My mother must have finally passed her driving test by the time I was sixteen as when my birthday came in December 1971 she paid for me to have driving lessons. Of course, the instructor of choice was Stan Waites and she arranged for me to have two lessons a week. I can still remember the excitement of my first lesson. I had got my learner’s permit and the afternoon of that day I was waiting in the front room for Mr Waites to turn up. He arrived in his Vauxhill Viva and pulled up on the road outside and I went out to meet him. It seemed so strange to be sitting in the driver’s seat. I was shown how to adjust the seat so that my feet could reach the pedals and push the clutch sufficiently to reach the floor. I was then shown how to adjust the mirror and to do this every time I got in the car as the examiner would look out for it. Seat belt was fastened and then I was shown the basics of the gear stick. I put the car in neutral and then was told to turn the key and start the engine. I can still remember the thrill. Hands at ‘Ten to Two’, I checked the mirrors pushed down the clutch, put the gear stick into first, started to accelerate, released the clutch and the hand brake and then came to a shuddering stop. I had stalled. I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, my mother watching from the front room window. Mr Waites, calmly took me back through the process and this time the car slowly, if not smoothly, pulled off.
Learner cars were dual control in these times and I am not sure how much Stan Waites controlled the gear changes, but almost as soon as we started moving along the road he had me changing to second. We drove to the end of the street and turned right and then right again to Arlington Road. We then drove up to Easterly Road and turned left towards the Ring Road. Easterly Road is a dual carriageway and I think the speed limit is forty miles an hour. He got me up to fourth gear and the speed seemed incredible. We hurtled along the road and I had the mixed emotions of exhilaration and fear. We went up Wellington Hill and, in many ways, this part was quite easy as there weren’t many gear changes required, but I couldn’t believe it when we turned left onto the Ring Road towards Roundhay Park and Moortown.
I must say that I had no difficulties with the steering. Maybe that was due to the amount of time spent riding my bike, but getting the clutch changing smooth was much more of a challenge. I seem to remember that we headed up by Roundhay golf course and back along Park Lane and Princess Avenue to Oakwood and then onto the streets near my home. We stopped in a side street and he explained the mechanics of gear changing, positioning in the road for turns and basic road rules. After that we started off again and we arrived back at our house. My mother was still in the window and she rushed to find out how we had done. Mr Waites said I had done very well, but was not overly gushing.
The next lesson followed a similar pattern, but this time he took me through Harehills and the streets around Chapeltown and Spencer Place, as he told me that was the usual area that the examiners would use. I was more confident the second lesson and it went well and I looked forward to the next. Each lesson after that we went in more challenging areas and he told me less and less and allowed me to drive. He had a quick way to remind you if you were doing something wrong. A swift slap on the hand if you rested it on the gear stick, or a curt comment to let you know you had made a mistake gave you the impetus to improve and learn. It was always done with patience and good humour and he was an excellent instructor. I never drove with either of my parents and so the lessons were my total experience. After about twelve lessons he told me he was putting me in for my test. I beamed with delight, but then the anxiety hit. How would I face everyone if I failed?
We did not practise along the test routes for the remainder of the lessons and Mr Waites would quiz me on my road knowledge and Highway Code. I also did some practice at home and then came the dreaded day of the test. You still had to do hand signals then, even though every car had indicators, but I hadn’t practised them with Mr Waites until the lesson before the test.
The time for the test was upon me. The driving instructor entered the passenger seat and he barely said a word, apart from giving instructions where to turn and what procedures he wanted me to do. I was surprised that he didn’t fasten the seat belt, something that would be compulsory nowadays. We set off from the test centre and I noted that we were heading to the area that we had practised during the lessons. It was mainly Harehills and Chapeltown. This was a relief and I was driving fine. We did the usual manoeuvres of three-point-turn, reverse parking and hill-starts. I knew that the emergency stop was coming and he forewarned me that he wanted me to stop when he tapped his newspaper on the dashboard. The moment came and I was pleased with the speed and control I maintained. I began to relax a little and this was a fatal mistake. He asked me to use hand signals for the next period until he told me to stop. I wound the window down and we carried on. I managed the signals for a few minutes and then automatically returned to indicating. “I thought I asked you to use hand signals?” he said in a stern voice. “I’m sorry,” I replied. “Using the indicator is just instinct.”He said nothing more, but my heart sank. “I’ve blown it,” I thought.
We were driving along Roundhay Road and approaching the Harehills Road Junction. It was late afternoon and the sun was setting and the sunlight was dazzling. I had been told to be very careful with zebra crossings because if you drove over one and someone had stepped on it, it was an instant fail. The light was blinding as we approached the zebra crossing and just as I was about to cross the black and white lines I saw someone step onto the crossing. I slammed on my brakes and the examiner was thrown forward. His papers went flying and his glasses fell off as he hit the windscreen. If there had been any doubt I would fail, that quickly vanished. I almost cried, but carried on after the pedestrian crossed the road. It was nearing the end of the test and I continued in a dream-like state of misery and finally pulled into the driving school car park. The examiner was busy filling in his forms and then he turned to me, “We’re scraping the barrel here, Mr Cameron, but I congratulate you on passing your test.”I couldn’t believe it. “Just one thing, why did you stop like that at the crossing?” I explained that I had been told it was an instant failure. “Well, don’t do it again! You’ll have someone drive into the back of you.”
With that, he handed me the form to get a full licence, got out of the car and had a quick chat with Mr Waites who was standing there. Mr Waites then walked over and told me to get in the passenger seat and he drove me home. My mother was still in the window waiting and she rushed out. I was beaming at this point and waved the pass papers in front of her. I think she had mixed emotions, pride that I had passed first time, but a bit of embarrassment that she had had so many lessons and tests before she finally passed. I had done it in 24 lessons and despite the belief I had blown it on the test, I was raring to drive on my own.
My mum had the Morris Minor at this point and she let me drive over to my older brother’s house in Crossgates. I must be honest, driving on your own was very nerve wracking. I was constantly waiting for someone to give me instructions and, of course, there was no one else there. I drove at night that first time and I hadn’t ever driven the car before and it was quite a scary ride. I wasn’t sure where I was going and got lost a bit, but eventually managed it.
It was a great gift from my mother. I do think that it is so much easier to learn when you are young. I became a good driver and partly this is due to the fact that my mum got me a job at Wraggs Motor Cycles on York Street as she was the wages clerk there. They wanted someone to drive the VW van to pick up and deliver motorbikes and scooters. They also had a shop on Lower Brigate and the workshop was on Brussels Street. I had to go in for an interview and they asked if I could drive the van and I said I thought I could. They sent me off to drive it around and I was on my own, luckily. I did fine through Leeds City rush hour, but I made a mistake coming back and turned right at traffic lights from Duke Street into York Street where only buses were allowed. No one saw me and I got away with it. I was given the job and on my first day they wanted me to take the van home and the next day drive down the M1 to Birmingham to the Triumph motorcycle factory to collect a Triumph Bonneville. I had barely driven anywhere at this point and thought it good to take my friend, David Goult, along to act as navigator. It was a real learning curve, but it all went well and I dropped him at his house before taking the van and motorbike to Wraggs. I think it impressed them, but that was to only last a few weeks before I had a calamity. That story is in an earlier tale if anyone is interested.
The audiobook version of The Moonchild can be listened to on the Soundcloud player below. This is a fantasy book and the first in the series. There is no cost to listen.