My mother learned to drive sitting on a plastic stackable chair in front of a television screen on what can only be described as an ancient form of amusement arcade video game.
Or rather I should say, my mother didn’t learn to drive whilst sitting on a plastic stackable chair in front of a television screen, as predicted all along by my father who took the belief to his grave that women could not, nay should not be allowed to drive a self propelled vehicle on the roads at all.
In his eyes it all started to go wrong when he allowed my mother to get a part time job cleaning a nearby University Hall of Residence for until that point he was also of the opinion that women should not operate in the workforce unless they were doing work that could only be done by women, like typing and cleaning for instance, her job as a cleaner fit this specification and so he allowed her to work.
If this all seems rather Victorian for you, a little bit too David Copperfield, father in high collar stood by the fireplace pointing at dear mater and commanding her to bring his tea and not harbour these foolish notions of having a job, then, well, yes, it was a bit like that actually and all the more fun for it, we (me and Ned) took the piss out of him then as now.
However, an unfortunate by product of the 3 hours a day spent cleaning student rooms was the fact that my mother had some of her own money to spend and there was absolutely no way on gods earth that my father could ever lay claim to any of her money, “Oh but this is my pin money” she’d explain to my bewildered father, “we pay the mortgage and all the bills with your money, my money is for me to spend on myself” – and we thought our mother a little thick at times, I can’t understand why.
And so we started to notice that she’d disappear every Tuesday afternoon, came home late in the afternoon, wouldn’t explain where she’d been until one day she finally blurted out the truth – she was learning to drive.
After we’d called the doctor and had father revived with the aid of an oxygen mask and a stiff brandy he whispered in horror, “But how, where, and what with…?” and she explained it all and we couldn’t stop laughing for days.
A new company had established itself at The Queens Hall in Leeds and advertised its service as “The Revolutionary New Way To Learn To Drive”, the hi-tech 1960s had come to Leeds and now you could learn exactly how to drive in a most excellent manner by not leaving the room at all. Let me reiterate, this was the late 1960s and personal home video recorders were still things of ten years hence so the concept of sitting at your own little television set while a tape of a car driving down a road played in front of you was indeed revolutionary, as was the concept that the steering wheel, pedals and gearstick stuck to the television set in front of you actually controlled the tape and made it look as if you were “driving” the car in the film.
We never found out how much she paid these charlatans for the privilege of watching a grainy black and white video tape of a car driving around estate roads while she seemingly controlled it from her plastic chair, giving hand signals and everything, pressing the “accelerator” and changing gear without actually making the video go any faster, she wouldn’t tell us how much she paid nor how many “driving lessons” she had but it lasted for more than a year and then she applied for her driving test – applied to take a driving test without actually ever having driven a real car – the equivalent today of applying for your driving test having conquered F1 2010 on the PS3.
Fortuitously a few weeks before she was due to take her driving test we perchance took a family outing to Scarborough and on the way back my father decided to take his customary shortcut in order to avoid the constant traffic jams in Malton and York, his shortcuts were a thing of wonder for they all inevitably were anything but shorter than the proper route and most of them were in excess of twice the distance he would normally have travelled and all consisted of us driving down endless country roads, the roads getting narrower and narrower until they often petered out into dirt tracks, I swear that we once bypassed York by making use solely of farmers fields and open gates.
And on one of these country lanes with not one other single road user having passed us in either direction for ten minutes my father stopped the car, got out, walked around the the passenger seat and told my mother to slide over and take the wheel, Ned and I couldn’t believe what we were seeing and asked if we could get out and wait by the roadside, take our chance at hitching a lift home, sleep in a barn or anything but be in a car that was going to be driven by our mother.
She spent ages adjusting the seat, adjusting the mirror, fiddling with the gear stick, turning the wipers on (it wasn’t raining), turning the lights on (it wasn’t dark), turning the engine off (you’ll need that bit for the journey), turning the engine back on again (its louder than on the video) and finally after much prompting and more shushing and shoving than Delaney’s Donkey she got the Vauxhall Viva to hop and bounce a few yards down the deserted road.
Ned and I were thrown from the back seat onto the floor at each bound of the car, surging forward with each excessive rev of the accelerator, lurching with each slam of the brakes as our father screamed for her to stop, she seemed to be enjoying herself and the car continued its jerky process down the lane in a manner never envisaged by Mr Vauxhall or indeed Mr Viva, we laughed until we cried and then we cried as we realised that she wasn’t going to stop, she fully intended to continue on in this manner all the way home and sooner or later we would come across another road user who would have to use all of his skills to avoid us.
And then it happened…
We approached a crossroads and approaching from the other side of the crossroad was another car, it stopped, my mother, through a combination of video driving skills, pure good fortune and my poor father pulling as hard as he could on the handbrake managed to screech the car to a halt, Ned and I picked ourselves off the floor again and sat clutching our ribs in exhausted hysteria as both car drivers faced each other across the impasse of the crossroads.
The other driver waved our mother forward, it was a sensible move, he waited to see what she was going to do before taking any necessary action to avoid her, “We’re turning right” my father told her, she correctly pushed the indicator lever to make the car indicate right, revved the car to its full extent and slowly lifted the clutch…
…and turned left.
I’ll never forget the look of astonishment on the other drivers face.
I’ll never forget my father’s voice shouting at the top of his voice for her to stop.
I’ll never forget my mothers explanation that the other driver had confused her.
“He was stood still” shouted my father, “how could he have confused you by standing still and waiting?” followed by “Get out you silly bitch and let me drive”
My mother cancelled her driving test and shortly afterwards The Revolutionary New Way To Learn To Drive went out of business. six years later the first amusement arcade driving games were introduced in the UK and my mother swore blind that one of them was the very same tape that she had learned to drive to.
Or not learned to drive as the case may be.