No one prepares you for the first time you ride shotgun as your child takes the driver’s seat

The idea of my child getting behind the wheel of several tonnes of rusting Mercedes is one that I cannot begin to grasp, like trying to imagine what is beyond the universe.

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There are various milestones in life. The loss of virginity. The first grey hair. The first inkling that from now on everything is going to go horribly wrong. (These are in no particular order, and indeed, in my case, milestone number three was passed very early in life. You know that interview question that goes: “What message would you send to your childhood self?” My answer to that would be: “Your suspicions are largely correct.”) Yet there is one milestone for which, somehow, no one seems to be prepared; so, as a public service – which is basically what this column is – I shall tell you that it is the first time you are a passenger in a car that one of your children is driving.

It is a concept that the parental mind revolts against. Only after my father became registered blind did he finally hand over his keys, and even then there had to be a brief but fierce struggle beforehand. After all, as my friend L—— points out, only five minutes ago you were changing their nappies. They learned to walk, and that unsteadily, only three minutes ago. The idea of them getting behind the wheel of several tonnes of rusting Mercedes is one that I cannot begin to grasp, like trying to imagine what is beyond the universe. But we are to drive almost 500 miles, to Scotland, and I’m not going to do it all myself. The wife and I once drove to Orkney, in one go, with my colleague Mr Self, and that was a memorable experience, but it was in that brief, ungraspable period when we did not have children, when the eyes are sharper and the nerves less shredded, and I’m not going to do anything like that ever again.

Naturally, the person who had the worst of the latest manifestation of the children’s increasing maturity was the wife, who had to watch them all driving off from the family home in order to pick me up from the Hovel. In other words, she had to watch three children and no adults (even though, technically, two of them are adults; but it doesn’t work like that from where we stand) drive away from her front door. I imagine that watching that happen must be something like watching one’s car being stolen in slow motion.

The elder boy passed his test in only the past month or so, and although the eldest, now 20 and a half, has been driving for some time, she gave the car a little prang on Dartmoor the other week and her confidence, not to mention mine, has been eroded somewhat. (Incidentally, should you, too, decide to have a prang on Dartmoor, may I recommend getting it fixed at TyreMarks in Tavistock? They charged my daughter so little to fix a wonky flange trumpet or something and arrange a spare tyre that I can hardly believe it, and the family will talk about it in wonder for the rest of our days.) My confidence was eroded further when the daughter, who wanted to drive away from the Hovel to the sound of Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower”, like Marwood driving off in Withnail and I, stalled just as she was pulling away from the kerb. “Way to spoil the moment,” said her brother. (The Withnail motif is relevant here, because we will be breaking our journey there and back at Penrith, where my friend Adrian knows the person who has the keys to “Crow Crag”, where we intend to make a pilgrimage.)

Anyway, there I am in the passenger seat, miserably conscious that I cannot take a Valium or down a quarter-bottle of Scotch, or both, in order to still the anxiety, in case I have to take over the driving. And then, later on, when the elder boy takes on his share of the duties, the M6 from Penrith to Perth, I am in the back seat; and there’s my boy, knuckles white on the wheel . . . and I think, “Sod this,” and decide to have a doze. After all, what is the point of being awake to the very end, screaming and waving one’s hands around like a maniac? I would rather go in my sleep.

But we make it. And I am very proud. We play the Jesus and Mary Chain’s album Honey’s Dead as we pass their home town, East Kilbride, in order to pay the honour that’s due to the finest working rock’n’roll band on the planet, and no one fights, and everyone is happy. At one point the wife rings up to see how we’re doing.

“Fine,” I say. “It’s a lot easier when there are only four people in the car, as opposed to five.”

“I know,” she says. “That’s why I did it.” It takes me a second or two to work out what she means.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double

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