In this below extract, Alan tells a story from one of his early experiences as a postman; learning to drive.
Dead Legs and Driving Tests: Alan Johnson on learning to drive at the post office
Although quite happy with my permanent moped delivery, I was determined to take advantage of being in one of the few occupations where I could be paid to learn to drive. My superiors didn’t take much persuading and along with another postman, I was withdrawn from normal duties to spend a week being taught to drive.
Our tutor was Mr Clarence, a civil servant overseeing a civil service course that would lead to a civil service test. The Post Office might have left the civil service but it took a long time for the civil service to leave the Post Office. Tall and very bald, Mr Clarence spoke so softly that it was difficult to hear him, particularly above the loud rattling of our Morris Minor van.
I loved those old Morris vans, though they had their eccentricities. For example, the driver’s door locked automatically when it slammed shut. The locks were manual and were operated b y the ignition key. So whenever the driver left the van, he was supposed to turn off the engine and take the key with him. For postmen and women on rural deliveries, this was completely impractical. In most instances they would be out of the van for only a few seconds to deliver a letter. As a result, being locked out with the key still in the ignition and the engine running could become a regular occurrence. The solution was to leave the fly window open so that you could reach in from outside to release the door handle.
Our training model had dual controls and a little bench seat in the body of the van where the other learner could sit and observe while Mr Clarence instructed the postman whose turn it was to drive.
His quiet, steady, civil service approach inspired confidence, like a GP’s beside manner, but there was a major problem – Mr Clarence was a sadist.
The slightest deviation from his orders earned a punch to the left leg just above the knee, which varied in force but always hurt. This man knew how to administer a dead leg and he did it as if it were a perfectly natural part of the process of teaching somebody to drive. There was no alteration in the serene expression on his big, round face. No change to the tempo of his conversation.
“Let’s turn right at the next junction. Remember: mirror, signal, manoeuvre.” Thump. “Always best to switch the indicator off once you’ve turned.” The excruciating pain was at its worst if the driver’s foot happened to be hovering anywhere near the clutch pedal when it didn’t need to be.
After a full week of being punched by Mr Clarence I was considered ready for the driving test. It was to be conducted by our civil service examiner, Mr Brewster. There were four or five of us trainee drivers awaiting a test and we’d all heard tales of how difficult it was to pass with Mr Brewster. A small man with a stooping gait and a sunken face upon which a smile was rarely seen, he had two other notable characteristics: he smoked Craven “A” cork-tipped cigarettes and swore like a trooper.
Being tested by this man was a daunting experience. Being passed by him was a slightly less common occurrence than a solar eclipse. One of my fellow learners came up with the idea of having T-shirts produced with the slogan ‘I passed with Brewster’ on the front. The guy who suggested this had just passed at his third attempt. It took me five.
I knew I’d failed my first test when the van I was driving felt sluggish. Staring straight ahead in his most inscrutable manner, Mr Brewster advised me to pull into the kerb. When I went to apply the handbrake, I realised it was already on. I’d forgotten to release it when we set off.
At the end of each test he would take out a Craven “A”, tap its cork tip on the box and light it up as a prelude to his interrogation on the Highway Code. AS far as I recall, the cork tip on a Craven “A” wasn’t a filter, just a wrap of stronger, brown-coloured paper intended to prevent the cigarette from sticking to the smoker’s top life. Whatever its purpose, its effect was to impart a brownish hue to Mr Brewster’s mouth.
By my fifth test my worry wasn’t whether I could drive a car, it was whether I could pass the bloody test. Surely Mr Brewster wasn’t the only civil service examiner in the region? Surely he occasionally took a holiday or a day off sick? But the terrible inevitability was confirmed when I saw a familiar stooped figure walking towards the van.
It was a clear spring day as we set off from the sorting office. I drove superbly, if I say so myself. I had taken a herbal potion from the chemist to calm my nerves. It seemed to be working, even if it was just a placebo effect. I took every turning beautifully and performed my emergency stop with such abruptness that it almost sent Mr B through the windscreen.
I pulled up as instructed in a quiet, tree-lined street. Mr Brewster wound down his window, tapped and then lit his Craven “A”. “Right”, he said, gazing straight ahead of him. “Time for a few questions.”
Brewster asked three or four questions, which I answered with panache, picturing that full driving licence, printed in black, rather provisional red, that was on its way to me.
He sucked hard on his cigarette. There was silence in the van, mine resentful, his reflective.
“I’m not impressed,” said Mr B after a while. “But I’m going to give you a pass, against my better judgement, because frankly, I’m sick of the sight of you.” The sparrow flew off. The sun came out. At that precise moment I could have kissed Mr Brewster full on his cork-tip stained lips.
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