The day I bought my first car I hadn’t really slept. It was a Saturday morning, mid-December. Early enough that the day was only just dislodging the darkness. The roads I cycled along to my brother’s flat were still glossy with ice. I briefly allowed myself to imagine what it would be like to pass over them in my own car, but mostly I focused on not skidding. My lashes were still jammy with last night’s mascara. I hadn’t had time to shower. “You’ve got to start taking better care of yourself,” my brother gently chided as he drove us to a second-hand car dealership in Essex.
Once there my brother, the kind of person who knows everything there is to know about cars, pointed and probed at the mess of containers and pipes packed into the bonnet of what became my first car. He ran his hand along the side skirts, crouched down to peer up at its dirty underside. For weeks now he’d been helping me search various websites for used cars. It didn’t have to be a good car, I told him. I couldn’t afford to keep it longer than the year I needed it for research purposes, anyway.
Still, most of the potential cars I sent over to him received feedback such as: “That model breaks down a lot”; “That one’s had too many owners”; “It would take too long to explain to you how many things are wrong with that car…” This was the only one we’d found about which he’d been genuinely excited.
My car is a Toyota Corolla 2001. It’s a hatchback. No dents or significant scrapes but for a few marks scratched into the smoky silver paintwork. The clutch is sticky and the biting point high. It’s done 106,600 miles. There’s no drinks holder, but there is a static-y radio and a CD player.
In our first month together, my car and me, I played only one album on repeat, Lily Allen’s 2006 classic debut, Alright, Still. Four months later, the peppy intro to “Smile” still sends me into shuddery flashbacks: weeping before the brow of a hill as I failed to perform a hill start, the honking coming at me from all directions, surround-sound honking; weeping throughout the 45 minutes it took me to edge into a large parking space; weeping on a slipway; weeping on a motorway.
During that first month, driving was an activity punctuated by regular stalling – or, more accurately, stalling was an activity punctuated by occasional driving. No fewer than four strangers have rapped on my window to ask if I needed a hand after discovering me shipwrecked in the middle of a road, head in hands against the steering wheel, whispering to myself, “Oh no, oh no, oh no…” Once, as a man gracefully reversed my car out of the way of the “road closed” sign I was stuck against, he turned to smile at me, saying, “This car is shit,” then asked for my number. Disrespect my car and you disrespect me, I thought, and politely replied, “Thanks for your help, but no thanks.”
[See also: The myth of green cars]
From the beginning there were glimpses of the personal freedom I knew having a car of my own would eventually provide: throwing a backpack of clothes into the boot, a tinfoil-wrapped sandwich on the passenger seat, and heading out into counties I’d never visited before, to stay with people I’d never met before.
Yet this sense of liberation was undercut by my horror at the binds that come with car ownership. For this was my most expensive possession, an intricate, unknowable, temperamental, petrol-guzzling, potentially death-causing machine (in the notes app on my phone, I reminded myself: Unleaded! Not diesel! DO NOT FORGET!!)
In Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, the 25-year-old protagonist Sofia has failed her driving test four times. For much of the novel, Sofia feels like a distant astronaut orbiting her own life, witness not participant. She’s staying in southern Spain with her ailing mother. People there are always telling her she needs to be bolder. Her mother says: “My daughter is wasting her life.”
And so, it means something when Sofia gets behind the wheel of their hire car, despite having no licence. It means something that she finds herself able to drive with ease – not withstanding a few gear issues, to which I can relate. But even then, even while the mother is in the midst of being driven by her daughter along the dusty Spanish motorways, she jibes, “I can’t imagine you as a driver.”
I can’t imagine myself as a driver. My friends and family could not imagine me as a driver. In disposition I am spacey, uncoordinated, recklessly clumsy, leaving a trail of broken plates and mugs in my wake. And yet I am out there in the petrol haze of motorways.
Now, I rarely stall. I can manage hill starts, begrudgingly. I’ve been halfway across the country, re-entered my city by way of a dozen new pulmonary veins, seen its skyscraper skyline emerge from a dozen new angles. I drove a friend to a woodland funeral. I drove a vicar and her husband home from a Christian retreat – though they prayed for our safe passage more than once during the journey.
I booked my first MOT test with a month to spare. I still don’t ace looking after myself very often, but at least I’m pretty good at looking after my Toyota Corolla. What I appreciate most about driving is the inevitability of improvement. If you get out there and drive regularly, you will get better. You will make fewer mistakes. One day you will feel completely at home on the road. There’s not much else I’ve found so far in life that is such a dead cert.
This article appears in the 19 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Axis of Autocrats