On learning to drive

I didn’t drive for more than ten years after passing my test. Driving combined all of my fears. It was public – you cannot drive without encountering others. It involved judgment – everybody thinks they are a great driver, so everybody feels free to beep and gesticulate if they think you’re getting it wrong. And it mattered – make a mistake on the road, and I might kill myself or someone else. I entered full-scale terror mode every time I got behind the wheel – in fact, well beforehand. If I knew I was going to have to drive, I would start worrying about it days in advance. I’d imagine the wrong turns I could take, the manoeuvres I might mess up, the abuse that would be tossed at me. My heart would thunder, my palms sweat and my breath become shallow. I could not make good decisions – I could not make decisions at all.

I remember driving behind a group of cyclists on a narrow road, with my dad in the passenger seat. Every car in front of me had overtaken them without incident or, apparently, hesitation. I drew nearer to them, unable to judge whether this was a safe overtaking spot, afraid to ask because I thought the answer would be accompanied by incredulity at my stupidity. We got closer, drifting nearer to the rearmost cyclist’s back wheel. My dad  began to shift in his seat, his legs unconconsciously pumping pedals, his arms twitching in his increasing desire to grasp the steering wheel. Eventually he said,

“Well you’re going to have to do something!

I took that as permission and pulled out. I’m not sure what I would have done if he had stayed silent. It’s possible I would have simply knocked over the cyclist. There is precedent: on the last occasion I got behind the wheel before my decade-long hiatus, I scraped the car of my dad’s neighbour because I could not decide how to avoid doing so. How did I manage that?

Well, I had somehow got myself into a situation where I had to go and pick up my (then) new boyfriend from the bus station. I knew I would be terrified, and there must have been multiple points at which I could have avoided the situation. I could have arranged to get the bus. I could have confessed my fear to my dad and asked him to drive.

Instead, I climbed into the car.

I turned the wheel, as early as I dared without scraping the driveway gates. But I could see I was going to hit the car opposite. I reversed and started again, but the car followed the same path as before, as if driving by itself. Gripped by a sense of futility and panic and an overriding desire to just get out of there, I kept on going. The noise as the car’s sides scraped together was high-pitched, metallic and full of shame. When it finally ended, I did not hesitate. I put my foot down and sped off, trying to convince myself the damage would not show on either car. The drive into town was endless – I made the wrong choice at every junction, making a twenty minute journey take at least twice that. By the time I arrived at the bus station I was a gasping, pitiful mess.  My poor boyfriend, who’d been under the impression he was dating a competent, confident woman, had to coach me all the way back, telling me when it was safe to turn, whether I was in the right lane, even though he’d never driven in this city before. And, of course, we arrived home to find that the man across the road had visited, bemusedly asking my dad why his daughter had scraped his car and then sped off.

I do not think my driving instructor had helped. His main teaching tool was disapproving silence. I imagine this works for some people: perhaps the pressure drives them to work out what they ought to be doing. It simply gave me time to reflect on how stupid he must think me and sink further into my soggy pool of self-hatred. The last straw came when I was attempting a reverse parking manoeuvre. Another driver came along on the other side of the road and, although I could see he was not going to stop, I foolishly kept going, swinging the nose of my car into his path. The driver leaned out of his window to shout,

“Fucking idiot!”

I cringed and looked at my instructor, who nodded and said, “He’s right”.

What a difference a change of style makes. Over a decade later, I bought a car with my partner – the same long-suffering man who’d guided me home all those years ago. Frugality overcame terror and, unwilling to pay for a car I was too frightened to drive, I booked a set of refresher driving lessons. A calm, podgy man turned up and told me to get behind the wheel. When, within minutes, I almost ploughed into oncoming traffic, he quickly grasped the situation. Guiding me into a quiet street, he turned to face me and said,

“Look. You’ve got the same piece of paper as everybody else on the road. You’ve got every right to be here. Now let’s go.”

I went. And I’ve never looked back.

Santa’s Surveillance is Legally Shonky

“He behaves so much better at this time of year”, confided the friendly mum at toddler group.

“Every time he’s disobedient, I tell him Santa is watching, and he stops it straightaway”.

I nodded, but her story made me sad. When I was a child, Santa was a twinkly-eyed superhero, a bearded wonder who sped round the world in one night, leaving fabulous gifts in his wake. A Santa who supervises rather than surprises seems like a sorry sort of Santa to me.

But I think he might need to rethink his approach. Because I’ve got news for you, Santa: there are laws about this sort of thing. Under the UK Data Protection Act 1998, you’re a Data Controller, and as such you have to register with the Information Commissioner. Newsflash, Santa, I checked the register, and you’re not on it. Know what that means? It’s a £500 fine, pal. Plus costs, so you’re looking at a couple of grand, easy. Bet you don’t fancy explaining that to Mrs Claus.

You’re also required to tell people you’re processing their personal information. So where’s your notification, Santa? The way I understand it, you ought to have a sign up in the bedroom of every child in the land, making clear that your agents and sub-contractors (like those Elf on the Shelf dolls that have infiltrated our homes) are conducting surveillance. Slipped your mind? Didn’t listen to your lawyer? That’s an unlimited fine right there, matey.

And what kind of a database must Santa have? At a minimum, his system must log:

– Details of every child’s behaviour

– Letters received and presents requested

– Decision on naughty/nice category and gift awarded. Eg “punched cat in nose so can’t have Nintendo DS. Little Minx album instead”.

Plus names, addresses, ages and who knows what else. This is some serious data storage, and Principle 7 of the Act makes clear there’d better be proper security. As VTech recently found out, just because you’re storing data about kids doesn’t mean hackers won’t come after you.

Come to think of it, where are subject access rights in all this? We can all ask to see the data an organisation holds on us, and have it corrected if necessary. Why aren’t kids bombarding Father Christmas with subject access requests, and challenging his shonky illegally-held records?

“I may have dissected my sister’s My Little Pony, Santa, but you need to update your records to show that she’d stuck sprouts up my nose, so she totally deserved it.”

I’ve checked, Santa. There are no exemptions in the Act for jolly, white-bearded patriarchs. Unless you want to argue that you’re operating in the interests of national security, and that’s a case I’d love to hear in court.

So kids, don’t listen to your parents. Whether you’re naughty or nice, Santa’s wide open to legal challenge if he starts withholding gifts. Assuming he doesn’t want the chink of jingle bells to be replaced by the clink of handcuffs, he’ll have to keep the presents coming.

Merry Christmas!

Review: The Fifty States

Randomly receiving books in the post is something that happens to me with distressing infrequency, so it was nice to get this rather gorgeous book to review, courtesy of Mumsnet.

The Fifty States is a beautifully produced coffee-table hardback consisting of fifty quirky illustrated maps, one for each of America’s states. The idea is that instead of using conventional cartography, each map shows several facts about the state. So Alaska includes a picture of musk oxen, a gray wolf and a note about Sign Post Forest, where homesick people make signs showing the number of miles to their hometowns. And Montana’s map reveals that the state possesses a garden of 1,000 buddhas, where locals go to meditate.

Each map includes a summary of the state’s history, a list of moments to remember and some key facts. It’s informative, but the real beauty of this book is in the presentation: the illustrations and design are really lovely. My two year old daughter enjoyed looking through it and an older child would find it an engaging way to learn about the US.