I got caught speeding on the M4. It happened like this. Coming back into Wales after a very rare foreign holiday abroad (Bristol, England), I crossed the Severn Bridge and was slowing down on the long approach to the toll booths. Having not paid the toll for some time I had no idea how much it was going to be, so was flabbergasted when I hurtled past the sign saying it was £6.40. Six pound bloody forty! In my day you could buy a prostitute for less and still have enough change for a flask of laudanum! Then followed the hassle of fishing coins out of the trouser pocket while simultaneously smoking a fag and re-tuning the radio to make sure I didn’t hear a nano-second of Jason Mohammad when getting within range of the Gwenfô transmitter. Hey! DVLA! We are humans not octopusses – or should that be octopi – what the hell am I supposed to steer with, my dick? Don’t answer that. It must have been during this lapse in concentration that the speed cameras clocked me doing 58 in a 50mph zone.
The letter arrived within days. I was given options: 3 points on the license and a £100 fine (plus increased car insurance); no penalty points and no fine if I attend a ‘speed awareness’ course costing £80; or plead not guilty and fight it in the courts. I toyed with the idea of contesting it, on the grounds that the sign was so shocking it impaired my concentration – after all, £6.40 is far, far too low to deter Englanders from entering Wales and it urgently needs to be massively hiked to prohibitively high levels. But anything for a quiet life: I chose the blasted speed awareness course, of course.
Before going, I consulted a friend who had been on one last year. He completely reassured me: it was a doddle, it only lasted four hours, and all you have to do is turn up, say nothing, nod in the right places and DUMB DOWN. I can dumb down, I thought – after all, I do it all the time with everyone I know (chortle).
Had I an inkling of the torture that awaited, I would have gladly taken the points and the fine. Things began badly, and got steadily worse. The course was scheduled to run from 9am to 1pm. The forest of bumf I received in the post in the preceding weeks, which had more ‘terms & conditions’ than a, than a, than a…than a document with loads of terms & conditions, included the advice to arrive by 8.30 to allow time for ID checks and registration. Unfortunately, I am afflicted by a terrible ailment called late-for-everything-itis. If I’m to be somewhere at 8.30, I will arrive around 8.50 no matter what preventive measures I might have taken. I was awake by 7 and ready to go by 8. Then, fatally, I lost a vital 20 minutes doing something or other on the computer (probably watching a small circle go round and round in a futile attempt to access the unfit-for-purpose Daily Wales website – currently the worst on the worldwideweb), so didn’t get out of the house until almost 8.30. Never mind, I thought, it’s only a brisk, brief walk, there’s plenty of time. I walk everywhere; I can saunter, I can stroll, I can glide, I can change gear or I can power-walk; I can calculate a footslog from, say, Roath to Canton down to the last minute; I know every conceivable short cut in a ten mile radius. The mile from my house to the venue, a corrugated shed on some godforsaken trading estate down the East Moors, would normally take me 15 minutes max…but this does not allow for one vital factor: traffic. 8.30 in the morning is the chaotic epicentre of Cardiff’s take-no-prisoners Rush Hour. Even though I was hitting Ocean Way in reasonably good order at 8.45, I still had to cross the twisting, high-speed, four-lane arterial highway – and there are no pedestrian crossings, nor any breaks in the constant, roaring procession of juggernauts, pantechnicons, white vans, and company cars with fluffy dice and dry-cleaned suits hanging in the back. Have no doubt about it, the sweet irony of failing to attend a speed awareness course due to being run down by speeding traffic did not escape me as I stood there desolately on the foot-wide pavement, waiting for an opportunity to dash across should there ever be the slightest break in the never-ending, two-way stampede. 8.50 came and went. 8.51 followed 60 seconds later. Oh Lord! 8.52 is here!
In these situations, which with minor variations and variables are all-too-familiar to me, I have a special, reliable, safe place into which I can always retreat: hysteria. Boys don’t cry? That’s just genderist bullshit. We’ve got tear ducts too! Like all males reared according to the uptight, sociophobic tenets of the UK stupidocracy, I stopped crying around age 6. By age 35 I had re-learned the art (it’s so-o cathartic guys) and these days I can weep buckets at the drop of a hat. I’m so accomplished I can match Joan Crawford (1904-1977) who once, when asked by a film director to cry to camera, drawled “How many tears, and out of which eye?”
They came in floods, warm salty rolling waves, from the nostrils as well as the eyes. Thwarted again, Dic. Shafted by the random vagaries of interacting phenomena that have nothing to do with you. Beaten, broken, finished. You tragic cunt. I stepped out into the road…
It was 8.59 when I staggered into the large conference room, wild-eyed, white-faced, frazzled, frothing at the mouth and dribbling snot. There in front of me was the tutor and 23 people sat at four round tables. The one vacant chair was for me. I immediately discovered why it was the least popular, being positioned in a far corner right next to the dreaded whiteboard and facing outwards at the rest of the room, meaning I was going to be in the direct line of sight of the other 23 fuckers for four hours. Oh well, I consoled myself, four hours is nothing – it takes that long for the Daily Wales to upload on an average day! I looked up and realised I was also perfectly placed to spend those hours being taunted by a large, ticking clock on the opposite wall. Now began another time tussle: on Ocean Way I had battled to slow it down; here it was going to be a battle to speed it up.
