Forgotten your car number? Make it up

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The Independent Online
I can remember the number of the very first car I owned, a Renault Dauphine called RUN 169, but I cannot remember the number of any car I have ever had subsequently.

That includes the one I have got at the moment.

Which has sometimes been embarrassing when I have been filling in registration forms at hotels or simply reporting to places with private car parks. "Car registration number?", says the form sweetly or the desk man roughly, and I sweat with humiliation. You can't say "It's G something, I think", because that is plumbing the depths of whatever the opposite of machismo is. Usually I wink and smile and say, "I'll just go and have a look", and pop outside to have a look, and they smile when I come back, because they cannot imagine that I am possibly popping outside to have a look and think I must be joking.

But I am not.

Now, however, I have learnt to remember my car number, because it has been stolen from me here in Edinburgh, and I had to memorise it before I reported it to the police. I had parked the car outside the Pleasance, where I am performing, and when I left it it had two number plates and when I came back it only had one. The front number plate had gone. It's strange how naked a car looks without a number on the front. Or perhaps it makes it look as if it is wearing a mask.

"It's almost certainly illegal to drive around without a number plate," my wife said. "We are almost certainly breaking some regulation every time we go out in a car," I said.

"True," she said. "But seldom as obviously as by driving around without a number plate."

True. So the next morning I got up, fed the meter and approached a friendly traffic warden. At least, he was friendly when it became clear I wasn't either going to plead or argue with him.

"I've had my front number plate nicked," I said. "What should I do?"

He had no idea. He talked into the little phone on his shoulder to the boss. "There's a fellow here had his number plate stolen. What should he do ? Uh huh ... Aye ... right..."

He turned to me.

"Report to to the West End police station in Torphichen Place."

When a Scotsman says "Torphichen", it comes out as a cloud of saliva, but eventually I got him to write it down and off I went to the West End police station, which is not half as grand as it sounds - in fact, all police stations seem to acquire a dusty brown air of resignation and sloth from their birth, and this one was no different.

"Took the number plate and left the car, did they?" said the policeman. "You were lucky."

"But why would anyone want to steal a number plate?"

"Well, these days a lot of cars are stolen to order, then they have to get a number plate to go with it. What's the number of your car?"

I resisted the urge to say that I would pop out and have a look. In fact, to guard against this I had already written the number down on my hand. I sneaked a look.

"It's G357 UAM."

I wasn't quite sure of this, as the way I had written the G looked like a C, but it sounded near enough, and I thought a C reg car would probably be too old. (You can tell how much I know about cars.) "Right," said the friendly policeman, waving a theft report form at me. "Take this and if anyone stops you, show them this. That'll get you on your way again. We'll be in touch if we find a stolen car with your number."

What he didn't say was whether or even where I should buy a new one. I don't know where you should go in Edinburgh to get car number plates. What I do know is that in the print shop round the corner from me they sell self-adhesive letters of just the right size and typeface for a number plate, so as a temporary measure I marched in and said that I wanted a G and a 3 and a 5 and a 7 and a U and an A and an M. Already I was beginning to memorise my number.

"Sorry," said the man. "We've got the rest, but we're out of the letter A."

After a little debate I bought a V and a hyphen, so that I could turn the V upside down and stick the hyphen across to convert it into an A. Seconds later I was kneeling in front of my car, peeling the backing off letters, getting them stuck on my hand, peeling them off my hand and sticking them on to my car. I now have the only car in Edinburgh with paper letters on the front which look as if they had been arranged by a child during her first day at kindergarten. But at least I can remember the number of my car.