I was just nineteen when I took my first driving lesson. I was staying in Harlow (Essex) doing my first holiday job (at Beecham’s pharmaceutical research laboratories). I used to have the lessons after work during the early evenings when there was little or no traffic on the roads.
Driving in Bavaria: my car in 1986
I found it very difficult to coordinate hands and feet, so that gear changing presented me with quite a challenge. I drove slowly, especially when approaching traffic signals when they were turning red. I could not face the palaver of foot brake, handbrake, clutch, and gear synchronisation that was needed when stopping at a red signal. Occasionally I drove so slowly that the car almost stopped moving. After about six lessons, the instructor said to me:
“You are my first pupil whom I have had to ask to drive faster.”
A couple of lessons later, he told me sadly:
“You are going to take much longer to learn to drive than most other young people.”
I knew he was right, and we agreed not to have any more lessons.
Twelve years after my summer job in Harlow, I began practising dentistry in the Medway Towns (in north Kent). I took up the job there in April 1982. I was still unable to drive. I rented ‘digs’ near the practice. In the evenings after work, there was little in the way of public transport in the area apart from the railway that connects the three main centres of the Medway Towns. I decided that life in this part of the world would be very dull if I did not learn to drive.
One of the dental nurses in the practice recommended a driving instructor, Mr B. I decided to take an intensive course of driving lessons, paying for three or four hours a week. Mr B’s method of instruction suited me well. I learnt in a car with dual controls. My instructor, who sat in the passenger seat beside me, had a clutch and brake pedal that he could operate if necessary. Occasionally, he would operate them, and I would say to him:
“I was just about to brake when you operated your controls.”
Mr B would reply:
“If I need to use the dual controls, then I feel that you did not make the right decision in time.”
After about six weeks, Mr B considered that I was ready to take the Driving Test, which I booked. The test was scheduled for ten o’clock one weekday morning. The Test involved driving the examiner along local roads. During the drive, the candidate is asked to perform several prescribed procedures, such as: reversing around a corner; a hill start; an emergency stop; and parking the car. At the time of day when I took the Test in Gillingham, one of the Medway Towns, there was almost no other traffic on the roads. This made things easier for me. Also, I was able to anticipate when the examiner was going to ask me to perform this or that prescribed manoeuvre. I passed the Test, the last important exam I have ever taken. I attribute my success to two factors. One of them was Mr B’s superb tuition. The other was dentistry. Let me explain.
During the five years prior to my Driving Test, I studied dentistry. Many of the clinical procedures I learnt involved using the dental handpiece (drill). The speed at which the bur (drill bit) rotates is controlled by a foot pedal. Where and how the drill cuts is controlled by hand movements. I had learnt to drive a dental drill. Driving a car, with the feet/hand coordination it involves, became simple for me after my dental training.
Soon after getting my Driving Licence, I bought a second-hand car. On the first day, a Thursday, I drove it to and from the Savacentre, the local supermarket, three miles from my flat. On the Friday evening, I drove through the countryside to Faversham, which was twenty miles from where I lived. On the Saturday, after finishing my morning clinic, I set off for north London, sixty miles away. It was the first time I had driven on a motorway. That was not too bad but driving across the metropolis of London felt like a bad dream. I had never driven in heavy traffic before. By the time I had crossed south London and the River Thames, I had developed a severe headache. When I reached a major, congested traffic intersection in Camden Town, I felt like getting out of the car and abandoning it. Things reached rock bottom, when the driver of a car near to mine leant out of his window and yelled at me:
“Bloody Sunday driver.”
Late on the Sunday night, I set off to drive back to Kent. Being late, there was less traffic than there had been in London on the Saturday afternoon. I had planned to cross the river using the Blackwall Tunnel. However, I missed the turning for it and found myself on a dual-carriageway that led inexorably eastwards away from London. Every now and then the road crossed intersections on steeply humped fly-over bridges. I knew that eventually I would reach the Dartford Tunnel that passes beneath the Thames, but I was getting cold and lonely as I drove through a darkened industrial landscape and then through countryside that seemed featureless late at night.
I drove through the long tunnel beneath the Thames. When I reached the toll-booth on the Kent shore, I paid the toll to a man sitting in a lighted booth and thanked him. It was a relief to be able to talk to someone, even for a few seconds, after the lonely journey I had just made.
The next few journeys I made to London always resulted in me getting a headache, but eventually I began to enjoy driving. I enjoyed it so much that later on I drove several times from England to Hungary and farther afield to the former Yugoslavia, often on my own and enjoyed every minute of the journeys.