Introducing a new occasional series of interviews with authors about their Mini cars
When I started writing my new novella, Mrs Morris Changes Lanes, in which an unusual loan car takes the heroine on a lifechanging journey, the Mini was not my first choice of car for the central character, Juliet Morris.
Originally I’d intended to give her a red Fiat 500, but as I began to describe the sleepy, narrow lanes of the Cotswold countryside in which her journey begins, that car seemed all wrong. I realised a Fiat 500 would be more at home in the teeming, noisy roads of central Rome than on quiet English country lanes lined with ancient hedgerows.
My original reason for choosing the Fiat 500 was that for reasons of the plot, Juliet Morris’s car needed to be a relatively timeless model that had been in production a long time. Was there a more appropriate British equivalent?
Suddenly it came to me: the Mini, even more of a recognisable cultural icon than the Fiat 500. And it would have to be purple rather than red to look more at home among the greens and whites of the Cotswold lanes in spring.
Now, I’ve never owned or even driven a Mini, other than the MG Mini Metro, a 1980s hatchback that had very little in common with the classic Mini or its modern equivalent. But as soon as I started to tell my author friends about Mrs Morris Changes Lanes, many of them went into raptures about Minis they had owned.
I wanted to know more about why they were so passionate about their Mini, and I thought my readers might too, especially if they’d already fallen for Mrs Morris’s Mini.
Reviewers often express their desire for a car like Mrs Morris’s. If you read the novella, you’ll understand that their longing is nothing to do with the car’s classic design.
So without more ado, let’s welcome historical novelist Anita Davison to tell us all about her love affair with the Mini.
Anita, why and when did you buy your first Mini?
My first Mini Cooper was a gift from my husband in 2005 so I have no clue how much he paid for it. He asked me to meet him at a specific location at a certain time. I remember being annoyed at the time as I had things to do and it was a half-mile detour from my usual route so when I arrived, I was a bit prickly. I saw my son, daughter and husband all standing in the road looking extremely smug beside a blueberry-coloured 1.4 Mini Cooper with a black interior. It was obviously just out of the showroom. I gave the car a cursory look and was about to demand what they were playing at when they yelled ‘Surprise!!’
How long did you keep it and why did you sell it?
We moved to Surrey about five years later and it seemed the right time to trade it in for another vehicle. To be honest, I don’t recall what replaced it, but it was far less memorable.
Many Mini drivers seemed to feel compelled to name their Minis, as if they have a personality of their own. What was yours called?
Of course he had a personality of his own! He was definitely male – all Minis are male, aren’t they? So I called him Alice, after Alice Cooper.
What did you most love about your Mini?
Alice gripped the road beautifully, was very nippy, and left many more powerful cars for dead at traffic lights. He also had this little squeal in the power steering which always made me smile, like he was talking to me. Parking was a dream too as the square design meant I could see all four corners – this in the era where distance alerts were an expensive extra.
Where did your longest journey in your Mini take you?
Alice was a second, even a third vehicle, so used for mainly short trips – I think I only did about 8k miles in him in two years – so not very far! I did take him into Central London once and can honestly say I was put off completely and never did that again. Not because of Alice, but because of me!
What was your most exciting trip?
The above one into London – and was also the most hairy!
What most surprised you about your Mini?
Driving him made me feel more adventurous. Not reckless, but driving became a bit more exciting, and other Mini drivers would often give way, wave me on and smile as if we were all in a secret club.
Did you ever have any accidents or any scary trips in your Mini?
No, not once, but then I only did short trips to places I knew well.
Who was your favourite/most interesting/most difficult passenger and why?
A writer friend came to London from New York and I went to fetch her from the airport. She was interesting in that it was our first meeting face-to-face. From the second she got into Alice, we chatted all the way home non-stop as if we had known each other for years. Which we had, but virtually. She loved Alice too and asked about her long after she went home to NY.
Was your Mini a one-off buy or did you stay brand loyal and buy more Minis later?
We bought another Mini Cooper two years ago – He is British Racing Green and called Ralf.
What do you miss about your first Mini?
I don’t, as Ralf’s out on the drive anytime I want some fun, but I do think of Alice sometimes.
What would be your dream car if money were no object?
I’m not much of a petrolhead – that’s reserved for the men in my family. Actually, scrap that, my daughter IS a petrolhead! To be honest, if I was in that position I would go for a JCW Mini Cooper S.
What did you think of Mrs Morris’s Mini in Mrs Morris Changes Lanes?
She reminded me of Alice, as physically they were very similar – In fact, I got quite nostalgic. Alice was special.
To what extent do cars feature in your novels?
I certainly do have motor cars in my novels, and I had fun researching them!
Flora’s husband Bunny is an enthusiast, but in the very early 1900’s it wasn’t a lucrative business to become involved in so he became a solicitor. However, motor cars are an integral part of his life.
