For those who don’t know, a Lada is a car made in the old Soviet Block and for a while was relatively popular in the UK because it was so cheap. Based on old Fiat designs, even brand new it was half the price of any other car of its size on the road. Built like a Russian tank, you needed arms like Arnold Schwarzenegger to be able to steer the thing, and there weren’t many mod cons like ABS, power steering, or even a radio. They weren’t the most reliable of cars and back in the 80s and 90s were the butt end of many jokes:
Q: What do you call a Lada with a sunroof and twin exhausts?
A: A wheelbarrow!
Q: Why does a Lada have a heated rear screen?
A: To warm your hands while you're pushing it!
I’m sure you’re beginning to get the idea.
Towards the end of the millennium the European Union tightened their laws on exhaust emissions from cars and so they ceased being imported. Before long Ladas had all but disappeared from the UK.
In the mid 90s, the Lada Riva 1300 Estate that we drove had been taken off my brother’s hands. It was due for an MOT and he couldn’t afford it. We didn’t have the funds for a 2nd hand car, but could just about raise the money to cover the MOT, so it was duly handed over to us.
It really wasn’t much of a car. It had a great big dent running down the left side where my brother had once wrapped a fence around it after leaving the road, when his cat had escaped its box and dug its claws into his leg; I was constantly having to apply rust remover to various parts of the bodywork; and if it hadn’t been for my friend Euan, who knew a bit about engines, then we would never have been able to drive it for the three years we did. I’m not going to get all misty eyed and say we loved the car, but it did do the job and I’m thankful we had it.
During this period of time, Rogan was just a baby and so didn’t have much of an opinion about the car. In fact, he was usually asleep within 2 minutes of me starting the engine. However, the stepchildren did have strong opinions about it, and would duck down whenever we drove past anyone they knew in case they were recognised.
One day, as I returned to the car from the supermarket, I saw a guy moving away from it, having just placed a flyer under the windscreen wiper. As he saw me reading about “The Lada Owner’s Club”, he came back over to try and encourage me to come along to a gathering they were having the following weekend (a fun day out for the whole family – oh yes, the stepchildren would love that). I smiled awkwardly, brushed him off as politely as possible and sped away. Well, I say sped away… (0 to 60 in about 18 seconds, if I didn’t have any extra weight in the car, like a tin of beans for example).
A Lada Owner’s Club! The very idea sent a shudder down my spine. For a long time afterwards I feared I was just being a snob, but after Meg was born I realised where my discomfort lay - I may have driven a Lada, I may have felt the occasional bit of fondness for the car, but I didn’t want to be defined by the damned thing.
Why after Meg was born? Well it’s here that perhaps I get a little bit controversial.
Meg is my beautiful, wonderful daughter and I am full of fatherly and parental pride, and she happens to have Down’s Syndrome. But take a look at any blog or speak to any parent of a child who has DS, and what you very quickly realise is that the DS is just one aspect of their child, not the defining aspect. Indeed, start referring to their son or daughter as a “Down’s Child” and you are very likely to have an extremely annoyed parent to deal with.
When Meg was born it sometimes felt as though we had joined a Down’s Club and we were expected to go out and join Down’s groups. We found this idea more than a little uncomfortable.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not having a go at support networks and organisations. Having somewhere you can turn to for advice in times of doubt and need is fantastic. Having organisations that are helping to raise issues and concerns to a wider audience is a wonderful thing. But just because my child has DS, doesn’t mean I am automatically going to get on with every other parent of a child with DS. It’s like belonging to a group because you have blonde hair or green eyes, or are good at solving IQ puzzles (sorry – a quick swipe at Mensa there because I feel exactly the same way about them). Having a beard might be one of the characteristics that people can recognise me by, but that doesn’t mean that I necessarily have anything in common with David Blunkett or Grizzly Adams.
The same attitude makes me curl my lip at overt nationalism too, not to mention walking the streets with a football shirt on. I guess I am not tribal by nature. First and foremost we are individuals, and when someone thinks they can know who we are by the car we drive, or our genetic traits, it is so superficial it makes me want to weep for them.
To quote Patrick McGoohan,
“I am not a number. I am a free man.”
P.S. – An afterthought:
Here is a quote about Ladas on the homepage of the Owner’s Club website
“For the DIY motorist, they are a pure pleasure”.
I kid you not – visit http://www.lada-owners-club.co.uk/ if you don’t believe me.