My father passed his driving test when he was about 45 and immediately bought a car. Of course. An Austin A40: YMD 457 I think was the registration. Then he bought an Austin 1100 and we went to Poland in it. I have written bits about that journey.
Six years later I was 17 and many of my friends were beginning to have driving lessons. I wanted to too. “Why?” asked my father. “You don’t need to drive.” The implication was I was a girl. I argued back that driving was a necessary accomplishment all girls needed to have – I remember comparing driving to piano playing for Victorian maidens. Somehow he was not to be moved and neither was my mother, who never drove anyway – who were taxis for if not for her? – and I had no money, so that was that.
Then I went to University. Not many students in Sheffield drove but those that did enjoyed a certain cachet. I had a very good grant and so I enquired about lessons. £1.95 an hour. A lot of money but just about affordable. Quickly I sent up for a provisional licence and looked forward to passing my test. That would show ’em!
The licence duly arrived, I booked my lessons, and was all ready to become queen of the road. What I hadn’t bargained for, however, was that Sheffield is made up entirely of hills. The first thing I had to learn was how to do a hill start. Not to mention that combination of moves called mirror signal manoeuvre. So many things to remember. Eventually we got out onto the open road. The views around Sheffield are beautiful. But I didn’t have time to appreciate the panorama. I had to do something called steering. I found it so so hard. My poor instructor kept on leaping onto the steering wheel as I veered towards oncoming traffic with the joy of finding a long lost lover. We avoided crashing more through his adroitness than any skill on my part.
After about 20 lessons of this, with my making minimal progress, and him getting greyer and greyer, he offered me a proposition. I should stop taking lessons through the British School of Motoring, but he would take me out privately. For about a £1 an hour. Now, I must admit I actually thought it would be a good idea, certainly cheaper, but retrospectively, it was probably providential that I mentioned this to some friends who persuaded me against this.
So I stopped. That was in my first year. I then forgot all about my ambition until I graduated and came back to London. Lessons were more expensive then at £5 an hour but still vaguely affordable. I had quite a lot more – I had to start from the very beginning again, but at least London was flatter. After a while I noticed that my instructor was often cancelling them – was he nervous with me, I wondered. (But I believed I had been making progress. I was into fourth gear by then!) Then we had a bout of three or four lessons and I observed him swallowing pills of some sort while I was “driving.” I eventually asked him what they were for – “My heart,” he quavered. That was it, for me. I wasn’t going to drive the man to death because he didn’t feel safe with me.
So again I had a break. After i completed my PGCE, I was more determined than ever that I wanted to drive. By then I was married and I can’t say I received much encouragement from my spouse, but I ignored that. I really wanted to be able to drive a school minibus and take children on trips. I really wanted to drive a little car and go on motoring holidays. I really wanted to drive. So instructor number 3 had to be better.
And in many ways he was. But he drove me too fast (excuse the pun). Every week was a challenge and a half with no time to practise anything I had l learnt before. The crux came when he decided I was ready for Hanger Lane Gyratory System. Eleven exits on a fast moving roundabout. I was not ready at all. I was at the stage where I liked traffic jams because they moved slowly. I entered the roundabout and…. closed my eyes shut! Not the best reaction to have. In fact probably the worst. Luckily the slave driver noticed and leapt to our rescue intime.
That was the last lesson with him!
A couple of years later I had a baby and realised that I did really need to drive. All other mums did and why not me?
Driving lessons were now 15 pounds an hour and no longer affordable. An investment, I said and my husband reluctantly agreed. Instructor number four lasted a few weeks before he actually suggested that I give up. Ominous. But the girl who was looking after Kasia told me all about her driving instructor – she had passed her test the first time and was waxing lyrical about a woman.
Great, I thought, lead me to her. And she did. This woman, whose name unfortunately escapes me, from the Mason School of Motoring, was brilliant. She inspired me with confidence, did not shout, or provoke, or tease. Just told me what to do in such a way that I felt I could do it. Before I knew it she had put me in for a test – two days before my thirtieth birthday. I was so excited. I told everyone I knew to pray for me and off I went to Greenford Test Centre.
There I was confronted with something very unusual at the time – a female examiner. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it made a big difference to me. I got in the car, did everything I was asked until I was told to reverse round a corner. Which I started to do and then a lorry came by. So I moved out of its way. Then I was stuck. Do I do it again or do I move off? I asked her. She said do what you think. I did it again, but convinced myself I had failed the test. so I relaxed. did everything else, felt a bit low and then suddenly it was over.
