Irritations of Modern Life: 11: Clean Cars By Jonathan Myerson

WE HAD a family disaster at the weekend. The accelerator cable on the car snapped. We were right outside a country pub. We brought out iced drinks on a tray but the AA tow-truck arrived in less than an hour. The man towed it away and a friend drove us home. The garage phoned the next day. They'd tracked down the relevant cable; they were helpful, human and friendly.

The day after that, they drove the car back to us. It cost less than pounds 45. Then we realised. Disaster. They had cleaned the car.

They'd made it shine, and the windows aren't mottled grey any more. They'd scraped the oily grime out of all the nubbly corners. They'd cleaned the wheels - they're a sort of matt silver colour. They'd vacuumed the floors. They'd taken the dust warren off the dashboard and left it sparkly black. It's going to take us years to get it back to the way it was.

They thought they were doing us a favour. They had no idea how long we'd spent elevating our car to the state where it was a health risk - inside and out. To my knowledge, the outside hadn't been cleaned in four years of ownership, but it was the inside that made the real statement.

No one was going to steal our car - not without inoculations and a team from the School of Tropical Medicine standing by. Inside had last been cleaned out when we had to drive my mother to a hospital appointment. Julie said: "You have to. She hates it. Your mother needs to feel comfortable." But clean cars make me feel uncomfortable. I dread hire cars; they're truly scary: pine-scented and burnished metal and veneered plastic and fluffy fake tweed. It's someone else's image of the way life should be lived - inhumanly unsullied.

But it's a pervasive image, and it's fooled too many people. You see them out there on sunny Sundays - buckets and suds or electric extensions snaking down the garden path and the low drone inside, the four doors spread open like a frantic moth. And what are they achieving? All they're doing is re-creating the image the car makers want us to have of their creations. Boring-suited Ford executives and slightly-sharper-suited VW gauleiters and Armani-suited BMW creatives want us all to fall in with their dream of perfect existence, perfect happiness.

Well, I don't want their perfection. Our nine-year-old regularly begs for weekend jobs to earn money and complains that his friends always get to clean their Dad's car. I'd rather pay him to read a book than see him take communion at the Church Of Getting And Spending.

Why treat these objects - admittedly absurdly expensive ones - as worthy of admiration? Even the most ardent car-lover will admit that they pollute, they kill, and they make us testy, if not homicidal. So why do so many still worship at their shrine? You have to show these machines that you're better than they are.

And compare our life with that of the Car Worshippers. They're in a traffic jam and tensions are high and their six-year-old doesn't want to finish his roasted vegetable with tarragon mayonnaise sandwich.

The car worshipper has to find a bag and contort round from the passenger seat and retract the sandwich crust and make sure it's safely bagged and no oil leaks through the paper bag before it's suitably dumped. We say Throw It On The Floor. Same with apple cores, rejected sickly sweets and juice cartons (half-full or empty).

The Car Worshippers are at the beach and everyone is hot and sticky, yet they have to empty their sandy shoes out and hop over Tarmac into the car, risking burns and broken glass. We tip our shoes out once into the car; no one complains (and it tamps down the spilled juice).

The real advantage comes months later. You have real holiday souvenirs - the mouldy sandwich runnelled into the seat push-back, the sprouting peach stone Superglued to the door pocket, the torn-up note to the traffic warden you later used to wipe the baby's nose - and each of them brings back moments of true familial closeness. In most cars, you wouldn't know you had a family. Because if you did, you wouldn't want ever to sell it and buy a new one - and remember, that's all they want from you.