6 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 62

Putting on L-plates

Petronella Wyatt

It seems a bit odd, learning to drive in one's thirties. Readers will wonder why I have put it off for so long. The answer is that, as Eliza Doolittle thought, it is jolly nice being driven around in the back of a taxi. The expense of the fares was justified by the cost of car insurance, petrol and Ken Livingstone's road toll.

In Italy where I spend my holidays it was oh so much easier driving a motor scooter, particularly as a motor scooter could take you to parts that other vehicles couldn't reach, such as the marina or the old port where there is very little space to park and where, during high season, cars are not allowed.

But this summer I began to have second thoughts. Sitting on a scooter wearing a large helmet was so broiling an experience that it was akin to taking part in some mad doctor's experiment to test the heights of human endurance. Nor was there any surcease at night. While my friends were all going about in their comfy air-conditioned cars and arriving at dinner cool and soigne. I looked like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.

Motor scooters are no longer glamorous. They are out. There. I've made my judgment.

It was different in the days when you didn't have to wear a helmet. Girls let their hair flow back in the wind. The whole scooter experience was reminiscent of Audrey and Anita and Brigitte: Beauty before all else.

Then the government forced everyone to wear a helmet. Not only does a helmet flatten your hair but it makes one resemble a household appliance. As for safety, I had my worst and only accident post-hideous-headgear.

Thus I resolved on my return to London to pass my driving test. It was a bit embarrassing giving my date of birth to the lady on the other end of the telephone, like logging on to a porn site. But she fixed me up with a male instructor and, for some horrendous sum of money, I could begin lessons the following week, (I know now why there are so many non-drivers. They can't afford the lessons.) The man duly arrived with a car, luckily. The first thing he asked was if I spoke English. As I had already greeted him in English, this question seemed a bit superfluous, There were only two possibilities. Either he hoped I spoke Urdu because he couldn't speak English himself, or he spoke fluent English but thought the only phrase I knew was, 'Hello, just hang on a mo while I fetch my handbag.' Anyway I answered in the affirmative.

His eyes shot out beams of relief. 'What a relief,' he said in fluent English. 'A lot of my students don't, you know.' Apparently the problem was becoming very bad. These students failed to understand the words 'left' and 'right'. Worse still they failed to understand 'stop'. One could only imagine the consequences. No wonder my instructor only teaches four days a week.

I decided not to tell him that I have a leftand-right blindness myself. That is, I know what the words mean but when people tell me to look left I tend to look right and vice versa. This has been a major difficulty since I was a child and was taken to the zoo. When the adult with me suggested I looked to my right at the lions, I looked to my left and was unable to find anything but a kiosk. Still, to paraphrase Harold Macmillan, 'You should see my mother.'

We got into the car and I vaguely recalled, from taking some lessons when I was 17, that one of the pedals was the brake and the other was the accelerator. Only I couldn't remember which was which. The thick one or the thin one? I took pot luck on the thick one. It was the brake. Still, once these things were explained, off we went.

During the two-hour period I astonished myself by managing to drive from north London to Chiswick and back. My pleasure and pride were excessive. This driving business was a doddle. I turned and looked expectantly at my instructor like a dog waiting for a particularly meaty bone. He turned and looked at me. He could offer only slivers. 'Well it wasn't too bad, but you don't look out for hazards enough and you drive too close to parked cars. And your parking was not good at all.'

I was thunderstruck. I had tackled roundabouts, negotiated tricky turnings, gone halfway round London and parked the car, just scraping the kerb. I hadn't hit anything, whether another car or a pedestrian, and so what if the kerb had been scraped? When my mother parks she goes right up on to the pavement. What on earth was the fuss about? Why couldn't I have my licence now? Everyone else on the road seemed to be no better than I was. But there you are. I guess these driving schools need your money's worth.