Driving Ambition 2: The Road Worrier

Readers who’ve been with TC for a while may recall an earlier article, in which I related my stress-filled experiences with automobiles and concluded that there was no point having a car as long as I was living in London. So why am I now the possessor of a driving licence, and a Renault 5 named The Beast? (So called, by the way, because it isn’t one – save for its ability to chew large lumps of my money come tax, MoT and insurance time)

To deal with the former, I passed my test at the third attempt. This is vaguely perverse – I fail twice in the wilds of Scotland, then succeed in the Dante-esque atmosphere of London. No problems. Bit of an anti-climax really; I didn’t even get to feel ultranervous, a work colleague having supplied me with some beta-blockers, which she’d been prescribed in the past for some reason. Whether they had any real effect or whether it was purely psychological, I don’t know, but that day, if you’d cut my throat, liquid nitrogen would have flowed out.

Having passed the test, my kneejerk reaction was to buy a car in case I forgot how to drive, in some form of post-test traumatic stress syndrome. And by chance, the brother of a guy I knew was selling his car; I thought this was less likely to be a lemon. Ha. Ha ha. Ha ha ha. It went beautifully when I test-drove it; after I’d bought the creature, it arrived under it’s own steam with no problems; but after stopping outside the front door, it absolutely refused point-blank to start. This was when it got its name – it simultaneously received several others, none of which are printable here. Fortunately, it was a new points and plugs job, so one service later, it was going like a dream (albeit one of those slightly worrying dreams where people keep smiling at you), and I could sample the delights of London traffic on my own.

There’s a famous Disney cartoon, the name of which escapes me, in which Goofy undergoes a Jekyll & Hyde transformation whenever he gets into his car. I laughed when I first saw this. I’m not laughing now. On the roads of London, psychosis = survival, pure and simple – do unto other before they do unto you. This is most notable somewhere like the Elephant and Castle, a massive double roundabout South of the Thames. The Highway Code gives elaborate instructions on how to negotiate roundabouts, but at the E&C, following these would be suicidal. The only way to survive is to get in the left lane, and stay there till your exit. Otherwise, you will be ground up and spat down Walworth Road like tinned spam, regardless of whether or not you actually wanted to go to Walworth.

The car came ready dented, saving me the bother of doing it myself. While mere cosmetic damage, I think this acts like the black-and-yellow markings on certain species of caterpillars, warning predators to keep away: the message with regard to my car is “I don’t care, my no-claims is gone anyway – do you feel lucky, punk…?” Which is actually a lie, my no-claims bonus is pristine and intact. Good job too, as the insurance is punitive (SW2 would seem to in the same insurance group as Sarajevo and the Bronx) – and getting worse. Despite a 30% discount this year, it still went up by twenty quid, and at this rate in one more year, I’ll have paid out more in insurance than I did for the damn car.

The psychosis induced by my car takes several other flavours. Firstly, will it work? The trauma of it’s ‘birth’ means that I’ve adopted a ritual mantra on getting into it: “Hope it starts, ha ha ha”. It does, usually, as long as follow the rules; the cassette player must be switched off, the choke must be in and pulled out only when you twist the key, and the blood of a virgin must be smeared in a pentangle shape across the bonnet.

Charlie from United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Stage two is en-route psychosis. On the journey, every rumble is magnified into a piston preparing to shear a flaming path through the engine. The car is constantly about to run out of petrol – not helped by a gauge which reads ‘full’ if the tank has more than three hydrocarbon molecules in it – and every turning is The Wrong Way and will lead you straight into an ambush by urban punks or rural inbreds, depending on location. This may seem a tad exaggerated coming from someone who’s driven through South Central LA, in a nice shiny hire car, with Pop Will Eat Itself playing at full blast, but the major difference is, that time I didn’t know and ignorance truly was bliss. Even with a map, perfect instructions and another car to follow, my innate sense of direction will still mean that I unerringly screw up, while my subconscious screens selected scenes from ‘Deliverance’.

When I get to my destination, I then have to endure the third phase. This is the paranoia of separation, and can be summed up in the question “Have I left my lights on?”, asked of oneself at roughly twenty second intervals. For variety, this may occasionally be changed to “Did I lock the door?” or “Have I been towed away?”. The last is a perpetual terror, as the regulations about when and where you can park in London are obscure, to say the least. However, to all intents, they may be summed up as “You can’t”.

Becoming a driver has even made me a nastier pedestrian. I can no longer pass a zebra-crossing without suppressing an urge to use it gratuitously. There are two alternative methods: either cross very, very slowly, or don’t stop on the pavement at all, boldly striding out and forcing cars to brake suddenly. It’s possible to induce some brilliant ‘discussions’ between drivers if you time it right, though I recommend a gazelle-like agility in case you encounter David Carradine.

On the other hand, I’m a lot more careful in the evenings. Driving in the dark makes you realise just how small and invisible pedestrians are. I live in mortal fear that some night there’ll be a thump as I drive across a zebra-crossing, and I’ll be able to supply add a new punchline to the joke “What’s black and white and red all over?”

The car does have it’s uses; last summer, during the cricket season, it provided transport to the obscure corners of London where Tulse Hill Cricket Club (motto: “No opponent is too crap”) played matches. I’d always thought East Cheam was a figment of Tony Hancock’s imagination, but thanks to my car, I’ve played there (albeit very badly).

Then there was the house move, when a good few shuttle-runs were done between Tummons Gardens and Perran Road, though I actually hired a transit van for the weekend, to break the back of the possession-shifting. That was surprisingly good fun to drive, as everyone (even Volvo drivers) gave it right of way. I imagine survival instinct takes over when you see several tons of van, with the suspension crushed onto it’s axles, hurtling towards you with a manic Scotsman grinning wildly at the wheel.

Thirdly, while an A-reg Renault 5 does not attract women in quite the same way as a Ferrari Testosterone, it does allow you to offer lifts to cute babes. ‘Nuff said, though be warned that significant negative cool points will be earned if you leave your lights on and the battery is flattened to gold-leaf levels. Car-pushing is not romantic.

Fourthly, I now have the freedom to visit all those places in Britain I’ve wanted to see. Except that, in the two years since getting the car, it’s been outside the M25 four times: to High Wycombe for cricket, to Birmingham and Sheffield for anime conventions, and to Scotland for a week at home. Most of said week was spent recovering from the drive up, the highlight of which was going round – or rather over – a roundabout on the A1 at about Mach 4.

This experience was a result of motorway madness, that interesting condition where after a while, 80 mph seems like a slow crawl and, especially at night, the whole road takes on the appearance of a video game. Find yourself looking for the smart bombs, and it’s time to stop for a dose of sanity in a service station, or at least the warped version of sanity on display there. This usually means playing a real video game, in order to re-establish that hold on sanity.

Overall, I wouldn’t get rid of the car now. Even though it’s only used sporadically, it’s nice to know it’s there – the same could be said for certain parts of my body! But stay tuned for part three, as sitting on my bookshelf is a copy of ‘Crash’ by J.G.Ballard…