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60 years on from passing my test, I'm still learning to drive

PUBLISHED: 21:12 11 August 2019 | UPDATED: 21:12 11 August 2019

Paul Barnes passed his test in an Austin A30 like this one 60 years ago this week

Paul Barnes passed his test in an Austin A30 like this one 60 years ago this week

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Broadcaster Paul Barnes looks back on 60 years since he passed his driving test and says the learning process continues even now behind the wheel

Do you hear that melancholy chorus drifting on the breeze, the sound of whimpering and groaning underpinned by the rhythmic beat of gnashing teeth, together with clenched fists colliding with furrowed brows? 
Of course you've heard it, or at least heard of it. The courtrooms of the land echo to it on an almost daily basis: the sound of speeding drivers, those with a season-ticket to court, desperate to keep their licences as they spell out the sort of hardship they might suffer if deprived for a while.

What tales of woe they weave in the hopes of hanging on to that invaluable privilege. Here's a handful, though there were plenty to choose from. Having been nicked over the limit while in the lofty perch of his four-wheel-drive, a father bleated that he'd be unable to take his daughter to riding lessons. There's the sobbing supply teacher who tried to suggest that if he was banned the entire education system would be close to collapsing.

When, some time ago, a wretched QC was clocked at 63mph in a 40mph zone - 57% percent of the posted limit - it turned out that she was an old customer of the court, with nine points on her licence. She was fined £650 plus £100 costs. The magistrates handed her a ban too: six months. But it was suspended pending an appeal on the grounds of hardship and extenuating circumstances, such as having four children and a husband absent abroad, and her fear of public transport because of the likely hostility of some passengers, presumably the ones she prosecuted or failed to get off.

Having mustered such a catalogue of special pleading after the event why weren't such considerations in her mind before it? Wasn't her grasp of logic rather less than we should expect of a latter-day Portia? If the privilege of a driving licence is so precious, why abuse it? And having abused it once and been penalised accordingly, why abuse it again, and yet again?

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Better to caress the accelerator than stamp on it, duckie.

Better remember what the law commands, better remember what your driving instructor told you, better remember the Highway Code.

My first copy of that hallowed tract was a 1950s edition. In instructions for horse drivers there was a drawing, a rear view of a man in a bowler hat with a raised whip which he rotated slowly to indicate that he was turning left. Ah yes, those horse-drawn wagons; there were still steam-lorries then and buses with conductors and open staircases, and every other bicycle might have been a penny-farthing.

I thought the clutch pedal on the Austin A30 was never going to stop rising beneath my foot, my knee getting closer to my chin. Eventually it slowed and the car began to move. This was in Coventry. It was August 14, 1959 - 60 years ago this week - and I was taking my driving test.

I'd done all my learning on a 1933 Austin Seven which had a clutch like a light switch, the travel between out and in was about an inch. The left foot needed a tender touch or the car would stall. To change down you had to double declutch; I've done it on every car I've owned since, and still do. (Old hands said that if you could drive an Austin Seven you could drive anything.) Mine cost me five quid, paid off at ten bob a week: I was but a poor art student. I fancied this girl and bought the car off her dad, but it didn't improve my chances with her so I went out with her friend instead.

Austin Seven cable brakes were notoriously ineffective, which is why I had to hire the A30 to take the test. When the rear view mirror detached itself as I adjusted it I thought this would put a hex on the rest of the day, like the bit with the indicator: I'd never used one before. "You may cancel it now," murmured the examiner, several yards farther along a straight road. I think my well-practised hand signals saved me. I had my licence, a priceless permit, a privilege to be cherished.

I drove home in my own car and shied my L-plates the length of the lawn. Now I could really begin learning to drive, a process that goes on even now, all of 60 years later.

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