The Ten Commandments
My French teacher at school, who was a fund of irrelevant learning, once told us that there had been no very great Jewish painters in history, and that it was all because of the Ten Commandments.
“You see, God told the Israelites that they must not make any graven images, so they got the idea that painting and carving was wrong. Writing and music was all right. That is why there are so many great Jewish writers and musicians. But not any artists.”
Ever since then I have been a bit suspicious of the Ten Commandments. So when recently they suggested that there should be a new version of the Ten Commandments to encourage better driving, as in “Thou shalt not overtake on the inside”, and so on, I didn’t think it was the way to lower accident figures. Indeed, I think that learning things by rote is a doubtful blessing, and that we are much more likely to learn from personal experience. Make a mistake, learn from it. Have a narrow escape, don’t do that again.
In fact, I shall put that to the test now. I shall think of ten significant things that have happened to me while driving over fifty years and see if we can’t draw some object lessons from them.
1. About ten years ago I was stopped for speeding on the outskirts of Bradford-on-Avon, trying to get a child to school on time. I was fined and docked several points. Thereafter, my attitude to speeding changed. I learnt my lesson and always kept below 30 mph in a restricted area, though only when going into Bradford-on-Avon and on that particular stretch.
2. About five years ago I was caught speeding in Devon somewhere, and it gradually began to dawn on me that Bradford-on-Avon was not the only hot spots in the country.
3. I was once in a taxi going round Hyde Park Corner, where we were brought to a crawl by an accident that had happened five minutes before. It occurred to as we sat that there in all the crashes and accidents I had seen in London, I had never seen one with a taxi in it.
I said as much to my driver.
“No, mate,” he said. “Taxi drivers cause a lot of accidents, but they never get involved in them.”
4. Bicycling through Notting Hill in the 1970s, I was once nearly sent flying when a small car cut in in front of me, quite illegally. We happened to come to some red traffic lights twenty yards further on, and everyone stopped. I took the opportunity to vent my wrath by banging my hand in anger on the boot of his or her car.
The driver got out. He was about six foot six. He was young and strong. He had a broken nose and a cauliflower ear. With on huge fist he grasped the top of my shirt and lifted me almost off the bike.
“Don’t ever do that again,” he growled from two inches away and then put me down. I promised I wouldn’t.
5. I once hailed a taxi in front of Holland Park Tube Station, and he stopped for me on the zebra crossing there. I got in and we were nearly off when a policeman emerged from the shadows where he had been watching, and said to the driver: “Are you taking the mickey?”
“Sorry?” said the driver.
“You stopped on a zebra crossing right in front of me,” said the policeman. “That’s dead against the law. But you thought you would take the mickey out of me. So let me tell you . . .”
And he went off into a tirade of four letter words and curses, then suddenly said, “Go on - scram – don’t do it again.”
As we drove off, shaken, I said to the cabby that we had been lucky not be arrested.
“Nah,” said the veteran driver. “He wasn’t going to do anything. After a while you realise that when policemen do all that effing and blinding, they’re just letting off steam. Probably just had a bad morning. The ones you want to worry about are the very quiet ones who don’t say anything and just take their book out.”
6. My father once said to me: “The most dangerous time on the roads is when it has just started raining. When it’s fairly wet, it’s not too bad, but when it’s just started to rain, the roads get rather greasy with all the dust and very slippy.”
7. A doctor once told me that, medically speaking, drinking actually improved your driving. It relaxed you and took away the tenseness. But only after the first half pint.
8. My father said to me once: “If you’re running out of petrol and aren’t sure if you are going to get to the garage, drive in a higher gear. They are more economic on fuel.”
9. I have been driving a Saab 900 for the past fifteen years, because it is the only car I know that easily gets a double bass lying flat in the back.
10. Once, my father was driving me on a back road in Wales one wintry day when a lorry came round the corner in front of us. There was no room to pass. My father jammed the brakes on. We did not stop, but floated towards the lorry across the black ice. Just before impact, my father said: “I am afraid we are going to hit him”.
And here are the ten things I have learnt from that.
1. Avoid Bradford-on-Avon.
2. And everywhere else.
3. Always get a taxi in London. Failing that, buy a taxi and drive it yourself.
4. Very small cars can be driven by very big people.
5. Avoid quiet policemen.
6. Your father is right.
7. Drink and drive, a bit.
8. Your father is right again.
9. Always take a double bass with you when trying out a new car.
10. Your father is not always right, as you will remind him when you have your first crash.
I hope I have been of some help.
25th June 2007