Flora is taken on a balloon ride by William, and she meets Charles Rolls, the joint founder of the Rolls Royce Company. The company only ran for about four years when Charles was killed in an air accident at a display at the age of 32. His older partner, Henry Royce changed the ‘RR’ emblem from red to black to honour him and it’s stayed that way ever since.
Anita, thank you so much for sharing your passion for your Minis with us, and for your kind permission to quote two extracts from your Flora Maguire Mysteries series below. In the first extract, Bunny’s interest in “horseless carriages” is instrumental in his making Flora’s acquaintance, and in the second, her father shows off his latest acquisition.
Excerpt from FLORA’S SECRET (Flora Maguire Mysteries Book 1)
Flora headed for the aft saloon deck, where land was no more than a blur on the horizon beneath the purple and navy of a darkening sky. A gust of cold air lifted the hair at the temples and she shivered, glad of her shawl. She passed a stack of steamer chairs piled beneath the metal companionway, the massive round winches on a deck empty but for a square, bulky shape under canvas, fastened down with thick ropes.
Flora recalled from Eddy’s lecture that the Minneapolis was designed to carry livestock, but sailed in ballast this trip, used to keep the vessel upright and discarded when the ship reached port.
The strange object stood a few inches taller than herself, several feet wide and distinctly square, but with vague shapes protruding from the front; that it was ballast seemed unlikely.
With a swift backwards glance to ensure she was not observed, Flora eased into a gap between the swaddled shape and a stack of fenders piled beside the companionway.
The oiled canvas proved heavier than she imagined, but a brief struggle and a determined tug revealed a rubber wheel more than two inches thick, beneath a curve of black-painted metal. Smaller than a cartwheel, the wooden section was painted in cream with thick spokes picked out in brown; some sort of wheeled cart, but much sturdier.
‘Magnificent, isn’t it?’ a male voice said at her shoulder.
Flora jumped backwards, her head colliding with the metal support, sending a sharp pain through the crown of her head. She raised one hand to her scalp and swung round to where a young man stood, his feet splayed and both hands tucked into the pockets of a dinner suit. His tie lay undone against the lapels of his jacket, the collar open on his throat and his fair hair in disarray from the evening breeze. Penetrating eyes of an indistinguishable colour in the low light behind a pair of rimless spectacles regarded her with unnerving intensity.
And he was laughing.
A reprimand rose to her lips, suppressed when he removed his hand from his pocket and held it out, whether to draw her from beneath the metal support, or to shake hers, she wasn’t sure.
‘I cannot tell,’ Flora snapped, taking small revenge by ignoring his hand. ‘Whatever it might be is still mostly covered by this canvas sheet.’
‘Quite right. And I shouldn’t laugh, not when you might be hurt? I apologize, but I’ve simply never seen someone look so guilty, and yet so angry at the same time.’
‘I’m not hurt, not really.’ Flora rubbed the crown of her head. ‘However, next time, I would appreciate some sort of warning before you creep up on me like that.’
‘Next time?’ His lips twitched. ‘Should I assume you make a habit of skulking round ships in search of treasure then? Because if so, you do know that makes you a pirate?’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Flora tucked in her chin, frowning. Either her throbbing head was making her dizzy, or he was deranged.
‘I’ve never met a pirate,’ he chattered on. ‘But as I always say, life is an adventure.’ He thrust out his hand again. ‘Bunny Harrington, pleased to meet you.’
Gingerly, she accepted his hand, startled at how firm and warm his grip was in hers. Her pulse raced uncomfortably, and, unnerved, she snatched back her hand.
‘Actually it’s a nickname,’ he said in response to her surprised start. ‘My real name is positively unmentionable.’ He guided her from beneath the overhang with one hand, his other at her waist. ‘Do you have a particular interest in motor cars?’
‘Is that what this is? One of those horseless carriages?’ Her thoughts flowed again, though with less clarity than normal, hampered by her throbbing scalp.
‘Indeed, yes. Would you like to see her?’
Before she could answer he had hauled the canvas aside, revealing what resembled a scaled-down hansom cab, but on four wheels as opposed to two, with a fifth wheel on a pole behind a sheet of glass where the driver should be. Instead of traces for a horse, there sat a rectangular metal box with rounded corners.
‘It’s, um – quite impressive.’ Flora stared, fascinated. ‘This is yours?’
‘She is indeed. He ran a hand gently over the fender in a caress. ‘A Panhard-Levassor Landaulet.’
‘They make these in America?’ Flora’s nerves receded and curiosity took its place, though her head still throbbed a little. Following his example, she stroked the caramel paintwork, surprised to find it was smooth as glass beneath her fingers.
‘This particular masterpiece is French.’ He adjusted his glasses by a sidebar. ‘I had her shipped over in the autumn to show to the Duryea Motor Wagon Company.’
‘And it really goes all by itself?’ Flora had seen pictures in the London Illustrated News of motor cars, but she had never seen one.
‘Not exactly.’ His bemused frown made him even more attractive. ‘She’s powered by a front-mounted engine with rear-wheel drive, a sliding-gear transmission—’ His mouth closed with a snap. ‘Well, never mind all that, I’m sure it’s of no interest to you.’ He pushed a hand through his hair, revealing a well-defined brow and arched eyebrows slightly darker than his hair. ‘Besides, I still don’t know your name.’
