Behind the Wheel

“All aboard!” Imperial Leather Daddy opened the door to his pride and joy.

As always, he had spent that Sunday morning washing, polishing and admiring his Armstrong Siddeley which now basked, gleaming and immaculate, in the early afternoon sun.

It was 1946 and I was seven years old.

I adored my darling Daddy in those halcyon days. The only time I had him to myself was when we drove together, just him and me, to see his parents who lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb. They hated the woman he had married and she hated them.

“Hop in, then, Valerie.”

Ecstatically, I hopped. I wore a green silk dress embroidered with red poppies my beloved grandfather had made for me. The fabric brushed against my thighs as I sat down. It felt cool and I felt beautiful.

I asked as I always did, “Will you tell me another story about King Kong?”

“But of course.” The enormous car swung down Hale Lane towards Burnt Oak beneath the hairy hands of its superb driver. “Once upon a time …”

And we were off. My father was a magnificent story-teller. He made everything up on the spur of the moment, often making me laugh so much my tummy ached.

He loved being behind the wheel. The sense of going somewhere, but not yet being there, gave him a freedom he never found anywhere else.

My Daddy held onto the Armstrong until it finally fell apart at the seams. Sitting in front with him was my definition of paradise. Relegated to the back seat behind Daddy’s wife was an entirely different kettle of fish. Immediately, I felt sick. The car was surprisingly cold and draughty, full of places which didn’t fit together.

On one occasion we had driven to France for a summer holiday. By accident I dropped my riveting book down the Armstrong’s gangly side. The cliffhanger ending remained forever mysterious: try as I might, I was unable to wheedle the book from its hidey hole.

_____

While my Daddy’s driving instincts would have rivalled Lewis Hamilton’s – although he never became a Speedy Gonzalez – his wife was without a doubt the worst driver the world has ever endured. In those pre-war days she didn’t need a formal driving licence and would not have obeyed any of the rules if she had ever taken a driving test. She simply made things up as she drove. We’re not talking stories here. We’re talking lunacy. Besides, her driving instructor would never have survived the ordeal.

Once, collecting me from Reading University at the end of term in her fashionable white Mini, she drove head-on into another car. I saw it happen. I was in her blithering Mini at the time, in the back, doing battle with three old suitcases. Blithely she stood in the middle of the road for an hour claiming it was all the other driver’s fault. Humiliated, I left her to it and caught the train to London.

The next day, unpacking the battered Mini in Edgware, I discovered that during the very public argument, some clever clogs had stolen one of my suitcases and ransacked another. All my Charles Trenet records had vanished.

In her later years, as her driving disintegrated from grass-hopper to slow-worm, Daddy’s wife terrified the residents of her block of flats in St John’s Wood. She clunked and stalled her way out of the communal car park every morning on her way to coffee with friends. Her long-suffering neighbours took one look and postponed their plans, pretending to be frightfully busy with something else.

One morning, just after I had bought an apartment in West Hampstead – by then I was in my early forties – I had been to see her and my beloved step-father, Donald Trelawney-Veall. She offered to drive me home. Half way up the Finchley Road I asked her to stop the car. She screeched it to a halt.

“You’re driving like a lunatic,” I told her.

She yelled with laughter.

“This is no joke. You’re extremely lucky to be alive … Now let me out. Try to get home without killing anyone along the way.”

I never sat in a car with her again. She continued to massacre the St John’s Woods roads in what she called “my lifeline” until she was ninety. Only once did she condescend to climb onto a London bus. She disliked the experience so much she got off one stop later and hailed a cab.

_____

My best friend at school, Pamela Sutcliffe, sat behind the wheel the very day she came of driving age. Her parents immediately gave her a car. We were all terrifically impressed as we watched her purring into the school car park.

At least, we pretended to be.

I didn’t much like the idea of driving on my own. I adored walking everywhere. Edgware had a brilliant tube station and I liked hopping on and off its regular trains. Most Saturday nights I’d take the tube to Golders Green and its theatre, where I sat in the gods to watch anything and everything. My most glamorous boyfriends had cars of their own although my father, whom I no longer liked, let alone loved, grew green with jealousy if theirs were more expensive than his.

