Tuesday 20 March 2018

Life in the wrong lane - the perils of teaching your children to drive

Gripped with terror, John Chambers perfects the art of forced calmness as his two offspring get motoring

John Chambers
John Chambers

It was a friend who summed it up perfectly. He was, he said, learning the art of forced calmness. It is something we have all practised to some extent, unless we want to become some sort of Fawlty-esque figure, raging against life's myriad provocations. But he had a specific reason to deploy it: he was accompanying his children as they learnt to drive - an act of involuntary folly many of us have to face at some stage, and a process which could turn even the most loving family into something from Game of Thrones.

Forced calmness. The art of saying: "Perhaps you should have changed lanes a little more smoothly", when what you really want to do is scream: "Why are you trying to kill us both? I just want to live. Please God, I just want to live."

As soon as he said it, I knew exactly what he meant, as sometimes going on a journey isn't just a metaphor, however much you wish it was. My own odyssey of fear, repeated at least twice weekly, would begin with me staring at myself in the mirror, willing myself to go downstairs and face whichever one of my offspring was jangling the car keys in yet another triumph of hope over experience. "Come on," I would say to myself, "this is what fathers do. Even if they don't come back."

You think I'm joking? I wish I was. Sorry, kids.

Yet, with a stunning display of seemingly nerveless insouciance that wouldn't have been out of place in a wartime Spitfire pilot, I would strap myself into the car and wait, knowing that whatever was out there was going to be as scared of us as I was of them.

Of course there were times when the facade of calmness cracked a little -"You're going to hit it. LEFT, I said LEFT." But mostly, I was calm, rarely raising my voice. "Slow down, change gear, indicate." It was generally a triumph of self-possession, interspersed with moments of catatonia. Even if I said nothing, my children came to know when the fear was stalking me: the involuntary reaching for the non-existent passenger-side brake; the sucking in of air through the teeth; the grabbing of the handle above the passenger's door. Just as with Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, the tell-tale signs were always there - if you could read them.

Eventually, however, we turned a corner, this time metaphorical as well as physical. I came to stop worrying about my death or injury and came to consider other road-users. Further signs of progress came when I could generally stop worrying about the preservation of life and limb - my own and others' - and instead concentrate on the preservation of my no-claims bonus. By the time I had got down to merely wincing about the crunching of gears, it was clear the chances of my survival were improving.

There were, in the end, even some benefits to the terror trail. Once I had some confidence in their abilities, we could even manage the odd snatch of conversation, away from TV, internet, computer games and all those other barriers to real communication that can be lumped together under the catch-all of social media.

We could, given that the radio was never going on - "Are you mad? Turn the radio off. This is car is a lethal weapon, especially in your hands . . ." - even talk about their studies, their plans, or just banalities ranging from grammar to football. A chance to connect with one's children: who doesn't want that?

And as I was driven round the same roads on which I had learnt to drive some 30-plus years previously, there was one other connection I made. I thought of my uncle, who had taught me to drive. A softly spoken urbane soul, he had been driven to swear only once, as I put both his car and its inhabitants in mortal danger. He always seemed so calm. Though now I realise it may have been forced. It also came to me that when another 30 years have gone by, it could well be that my own children will be gripped by the same terror. If they are lucky.

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