Letter to readers, May 1989

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Mistakes!

None of us are perfect, and some of us are less perfect than others, but there are those of us who do strive for perfection. Of all the activities involving the motor car (and motorcycle for that matter), that of writing about them is probably the one that perpetrates more inaccuracies than anything else. A friend of mine who is a well-known columnist says: “Don’t spoil a good story with facts.”

If you design something badly, the chances are that it will be impossible to make, so your mistakes are killed at birth. If it can be made then a bad design will not work properly, and if it gets beyond that stage it may work but it will break.

With writing it is a different matter altogether; the most awful mistake can be overlooked and the mistake appears in print in the finished book or magazine and is then accepted by all who read it.

Enzo Ferrari had a mischievous attitude to the written word and to journalists. He said that if something was in print then it must be correct, otherwise the newspaper would not have printed it! He made it pretty clear to journalists that what he read in the papers was what he was going to believe as being true. This put the journalists in a bit of a spot, especially if one of them started to argue with the old man. He would say “but, I read in the paper …”, effectively saying to the assembled press people, “surely you don’t print mistakes .. ?”

The list of journalistic excuses for mistakes appearing in print is vast and varied, and makes the Racing Drivers’ Handbook of Excuses seem like a kindergarten book. In the writing world there are always many other people who can be blamed for your mistake, and few of them have the chance to answer back. Sometimes a mistake can be corrected on another page, or in a following issue, but it is a bit of waste of time, for most people reading the correction will not have noticed the mistake anyway. Sometimes the ingenuity behind excusing a mistake is remarkable, other times it is too simple to ever warrant listening to. A mistake is a mistake.

There have been occasions when deliberate mistakes have been perpetrated, either to see whether anyone is paying attention or to reprimand someone.

A few years ago our weekly newspaper, Motoring News made a splendid “deliberate mistake”. The report of a sports-car race in Italy, or somewhere, was entrusted to a racing driver who had finished about fifth. He was flying back to England on an earlier plane than the reporter so it seemed a good idea that he should take the story back with him, to gain a few hours on the weekly printing schedule. Unfortunately the racing driver got deflected by something on his way to the airport, and went off on “a jolly jape” as he put it later. The result was that when the reporter got back to the office the story still had not arrived.

When it eventually turned up, the editor and the reporter were nearly apoplectic with rage. Now the racing driver in question was a round, jolly, fat chap who thought everything was “a bit of a giggle”. His nickname in the racing world was “Baked Bean”. When the newspaper duly appeared the results listed in fifth place “B Bean (Lola T292). One day a serious-minded historian will be studying sports-car racing history and will probably be baffled by this driver B Bean, wondering what his first name was: was it Bernard, Bob, Basil? As WB says, pity the poor historian.

In the March issue of Motor Sport I was enthusing over a 90 mph trip I had had in a 41/2-litre Lagonda in 1947, which finished with a memorable run along the A31 on the section known as The Hogs Back. This is a very well-known stretch of road in southern England that runs between Guildford and Farnham and is flat-out for some 41/2 miles. The interesting thing about the road is that it is on a high ridge, with steep climbs on each side all along its length. When I first moved from London to Hampshire in 1941, to work in Farnborough, the Hogs Back was very much of local legend in the motoring world, especially if speed was the subject. Any part of the country has its own special roads which are part of local lore, and in our part the Hogs Back is just such a road. If you are directing someone east or west, you say “along the Hogs Back”, if it is north or south you say “cross the Hogs Back”, and so on. Travelling from London, Farnham is at the far end of the Hogs Back.

When I moved down into Hampshire I discovered about ‘ampshire ‘ogs, the real people of Hampshire, and was quite happy to become a naturalised Hampshire Hog, living in the north-east corner of the country.

In the article in question I wrote ” … a final blast along the famous Hogs Back road in Hampshire”. It was not long before I got a phone call from Valerie Nye, wife of prolific author and columnist Doug Nye. She came straight to the point and said: “Load of rubbish. We live in Farnham, which is in Surrey, and Guildford, which is also in Surrey, is at the other end of the Hogs Back, so how can that road be in Hampshire?” I made some feeble attempts to change the subject, asking about the children, the cats, the dogs, the horses, even about her husband, but to no avail. Val Nye comes from Glasgow and I was wrong.

A couple of days later I received a letter from CE “Johnny” Johnson about his forthcoming book on his times at Connaught Engineering when he was in charge of the drawing office and designing the A-type and B-type Connaught racing cars. He lives in Woking these days, the home of McLaren International where today’s good racing cars are being designed, and he ended his letter by remarking: “From my window I can look across at the Hogs Back, about 8-10 miles away, and I always thought it was in Surrey; or are there two Hogs Backs?” His memories of the famous road were journeys he did along it in his 1927 High Chassis 2-litre Lagonda with artillery wheels, when he was working at Connaught Engineering.

All this made me quietly get out my Ordnance Survey maps and a magnifying glass and follow the Hampshire/Surrey border, and sure enough it never got closer than a few hundred yards down on the Aldershot plain below the Hogs Back road. My apologies to all my motoring friends who live in Surrey, but with a name like Hogs Back it jolly well ought to be in Hampshire! DSJ