In the last dozen years I have clocked up about a quarter of a million kilometres on European roads, and without my wheels I feel lost. Which brings me to my secret ambition: to do a round with the Stig on the Top Gear circuit
Not so secret any more, of course, now I’ve blabbed. Part of me is still a teenager and responds to immaturity in others, which is why I so enjoy Top Gear, a bunch of blokes who ought to know better getting up to the type of tricks the gang I hung out with at the end of my teens would have been into.
Hard to believe that it’s now fifty years since I said goodbye to my teens. My ambition remains, however: I would like to throw down the gauntlet and challenge Jezza, Hamster, James and the Stig to let me have a go. And it is a challenge, believe me!
To my knowledge, they have never had a great-grandmother used only to left-hand drive cars and with a licence restricted to automatics driving around their circuit. Why should they have? More to the point, why not? Is it ageism? Male chauvinism? Lack of a left-hand drive car with an automatic gearbox? Or am I the first in this category to apply? Complicating matters slightly is the fact that my eyesight is waning, and visual acuity is just about at the lower legal limit. Reassuringly, I have been medically certified as physically fit to drive, as well as having been given the green light from the Swiss traffic psychologist many years ago. Psychologist? Let me give you a bit of background.
In Switzerland, you must first pass the theory test before you get your provisional licence, which is valid for a year in the first instance and can be renewed for a further six months. If you fail the test three times, you have to be examined by a psychologist specialising in the requirements for driving in normal daily traffic.
For various reasons, I was already forty when I began to learn, and not realising that I wouldn’t be allowed behind the wheel until I had passed the theory test I had taken out a provisional licence before I even started theory classes. So I had already had my licence for six months before I had my first lesson sitting in the car.
You have to take a test in traffic before the provisional licence expires, so I was under pressure. Also, my motor coordination is poor and I am nervous in any kind of practical examination, so I failed the test twice in rapid succession just before my licence was due for renewal. Another six months of lessons, and finally a third attempt. Ten minutes into the test, which was going well, a car ran into the back of me and we had to break off the test.
The six months extension had now expired, so before the powers-that-be would grant me another six months, I was sent off to see the psychologist who pronounced me normal to all intents and purposes. He even commented that I appeared to be of above average intelligence. At this point, my driving instructor, who was having nightmares and developing stomach ulcers because he had never had such a dreadful pupil before, had the brilliant idea of switching me to an automatic. Immediately the pressure of having to change gears was gone, I was fine; and at my fourth attempt, I passed – just nine days before my first grandchild was born.
Lacking confidence in my ability to control what seemed, in my hands, to be a potentially lethal weapon, I drove as little as possible, mainly between my village home and the local railway station which was about five miles away down country lanes. If I had to drive for any length of time, say about 45 minutes, I would be so tense that my head ached and I would get cramps. Luckily I was married to a man who loved driving. Eventually, I gave up driving altogether though I still had a valid licence.
This lasted eight years, then my husband suddenly disappeared from my life. I had developed a phobia with regard to driving and broke out in a cold sweat at the very thought of sitting behind a steering wheel, but eight driving lessons got me back to the point where I felt comfortable enough to get myself a new VW Golf and hit the tarmac.
To my amazement, I found I enjoyed driving, the independence it gave me, and simply the fun of the open road. Up and down the Alpine passes I sped, and thought nothing of driving nearly a thousand miles to my holiday home in France, or visiting relatives and friends hundreds of miles away in Germany: the autoroute and the Autobahn held no fears for me. I put my foot down and discovered the pleasure of doing 180 kph, though of course the Mercedes and Porsche drivers I was overtaking always felt obliged to zoom up behind me and make a big show of how much more powerful their engines were than mine. It’s a man thing.
I’ve now had my licence almost 28 years and before my eyes get too dim to see where I’m going, my hands too shaky to hold the wheel, and my mind too feeble to remember where I’m heading, before I succumb to whatever other disabilities old age is going to throw at me, I would really, truly, dearly love to do a round with the Stig. It would impress my great-grandson – a devoted fan of Lightning McQueen – if no one else!