At the end of January in 1988 I turned 17 and one of the first things I did, to mark this occasion was to apply for my provisional driving licence. I was working in a factory in Newton Heath, earning the grand sum of fifty pounds a week. Out of this, I paid my mum a tenner for my keep, and another tenner on buses. That left thirty pounds, to pay for my breakfasts, dinners, clothes, records, and a night out every Friday. Driving lessons were nine pound an hour, and a third of my available income. It meant sacrificing my clothes budget, food, music or my weekly night out. Food was the loser. I took something like eighteen lessons before taking my test. I failed.
I failed because my instructor was insane, and instead of teaching me to drive, he took up the hour lesson, explaining various conspiracy theories, one of which involved the government poisoning our food so that we would all die at sixty. When he wasn’t expostulating one of his maniac theories, he was complaining about the noise emanating from his neighbour’s house, a man who seemed to be in a constant state of partying, and was a turtle neck sweater wearing member of ‘sophisti-pop’ group Swing Out Sister.
Driving seemed to me then, to be the ultimate rites of passage, more so than the vote (who was I going to vote for, they were all duplicitous knaves?), more than alcohol (I’d been drinking since I was fourteen), more than any other social mores or markers. Adults drove cars, children were passengers. I took another nine or ten lessons and went in for my test again. I failed. This time I came to the conclusion that I needed a different instructor. One that was sane. I had also discovered the club scene in Manchester and was finding it harder and harder to save up for lessons.
I left my job, I got another job, I met an au pair from Sweden called Anna, and I moved to Forsheda with her. I travelled around Europe, I came back to England. Stuff happened. I was twenty one before I was in a financial position to go for it again. I had regular work at a factory in Trafford Park that paid a decent wage. I had fallen in love for the first time (her name was Kate) and I could afford both a car, and the insurance. This time I hired a sane instructor and passed.
I remember Kate driving me round in her mother’s Mini, looking at cars I had spotted in the Auto Trader. One sunny day we went to look at a black Morris Minor in Atherton: pre-reg, with split windscreen, red leather seats, and those sticky out semaphore indicators at the side, which looked like thalidomide wings. I fell in love for the second time. I bought it for eight hundred pounds. It was mine. I was free, I was a man, I felt like a bird that had finally fledged the nest, after many attempts at flight… Cut to 2012.
I’m driving home from an event in Manchester. I’ve been performing at something called The New Libertines, at the wonderful Three Minute Theatre space in Affleck’s Palace. It’s midnight. I’m exhilarated, high on the adrenalin. I’m on the M62 going home. There are three lanes. I see from the sign above that the first lane has an ‘X’ above it and I try to get into the second lane, but there are cars in the way. I indicate and slow down, waiting for my chance. Before that chance comes, a police car is behind me signalling for me to stop. I am fined fifty pounds, given three points on my licence and issued with a producer. A week later, a letter arrives on the mat. It is from Manchester Council. I have violated a parking regulation. The place I had parked my car, which was unmarked, I learn was restricted. I am fined fifty pounds.
Now I’m driving to a shop. It is raining. I’m stuck in traffic. I realise I hate driving. I hate being stuck in traffic. I hate the sensation of the pedal beneath my foot, my calf and ankle muscles in a continuous spasm of tensing and relaxing. I hate speed cameras. I hate the way they are watching you all the time. I hate the way you can’t relax behind the wheel. Driving is best done at a semi-conscious level, like juggling or ironing. Speed cameras force it to be at a continuously conscious level. You can’t switch off. I have to be in test mode all the time. It’s exhausting. I hate the fact they never have a road sign nearby telling you what the speed limit is. And there is no way of knowing without that sign. Why can’t they have the speed limit attached to the camera? Surely this would be safer and more effective.
I hate other drivers. I hate their ridiculous barges on wheels. I hate the way they use their cars as a substitute for having a personality. I hate them muscling in. I hate them preventing me from muscling in. I hate the colours of cars: toxic orange, vomit yellow, Gary Glitter silver, putrid blue, penis helmet red. All of them repulse me. I hate their shapes, so aerodynamic, that every design feature looks like it is melting, like a chocolate bar that’s been left on top of the radiator. I hate their stupid names: Picassos, Bravos, Pandas, Kugas, Galaxies, Accords. The Renault Twingo, the Vauxhall Ampera, the Skoda Yeti.
I hate the stupid things people stick to them. The religious fish insignia, the oh so funny captions, the ‘amusing’ ornaments on the back sill. I hate traffic police, I hate traffic wardens, I hate road signs, I hate sleeping policeman (why do 99% of drivers have to suffer because of a few joy riders?). I hate speed limits that are not time specific (why do I still have to do 30mph when it’s 2am and there is not a single car on the road?). I hate fuel stations. I have access to both a petrol and a diesel car. Which fuel to put in which does get confusing. Why can’t we have people who fill up your car for you like they do in the black and white films, when driving was fun and vaguely sexual?
I watching now, an advert for the stupidly named Citroen DS3. It is everything I detest. There are hundreds of them on the screen, all different colours, dancing a choreographed ballet. They look like rancid jelly moulds on wheels. And the advert is a lie. Drive this and your life will be a party, it is saying. I read recently about a Google robot car, which drives you to your destination, while you do something useful such as read a book. Hurry up and make this. I want one. Cars do not make you free, they make you their servant – constantly driving them to somewhere they don’t want to be.