it.

Arrived Portsmouth at about 6.30am Saturday. Banged on Dave and Sue's Guildford front door at 8.30 (they'd helped organise the arts show and, having seen some of my paintings as emails, they'd kindly suggested I show a few in the exhibition). After a quick tea, chat and peek at some of Dave's brilliant paintings, we then headed for the 'gallery' where various arts club members were dropping off their artworks. Having seen Dave's stuff, plus some of the paintings that other artists were bringing in, I felt a bit over-awed. The only time anyone's seen any of my paintings (apart from Georgie and a few others) was earlier this year at the local village boules championship when they were stacked against the wall in a cowshed. Luckily, the village residents had been extremely complimentary (bless 'em) but this here Guildford show was a completely different kettle of poissons. Quite surprised me when no-one laughed at my amateur dabblings as I propped them against the wall, ready for inspection by the hanging jury.

That done, I headed for Putney and a rendezvous with Georgie and Donnie. Parked up in their street alongside all the flashy cars. Poor old fly-splattered, battered and dented dogwagon looked decidedly out of place, but, miracle of miracles, the smelly old heap had made it without so much as a hiccup. Good thing too its little 1.4 engine is frugal with fuel. Grabbed my rucksack and headed to Donnie's super-duper top floor flat where I was to spend the next five days.

Settled in with a chat and teas. Then checked my emails. One from a client chum who wanted to buy one of my paintings. Gosh, crikey and giddy Nora! Never sold a painting before. That'll cover the costs of journey and kennels. Quickly rang Dave to inform that that one's sold. Could have knocked me down with a feather when Dave then said he and Sue wanted to buy my 'Blossoms' painting. Apparently they'd liked it in email form and had been waiting to see it for real. Unbelievable! Mind you, I have a sneaking suspicion they bought it just to make my trip worthwhile. They're very kind like that.

The five days passed in the blink of an eye. Can't remember exactly what we did but I do remember painting the front door, nibbling ostrich sausage in a Putney shop owned by a couple of charming South Africans, having Helen visit for a day or so, collecting my painting from Guildford and delivering to offices by Tower Bridge (in the rain), getting my old Apple laptop mended in Earlsfield, ambling around the Isabella Gardens in Richmond Park on the twinnies' birthday, having a good old shopping trip to Asda (amazing how much cheaper stuff is in England than France), dumping an old telly, Hoover and various other bits of junk at Wandsworth's splendid riverside tip (I do like a good tip) and being dragged by Georgie around some garden centre outside Wandsworth nick. Then, suddenly, it was Wednesday evening and time to return to France.

Caught the boat at Portsmouth. Sailed at 10.45pm. Arrived Caen 6am. Dark and frosty. Just getting light when I passed through Argentan, eyes peeled for my petrol dump. Tunnel of trees on south side, then turn right at a blue circular sign with a red cross about a mile further on. Then the cul-de-sac on the right about 500 metres down the lane. Parked up. Nobody around so I ambled up to the dead end and 'no dumping' sign. Could be a BIG problem if the jerry can's been nicked. Loads of petrol stations now shut, according to the news. Riots outside petrol refineries. Big trubs. Spotted the burnt-out drum. Then the tyres. But couldn't see the jerry can. Moved up closer. Pulled the frosty tyre away. Bingo! One 20 litre jerry can. Now I'll get home even if every petrol station in France is shut. No worries.

As it happened, the three autoroute stations I visited all had petrol but it was limited to 30 litres per vehicle. Noticed quite a few petrol stations were shut in towns and villages though. But, surprise, surprise, when the dogs and I eventually arrived at Felletin's supermarket at the end of my journey, the petrol station was open (30 litres limit, I presume). Bought milk, bread and a few other bits but no petrol (didn't need it). Arrived home and stashed 30 litres of fuel in the shed. And a boxful of garden centre plants in the lounge (otherwise known as the indoor shed). Then walked the dogs up the old granite cross. Thanked 'The Boss' for my safe journeys, a darned good time and the unexpected sale of two paintings. Exhibition previews next Wednesday. Maybe I'll sell more. Or maybe not.

Returned home. Phone rang. Isabelle. Come round for supper immediately. Even if one's totally knackered, unshaven and reeking of smelly dogs and petrol fumes, to refuse such an offer is to die. So I went. Gave Isabelle the bestest present in the whole wide world. The new book about Robbie Williams. While she danced around the kitchen in delight, Christian and I merely rolled our eyes at the ceiling as we downed our aperitifs. Ah, back in the old routine.


  1. This is quite a story. Makes me wonder what other people were doing for petrol this past week. I didn't have to go anywhere, so I didn't really think about it. Today was the first day I went driving anywhere, and the gas stations seem to be back up and running.

  2. What a good read, Tommo, and I am glad you are back safe and sound. No probs down here with petrol either. No probs with strikes either. Glad your paintings are selling. Glad that you had a good adventure.

  3. While we were in the Loire last week, fuel supply was sporadic. One minute plenty but a long queue, next minute, all garages closed. People seemed to manage to find enough to do their local journeys by topping up as it came available, provided they didn't mind spending lots of time queueing. But setting off on a long trip, not knowing if we would be able to fill up half way, was a different matter.