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6 September 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 1:13pm

I like driving – but only for about 20 minutes. And when the car is actually moving

By Nicholas Lezard

Would I, I am asked by his mother, like to drive the youngest back from university. That would be a pleasure, I reply. He is studying at Sussex University, which is just – according to the internet – a 15-minute drive from my place in Brighton. However, nothing in life is simple, and when I realise that I can’t find my driving licence, and that renting a car will be more expensive than a day return to London and borrowing the Estranged Wife’s car, I find myself yo-yo-ing back and forth to and from Brighton four times, when I could have just done it twice. However, having long become inured to six-hour train journeys, the hour it takes to get to London seems almost poignantly fleeting, like the life of a mayfly, or a romantic poet.

I manage to get to the campus site without using any maps at all. My phone doesn’t do the internet any more, and the road map is in the boot, but I think it’s important to make life difficult for yourself from time to time. It builds character. This is the kind of thing fathers say.

“You shouldn’t rely on satnavs so much,” I tell them. “You do realise that civilisation’s going to collapse within the next ten to 15 years, don’t you?”

“We’ll learn to read a map when we have to,” they say, “and not before.”

However, on the drive back, I ask the youngest what his phone’s map has to say about the state of the M25. The journey down had taken rather a long time and only for one brief period had I exceeded 50mph. As I like to drive fast – really quite fast – this was somewhat irksome, and when I’d arrived at the campus I’d refused to help carry any of his clobber down. (He did have two friends with him, though.) He told me that if I wanted to avoid traffic then the M25 was going to be a no-no. He recommended a much straighter route, but one that would take us through parts of south London with which I am unfamiliar. I would have to swallow my pride and use him, or rather his phone, as a navigator.

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There was still traffic. We spent much time stationary. Luckily, conversation flows well between us. Up to a point. I found myself getting increasingly rattled by our snail-like progress. It was around this time that I decided that I really like driving, but only for about 20 minutes. And then only if we’re moving.

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“I spy,” I say, “with my little eye, something beginning with L.”

“Oh God,” he says.

We are on the A23, and the thing – or things – beginning with L are all around us.

“Life?” he asks.

“Well, in a sense,” I say. “But I am after something more specific.”

I wonder why I’ve started this game. I can’t stand it, either. I suppose it is to remind him that however grown up he considers himself, he will always be my little [infant nickname redacted; I’m not a complete monster].

In the end he gives up. He is squirming in his seat.

“Leaves,” I say, for the trees on either side of the road are burgeoning with them. He cries out, as if in pain.

“I spy,” he says, “with my little eye, something beginning with E.”

Reader, I’ll spare you. (It was the exhausts, as in exhaust pipes, on the cars in front of us. I don’t think that’s fair.)

Later on, as we crawl through somewhere called Norbiton, I ask him to teach me young person’s slang. “Blem”, apparently, is a cigarette. “Chip” is tobacco. “Butters” and “clapped” mean ugly. “Leng” means attractive. A “zoot” is a cigarette that has been augmented, by the addition of a certain herb, to something that is illegal in this country.

I start to wonder if he’s making these up as he goes along, just to make sport with me. What’s he going to say next? “‘Nong’ means ‘water in the washing-up bowl that’s gone unpleasantly cold’.” “‘Chonky’ is weirdly specific. It means that feeling you have when there’s a stone in your shoe but it’s not quite big or uncomfortable enough for you to take it off.”

Well, we arrive safely, although I am so sick of driving I am thinking of bailing out of the next university challenge, which means a trip to Manchester and back.

A few days later I am sitting on Brighton beach with Will Self, who has heard I am here and wishes to buy me lunch. We discuss the current shitstorm of politics, and the rise of Trump, Farage and Johnson.

“These are just epiphenomena,” he says, “based on people’s inability to grasp the fact that thanks to climate change, civilisation is going to be ending soon. I give it ten to 15 years.”

Bingo, I think to myself. 

This article appears in the 26 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order