Last Thursday saw a significant moment in Master Johnny’s life, passing his driving test. What’s more, he managed to do it on the first attempt. For the first part of the week, I spent a few hours driving around the likely streets and highways that he would be taken on in his test. On the day of the test, he was full of trepidation. So was I, but I did my best to hide it by going out and getting the weekly shop. Just like when his sister took her test over 3 years ago, I was a complete wreck. Here was something completely out of my control, but something I dearly wanted them to succeed at. Internally, I assured myself that they would eventually pass, but didn’t like the idea that they would have to suffer the indignity of failure. As I pushed my trolley around Sainsbury’s, I murmured encouragement to my son 3 miles away. Fellow shoppers gave me a wide berth. Then, when I wasn’t expecting it, my mobile phone flashed up a message. Just one word:
Master Johnny, like his late grandfather, possesses the ability to be understated in his jubilation. I, however, am not, jumping up and down and punching the air whilst shouting ‘Yes!’
My fellow shoppers gave me an even wider berth and whispered behind their hands – where did I think I was, Lidl?
But they hadn’t been through the whole learning journey, which started at the local agricultural college, closed for the Christmas holidays, when Master Johnny mustered all of his courage to propel his car around the car park, trying his best to change from first to second gear. I did my best to be nonchalant as my sphincter muscle twitched incessantly. If I’d have farted it would have sounded like an excited pigeon.
I’ve always tried my best to stay relaxed when teaching my kids to drive; for the most part, I think I succeeded. Miss Katherine was a little more adventurous than Master Johnny. She persuaded me to let her drive to her boyfriend’s house after only one lesson with her instructor. However I agreed to it, I don’t know. All I can remember is Miss Katherine turning right from an ‘A’ road about 20 metres too early, at an incredibly shallow angle, at 25 mph, cutting the corner severely. Nothing was coming. For some reason, I had an out of body experience, watching from above as the vehicle traversed the junction and continued its journey on the correct side of the road. Fortunately, the Land Rover approaching from the opposite direction was several seconds late in seeing this amazing manoeuvre. Miss Katherine, not one to panic, continued on, passive as ever. As she says, nothing happened, so that’s all good. She’s now a very accomplished driver.
Of course, once Master Johnny had a few lessons, my deathlike grip on the passenger seat relaxed and I felt confident being driven around. Of course, this is the point where learner drivers like to start to disagree with you.
“I think you need to be in 5th gear,” I’d suggest.
“No dad. I have to stay at 30 mph, so if I was in (instructor) Lionel’s car I’d stay in 4th.”
Then there’s the ‘going through the gears’ scenario, the ‘put the car in neutral and handbrake on at traffic lights’ incidents. Apparently you don’t do this anymore.
“It’s not the 1970s, dad.”
So for the most part, I just sat and allowed myself to be driven around, safe in the knowledge that almost everything I do to operate my car was wrong.
Of course, if you ever have the unfortunate experience of having to teach your partner how to drive, they immediately miss out the first part and go directly to the disagreeing stage.
I offered to teach Lady Barton St Mary how to drive. I should have realised that I’d never yet told her to do something in her life before and wasn’t ever likely to. So after a few suggestions that she changed gear whilst she insisted I didn’t rush her, the teacher/pupil relationship started to unravel. Having shouted in alarm as she pulled out onto a main road without looking, she stopped the car, gave me a Lady BSM stare and burst into tears. We’d travelled 4 miles.
Her dad bravely took on the ‘amateur’ instructor duties.
Of course, my own experiences of learning to drive are still fresh in my memory, even though I passed my driving test over 30 years ago.
My instructor was a friend of my parents, Victor Platt. Or, as most of my parents’ friends were known in those days, Mr Platt to me. The husband of Mrs Platt, incidentally.
Mr Platt was a rather genial, humorous man, always dressed in shirt and tie with a fetching check sports jacket and a rather fine example of a comb over. If he wound down the window during the lesson, I swear that at least 4 ft of hair would disappear out of the car, whipping about in the wind, his head suddenly a shiny dome. He’d been captured by the Japanese during World War II, which meant he refused to entertain anything Japanese in his house, no mean feat in 1977, when most of our televisions, radios and high fidelity equipment was manufactured in the land of the rising sun. If you dared mention that you were considering getting a Honda or Nissan car, he would chuck you out on the dual carriageway without a moment’s thought. He did, however, teach me clutch control.
“You realise, your dad’s feet are far more delicate than yours,” he said with a toothy grin on my first lesson. I considered the sight of my dad’s size 9 steel toed work boots, but felt it would be inappropriate to ask why. Clutch control, that was why.
Of course, my dad took me out for lessons in his car too. This really focused your concentration, since my dad was very proud of his motor vehicle. He was also an uncompromising type and hard as nails. So driving his car properly was good for your general health and stopped you getting swollen ears. Not that our first outing was that successful.
