Manual override

It’s amazing how quickly you forget things – and equally how quickly you remember them again. Like French: I was taught French up to the age of thirteen or so (strictly speaking there were lessons until GCSE at sixteen, but I don’t remember learning more than how little you needed to know about pronunciation to pass), at which point I was, I’d like to think, not bad. I could have small conversations in French, providing they weren’t really about anything, and at one point I bought a headphone adaptor while on a school trip to Normandy. But then I was thirteen – my conversations weren’t about anything anyway (“la belle dame ne m’aime”), and a headphone adaptor was pretty hot stuff. I had more trouble trying to buy coat hooks in St Malo, but that was a few years later and quite a different story.

The point is that since then I’ve barely touched French – the odd brush with it, but nothing serious. Nonetheless, when I visited my sister in Lyons a few years ago, I found that not only could I still get by, have little conversations about nothing, and indeed buy headphone adaptors, I could also, after a few days there, start to follow along with more complex conversations (“la belle dame ne m’aime, mais veut dire de quelque chose”). I couldn’t join in (in any case these more complex conversations belonged to girls, which I’ve never really got the hang of), but I could sense it within my grasp. The patterns of the language had started to make sense, leaving me only with the north face ascent of my underdeveloped vocabulary. I had regained my thirteen year old’s French.

So it is with manual transmission.

Up until about two years ago I hadn’t really driven – a handful of lessons when I was seventeen, including two test failures, at least one of which was because my instructor managed to remove all confidence in my ability to reverse park just before the test, and the other one went wrong when I accidentally boxed in a learner driver who was going about two miles an hour and refused to get in lane. Since then I’d lived in Cambridge and London, neither known for being terribly car-friendly, and Cirencester where it seemed sacrilegious to the sheep (and in any case I still couldn’t drive).

Then, during 2004, doing some calculations of how much it would cost to take An Extremely Memorable Emergency up to the Fringe, we realised that it might actually be possible to buy a car, drive it up ourselves, and still wind up spending less than if we’d hired one. This turned out to be utterly false, but not before I’d signed up for driving lessons again. This time they worked.

So come January 2005, I was a licensed driver, although it wasn’t until January 2006 when I bought a car, for the tour of Impromime; the set consisting of a large tower, I needed a large car, and wound up with a Vauxhall estate which for some reason everyone else keeps calling a Volvo. Like many estates these days it’s an automatic, and thank god or I’d probably still be learning how to park the bloody thing.

Yesterday morning I dropped it off for a bit of love from the place I bought it, and they gave me a little courtesy car in return. Not exactly a fair bargain, and particularly not so because, as is common with small cars, it had manual transmission.

I didn’t stall it leaving the dealership.

Actually, I didn’t stall it very often at all – once at a roundabout in Newmarket, once parking outside my house, and once as I left the A14 because I’d been driving in fifth gear for twenty minutes or so and had completely forgotten it had a gear stick. Three times in half an hour still isn’t great though, and I cycled on to the station feeling a little worried about driving the car back again.

This morning dawned bright and crisp, or at least dully-lit and wet, and to my complete surprise I was able to actually enjoy driving while paying attention to gears, clutch and so on; given a couple more hours I’m sure everything would have flooded back again and I’d be talking fluent manual again. My conversations probably still won’t be about anything in particular, but dammit all my cars will have headphone adaptors.

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