‘Here’s the Thing…’ – Clutch Control

The pitfalls of learning to drive in Liverpool, with an instructor who’s into Deep House

deep house driving ellie harrison here's the thing House Smithdown Road

I don’t know whether Paul has ever listened to “The Driving Instructor”, the hilarious radio sketch by the American comedian Bob Newhart, but he ought to. Particularly the bit where the instructor throws himself from the car as Mrs Webb travels down her driveway at 75mph – in reverse.

Rioting youths are a constant hazard when driving up Smithdown

Paul is my driving instructor and once a week he puts his life in my hands.

Learning to drive in Liverpool is …different. The good news is it’s inexpensive, the roads are wide, and it’s yet another excuse to delay handing in that overdue essay. Procrastination at its best. The bad news is that the only available slots seem to be at 9am – I’m expecting Ashton to jump out of a bush at any moment and shout “You’ve been Punk’d!” Honestly. 9am?! – and my fellow drivers on Smithdown Road are unforgiving, to put it mildly.

My first driving lesson in Liverpool was less like mid-town suburban America and more like a scene from Grand Theft Auto.

In Toxteth, the sun don’t shine and the birds don’t tweet. In other words, rising early is a challenge. As if scheduling my lessons at the crack of dawn was not punishment enough, Paul insists on sending reminder texts before each lesson at an hour which should be made illegal.

Rival road users on Smithdown will happily add insult to injury, and should under no circumstances be confronted before breakfast. They refuse to recognise the learner sign on my bonnet and show no pity when I stall, which is often. It is not unknown for Paul’s car to remain immobile through several traffic light changes, much to the frustration of the men in white vans getting uncomfortably close to my rear.

Bus drivers and taxi drivers are, no exaggeration, engaged in guerrilla warfare with each other. I am prone to road rage, yes, but never have I seen deeper hatred than when the eyes of Delta cabbies meet those of a bus conductor.

“I fucking hate bus drivers, me.”

Nor do I need these external distractions from the main task of learning to drive. I am quite capable of those myself. Tootling along Edge Lane one bright morning, I spotted some friends on the pavement and got so excited at the prospect of them seeing me drive that I took both hands off the wheel to wave ecstatically. Alas, they were oblivious to my hand manoeuvres – unlike Paul who almost went into cardiac arrest in his efforts to try and stop the car from knocking down an innocent pedestrian. He’s a real gem.

Sometimes I wonder why he puts up with me. Paul is a stand-up guy with infinite patience, enthusiasm and an unusual taste in music for someone comfortably old enough to be my Dad. On our first encounter, he rapped and rhymed his way through the lesson: “Step down on the clutch, now feel the engine bite-ite-ite…..accelerate!” Jesus.

On our second outing, he turned to me whilst I was cruising along Mossley Hill Drive and said: “Ellie, guess what my favourite genre of music is?” After a tedious 2 or 3 minutes of sifting through every genre that I could imagine a 64 year old Top Gear fanatic listening to, Paul couldn’t hold it in anymore: “House music!” he declared, whipping out Ministry of Sound’s “Deep House” compilation and cranking it up to full volume in case I didn’t believe him.

To Paul’s dismay, I ejected the CD and explained to him that I really felt I could concentrate better on clutch control without the beloved beats of Miguel Campbell blaring through the car.

Beanie, joint, love of house – one of Paul’s typical clients

Despite my reluctance, I do relish the thrills of motoring – especially when I get to race over the Runcorn bridge at 70mph screaming with delight, only for Paul to note dryly that it’s “just an A road” and to “get some perspective”. Spoil sport.

I am still a long way from trusting myself behind the wheel alone. But who cares? If it means I can spend another 20 or so hours listening to Paul’s house music, his endless backlog of anecdotes about past clients and his imaginative ways of making sure they always pay up, I’m happy to remain a learner.

As Bob Newhart observed, Paul belongs to a special group of (mostly) men, who go out to work each morning facing death in a hundred different ways and never quite knowing whether they will return in the evening. I want him to know he is safe with me. But I must confess, the dual controls in his little Honda are a big comfort to the both of us.

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