In the summer of 2009, when I was 21, I drove down the M25 at 70 miles per hour, twice, in what I can only describe as my first real rite of adulthood. Forget snogging. Forget having sex. Forget going to university. This was it.
I felt fast. I felt autonomous. Until I remembered that my driving instructor was sitting next to me. He let his presence be known by reminding me of the speed limit. Behind the wheel, I let him know that I was across my mirrors. I began to indicate and exited the motorway, shifting gears and driving back towards my parents’ house.
Driving soothed me. I remember my dad telling me that as a baby there was only one way to stop me crying: to take me out at night in the car and play Joni Mitchell until I fell asleep. The movement of the car has always felt comforting; if you are moving it is physically impossible to feel stuck, to be unhappy. There is always somewhere you can go.
Autumn came around before I could take a test and then life happened. I went back to university to finish my degree and got distracted by living. I never converted my provisional driving licence into one that allows you to drive unaccompanied.
Back then, learning was easy. Lessons – the ones you know you’re attending, not the ones life throws at you with no warning – were a fact of life. Tests, similarly, were easy – less testing than the more existential sort I encounter now, at 34.
But here I am, learning to drive again. And this time I will take a test. I can just about remember how to change gear so passing feels attainable. My sister is having a baby and I want to be able to reach her easily at short notice, I want to feel like a proper adult. I want to be there if she needs me and not reliant on public transport to get to her.
It’s 8am and I am driving through north London with my new instructor, Ed. A van pulls out in front of us when it shouldn’t have done. Ed remains calm.
"Don’t move," he says. "They don’t get to push you around like this."
Charli XCX’s lyrics for "Vroom Vroom" run through my mind: "Lavender Lamborghini, get out on the right side / Chauffeur stayed at home because my girl wanted to ride / Lookin' luxe and tastin' plush, I'm feelin' so alive / Want to take it to the highway, come on, let's go for a drive."
When you are stuck at a red light there is nothing you can do but surrender. It will change when it changes. The deliberation is taken from you and you are momentarily free.
I follow Ed’s instructions. The van driver throws up his hands. I hold my nerve. They begin to reverse. I feel powerful and confident. If only I could be so immovable outside the car. Inside it, I feel safe. I feel as though I cannot be seen. Perhaps the van driver does, too. He gesticulates wildly. I’m sure he is swearing. He wouldn’t do that if we were face to face. Behind his windscreen, with his windows up, he feels protected and able to show extreme emotion.
Crisis averted, I become cocky. I go too fast and stall. Ed tells me that moving too quickly with the clutch is "a road to nowhere". What, I wonder, am I rushing for? When I obey the speed limit, which is 20 miles per hour on the majority of roads near my London home, it infuriates the drivers around me. They beep their horns. They overtake me at great speed, sometimes putting themselves and oncoming traffic at risk. What are they rushing towards?
"We stick to the speed limit," Ed says. "It doesn’t matter what other people do. You speed, you fail."
Learning to drive with Ed is teaching me a valuable lesson: the value of patience and process. There is an order to his lessons and each one must be completed before we move on to the next.
I realise now how different my life would have been if I had passed my driving test in my early 20s. How many journeys would I have made? In recent years, some of my happiest moments have been spent in cars.
At the very end of 2019, shortly before the pandemic, my friend drove me down Ireland’s Atlantic coast. We listened to Taylor Swift’s entire back catalogue and when we had exhausted it, we began to listen to speeches she had given. The driver can only drive and listen. It’s nauseating for the passenger to read. Driving offers relief from endless scrolling, a chance to look at the horizon and listen. "We love the open road," sings Joni Mitchell on "Night Ride Home". "No phones 'til Friday / Far from the undertow / Far from the overload."
In Ireland I sat beside my friend as she drove across mountain passes, along cliff tops and through Connemara National Park, where double rainbows followed us. We drove through sunsets, we drove in the pitch dark. We woke up in one place on New Year’s Eve and by the end of New Year's Day we were already miles away. During that week, we were answerable only to the rules of the road.
On the road you get glimpses of other people as traffic flows around you. It always seems incredible to me that so many people can be making their own private journeys so publicly. When you are driving you are alone but always surrounded by other cars and their drivers, all of them with their own reasons for going where they’re going. The car is a portal: it gets you out of wherever you are and helps you get unstuck. It also reminds you that your safety and your ability to move forwards are dependent on the behaviour of other drivers, that you are part of a community.
We’ve now completed junctions and roundabouts. Next week, Ed and I will take on reversing. You can’t learn to drive instantly, it takes time. It is freeing, for once, to have rules that I can follow by the book. As much as driving gives me the sense of freedom of movement, it allows me to relinquish a certain amount of control because there are ways that you are supposed to do things. When you are stuck at a red light there is nothing you can do but surrender. It will change when it changes. You go when it says you can go. The deliberation is taken from you and you are momentarily free.