The driving test! Cue stage thunder and lightning and dungeon torture screams. If your life is fairly ordinary and doesn’t include abnormal episodes, a serious accident, an illness, experience of battle – you know the kind of thing – then the driving test can occupy a grim and sweaty place in your memory. Most of us, though not all, will have been subjected to the procedure. We will have differing opinions and recollections, but I am clear in my mind that it was a stressful and nerve-wracking event like almost no other. As a youngster I was aware that my father was taking lessons as I saw him tootle off in a BSM Morris Minor from time to time. I don’t recall his exposure to the test but I know he passed first time, leading to the acquisition of a Morris 8 with wondrous leather seats. My mother had a lesson or two from dad but quickly rejected further involvement. My older brother did the business first go aged 17 and acquired a convertible Morris Minor that took him to Cornwall before the block cracked. I also vaguely knew that my Uncle Jim, who lived opposite, had left the army with a dubious piece of paper that served as a licence. He drove, er, a Morris Minor. More manly than the Ford Popular, if you ask me. Apart from dabbling in a bit of motorcycling (and passing the test first go!) I allowed all motoring activity to pass me by, in fact early experiences of travel sickness left me averse to the whole thing. I also had the possibly strange notion that I would never be able to work the gear stick. I think I knew that I was missing an important component to efficient living but like most people who are avoiding a perceived ordeal I had strategies that meant other people taking the driving strain. I remember a school pal drove us to the pub where we became fairly pissed: he cornered too fast on the road home and sheared off a front wheel. He knew enough to leg it from the scene. Also at rugby clubs I was never in the frame for drunk driving though I now know that it is just as dangerous to put your life in the hands of someone over the limit.
Years passed by without me having to face up to the challenge, but then the first Mrs Bassman became pregnant and my mother-in-law offered me her Mini for nothing if I would learn to drive. Gulp – no way out of it. I enrolled with a local instructor who taught with a yellow Hillman Avenger, a horrible car with a pointless raised rear end that reduced vision. I have always been paranoid about all-round vision, and the car made me feel nervous from the start. I grew to loathe it, and didn’t warm to the instructor who was a sarky bugger. In those days people used to say that you needed one lesson for every year of your life. The instructor assured me that my modest experience of motor bikes would make driving and road sense a breeze. I wish. I just didn’t take to it. It wasn’t really a challenging area to learn: we would occasionally fetch up in Brighton or Tunbridge Wells for some nervy town-driving but mostly we seemed to be on country roads. I honestly didn’t think I was ready for the test, but even then the lessons were about a fiver an hour, and the cost was mounting. The dreaded day arrived. The test took place in Tunbridge Wells and was a fiasco from start to finish. Stalls, flustered botches and, best of all, a turn in the opposite direction of the examiner’s instruction, prompting him to ask whether I had a hearing deficiency. The reverse round the corner left me in the middle of the road. God, it was awful. By the time we got to those Highway Code questions at the end failure was a given. The drive home with the instructor’s wife was a silent affair. There remained the matter of the free Mini, though, so I pressed on. My mother-in-law had acquired a new Honda Civic so I took possession of the Mini somehow or other: the details escape me at this distance. I sacked my instructor and his wretched Avenger, and accepted an offer from an obliging neighbour to accompany me on drives around the relevant places. I took to the Mini at once. Its small scale and simple controls suited me fine. After a mandatory wait I applied for a new test. This time the qualified driver who came with me was none other than the person who years later became the second Mrs Bassman. The test was a total opposite: everything clicked and the pink slip was handed over. A deep sigh of relief and a pint on the way home (!) was the reaction. I had forked out pounds for this moment and wasn’t entirely pleased when the Mrs B-to-be told me that she had passed first time with a block of just ten lessons from BSM.
Of course, you drivers out there know that the process of learning how to drive had only just begun. I avoided the banana skins that sheer inexperience throws down in your path, and by then I was no hot-headed youth. Years later my own son passed the test first time aged 17 but had to weather a couple of prangs in his formative period. The same with Mrs B2’s son. I have been a fan of that plate that indicates that the driver is newly-qualified: always seemed a good idea to me. Now there are all sorts of add-ons to the test which would have doubled the sense of ordeal. And who knows? Now that old people have become a demonised section of the community will they insist on a re-test at 70? Not quite there, but not far off.
Over the years I have come to terms with life behind the wheel. I’ve driven from Calais to Venice about 25 times en route to Corfu. Boarding the ferries sharpened my still-average reversing skills: nothing quite like a crew member who unacccountably thinks you’re German shouting “Zuruck meester” as your car zig-zags backwards. If they could wield a bosun’s cat on the erring drivers I’m sure they would.
No doubt many of you are wondering what the fuss was all about, but the first time pass rate of the test at Tunbridge Wells today is 51%, so not everyone can be a natural.