But then I grew up and had Sam. I began to have a regular nightmare. I was in a house full of children, one of whom was taken ill. I would hold the child in my arms and run out to take them to hospital … only to discover as I climbed into the car that I had no idea how to make it move.

One evening in London, I went to supper with a friend. He drank a great deal of wine all evening and then climbed into his car to drive me home. Within minutes the police stopped him. They took him away, locked him up, and put me in the hands of one of their own sober drivers. The moment I got home they rang to warn me off getting into a car with a drunkard. They had removed his licence for a year.

I had been handed the final straw. The following morning I contacted a top-notch driving instructor.

_____

I took to the whole thing with relief, anticipation and joy. My brilliant instructor was a thin, eager man with a Spanish accent and the face of a belligerent parrot.

“Make a decision,” he told me. “And then implement it. Not today or tomorrow but NOW.” He punched the air. “MIRROR, SIGNAL, MANOEUVRE … NOW.”

His words echoed in my head as I bounced triumphantly back to my apartment. Within two months of weekly lessons and no practise sessions I had passed my test. I went immediately to meet a friend in Harley Street for a celebratory lunch.

“So!” Charles Rycroft pumped my hand up and down. “Congratulations, Valerie … Absolutely marvellous … Now you have a licence to kill.”

I had a number of people on that particular list – and he knew who they were.

_____

Daddy’s wife gave me her ancient blue-green Triumph. I took it to the local garage to be checked. Everything was faulty: the brakes, the gears, the tyres, the lot.

The garage mechanic peered at me and frowned.

“This is not a car,” he told me. “This is a lethal rust bucket … Where the hell’s bells did you get it?… YOUR MOTHER?” He doubled up with mirth. “Are you kidding?”

I persuaded him to patch it up, and paid him a king’s ransom to do so. But I knew it was a short-term and potentially dangerous solution.

_____

The following year, one of my best ever friends took one look at the Triumph and, horrified at what I was tottering around in, gave me a surprise birthday gift. It was a brand new car: a silver Ford Escort that completely changed my life. It sat outside my door on Primrose Hill, my pride and joy. When Oxford University Press asked me to go to Oxford, to take up my former post with them, I could say an immediate “Yes”. As well as legs I now had wheels. Without them, my life would have been impossible.

I became a chauffeur as well as a mother, a publisher, a teacher, a role model, a gardener, a cleaner, a washerwoman, a housekeeper, a writer, and a general downtrodden dogsbody. The Ford was an automatic: I never learned to handle her in the snow. But in every other way, she allowed me a fabulous freedom and independence, even though I could not afford to go anywhere but to and from Woodstock to Magdalen College School and Oxford.

By the time Sam had obtained a place at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, I had chosen to leave Oxford for a while to revisit London’s publishing life. I took one look at the big city’s traffic and sold my beloved Ford to the not particularly high bidder. I decided to manage once again without wheels, not even a London bike.

It is a decision I have never regretted. Now I can travel with my free bus pass and hire a chauffeur-driven limousine when I need to. I am doing my bit to improve the so-called quality of the toxic air we have to breathe. I never worry about the price of diesel or where to park. And if there are days when I desperately miss my silver Ford – well, I take a walk around the gardens of Blenheim instead.

Luckily, I can still walk. As for telling a good story, I have found all I need for one of those is a room of my own. Tell that to Daddy for me when you next raise a glass to old King Kong.

_____

There are many decisions in my life that have needed a great deal of courage.
Once you find it, you will be able next time around to draw on even more.

Here is my poem to an incredibly brave bird:

Eagle Who Dares

You’d never find my hideaway
Not in a thousand years:
My private ledge, my rest, my rock,
The fortress for my fears
That I show not. Not me. I am
An Eagle of a Bird
I fly for hours on the wing –
Haven’t you heard?

I like the mountains and the sky
Where I can stretch and swoop.
I see for miles in the rain,
I watch the rivers droop
And rush and dance, the waterfalls
That dazzle in the sun:
I am an Eagle of a Bird –
Why don’t you come?

But you will have to dare with me
Your heart will beat as fire
The nights gloom pitch, the moon spins wild
Fly higher, ever higher.
And when the dawning light appears
And you freeze cold as ice
I’ll fly you to my craggy ledge:
Won’t that be nice?