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OP-ED: Testing times

  • Published at 09:04 pm February 15th, 2021

A tale of perseverance and failure

One of the least life-threatening effects of the pandemic in the UK has been the postponement of tens of thousands of driving tests. You would imagine, given Britain has the highest Covid-related death toll in Europe, that we would have more important things to think about. 

But no, the absence of driving tests, it seems, has got the British public very agitated with very many newspaper column inches and innumerable radio phone-in shows dedicated to the subject. But the discussion did remind me of my own learning to drive experience and my test(s).

As a young man, the idea of learning to drive had actually never really occurred to me. I spent the first 30 or so years of my life in and around London; if I wanted to go somewhere, I simply turned up at the bus stop or railway station and a bus or train would just come along within a few minutes. 

Then in 1986 I moved to the Isle of Wight. The Island is in the South of England, about a 30 minute ferry ride from the city of Portsmouth and is a popular holiday destination for families. It is a delightful place with warm, friendly people and some fantastic attractions. 

But moving there was like moving back to the 1950s. Nothing seemed to have changed since I holidayed there myself with my parents as a small child. The quaint shops, the old-fashioned tea-rooms with their paper doilies and bone china cups and saucers all seemed like something from a distant era.

But it was the transport system that seemed the most antiquated. The island boasted just one train line incorporating a grand total of eight stops and that was confined to just the eastern part of the island. 

But it was the bus network that caused me the most frustration, in particular the bus timetable. Now most normal timetables would have buses departing at certain regular intervals in the hour. And with normal bus timetables you would expect that this would continue for all subsequent hours up until a certain time. But not with the Isle of Wight bus timetables. 

Theirs would run at 3 minutes past the hour, then at 7 minutes past and then at 46 minutes past. The next hour would be completely different: 9 minutes past; 33 past; 51 past and every subsequent hour would be completely different from the last. It was if a computer had been programmed to produce the most random and eccentric timetable possible.

After struggling with this for a few months, I began to think the unthinkable; I would have to learn to drive. But when I did I found it incredibly difficult. My main problem was a basic lack of coordination; I found it hard to remember to push down the clutch before changing gears while at the same time using the steering wheel or the indicator. 

During the first year, I went through about as many driving instructors who described me as “unteachable” and a “menace on the roads” as they went off to repair yet another broken gearbox. I was at the point of giving up altogether.

Then I found Pete. Pete was the ideal instructor; patient, calm, and reassuring. It was Pete who suggested that I buy my own car as an incentive to stop me giving up. With his help, I went out and bought a second-hand, sky blue Mini Metro. My first car! 

During a lesson about a year later, Pete casually asked me what maintenance I carried out on the car. I turned and looked at him blankly, 


“You know,” said Pete, “checking the oil, the spark plugs, that kind of thing.” 

“If it’s under the bonnet,” I said, “I’ve never looked. It’s, well, dirty and greasy there isn’t it?” 

Pete looked horrified, “But you do check the tyres regularly surely?” he asked. 

“Tyres?,” I replied, “check them for what?” 

“You’ve been driving this car round for a year now and you have never checked the tyre pressures? Pull over into that garage! Now!”

Over the next few weeks and months at the end of each lesson (and for free), Pete would explain to me what I had to do to keep the car running smoothly and safely. But I couldn’t take it in. I guess I don’t have a mechanical mind. I told him that I learnt better from a book. 

So he bought me a book on car maintenance -- all 632 pages of it. I didn’t understand a word of it and told him so. So he bought me another book. This was only 436 pages long. I still didn’t understand any of it. So he bought me The Ladybird Book of the Motor Car. It was written for intelligent 8-year-olds. I understood some of it. 

After two years with Pete and a total of three years driving experience, he told me I was ready for my test. I wasn’t. I failed; driving up a one way street into an oncoming lorry. Six months later, I was ready again. Only I still wasn’t. I failed once more; trying to turn right through two bollards, knocking one of them over in the process. 

A year and hundreds of pounds later, a third test. This had to be it, I told myself or this time I really was going to give up. The test went reasonably well, no crashes, no overturned bollards. 

Judging by the examiner’s body language, I was convinced that I had again failed. But I hadn’t. However, instead of him saying “Congratulations, you have passed,” he just grunted. 

“OK, I’ll give you a pass. Just.” 

I was so surprised and overwhelmed that I gushed like a schoolgirl at her first prom. 

“Really? Are you sure? You are so kind, you don’t know what this means to me. Thank you, thank you, thank you!” 

He gave me a look that suggested that he was already regretting his decision and got out of the car without saying a word. 

Over the next few years, I did learn to drive properly. Well, they say that you only really learn to drive when you have passed your test. But for all those waiting anxiously to take their test, I would say this, be patient and use the lockdown time for some extra private practice. 

Alternatively, find yourself a Pete.

Kit Fenwick is a freelance writer and historian.