Strapping Tom safely into his car seat this morning triggered a whole lot of memories of the various car journeys I made as a child with my grandfather. My mum and dad have never owned a car though my dad got his license in his early twenties – instead if a car was necessary for a family holiday they would merely rent one.
My grandfather, however, got his license just after the war – on the second attempt. He failed the first test for being cheeky. As they drove up a steep hill the instructor apparently asked my grandfather what he would do when he reached the top – obviously expecting a technical answer to do with gear changes and the accelerator. My grandfather merely laughed and said he’d continue over the top and go down the other side until he reached the bottom.
That got him a big fat cross and a fail.
The second test he restrained his naughty streak and passed. From that point on, until he reached his eighties, he was never without a car. Hence most of the car journeys I experienced as a child were in his company and in his car.
Now every time we strap Tom into the backseat and nag Ben to put on his seatbelt I am always reminded of how, when my sister and I were of a similar age, we would ride quite happily and quite acceptably in the back of my grandfather’s car without seatbelts. I even recall one occasion when – as a treat – my grandfather let us both stand on the front passenger seat with our hands on the dashboard. This was wonderful as a small child to be able to see properly out of the windscreen as we drove along. Somehow I don’t think there are many children who experience such things now.
Countless times we would lie down on the backseat on long journeys and fall asleep under a “car blanket”. I even made the entire journey to Weston-super-Mare once lying down in the back of my grandfather’s old estate car, snuggled up to my grandparent’s huge Labrador, Kim, while my sisters and the grown-ups were all crushed up in the backseats and the front passenger seat. We didn’t think anything of it. It was normal.
And yet there is no way I’d allow Ben or Tom to do such a thing now. Health & Safety has encroached onto the Western consciousness like a new religion and we all of us, at least once a day, pray to it in some way or other.
My strongest memory of being in a car with my grandfather was when he would drive us around seeing various aunts and uncles and performing various errands on a Sunday morning before we’d go and spend the day with my Nan. One regular errand involved my grandfather sneaking into his work depot to secretly use their car washing facilities. He’d allow us to poke around the musty offices, help ourselves to notebooks and occasionally play with the telephones (old Seventies dial ones). One Sunday though, for some reason or other he made my sister and I wait in the car while he went off to do something. He would be “right back”.
I guess as a small child – and we couldn’t have been any more than 5 or 6 – time passes much more slowly than it does for an adult. It felt like he’d been gone for hours. We began to panic. Maybe he wasn’t coming back (God knows why we thought such a thing)? He’d forgotten about us or got lost. In the end, being the eldest, I decided we should climb out of the window and go and find him. My sister was up for this and the pair of us clambered from the back to the front of the car. We couldn’t, however, work out how to unlock the doors. My sister had a brainwave – a good one for a 5 year old – and wound down the driver’s side window. She managed to clamber out and drop down to the ground. I got halfway out when I heard my sister shout. My grandfather had reappeared. The last image I have of this memory is of my sister running towards him, her skirt flapping in the wind, as my grandfather jogged towards us asking in a loud voice what the hell we were doing.
I don’t recall being told off or getting into trouble. I just remember being relieved to see him and feeling safe.
And now forty years later, even with all the seatbelts and air bags and the Health & Safety procedures that litter our lives, I can’t say that I’ve ever feel as safe as I did that day when he walked so exasperatedly back towards us.
Seatbelts are essential and legally correct – I know this – but love is what made me feel safe.
I hope one day Ben and Tom will realize this too for all they may protest now at being “restrained”.