Taking To The Road

It's all rather funny when you look back upon it, or it should be if you are far enough removed from it to view it all objectively. At the time, however, it was rather frustrating. What am I talking about? Why, taking to the road, of course. Nothing could be simpler - or so it would seem.

The first move is to fix the date. This is done by acquiring one of those typical Ministry Forms from the Post Office - D.L.26 to be precise. Now there is one delightful thing about Ministry Forms: though badly printed on cheap paper in dubious English, the perforation down the middle is impeccable! It is a real joy to tear a Ministry Form in two knowing confidently that the tear will never once stray from its predetermined path.

Being confronted with this form for the first time, and knowing that a large number of applications are sent in daily, you decide, for the purpose of acquiring a relatively early date, to make the civil servants task of fitting you in for an appointment, an easy one. So instead of making finicky notes on your form as to what times you are free; what dates would suit you best and which is the test centre of your dream, you simply state, though not in so many words: "anytime, day or night, anywhere in the United Kingdom". Those dear civil servants show their appreciation of your thoughtfulness by sending you (some three weeks later) an appointment for five months hence!!!

FIVE MONTHS! This calls for action. In five months the Road Tax will have expired, your second Provisional Licence will have expired, the year's Insurance will have wholly disappeared, you will have forgotten how to drive and the car will have rusted to the garage floor. Something must be done!

Whip off the L plates and forget about tests? .................... undignified! Surrender your licences etc., and forget all about driving for the next six months? .................... impractical! Give up driving? .................... an excellent idea but you don't entertain it at the time. Apply again, this time with a fiver pinned to your form? .................... too expensive and besides there is the remote danger that your fiver might disappear down the drains of bureaucracy or that you might conceivably be thought of as having offered a bribe.

Eventually you settle for a plaintive pack of lies and you compose an epistle to your Ministry friends in Soho Square explaining that ... certain examinations are due to be taken in March and you would appreciate an earlier date." Now, this isn't really a lie; you haven't said that you were going to take an examination in March - you have merely indicated that there are examinations at that time; that someone somewhere, will be taking an examination in March, even if it is only a Cycling Proficiency Test in Siam!

Strangely this little stratagem works and the appointment is put forward by a couple of months. Now the battle is really on! You take expensive driving lessons; you drive hundreds of miles with qualified but bored friends; you read cheap books such as: "Driving in two weeks"; "How to pass your test"; "The Highway Code", and when the big day dawns you're on the ball, keyed up, ready for anything.

You can hill start up a flight of stairs; do a three point turn up a back alley; reverse with your eyes closed (it sometimes works better that way).

You enter the waiting room at the Test Centre and your nerve leaves you. In one corner of the room is a wheezy, rheumatic old lady, her teeth chattering violently; not far from her sits a middle-aged man, savagely smoking a cigarette lit at the filter end, in another corner a pimply 'mod', jack-booted and leather clad, crash helmet under arm, shakily reads the Highway Code upside down! The floor is covered with half smoked cigarettes and scraps of finger nails. In a pregnant silence someone answers an unasked question - "This is my forty second time here" ...You sit and wait.

The door marked - 'Private' - opens noiselessly and a sour looking gentleman comes out. You are just about to decide that some other poor unfortunate driver-to be has got the axe, when he says: "Mr. C?" You step forward.

"Good afternoon. Mr. C., lovely day. Sign here".

He gives you, or should I say tenders, a Government issue ball point (fine nib) which is anchored by a piece of elastic to a waistcoat button, puts a very thin piece of paper on a metal table and expects you to make a legible signature.

"Good. Lead the way to your machine".

It is a bad start- the word has a ring of insult about it. Perhaps it is intended as a joke? Should one laugh? You (plural) get in.

"Now before we start off I shall test your eyesight by asking you to read the registration number of a car at 25 yards distance". He looks up and down the street for a car at a generous 25 yards, one with a dirty number plate. He finds it. 40 yards away!

"The number of that car, please?"

A word of warning here. "What car?" does not brighten his day - he has had that worn joke from about 50% of his customers; further he hasn't got a sense of humour.

On the third try you get the number right and the test begins. He makes a note of the make of your car and some disparaging remarks on its condition or lack of it.

You adjust your driving mirror and seat angle: you must always do this for the Ministry of Transport knows that while you are not around, your driving mirror and seat are in the habit of getting up and bolting themselves to quite a different position from that in which you left then.

You pull away cautiously, giving clear, proud hand signals and join the traffic lanes. All is going well - the hill slant (start?); the reverse, the three point turn, are all masterly. You leave the traffic and enter a long straight road. This must be the EMERGENCY STOP routine. You'll show him that this car's got brakes. You open her up to a giddy 25 m.p.h. He slaps the dashboard with his note book - you think that he has been killing a wasp, but no, this is the signal for the stop. This is the climax; down go the anchors and the car stops like a dream. You are home and dry and you know it. You pull up outside the Test Centre and the automaton at your elbow asks a few dumb questions about the Highway Code. Not a hitch! The up to now not very loquacious automaton delivers his speech all in one breath - "well that concludes the test Mr. C. and I am sorry to say that you have failed to reach the required standard of competence to drive prescribed by the ministry of transport have you read our little book?"

