Catherine Pepinster: If only I'd been a boy, I'd have had a go-kart and none of this hell now

Saturday 25 January 2014 05:12
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It's an inauspicious time to do it, I know, what with Ken Livingstone's victory in the courts paving the way for congestion charges for London drivers, and the Earth Summit prophets of doom gathering to tell us of the dire consequences of carbon emissions, but I have finally become a driver. My friends and relatives are still trying to recover, not so much from my wanton abandonment of my green credentials and commitment to public transport but the possibility that they might come face-to-face with me behind a wheel. After all, they know only too well how bad my driving record is. It did take me five attempts to pass my driving test, and that was 15 years ago. Since then I've occasionally used a car to drive in quiet country roads, or put a Buick into cruise control on the emptiest highway of the Lousiana backwaters.

But this is different. First of all, the damn thing's sitting outside my house, reminding me whenever I walk past that it's there to be driven. It's certainly attractive, very new, very shiny, very up-to-date, and, thank God, not too fast. It'll change your life, say the motoring fans, it'll give you all kinds of freedom. You won't have to rely on taxis, or buses that only travel in packs, or trains that never arrive on time, and Tube trains that grind to a halt in tunnels. Motorists these days are rather like the followers of an unpopular religion. The harder the Government comes down on them, and the worse their crimes are according to the green campaigners, the more they defend their faith in the car.

But this is a strange kind of freedom. I seem to have no time left for a social life. First, there's Nightly Practice. I am urged to go out each night to familiarise myself with the thing, returning home an hour later good for nothing but a stiff drink. Then there's the Big Shop. As a Tube user and cab devotee, I used to convenience-shop, buying food meal-by-meal. Eating out was the frequent alternative. Now we have to drive to supermarkets, bewildering in size and choice, and buy food for days hence. There's no excuse either. No matter how long, each evening, I put off the trip, it's still possible when some stores are open 24 hours. Bleary-eyed, I wander the shelves at 11 at night, stunned by the numbers of people arriving from all corners of London to load up with cook-chill booty.

Then there's the weekend drive. No longer can we spend Sunday in the garden with the papers and a nicely chilled bottle of rosé. Now we have to motor out to the country, an overpraised and over-rated sort of place full of flies and similarly unpleasant people getting in the way of my quest for a restful afternoon.

Worse is to come. For years I've been able to put off visits to relatives who decamped to Britain's rural outbacks, the sort of places that were long cut-off from train services by the axe of Dr Beeching, bless him. Now there's no excuse. Those dread words – it's easy by car – are already ringing in my ears. Holidays will be used up deciphering route maps to places with no neon lights and far too many sheep.

So what made me hate driving for so long? Some long-suffering driving instructors – and I certainly had plenty – claimed it was lack of childhood piano lessons. All would have been well if I'd learnt how to co-ordinate hands and feet while practising "Chopsticks". But it's Father Christmas who really made me suffer later in life. Sexist Santa never bought me a go-kart. Any little boy who drove one can apparently reverse a car around a corner during his first lesson.

And yet I can feel myself being won over to the cause of the car. Just a bit. I've started to resent parking charges, and worse, the fee the council has the nerve to charge me to park outside my own home. It's handy too, to lug heavy goods to the dump, other items to the recycling bins, and offer an elderly person a lift. And the more street crime there is, and the worse street lighting gets, the more tempting it is to use a car. No wonder more women opt to drive. The anti-car lobby will only gain more support if they make improved personal safety, as much as emissions, their concern.

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