The Long, Baffled Hunt For A Handbrake

It’s wrong on so many levels to want to drive a car again…

An older man examines an aeroplane control panel
Image: Chris Leipelt/Unsplash

I HAD an odd experience today – I woke up fancying a drive

Actually, the first thing I thought was: ‘I need to book a car and take the cats to the vet’.

But I fancied driving.

For once, the thought of getting into an automobile and not on a bike, settling back in a comfy seat instead of perching on an inadequate saddle, and not having to do all the leg work myself gave me a warm, happy feeling, rather than a shudder. 

Drivers are currently a severely endangered species in this house. Three of us are old enough to set off for a spin whenever we want, but we hardly ever do. 

The main reason for that is that we’re Londoners. We don’t drive to work. That’d be silly.

The buses, trains and Tube all run fast and frequent where we live and, anyway, I am semi-permanently joined to my bikes; a middle-aged, sweaty, semi-centaur.

The other reason that we don’t drive much is that taking to the wheel in the capital is horrible.

Back when we first moved to The Smoke, we owned a smallish people carrier, which we used to ferry our then-smallish people about.

In those days, we still had a touching belief that there would be things like parking spaces near shops and some room on the roads, like there had been when we lIved in The Provinces.

But, a couple of years of migraine-inducing London driving, i.e: –

floor it for 50 metres up road made single lane by parked cars on both sides,
slalom into small gaps between parked cars to give way grudgingly to oncoming traffic,
note sourly that oncoming traffic neglects to thank you (as too busy flooring it),
slalom out and floor it into next 50 metres of space,
repeat – 

kinda took all the fun out of being behind the wheel.

By 2008, cars were over, as far as we were concerned.

We’d had our pants expensively pulled down too many times by the city’s council-sanctioned parking fines racket.

Meanwhile our Renault, rendered weak and sclerotic by six years of in-and-out London Road Hell, cracked up for good and was sold for parts.

We took the sad 60 quid the garage gave us, and bought a membership to a Car Club.

From then on, we would be occasional drivers only. And it’s worked out great

Being in a Car Club still doesn’t make driving in London a pleasure – is driving for pleasure still a thing anywhere, anymore? – but it does make the whole picture less stressful. 

For a start, it’s cheaper to pay by the hour if you’re a light car user. The membership fee is low, as is insurance if you shop around. You don’t pay for petrol, and you don’t have to give a flying fuck if the car breaks down.

I mean, common decency dictates that you don’t risk shunting it any more than the averagely crazed London chauffeur, but if you get that inevitable warning light on the dash that reads You’re Talking At Least £1,500, it’s not your problem

You don’t have to consider iniquitous solutions, such as Sunny, or Wonga, finding a cheap, back street garage, or trying to sell it on dishonestly. You just ring up the club and they find you another car. 

Of course, there are still stresses being in da club. Fines are stiff for bringing vehicles back late, so it’s always better to pay for half an hour more than you need.

What with it being a club, you have to share the cars with other people, who sometimes leave them low on fuel, lightly soiled and covered in snack packaging, as well as tuned to some frankly wince-inducing radio stations. 

There also appears to be a rather sadistic joke going on amongst modern car designers, wherein they compete to make keys, handbrakes, gearsticks, lights and windscreen wipers as unrecognisable or concealed as possible. 

Often, I spend the first 15 minutes in a new car not driving it – but frisking the panelling in bafflement for wherever the designers have hidden the motherfucking handbrake.

One car didn’t even have a key, but a woefully misguided retro on/off button and, nowadays, I confess that I  drive mostly in daylight and the dry to avoid engaging with some of the less intuitive wiper and headlight systems. 

But if the complexity of today’s cars discourages me, this is a good thing, too.

It means that I am more likely to pick up a takeaway on my bike, or carry my shopping home myself, thus (and as recommended by our friends in the NHS) strengthening my arms and legs, filling me with endorphins and saving a few bob

Moreover, I am frequently quicker than cars doing the same journey and, if they do barge gracelessly past me, it is always a powerful consolation to remember that am working out fully with every metre, while they are just sitting in a chair, getting fat. 

And if by chance I catch up and pass them a second time, ideally as they fume in a long queue at the lights… Well, that is why German bicyclists invented the term Schadenfreude

Occasionally, however, when it is dark or windy or lashing it down, or if I wake up with a cold or stiff legs, I can still ache just a bit for a car. 

The good feeling never lasts – either the motor needs petrol, or there are roadworks, or no-one says ‘Thank you’, even when I have slalomed out of the way 36 times in the last 400 metres. 

And… is that a fucking cyclist overtaking me at the lights and pedalling off laughing into the distance? 

Next time I feel like driving, then, I’m going to book the car, sit down in the comfy seat, and tune into a decent radio station.

​And then the car and I are just going to sit there, even if I do get fat, until the fancy goes away. .  ​

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