He holds up a flimsy pamphlet which had been enclosed with your first provisional driving licence. You mutter - "Yes, about five times."

"I shall now outline a few points which will help you with your next test."

He then proceeds to draw lines, crosses and rings over a really nice Government form. It is beautifully printed on white crisp paper but does not have a perforation. It is probably their best form and well worth getting (D.L.24 is the Code for the uninitiated) but its friends call it-

"Statement of Failure to Pass Test of Competence or of Fitness to Drive," a copy of which, should you lose it, can be bought for only one shilling! Most people never lose them, however, they burn them!

Well during that long and weary trek home with your sulky driving instructor next to you, you think up some adjectives or epithets (or is it epitaphs?) for that examiner that would soon reduce to ashes any paper that you attempted to record them on. You are LIVID! You have half a mind to make a little doll-like likeness of the examiner and stick pins in it. You are restrained because you realise that were you to attempt any such likeness you could not really refer to it as a doll, so fat, so misshapen, so ugly, so stupid that that that .... When you get home you make a beeline for the boozer. If your family is teetotal - tough. Go shoot yourself!

If you are half the man you think you are, though, you return to normal after about a month and go back into battle. You send off another application and wait and wait and wait. After about 5 weeks you get another gracious note telling you that your test is to be in July. JULY!!! Who do they think they are? Those toffee-nosed, penpushing, government-paid upstarts .... You started driving in October, you are not going to wait until July just to be failed again. Back to the lies again-it's the only way. But this time, even though you HAVE exams, in July, the stratagem doesn't work. Maybe they are getting to know your handwriting - if only you were a doctor they could never suspect that! Another stratagem (oh no, I am not going to tell you what it was this time, because it worked and it might be worth a bit when things are desperate. so there!)

You practice as never before. You know that car like the back of your hand. You can even make it stand on its back bumper. The fatal day has now come and the scene is as before the door opens; another automaton emerges with exactly the same pen in one hand and the same note book in the other. Yet somehow there is a difference, something intangible in the air, a certain nuance - could it be that this one is human? But away with these wild speculations.

"Mr. C.?" You rise. You scribble your signature with the cheap pen on the cheaper paper on the metal table. You descend the stairs to the patient car outside; you get in: he gets in; he winds down the window and the frame collapses. "Maybe, I shouldn't ..." he remarks with ... a ... yes, a smile!

"There'll be plenty of ventilation once we get moving" you suggest soothingly.

"That I can believe", he replies peering through the floor boards.

Once more you are off, this time driving as if you didn't give a hang about the result and casting your fate to the wind (which is not too far from the truth. for by now you have had most of the fight knocked out of you). On this trip you are not out to impress anyone. You double de-clutch with the accuracy of a five year old; you touch the kerb in your three point turn; you roll back at the hill start; you do a spine-chilling emergency stop at 12 m.p.h.; you muff up a simple question on the Highway Code ... and ...


Now I would not like anyone to think that I had a chip on my shoulder or a persecution complex, or that I thought that examiners were not playing the game!!!

Seeing that I failed my Cycling Proficiency test first time; my motor cycling test first time; my driving test first time; and will probably fail my pilot's test (if I ever dare to provoke Providence so much) first time, you will understand my being a little sour about so called 'driving tests!' It can't really be coincidence that I fail them. Incompetence cannot be considered for a moment! It must be something to do with my face - I have noticed that it always seems to get people's backs up.

After all I did get my Cycling Proficiency Test the second time and they told me that the Certificate would be forwarded to my school. The school told me that it would be given to me on Speech Day. But it wasn't. Nor did I get it on the next Speech Day. By the Third Speech Day I was no longer interested in receiving it and would have felt a bit of a twit being awarded the C.P.T. at the age of 16! I have since lived in fear of the wretched thing turning up and I have yet one more Speech Day to live through before I can really rest again!!?

I never bothered a second time with the motor cycle test, because I decided that it was a mug's (sour grapes!) game anyway, and as for the car, well you have heard all about that.

One should end on a cheerful note and I have one to end on, especially for those who hope to get a test date before Whitsun. I read in the papers that the Ministry is now aware of the grave shortage of examiners throughout the country and it is remedying this by recruiting 150 new examiners. Now, wait for it you lucky people. Since there are about 400 test centres in Britain, there will be an average increase per test centre of a whole three-eights of an examiner!!! We must realise, however, that not everyone at the Ministry is a nit-wit, and the Ministry may come to realise that demand in the London area is greater than say in the Island of Sark or the Outer Hebrides. This might even double the increase for the London area to the staggering total of three-quarters of an Examiner per centre. Or am I simply building castles in the air?

One last point for prospective learners:

Ministry Pamphlet D.L.28, makes it clear that bribing an examiner is a punishable offence - it doesn't say anything about threatening him!

Happy motoring.

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