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How did you Get that Grade Six?

by: John Wells on

Most instructors would cringe at the thought of teaching ‘moving off and stopping’ to an experienced driver on a check test! Nevertheless that’s exactly what I taught and I did ‘get that grade six’.

Having lived and worked in Cardiff for the (almost) five years since my previous check test, it was with some disappointment that I discovered my ‘invitation’ had been sent to my former address in Bristol. I got it eventually and decided to make life easy for all concerned by taking the test in Bristol at the appointed time and place.

I should explain that at the time I was leading a research programme in Cardiff University that had begun some ten years previously and to which I would return periodically when funding was gained. So, wearing my best lab coat and trying to look cheerful and upbeat I announced to colleagues my urgent need for a ‘pupil’ for an observed lesson and asked who wanted to be the guinea-pig?

Now its fair to say that there wasn’t exactly a stampede of volunteers. Although my colleagues expressed every confidence in my teaching ability, none seemed terribly keen to show off their driving skills with me in the passenger seat. The conversation drifted to oral examinations of PhD theses which suddenly seemed much less threatening.

One student, Paul* seemed vaguely interested. He was a colourful character, a bright and enthusiastic PhD student who was a member of our research team. In his early twenties, Paul had passed a test at 17 and drove himself to work regularly. He was, however, a little weak in the ‘parking skills’ department and had been known to drive back home and catch the train to work when he couldn’t find a ‘suitable’ parking space!

Resorting to bribery, the offer of a free lunch and all the cigarettes he could smoke for the day proved too tempting for Paul who was, as ever, impoverished and down to his last roll-up. Eventually Paul confided he wouldn’t mind a bit of a brush up on his manoeuvring skills and asked if I would mind taking him out in his own car. This seemed an equitable arrangement and after a few preliminary questions I thought a lesson on reverse parking would probably fit the bill. Paul promised to iron his driving licence so that I could read it and I made a mental note to check his eyesight once we were outside.

“Let’s go see the car” I said, “is it in the car park?” Paul grimaced and muttered something about a tight space before leading me outside. Approached from behind, the ‘car’, and I use the term loosely, appeared to be of Swedish origin although not a model that was instantly recognisable, possibly because of the lack of rear bumper. This did, however, afford a clear view of the rear wheels which had that wonderful glossy sheen that you only see with ‘lived-in’ tyres. Paul’s pride and joy was positioned at about 30 degrees to the ‘parking space’. Intriguingly he had managed to block the entrance to the college stores, straddle a disabled parking bay and leave the rear end sticking out so far that the one-way system had become inoperable – all this, I was assured, in just one smooth manoeuvre.

On closer inspection the vehicle sported only one broken exterior mirror. It wasn’t possible to discern whether the glass of the other mirror was intact because it had apparently gone missing the last time he’d used the car park. Picking up on my facial expression, Paul reciprocated with a look that said  ‘Oh God, don’t tell me I need a new one’. This non-verbal communication continued as I walked round to the front of the ‘car’. With some trepidation I pushed down on the nearside front wing, which seemed slightly askew to the rest of the vehicle. I noted with relief that it didn’t bounce excessively, in fact it just didn’t budge. Paul’s expression conveyed that ‘I need to speak with my bank manager’ look.

Like most academics (myself included) Paul had his own eccentricities and it dawned on me that, perhaps when his ‘Goth’ phase started (he was still in it!), he may have missed out on a chunk of National Curriculum. That would explain why he rarely used words beginning with ‘M’, such as money, mechanic, MOT…

Moving round to the driver’s side you could see a large, freshly applied adhesive sticker on the driver’s door window bearing a message from the college security staff. Made from some sort of fluorescent green tissue paper and apparently attached with superglue these stickers guarantee that the infringing driver will need to drive home with the window wide open no matter what the weather conditions! The notice stated, in no uncertain terms, that the vehicle was causing an obstruction, that the registration number had been recorded by security staff and that further infringement would result in the vehicle being clamped.
Well at least this confirmed the need for a lesson or two on parking! My eyes drifted towards the dual-controlled Ford Focus basking in the Cardiff rain at the other end of the car park. I’m not a great believer in telepathy, but, as if by magic, Paul asked “Would you rather we used your car?” Time drifted by and the date of the dreaded check test was soon upon us. I reminded Paul to meet me first thing in the morning. Mindful of his parking skills I helpfully suggested picking him up from the station.

Skipping over the boring details of getting seated etc., Paul turned to me and declared he’d never driven one of these before. “A Ford Focus?”, I asked. “No,” said Paul, “ a manual.”

After we’d swapped seats I asked for another look at that newly-ironed driving licence. You could just about make out the critical piece of information!  A quick pit stop to pick up some L-plates was needed before the drive to Bristol. After lunch and an hour spent an hour trying to get to grips with clutch and gears, Paul managed to drive us to Southmead test centre in Bristol where I was to meet my then SE, Mr. Hugh Grainger-Allen. Not in the least bit stressed at this point I left Paul with the car, the cigarettes and an assurance that I would be back in five minutes.

Approaching the centre I could see Mr. Grainger-Allen standing in the doorway and was  vaguely aware of some elderly gentleman following me at close quarter and muttering to himself. 

“Hello.” says Hugh, “What are you doing here?”

“Er, hello Hugh, I’ve come for my check test”

“So have I!” said a voice from behind.

Mr. Grainger-Allen went off to make a ‘phone call whilst I talked with my new-found friend. He was going to retire in 3 months and wondered whether it was worth the effort doing the check test.

On his return Mr. Grainger-Allen informed us that the DSA hadn’t had my reply to the check test invitation. This was very understandable as their booking office at the time (Park Place in Cardiff) was nearly 50 metres from the university post room. Clearly I had been expecting far too much of Royal Mail to get this information to the other side of the road!

After some discussion we agreed to go with ‘first come first served’ and a somewhat happier elderly gentleman went back to his car. Feeling somewhat older I accompanied Mr. Grainger-Allen to mine. I filled him in with some details – Paul drives an automatic, he needs to change his ‘car’ for a manual. He’s had one lesson and we are going to try and master the clutch and have a go at some hill starts…

…By the time we got to the car, Paul had been by himself for about 20 minutes. The cigarette pack was empty and he looked like a man who hadn’t had oxygen for some time! Let’s just say that the delay hadn’t really helped Paul’s inherent nervous disposition, a condition which now seemed to be infectious. Perhaps this was the reason he developed an aversion to using the interior mirror for the duration of the lesson! Nevertheless, an hour later, Paul returned us to the vicinity of Southmead DTC, objectives achieved. Ignition off and recap given, Mr. Grainger-Allen with customary courtesy thanked Paul for the experience and invited me to join him on the short walk back to the test centre.

“Now” said Hugh, “about that incident with the Zebra crossing, the young lady and the push-chair.”…

*Names have not been changed to protect real identities.

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