“You’ve passed,” she said. I couldn’t believe my ears.
“Say it again, please,” I said.
“Yes,” she said, ” and don’t ask me to say it again or I’ll fail you, “she laughed.
Joy of joys . I was so proud. So surprised. But proud and pleased. Delighted. Proud .
Well, as we all know pride comes before a fall. I got home and rang my mother. “I’ve passed. I’ve passed.”
“Oh no,” said my mother. “I’ll never get in a car with you. ” (She never did.) My husband and father were more congratulatory – in fact they quickly bought me a car (more about that later) – but then the door bell rang. One of my students, Dita, from St Augustine’s, came round baring a lovely bouquet of red roses. From the girls. They felt sorry for me – they were so convinced I would fail.
Doesn’t that tell you something about what I must have projected!
I accepted the roses and enjoyed telling her my plans.
A few weeks later I received a lovely car. An Ami 8 Super. Blue. Looks like a hearse. Very similar to the one in the photograph. To say I was pleased with it would be an overstatement, I’m afraid. I had learnt to drive in a Mini. I could see over the steering wheel in the Mini. In this car I had to sit on a bank of cushions. For those of you who don’t know me I am on the shortish side of short. Very short torso indeed. Slightly longer legs than an average five foot tall person, but still not very long. So this particular car was not convenient. It was also very long. Judging distances at the best of times is not my forte. Here it was nigh on impossible. And to add insult to injury the gear stick leapt out at me from the dashboard. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. I couldn’t change gear with my left hand at that angle. I needed to use both hands! Not a good idea because I couldn’t then steer. What a mess.
But I was still keen. Jacek took me out on a hair-raising trip down the Great West Road where I stalled and lost my nerve by Gillette corner. He lost his nerve, shall we call it, and wondered how I’d passed my test!!
We got back home, and I think he said something about not driving the car until he’d made some adjustments. I don’t know. I probably wasn’t listening too closely. I felt I’d be better off on my own.
A couple of days later I was getting ready to go to school, when the temptation overtook me and I thought, why don’t I take my car? Had I really forgotten all the difficulties? Had I taken leave of my senses?
I’d passed my test but I obviously needed more practice. Even I knew that I wasn’t exactly a natural.
Anyway, I clambered into the car, clambered out to get some more cushions so I could see, and set the beast into motion. I managed to turn it into the right direction on Grove Road and then I turned left into The Grove. All around me there were hundreds of cars with mothers and small children, all going in the opposite direction to the primary school behind me. Everyone tense and shouting. One such mother was in a great rush and as she went past me we locked bumpers. I stopped and didn’t know what to to do. She jumped out of the car and began shouting at me. Her little boy sat there and smiled. I cried. I said sorry. She took my details and said I would have to pay. I agreed. I have no idea to this day who was actually in the wrong. but my agreement cost me £6o and eternal embarrassment.
Somehow the road cleared around me and I drove to school. I was an hour late. I was shaking. I crept into school hoping no-one had noticed. I got into class. I was teaching Spanish at the time and the girls were all there quietly waiting for me. I greeted them and we started to read that day’s passage. All about a driving accident. My heart and stomach fell. I nearly burst into tears again there and then. But several deep breaths later I was fine – ish. The lesson ended and I was on my way to the staff room.
But I was waylaid by the head who ever so quietly asked me why I had been so late. That was it. Floods of tears. I’m never going to drive again etc etc. She was actually very nice, but suggested that somebody should accompany me on the way home, as I couldn’t very well leave the car on the school premises all night.
Home time came and my friend Ann, who could not yet drive, very kindly agreed to get in the car with me. Very slowly and carefully we drove home. Somehow I parked the car.
And that was it. I never drove again. The car was sold, and I got to know the whole of Ealing taxi service very well.
The car looked like a hearse in my eyes, and turned to be the one to end all my ambition.
After many years I realised why I found it so difficult in the first place. Dyspraxia. Clumsy child syndrome. Call it what you will. I cannot judge distances when I am walking. i bump into things. I can’t catch a ball. I can’t ride a bike. So what hope is there of manoeuvring an enormous machine in a straight line?
Although I still occasionally hanker after the freedom that being able to drive gives, I think it is better for society as a whole that I don’t drive! But I passed my test first time and am the proud holder of a little pink paper licence! No-one can take that away from me!