It's exactly twenty years ago this week since I passed my driving test. It took me three attempts, not because I was incompetent you understand, but because I realised that the more driving tests you take the more 'driving test anecdotes' you can tell in pubs when you're older.
My first test was the examiner's last before the Christmas break. I toured the special test-designated backroads of Rickmansworth as festive dusk approached. It must be awful to live on a driving test route. You think you've bought a desirable property on a quiet estate, only to discover that incompetent drivers are forever being asked to pull up directly behind the new 4x4 you've left parked out on the road. Near the start of my test I paused expertly to allow an unaccompanied dog to walk across the road in front of me at a zebra crossing. Things were looking good. However my test also featured that very special driving manoeuvre the five-point turn, and so naturally I failed.
On my second attempt I was much better prepared. I was, however, perturbed to discover that my examiner for the afternoon was the infamous Mr 'Failer' Taylor. It wasn't the most auspicious of starts when I couldn't read either of the first two numberplates he pointed out to me, even wearing my new glasses. Never mind, I thought, things can only improve once I get in the car. I drove out of the test centre, turning right onto a major trunk road and stalling the car dead three seconds later, completely blocking two lanes of traffic. Mr Taylor smiled. I restarted the ignition and, as you do when you know you've failed, proceeded to drive brilliantly and without fault for the next thirty minutes.
My third test went far more smoothly. I had Mr Taylor again, but he'd learnt from his last experience and asked me to turn left out of the test centre instead. I managed to avoid running over the grandad lying in the road fixing his car positioned exactly where I was supposed to be reversing round a corner. I took the examiner on an additional circuit of Rickmansworth town centre because the instruction "take the road ahead unless I tell you otherwise" is dead ambiguous on a roundabout that's the junction of three equally-spaced roads. I knew things were going well when, at the end of the test, I was able to tell Mr Taylor what a white walking stick with two red reflective bands signified. And yes, he was pleased to tell me I'd passed, but not half as pleased as I was.
I may have had my driving licence for twenty years, but I've only had a car for two and a half years of that time. Some people buy their first car the day their pass their test and are then drivers for life. Not me. When I write on a CV that I have a 'clean driving licence', it's no word of a lie. I've always tried to live close enough to shops and public transport to make ownership of a car unnecessary. It was only in my last job that I was finally forced by the nature of my work to buy a car - that and the fact that the village I lived in only had five buses a day. I discovered that, it being more than fifteen years since I'd passed my test, I'd completely forgotten how to use a gear lever and so I 'cheated' and bought an automatic. Driving purists sneered, but at least it left me a hand free to turn up the volume on the car radio as necessary. When I moved down to London I sold my car like a shot, and I've not looked back since. My annual tube travelcard costs less than a year's car insurance, let alone the costs of petrol, depreciation, road tax and dangly Magic Tree air fresheners. It's great to be able to walk to places again, rather than having to hop in the car every time I want two pints of pasteurised. Two legs good, four wheels bad.
I have a theory that most travellers divide up into either 'transport active' or 'transport passive'.
• Transport active people always own a car, even when they live somewhere totally inappropriate like central London. They need a throbbing engine to call their own, or preferably two. They have to be in the driving seat because they need to be in control of their own travel arrangements. They make very bad passengers, and would rather take a taxi than put up with the ignominy of public transport.
• Transport passive people like myself, however, are happy to be driven around even if it means they have little control over where they're going. You'll find us sat in the passenger seat of a car, or on the back of a motorbike, or stuck in a tube tunnel, or even taking three consecutive nightbuses home rather than fork out for a minicab at three in the morning. We only drive because we have to, never because we want to.
Which one are you?