Give it a Go
Nearly 20 years ago, I embarked on a rite of passage familiar to most 17-year-olds. I learned to drive. Or rather my father taught me to make our car travel forwards and backwards. This I accomplished at great speeds and with one hand on the wheel. The other was usually employed waving to friends or trying to find Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True in the glove compartment.
Sadly, come judgment day, the examiner was less than impressed with the Isadora Duncan approach and I failed my driving test. Crushed, I resolved never to get behind the wheel of a car again.
Over the years it has become something of a personal crusade to remain a non-driver, in spite of the pressure from family and friends. I've never had to worry about dodgy clutches or other people's appalling driving. Nor have I ever had to stare glumly at a glass of mineral water, while all around me descend into happy inebriation. There are trains, planes and other people's automobiles to take me wherever I want to go. Or so I thought.
If anyone doubts the TES's ability to change lives, I refer you to the first series of "Give it a Go", in which I had to hurl myself in front of huge Cornish waves on a banana-coloured surfboard. One year, three boards and two wetsuits later, I decide it is going to take more than the British Airways commuter flight to Newquay to catch waves. I need a car.
But first I need to learn how to drive one - as quickly as possible, since the prospect of being flagged in public as a "learner" anything is not something I care for.
First stop is a local British School of Motoring office, where I enrol for the theory exam any prospective driver now needs to pass before they get a crack at the real thing. Revising for this is much like memorising chunks of Virgil for a Latin A-level and just as incomprehensible to someone who can't yet drive. But the cramming technique works, and in due course I receive a certificate to say that I can escape from a broken-down vehicle on a level crossing and retrieve luggage that has flown off the roof rack - in theory at least. But can I put it into practice?
BSM offers concentrated courses for those in a hurry, culminating in a test. You can do them anywhere you like, but I opt for what I imagine will be a nice, sleepy little market town: Banbury, in Oxfordshire. I am to start with the first lesson at 9am on Monday and finish with a driving test at 2.45pm on Friday. Yikes.
Day 1, and I wait at Banbury Cross for a white Vauxhall Corsa and my instructor, Martin Brook. A white what? "It'll have a big pyramid on its roof," says Martin in the first of many patient explanations. And I thought L-plates were embarrassing.
As I park myself behind the steering wheel, and try to map the alien geography (pedal things, gear thing, mirrors), Banbury Cross is transformed from sleepy marketplace to starting grid at Imola. Those who can remember their first driving lesson will agree that turning the key in the ignition is one of life's most stomach-lurching moments. Still, at least you got to walk away after an hour or so. I shall be stuck in traffic for a week.
I wish I could say that the time flashes by. It doesn't. It is a long week, and the pressure on instructor and pupil alike is intense. Combine this with glorious sunny days with temperatures in the 80s, and you have the makings of a complete breakdown - mine, not the car's. Martin, however, is a stoic teacher who displays admirable composure in the face of muffed gear changes, erratic indicating and blind panic ("Where am I going now?" "Left. I said left. LEFT! YOU'RE TURNING RIGHT!").
I am wracked time and again by the same gremlins: roundabouts are a should-I-stay-or-should-I-go agony of indecision; fifth gear a figment of the poor Corsa's imagination, as I can never find it. And, as for speed signs, I don't recall seeing any.
But as we trawl the highways and byways of Banbury, its thoroughfares become more familiar. I get to know how long certain lights will take to change; when the friendly green arrow will come on which allows me to zip across the junction from hell; and how to negotiate the dreaded triple roundabout without killing anyone.
On Thursday, we do a mock test, which I fail. Oh dear, shades of 1977. Things do not look good, but by Friday they look much worse. I have left my provisional driving licence at home, an hour's drive away in the next county. So I spend what should have been my final hours of preparation with Martin in the driving seat, tearing down the M40. We screech into the test centre, with licence, and only minutes to spare. "Good afternoon," says the examiner. "If you would like to go right at these swing doors and take me to your car. That's left, Miss Wolf. I said right . . ."
A driving test lasts about 30 minutes, and I can't tell you a thing about mine other than when I draw to a stop the examiner says the words I have spent 20 years avoiding: "Well done, you've passed".
Big Wednesday, here I come.
What does it cost? Books from BSM: Pass Your Driving Test, Pass Your Driving Theory Test, Driving Theory Test Questions Pounds 4.99 each. The Highway Code 99p. Theory test Pounds 15. One week's BSM intensive course of 20 hours Pounds 329.80. Additional lessons Pounds 17.99 per hour. Driving test Pounds 31. Total: Pounds 391.76 * BSM is offering TES readers Pounds 30 off their first 10 driving lessons. For further details write to BSMTES Offer 81-87 Hartfield Road, London SW19 3TJ. Offer closes December 31 1997