Driving Ambition

“Name me, if you can, a better feeling than the one you get when you’re half a bottle of Chivas in the bag with a gram of coke up your nose and a teenage lovely pulling off her tube top in the next seat over while you’re going a hundred miles an hour down a suburban side street…If you ever have much more fun than that, you’ll die of pure sensory overload, I’m here to tell you.”

—- P.J.O’Rourke.

I’ve had something of a hatred of cars for as long as I can remember; when I was young, I used to start suffering from motion-sickness as soon as I got into a car. The record was three times in five miles – not so much a journey, more a remake of ‘The Exorcist’. Though it is some time since I have been so afflicted – getting a Walkman proved the final solution as it give my mind something to concentrate on apart from trying to decide if I felt sick or not – it will come as no surprise  to learn that I don’t possess a car and, in fact, don’t even have a driving licence.

“You don’t drive????”, say most people in London. “How do you get about?”. Quite easily. London Transport is pretty good, compared to the services in other places I’ve stayed – Farnborough being the classic example of a town without, well, pretty much everything, least of all any public transport. Nowadays, from the end of the road, I can hop on one of three buses – the 12 to Piccadilly Circus, the 78 to Liverpool Street (where I work) and the 63 to King’s Cross (the Scala) – which I’d guess cover me for at least 90% of all journeys I make. Ok, it might be a little slower than the car but not much – the average speed of all traffic in London is 3 mph higher than it was in Victorian times. In any case, I catch up when the driver is looking for somewhere to park.

Original photograph by: Firing up the quattro, modifications by shoepepper, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s not forget the opportunites for people-watching (ok, let’s be honest: girl-watching) that the bus provides. Not the tube, mind you, as catching someone’s eye on the Underground is virtually a capital offence: “Officer, officer! That man looked at me!”. “Right then, you’re nicked, my son!”. I’d rather travel by bus given the opportunity – their major disadvantage is that they are so unreliable you have to allow about twice the journey time if you actually have to be somewhere by a given hour. It also allows me to go out of an evening, get happily plastered, fall on a bus, go to sleep and wake up in Catford, Streatham or East Ham. It’s a great way to discover parts of London you wouldn’t otherwise see…

It’s interesting to note the different attitudes countries have to transport. Crossing the road in Amsterdam is a dangerous business; cars go one way, trams another and bicycles exhibit Brownian motion – I keep expecting to see one shooting up out of the sewers – Teenage Mutant Ninja Tandems. The tourists are recognisable because of their harassed expressions and the bike tracks up their backs. The locals still have the tracks, but their expression is the normal benign happiness only to found in the sort of liberal country where Traci Lords videos are legal.

Speaking of which, in the red-light area, things are worse; the streets there have a canal running down the middle making them so narrow that when a car passes you have the choice of flinging yourself into said canal or pressing yourself against a window beyond which, naturally, is a semi-clad brazen hussy. You rapidly learn the international sign language for “No, but thanks for the offer”. You don’t have this problem in The Hague, admittedly. However, you don’t have anything in The Hague – it’s the Farnborough of Holland and whoever made it the capital city was clearly a Ruud Gullit short of a national team. Now that Bonn is heading out of the competition, it’s probably the dullest capital in the world – I saw everything it had to over inside ninety minutes and spent the rest of the day sulking in a cinema. Lots of pedestrian precincts, always a worrying sign since past experience has shown me that these only appear in places no self-respecting car-driver would be seen dead in.

Bert Kaufmann from Roermond, Netherlands, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While this could arguably be considered a dull form of pedestrian heaven, France is without a doubt hell for the visitor on foot. The best advice I can give to anyone trying to cross the road in Paris is “Don’t”, if you can manage without leaving the block your hotel is on, you might just survive. Only might, as Parisian drivers think of pavements the same way Palestinians regard the West Bank: moderate ones believe it’s an area for mutual settlement while the more militant regard it as occupied territory, with the scum i.e. pedestrians to be driven from it in a Holy War. This aggressiveness can be their undoing – I once saw a traffic jam at the Arc de Triomphe where all the cars were stuck solid but were still leaning on their horns. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn it was all caused by a car with a flat battery from excessive horn-blowing.

If you must cross the road, try and find two locals to do it between. Again, this is easy. All Frenchmen look like Gerard Depardieu. All French women under the age of 30 look like Isabelle Adjani (except the ones that look like Emmanuelle Beart). All French women over 30 also look like Isabelle Adjani, but after a very nasty industrial accident involving a blow-torch, an angle grinder and some nitric acid. French women do not, on the whole, age well. They are still capable of moving like greased lightning to get across the road, but they need to be – the only reason France has no world-class sprinters is because the width of the Champs Elysees is not an official recognised distance.

Certainly, if you push your luck on a pedestrian crossing there, you’ll get half way across, look to your left and see the fearsome vision of a row of Citroens driven by proto-Alan Prosts bearing down on you from the next crossing up (the lights are staggered so they have about 100m of clear road to get up speed). They could easily remove the green from all the traffic lights in France as no driver hangs around long enough to notice: even the red light translates as “rev your engine frantically, while inching forward and trying to psych-out the pedestrians”.

Don O’Brien, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

My dislike probably partly stems from sour grapes – I’ve failed the driving test twice. The first time was seven years ago, the summer I turned seventeen – my driving instructor was a lady called Margaret, possessor of sharp temper and semi-chain smoker (she’s since died of cancer). My test took place on the hottest day of the summer, adding to the nervous sweat pouring off my brow into my eyes, and leaving me driving around with my eyes shut which seemed to un-nerve the examiner. “Incorrect use of gears” was the phrase she chose to describe my failure, there not being a space on the form for “driving with his eyes shut”.

There then followed a seven-year hiatus. The first four years I was at college and had far better things to do with my money, most of them involving…well, let’s draw a veil over that era. The past three years I’ve been down here and not really too bothered about driving, for the reasons above. However, since there is a plan to head off to the States for a while at some point and by all accounts public transport over there isn’t so hot, I decided it’d be nice to be able to drive. Rather than try to learn in London traffic, I took two weeks off, went home to Scotland and took an intensive (let’s not use the word ‘crash’) course of lessons. My instructor this time was an ex-Army sergeant, who would occasionally relate tales of his time spent Commie-killing in Malaya. Despite this, we got on well, but it was always an uphill struggle to reach test standard in less than two weeks, given that in the preceding seven years’ my sole experience of driving was the odd game of Pole Position in the local amusement arcades.

I failed. “Driving too close to parked cars” was the reason this time – from where I was sitting I thought I was giving them plenty of room, but then, the examiner was a little closer to the situation than I was.  Personally, I’d rather give the room to the moving one – when was the last time you saw a parked car swerve to avoid something?

So now, despite all my best efforts, I’m learning in London. A different driving style altogether is required – give a driver an inch here and he’ll try and park in it – and it takes a bit of getting used to. I thought I was doing brilliantly when my instructor told me to put in for my test after just three lessons but the card with the test date arrived last week and it’s some five months away… No matter, sooner or later I WILL get my licence, and then, tube-topped teenage lovelies, here I come!