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To own a car in London is basically passé. Why bother? London is packed with public transport and Uber. Cars are costly and painful to park. They kill things. And if you really need one, you can use Zipcar.
Yet I am attached to our vehicle. Ugly as it is, I like seeing it sit outside our home in Hackney. It represents adult independence. And 16 years of bitter struggle.
To explain. I took many driving tests. I failed my first when I whacked a curb in west London. I failed my second when the examiner snatched the steering wheel. I was both too dangerous and too careful to pass my third test, apparently, and for my fourth, I ditched London for the English countryside, hoping empty lanes might be easier. They were not. Each time I failed, it cut me to the quick.
My wife had said I should lie about my job to boost the examiner’s morale (she was convinced driving examiners must hate their profession). Being an actor in those days, I tended to be unemployed; so I thought I’d say that to win sympathy. No, that would sound pretentious, apparently — I had to pretend I sold popcorn at the cinema because everyone likes films and no one fears the popcorn guy.
So I said I sold popcorn. And no one cared. And still I failed.
I passed my fifth test in a wasteland full of roundabouts east of east London and it felt like bliss. It was 16 years since my first lesson, I was 33 years old and, that night, I befriended my instructor on Facebook.
We bought the car so I could practice — some cheap silver thing, too big to park. And I practised.
The first time I drove across London, I was hooted at the whole way, especially — for some reason — in Hammersmith. I have never crossed the city since without being hooted at.
By contrast, I have hooted merely once in three years. Edging through Shoreditch past midnight, I found myself stuck behind some strolling men dressed up for Halloween. These guys were treating the road like it was a pavement. So I hooted. And one turned round and slapped his hand on the bonnet. And I had a funny turn.
Mostly I can handle the hooting — hooting is part of it — but I’m scared of killing cyclists. Cyclists sneak up from all angles, pumped with reckless courage. I’m careful but worry — one day — one will just outfox me. Trucks, white vans and buses are also my enemies. Indeed, one finds few friends on the average London road. I’m tempted to say it’s dog-eat-dog, but if that’s true, what type of dog am I?
At some stage, the car acquired a name: Woodstock. And — through thick and thin — I have grown quite fond of him.
My progressive wife is not so fond — at least not fond enough to keep him.
Until 2015, she had banished all hopes of passing her driving test; she was waiting for the advent of driverless cars. Then she changed her mind and passed 12 years after her first lesson. Other drivers hoot at her, as well, and she hates it . . .
It makes sense to sell the car. We are both so allergic to driving the battery goes flat all the time. We bought a booster and it sat in the boot, primed to help out in some driving emergency, until I left the booster light on and it died, too. My wife fancies the idea of Zipcar. Or, better, no car — if we had only taken taxis for the past three years, we might be richer now. Besides, you can’t read or fall asleep at the wheel and you can’t drink cider — these activities belong on a train.
Yet I feel a certain pang. Woodstock has been trusty, I say. And we need him for when we go to buy things from the garden centre. He is a symbol, too — with no car outside, I might revert to childhood. My wife is strangely moved.
On Saturday, a man comes around and parks his van in the middle of the road. He declares the battery completely dead and sells us a new one. He seems like a nice guy. He finishes, the engine works and my wife pays. Though Woodstock is still passé, it feels like a new dawn.
“Isn’t that good?” I say.
“What?” I ask.
“The car man just said I smell lovely.”
Alexander Gilmour is associate editor of House & Home; @AIMGilmour
Illustration by Davide Parere