Dad did his best relaxed impression as we drove down Manor Way towards the small roundabout. I did my best to remember what I did with my feet. And hands.
“Slow down a bit now,” my dad said soothingly.
I considered his words. Which pedal was the brake? Oops. No. Not that one.
“No,” he said, assertively, “just slow down a bit.”
Still my brain refused to tell my limbs what to do. My speed, if anything, increased.
“No, slow down!”
The roundabout was getting nearer, getting bigger.
The roundabout was here. 20 yards to my right I saw another car. Which one was the brake?
“SLOW-STOP-SL… FUCKING HELL!!! ARGHHHHH!!!!!”
My dad’s relaxed instructor demeanour seemed to have momentarily left him.
Somehow, I glided around the roundabout as the approaching car disappeared behind me and across my rear view mirror, if I’d been looking in it.
I found the brake and steered into the rather large curb on the side of the road.
“Fuck my old boots,” dad said, his hands shaking. I did my best ‘Miss Katherine stare ahead it didn’t happen’ impression, 20 years before her birth. I awaited the boxed ears.
It didn’t happen.
I looked into my dad’s rheumy eyes.
“Come on, son. Get on with it. Don’t fuck this up.”
Get on with it I did. Hours of reversing around a corner. Parallel parking. Emergency stops – I always enjoyed these. On one particularly good one, Mr Platt’s top set of false teeth flew out and skittered across the dashboard of his Ford Fiesta.
Choosing the appropriate coloured map pin out of the row stuck in the rear parcel shelf to help with positioning when reversing.
Eventually, I was ready. I booked my test, or, more likely, Mr Platt booked my test.
I went to bed early the night before my test, full of highway code facts, stopping distances and hand signals (although, to be fair, hand signals had been removed from the test in 1975, to be replaced with different hand signals prevalent on the roads of the UK today).
The next morning, I sat with my dad at the kitchen table. He was on a late shift, so wouldn’t be going to work until late afternoon. The phone rang. It was Mr Platt.
Apparently, his car had broken down and had been towed into the garage. My heart sank. Mr Platt had an idea.
“So, I was wondering – could you take the test in your dad’s car? I’m sure Albert wouldn’t mind me going with you.”
I stared at the 1970’s swirly circle front room wallpaper for a moment.
“I’ll go and ask him,” I said, quietly.
I asked him. His expression was hard to read, but if I had to describe it, it was the sort of expression you’d see if you asked a man if it was alright to take his stunningly beautiful girlfriend out for the evening for a candlelit dinner in a particularly stylish and intimate restaurant, followed by a late night coffee at your place.
“Yeah. Alright,” he managed, staring straight ahead at the 1970’s woodchip kitchen wallpaper, the turmoil inside his head almost visible to the naked eye. That characteristic understatement and repression I mentioned earlier. When it came to using his car, it was a look I was to see more often.
So, there it was. I was taking my test in my dad’s car, a blue Vauxhall Viva, which fortunately I had practised a lot in. But this change of arrangement didn’t help my nerves. I am prone to perspire when under stress. A lot. Master Johnny has the same problem.
“I think I lost half my body weight in fluids on my test,” he told me. I was pretty much the same on the day of my test. Driving a Vauxhall Viva in a state of anxiety meant I was soaked and stuck to the vinyl seat as the sweat permeated my Farah trousers and large collared patterned shirt.
Somehow, I made it around the test route, up and down the Edgware Road, having to stop suddenly at a zebra crossing as a group of shoplifting kids flew out of a shop, chased by the owner. Giving way to a fire engine, blue lights flashing. Taking a deep breath and joining a main road, being bold as you have to be when negotiating the byways of North London.
We returned to the test centre. More questions about stopping distances and road signs. The examiner pushed his tortoiseshell glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose. He was wearing a check sports jacket that was very similar to Mr Platt’s. He was also displaying his own impressive comb over. It briefly crossed my mind to ask if he objected to Toyota cars.
He breathed heavily out of his nose as he scribbled on a form. This didn’t appear to be a good sign.
“Work on your gear changes,” he said, handing me the slip of paper, “otherwise, very satisfactory. Well done.”
I looked at the slip of paper. Pass. After a couple of seconds, it sank in. I smiled.
“Oh thank you very mu…” I started, but the examiner had already opened the passenger door and was climbing out. Saying thank you to his retreating backside didn’t seem so genuine.
I didn’t get to drive dad’s car that much. On one occasion, out with my girlfriend, somebody bumped into the back of the Viva and cracked the brake light lens. My dad spent the weekend glowering at me and muttering dark oaths under his breath, reminding me at every opportunity of how valuable his car was.
My son has his own car. I didn’t own one until I was nearly 23 years old and it cost me £75.
But my dad was a big factor in me passing my test first time, like Master Johnny.
I looked at him jubilantly when I got home.
“So all that time we spent together, driving around getting experience– was it all very helpful today?” I asked, smiling benignly.
“No. Not really,” he replied.