I have no idea at all why I should remember this – goodness knows how many dates I cannot recall at all, like wedding anniversaries – but today, April 6th, is the anniversary of passing my driving test – the 39th anniversary, in fact, so I am in my fortieth year on the roads. Driving tests were less – well, testing, in 1970. I was 17, which makes me a hypocrite, since I am trying to discourage my 17-year-old daughter from attempting to do the same thing. There are more cars on the road, and they are faster: that’s my logic. But the truth is, I was a pretty terrible driver, and quite how I survived my teens is anyone’s guess. On the day after my driving test, I tried to overtake on the brow of a hill, and was lucky not to pile headlong into a lorry.
The actual test was also a bit of a fiasco. The examiner, who called me ‘Skipper’ throughout, as did my instructor, took me on a journey round some of the main roads of Sunderland, roads I would much later realise were where my various ancestors had lived. My main aim was not to exceed 30 mph, and my concentration on the speedometer itself might have been, if there had been an emergency, sufficient to finish me (and him) off there and then. At the intersection of Chester Road and Kayll Road, where I was required to turn right at some traffic lights, I realised that I had forgotten entirely what the rules were, and hesitated very seriously. I think at that stage, I imagined that I had blown it badly, and probably relaxed. This may have been what saved me.
The examiner, who spoke very, very fast, did not look at me when we came to the end of the circuit. He addressed his clipboard. “I don’t know what you thought you were doing just there, skipper, you could have crossed over, we had to wait far too long, you’ve passed your test, and at the Chester Road, skipper, you had the right of way, you didn’t seem to know what you…’ But by this time I wasn’t listening. I was pretty sure he had just said ‘You’ve passed your test.’ Tentatively I nudged into the traffic of his conversation. ‘Did you say I’d passed my test?’ I said. He looked grumpy. ‘Yes, you’ve passed your test,’ he replied, and proceeded with his very long litany of my inadequacies as a driver. But of course by that time, I wasn’t listening.
I also remember that, the next day, it was snowing, and that this did not stop me driving to and through central Newcastle (unlike now, the whole world had not ended, the shops were open, and so were the schools – I’d left school by then). Looking back at it, it seems all wrong. But still, I have never knowingly had a major traffic incident, other than writing off a couple of bonnets and bumpers, and also running into a car which decided to cross my path without so much as a signal, at about four miles an hour. The owners, looking at me, decided that they were in the right, and were therefore surprised when I asked to call the police on their phone (this was 1980). They were decidedly grumpy when the police worked out that it was their fault (which it was). But it was a Sunday, and the Devonian police had had enough form-filling for one day. One of them intimated that my tyre might be a bit short of tread. I suspect it was legal, but I caved in.
Authority again. It always wins.