Tracey Thorn: Driving made me a nervous wreck – now I walk everywhere

Luckily the accident wasn’t fatal, or even injurious, but it was final, an absolute bitter end. When I got home I put my car keys in the fruit bowl to make clear I would never be needing them again.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“I wish you could drive, Mum,” said my daughter to me this evening, as we made our way home from a school event.

“Taxi!” I cried, effectively silencing her, and when we were comfortably settled inside, winging our way home down the bus lane, flying past the rush-hour traffic stuck on the Finchley Road, I gave her my usual smug look. “No one needs to drive in London,” I reminded her for the zillionth time. The place is so stuffed with buses, Tubes, taxis and riverboats, there’s barely room to swing a Boris bike, so why anyone would choose their own car, with all its attendant miseries, is beyond me.

That’s my rational head talking to you. Now I’ll put my other head on and tell you the real reason. Once upon a time many, many years ago, child, I did drive, and it was a fearsome and awful time, for I was the worst driver in the world ever. And that is an actual, literal fact that you can probably check on Wikipedia.

As a teenager, I had never wanted to learn, but then was persuaded in my late twenties. Two or three (tellingly, I have forgotten) driving tests later I was deemed competent, and it seemed that only I knew the truth, which was that I had no idea what I was doing. Erratic, indecisive and directionless, I drove with all the skill and consistency of a drunk on the dodgems. During my year behind the wheel I kept pointing this out to people, only to be met with murmurs of: “Pfft, don’t be so modest. Anyone can drive,” and assertions that any kinks in my technique would soon be ironed out with practice. So I kept practising, thinking I must be mistaken in believing I was an accident waiting to happen. Until the moment when – yes, you’ve got there before me – the accident stopped waiting and I drove into someone.

I mentioned just now that I’ve forgotten many things about my driving. I can’t even recall whether my instructor was a man or a woman, which speaks to me of some fairly efficient and deliberate memory-cleansing. One of the security questions my bank likes to ask me is, “What was your first car?” and as it was my only car you’d think the answer would spring to mind quickly. In fact, I have blotted that out, too, and the information hides quivering somewhere behind a mental sofa, having to be dragged out into the light when needed. The one thing I do remember, from the Year of Driving Dangerously, is the crashing.

You’re probably picturing me tootling along at 40 on the motorway, or being overtaken by milk floats on residential roads – a nuisance to all but a danger to nobody. I’ll set you straight on that one. Nervous drivers don’t drive too slow, they drive too fast. Like those who drink too quickly at the start of a party to calm the jitters, I would put my foot down in order to get the whole thing over with. Combined with an inability to judge distance or speed, and a desperate desire not to be a bore at roundabouts, my fear made me a menace, and when I finally crashed – having deliberated for a few minutes and then chosen precisely the wrong moment to pull out at a junction – it was the sheer inevitability that wounded me.

Luckily the accident wasn’t fatal, or even injurious, but it was final, an absolute bitter end. When I got home I put my car keys in the fruit bowl to make clear I would never be needing them again.

Since that day I have made the most of all the other modes of transport on offer and above all I have walked. Down to the river and round Regent’s Park for exercise; through the deserted midnight city with thousands of others for charity. Up and down hills for shopping; across Hampstead Heath with friends, for therapy. The fresh air and the talking may be just as restorative as the marching along, but I’ve learned that I’m never more myself than when on the move, under my own steam. Driving brought out the worst in me, making me a nervous wreck who compensated by acting aggressively, but I suspect it does this to many people, hence all the rage and fury. People who say they like it are just pretending. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her books include Naked at the Albert Hall, Bedsit Disco Queen and, most recently, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia 

This article appears in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris