An ‘L’ of a Journey (part 1)

George Cheyne: Glasgow, May 2021

The day my son waltzed into the house after passing his driving test goes down as one of the proudest of proud dad moments.

Well, when I say waltzed…it was more of a slow shuffle as he went all Bob de Niro-style method actor on me with a fairly-convincing performance that he’d failed.

It took far too many angst-ridden seconds before his poker face finally folded to reveal a beaming smile.

Cue some manly hugging and back-slapping along with some girlie whooping and hollering thrown in for good measure.

And why not? It had been, literally and metaphorically, an amazing journey for him ever since he’d first slapped the L plates on the car and sat in the driver’s seat.

The feeling of pride didn’t come from any sense of reflected glory on my part. I’d helped him – or at least I think I did – steer his way through all the trials and tribulations of being a learner driver.

I’d sat alongside him for hours on end and felt his pain and pent-up frustration during all those “kangaroo petrol” moments, the crunching gear changes, the stalling at traffic lights with a queue of cars behind us and the teenage tantrums. Oh, yes, the tantrums.

So, yeah, I was proud he’d come out the other side.

And in keeping with the ways of the 21st Century, there was a picture to be taken with his pass certificate so it could be circulated to the immediate family.

It turned out to be his second photo shoot of the day as the driving instructor had snaffled him at the test centre straight after he’d passed to take a picture of him and the car.

First-time pass, nice cheesy smile and the driving school logo front and central…that’s your ringing endorsement right there.

It was probably up on the driving school website before my son had the chance to rehearse his Bob de Niro act.

If you ever needed a snapshot of how things have changed since the 1970s then this was it.

As my son’s phone started pinging with several messages responding to the news that he’d passed his test, I took a moment to think back to when I’d passed mine.

This was in 1976, so I sat the test, came home, told my mum, dad and brothers the news and, err, that was it.

No photo shoots, no ringing endorsements, no phone calls, faxes, telegrams or whatever sent out to a waiting world.
It took weeks before all my family and friends found out.

Just because there was no big song and dance about passing your test back then, it doesn’t lessen the achievement.

It was still teenager versus machine, a nerve-shredding World Cup final of a contest which often went to extra time and penalties.

Like a lot of Seventies kids coming up to their 17th birthday, I’d asked my mum and dad for driving lessons as a present.

And presumably because they were looking for a chauffeur in the future, I was handed an L plate birthday card with a note inside.

No bells and whistles, no gold-embossed business card, this was a hand-written blue biro message scribbled on a page torn out a lined notebook.

It read: “The bearer of this note shall be entitled to 7 x 1hour driving lessons. Graham GYSOM”

The tone seemed a bit pompous given it was scrawled on a bit of torn-out paper and I figured Graham must have had a background in banking or something.

No matter, the important part of this scrawl was “7 x 1hr driving lessons” and I was entitled to them. Why 7? Turns out Graham had an introductory offer of buy-six-get-one-free.

It also turned out that the Graham Young School of Motoring – the GYSOM at the foot of the note – was more of a solitary classroom than a school.

And the domino effect of him being a one-man band, his introductory offer taking off in a big way and so many teenagers clamouring to drive meant my seven lessons were spread over 14 weeks.

A fortnight was too long in between and progress was pretty slow as I spent the first 20 minutes of each lesson going over what we’d done in the previous one.

I tried to persuade my mum and dad to put me on their insurance for the family car so I could get some extra hours in, but the exorbitant cost of adding a 17-year-old male to the policy made that a non-starter.

So I diverted most of my hard-earned wages – originally earmarked for such necessities as alcohol and music – to invest in more lessons with Graham.

I managed to swing the introductory offer again – which was probably a reflection on how little progress I’d made – and got back behind the wheel of his Morris Marina 1.3 saloon.

We traipsed up and down the streets near the Anniesland test centre in Glasgow trying to keep the car straight and avoid crashing into my fellow learner drivers.

Anniesland Test Centre

And after four lessons of this second batch something finally clicked. The gear changes were smoother, the driving got easier, the traffic awareness heightened and the confidence flowed.

No-one was more surprised than me. Well, apart from my instructor, that is.

Graham, a man in his early thirties who wore a shirt and tie like he meant it, sat across from me after that lesson ended looking slightly incredulous.

“When did you learn to drive like that?”, he asked.

The question seemed to suggest that he didn’t have much faith in (a) my driving ability or (b) his instructing skills. But I let that slide as he began talking about sending away for a test date.

Now it was my turn to be incredulous as I realised there was to be no turning back. Well, not unless I was carrying out a textbook three-point turn, of course.

To be continued…

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