I’ve had two lessons this week. I’m studying for my theory test. I’ve managed half a life without being able to drive and have brought up four children without the benefits and costs of a car. So why now?
I’m trying to grow up. Grow up, that is, in the sense of letting go of the past. I tried learning twice before, once when I was 18 and then when we moved to Manchester some years later. The first time I didn’t get any practice, didn’t really have enough lessons, didn’t have any confidence, and failed my test. The second time I ran out of money.
I wasn’t really enthused about driving at 18, just felt it was something I ought to do. I had observed girls in my year reaching their 17th birthday and one by one learning to drive. I had a friend whose supportive parents let her drive them round England on A roads so she zoomed through her test with confidence. And I remember one girl whose parents bought her a new Golf GTI as soon as she passed her test. I think it lasted a couple of months before she wrecked it and was lucky to walk away. At the time though, I wasn’t living at home and just never bothered discussing it with my parents as I didn’t want to be asking them for anything. So I didn’t. But there was more to it than that.
As a family we drove everywhere. My father would finish work on a Saturday evening, we would drive down to Dover, get the midnight ferry and be at my grandmother’s in the south of France teatime the next day. We did that trip 3 or 4 times a year. The last holiday we had together, all five of us, was to Greece and we drove there in 3 days. Three days with two teenagers in the back who barely got on at the best of times.
I slept a lot on these trips. I did this partly out of boredom but more so because I got carsick. I learnt to read a map at a young age because any complaints of boredom were answered with a map. Car sickness I never got over and it wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I discovered there was medication to deal with this. My father thought it best to ignore and was reluctant to pull up at the side just so I could be sick. Couldn’t I wait. At some point I discovered that sitting in the back seat made it worse so started asking for the front on this basis. 2sis did the same and again, it wasn’t until years later that she said she just used it as an excuse and didn’t realise I meant it. All that actual vomiting must have passed her by somehow.
Family road trips also meant family songs. Green Grow the Rushes, Twelve Days of Christmas, Chevaliers de la Table Ronde, and more. We knew them, and sang them, whether we wanted to or not. Sometimes we enjoyed it.
I did enjoy being in the car when it was just a parent and me, either of them. I could sit in the front without argument. I eventually converted both of them to listening to musical cassettes as long as I was very selective. My mother and I did the drive down to my grandmother’s a lot, sometimes on the A roads. When we first started we drove into Paris and round the péripherique, getting further and further away from the centre as roads were built and alternate routes discovered.
Driving was a big part of my childhood. My mother was always a bit less hooked on speed then my father, a bit more willing to let other cars in and pedestrians across. As she got older she started to lose confidence. If she was parking I used to sit there with my eyes closed saying “I’m not watching” as it put her off. My father was faster and more aggressive. He would not compete with other drivers, but with himself. He once decided we were going to be late arriving at my grandmother’s and put his foot down for the last hour. I spent most of that with my eyes shut actually scared while my mother pleaded for sanity. We were lucky that time.
Although my mother and I did use public transport, especially in London, we rarely travelled on public transport. The car was everything. When I was very young we drove up to and round Scotland a lot, before my grandmother moved to France. Holidays, travel, days out were all with the car.
It’s sort of ridiculous that I’ve been against driving. I think about it most years, weighing up the pros and cons and finding them fairly balanced. When I simply couldn’t afford to, it was an easy decision. I think I’ve come to the conclusion that driving offers freedom and freedom is something that I’m still searching for. It may be symbolic, but it may end up offering me a freedom I’ve always been reluctant to acquire. Either way, I think of it as the last of my shackles to childhood; the one I’ve done nothing about. So here we go.