‘Flora. Flora Maguire,’ she said, disarmed by the intensity of his stare that made her think they had met before, but couldn’t possibly be the case.
Extract from THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN (Flora Maguire Mysteries Book 4)
‘Master Arthur has been dressed and fed, Mrs Harrington, if you wish to visit the nursery.’ Milly, the nursery-maid, her face as expressionless as a mannequin in Selfridges shop window.
stood in the door frame, her gaze fixed somewhere above Flora’s head.
Didn’t the girl ever smile?
‘Thank you, Milly. I’ll be up in a moment,’ Flora replied, dismissing her.
‘What was that about?’ Bunny scowled as the door closed. ‘You aren’t usually so terse with the servants? Has she done something to annoy you?’
‘I now have arranged set times for my visits.’ At his incredulous look, she shrugged. ‘It’s the only way I ever get to see the baby. She would keep me out of the nursery altogether if she could.’
‘What do you mean?’ Bunny’s brusque tone demanded an explanation. Stokes could have set up a wine shop in the cellar for all Bunny would have noticed, but anything concerning the wellbeing of their son required his full attention.
‘Her manner makes me feel as though our son is like a new toy I’m not allowed to play with. Milly chooses his clothes and decides which toys he plays with and when.’
In Flora’s opinion, Milly was too young to bear the responsibility of their precious new baby, though Bunny had insisted she was well qualified. If only she was more animated; surely babies needed smiles and happiness around them?
‘He’s not yet five months old, darling.’ Bunny chuckled. ‘He doesn’t play with toys yet apart from the soft and fuzzy kind.’ He returned to the table and shuffled his papers into order, apparently having lost interest in the subject.
Flora sighed in frustration. The teddy bear Flora had bought Arthur was always missing from his crib when she visited, replaced by a surprised looking bunny rabbit. Its appearance always made her feel rejected, although the baby could not know the difference.
‘I took him to the park in his perambulator the other day,’ Flora persisted, conscious she sounded petulant. ‘When I got back, Milly told me I had kept him too long in the London air.’
‘Should I discharge her?’ He peered at her over his spectacles, though a smile twitched the corner of his mouth.
‘Er-no, don’t do that.’ The idea had instantly appealed only to be rejected again, replaced by practicality. ‘Good nursery staff aren’t easy to find. Besides, she’s very efficient and even I have to admit Arthur’s thriving.’
‘Then you mustn’t let her bully you.’ He slid the papers into a well-worn leather briefcase that sat on an empty chair.
‘Sally tells me the same thing. She doesn’t like Milly much either.’ Flora’s lady’s maid was a forthright young woman engaged partly because her mother-in-law disapproved. Flora had never regretted her decision, for Sally Pond had proved an asset during an encounter with a murderer the previous year. She couldn’t imagine life without her now, in spite of the girl’s forthrightness.
A discreet knock at the door followed by a cough preceded the return of Stokes.
‘Mr Osborne has arrived, Madam. I’ve shown him into the study to await your convenience.’
‘Thank you, Stokes.’ Flora glanced at the ormolu clock on the mantle as the butler withdrew. ‘He isn’t due for another half hour.’
‘Where is William taking you on this treat which he won’t reveal to anyone?’ Bunny hefted the briefcase in one hand and made for the door.
‘You’ve just answered your own question. He says it’s a surprise.’ Flora moved to the window that overlooked the street. ‘Now I know why he’s early. He’s come to show off his new acquisition.’
Bunny crossed the room in three brisk strides and gave a sharp intake of breath at the sight of a gleaming motor car that stood at the curb. ‘Good grief, it’s a Spyker!’
‘A what?’ Flora blinked at the admiration in Bunny’s eyes which reminded her of an intensity he normally reserved for her, and was now being shared by several passers-by on the street who had gathered round to admire it.
‘I suppose it is quite pretty,’ she said, feeling a need to show some enthusiasm. ‘I like the emerald green colour with the black outlines on the doors.’
‘She’s more than pretty. Beneath that bonnet is an eighteen-horsepower engine, a pressed steel chassis with solid axles and an advanced suspension system of elliptic leaf springs.’
‘Well, of course, that makes it all so much clearer.’ Flora rolled her eyes and reached up to plant a kiss on his cheek. ‘And now I know you’ll be happily occupied with William’s new toy, I can spend a few moments with Arthur before we leave.’
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT ANITA DAVISON
Visit her website: www.anitadavison.co.uk.
The five Flora Maguire Mystery novels, published by Aria Fiction, are available in ebook and paperback:
Betrayal at Cleeve Abbey
A Knightsbridge Scandal
The Forgotten Children
The Bloomsbury Affair
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT MRS MORRIS CHANGES LANES
Click the link below to find out more about Mrs Morris Changes Lanes and to order your copy in ebook or paperback: