Even when you’re driving a Vauxhall Boring on the M6, a shunt is a shunt

“Thank God Mum isn’t here to see this,” says the boy.

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Off to Manchester with son number one. His second year at university is over, and he needs a car to put his stuff in, and a driver to drive it. His mother has a real job and I don’t, so I get to be the chauffeur. This is actually something I’m looking forward to, because I enjoy his company, as I do that of his siblings. I know you’re meant to enjoy your children’s company but I never thought I’d enjoy it so much.

Of course, the drive to Manchester itself is a bit of a bore. The ancient, battle-scarred Mercedes, which bespoke a terrifying contempt for the proprieties and made other drivers give it a wide berth, is now history, and I am driving something grey and boring, possibly a Vauxhall of some sort. The Mercedes was so old it had a cassette player, which was fine because not only did I have loads of cassettes, but the kids had a gizmo they could plug into the player and then connect to their phones, which can play anything they want.

The Vauxhall Boring only has a CD player, and who has CDs these days? I raid the CD shelves from the family home. Half of the CD boxes are empty. The others all date from the days when I had a functioning marriage, but they will have to do.

My hand, without conscious input, chooses quite a few Manchester bands. Joy Division, Oasis, James. I think about the days when the wife and I would go to the Groucho and chat with the likes of Damon Albarn and the bassist who now makes cheese. I told him how to make a proper Martini and the wife thought that Damon Albarn was very cute, but I remember that he had smelly trainers.

Song after song triggers a memory, and each memory serves to highlight the rather large discrepancy between my previous life and the one I have now. I have been staying for the last few days at my brother’s, and if there is one thing that puts a dent in one’s self-esteem, it is relying on the charity of one’s close relatives. He is kind and I am grateful but it is not the natural order of things.

I cannot, in all honesty, put my hand on my heart and say that I am the best driver in the world, but as we join the queue for the M6 toll I am even more distracted than usual and I nearly ram the car in front. We are going very slowly but a shunt is a shunt.

“Thank God Mum isn’t here to see this,” says the boy. I am unused to long-distance driving: my natural style allies a somewhat slapdash and indifferent technique, masquerading as stylish insouciance, to a lack of practice. Also, I am getting sleepy and I have to stop twice to fling down horrible double espressos from Starbucks. Were I on my own, I reflect, I might not have bothered.

The boy’s home is like all student homes. I thought the Hovel had what might euphemistically be called character, but there is something about student homes that makes one despair. Every little detail contrives to assault the eye, and the upstairs shower makes me feel dirty just by looking at it. Everywhere one sees the invisible hand of the landlord at work, cutting corners and not giving a damn. And students themselves are not known for their tidiness.

“Actually, the girls are worse,” says the boy, “and there’s one here who can’t go to sleep unless her hairdryer’s on.” This, I must admit, is a new one on me.

We go to the pub down the road, a vast place teeming with students. There seem to be far more girls than boys, and they are all full of youth and good cheer, and are all taking advantage of the sunny weather in order to wear practically nothing. I think of Razors, and how much he would love this. Though maybe he wouldn’t: he’d just start making that noise he makes, and beads of sweat would form on his pate.

“Damn,” I say, “I can’t find my lighter. I think I’ll go and ask the nice young people at that table over there.”

“Just look in your pockets properly, Dad.” He knows that my threat is an idle one. Apart from two furious-looking men at the end of the bar, one with a nose which looks as though it has been subject to radioactive mutation, I am, by some margin, the oldest person in the place. When I was a student, there were about seven men for every woman, and the only way the men had a chance was if they owned half of Dorset, or were already a woman.

Back at the student home we eat Chinese takeaway and howl over Rick and Morty, a cartoon show I cannot recommend highly enough. One of my son’s flatmates pops in and she marvels to see father and son being so companionable, and with the father being visibly more dissolute than the son.

“I wish I had a cool dad,” she says.

“What you’re meant to do now,” I say, turning to my son, “is go ‘so do I’.” 

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 first appeared in the 15 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?