Tutor Dave did a lacklustre meet-and-greet spiel before taking more than half an hour (I know, I counted each tick of the clock’s second hand) to tell us about fire drills, emergency exits, evacuation assembly points, toilet facilities, behaviour expectations, mutual respect, coffee machines, smoking areas and special dietary needs. The highlight of this extraordinarily boring ElfandSafety-Gone-Mad parody was the moment Dave intoned portentiously “If anyone here is impersonating someone else, please leave the room now.” Then he paused for dramatic effect as if actually expecting someone to get up and go. That Chris Huhne has a lot to answer for. Finally, morbidly obese Dave got to the information we were all waiting for: the times and durations of coffee breaks. The first of three, each lasting 10 minutes, would be at 10 o’clock. Great! I had a target to aim at! The clock showed 9.38.
“We’ll start with a quiz,” said Dave with the autopilot faux jollity of someone who’s being doing the job much too long, “Let’s get to know each other!” he added with fooling-nobody mateyness, handing out alarmingly thick booklets. It was 9.40. We all read through the ten questions. “Oh Christ on a bike,” I whispered conspiratorially to the swarthy middle-aged man sat next to me. Just my luck, he was a deeply religious Greek Orthodox Cypriot who took a dim view of blasphemy – especially when larded with my sneering snarl. He made quite a public show of moving his chair a few inches away from me, loudly scraping it on the floor. I took some small comfort from that clock: it was 9.42. I was gasping for a fag.
D’oh. Obviously it’s a No Entry sign. I wrote it down in my workbook. That fat Cypriot suddenly wanted to be my pal and, quietly this time, moved his chair back. “What iss?” he insinuated lowly, pointing a stubby, hairy finger at the sign. “No Entry,” I gurgled, slotting back into naughty-boy-in-class mode after a 45 year hiatus like I’d never been away. He obediently wrote it in his workbook. “Now Charalambos,” called out Dave without warning, “What’s the answer to Question 1?” “No Entry!!” my brand new best mate responded triumphantly with a big toothy mediterranean grin. Oh how the class roared with laughter! “No, no, Charalambos, no, no, no,” mocked Dave, rubbing it in at his expense. “It is, of course, the National Speed Limit sign. No wonder you got nicked!” The class collapsed in stitches again, giving me the chance to quickly cross out the wrong answer in my workbook and, in lovely block capitals, write “National Speed Limit”. Charalambos made a great kerfuffle sliding his chair away from me.
Question 2: what is the national speed limit? Thrown into doubt by the curve-ball first question, I muttered “Do you know?” to the young woman sitting the other side of me. As if making a supreme effort, she slightly twitched in my direction and ran a contemptuous eye over me, sniffing like she had smelt something unspeakable, before turning her back, covering her workbook with her hand and putting in her answer! What a bitch! All the reasons I had hated school so much came flooding back, permitting another minute or two to be killed in a nicotine-withdrawal daymare (like a nightmare, but you’re awake). Trembling with baccy-anticipation as the clock reached 9.53, I wrote 70mph in the workbook. Again Dave asked someone at random for the answer and an odious teacher’s pet rattled it off: “70 on motorways and dual carriageways, 60 on single carriageways, 50 on demanding roads, 30 in built-up areas and 20 near schools and old peoples’ homes.” “Did you get that, Charalambos?” teased Dave, having found the ideal stooge for his bad jokes. I may have been imagining it, but I’m sure Charalambos shot me a murderous glance accompanied by a throat-slitting mime. It was 9.57.
Normally I abide by no agendas other than my own, so the next three minutes felt like three years. As the clock struck 10 we were all piling out of the doors for our first break. I headed straight for the designated smoking area, rolling a fag one-handed as I sprinted. It was quite a journey in itself: through the car park, out of the gates, round the back of the building, down a service lane and there it was: a wall-mounted stainless steel ashtray by the bin-storage area…bliss!
A mere four of us gathered at the bins. 50 years ago a random group of 24 would have had only four non-smokers. It’s so sad: we smokers are a dying breed! We are also sociable by definition and soon got chatting between deep inhalations. There was but one topic of conversation: how the hell are we going to stick three more hours of this unadulterated horseshit? The 10 minutes passed in a flash. We trooped back in. I just had time to get a coffee, given gratis via a platter of yellow tokens you could feed into the machine. Gone are the days when the only decisions a coffee machine demanded were black/white and sugar/no sugar. I was confronted by more choices and permutations than the Asda dry goods aisle. I settled for a Marocchino with a dusting of cocoa powder, a grating of cinnamon and two sugars, but all the palaver delayed my return to the classroom. I tried to be invisible as I slunk back in at 10.13, but I knew Dave had clocked me by the way the burst blood vessels on his cheeks were spreading like fungi mycelium. Twice I had been the last to arrive and had done the very thing I was striving to avoid: get noticed. Shit!
Question 3: What is the ‘Stop’ sign? Um…Uh…Oh. Now what is it? A circle with a red horizontal bar on a white background? No, that’s not right…bugger it, I just didn’t know. There was no point sneaking a look at Charalambos’s answer; he knew even less. “What’s the answer then, Rich?” said Dave at full volume, out of the blue (I’d put ‘Richard’ on the name badge in order to pre-empt a) penis jokes, b) pro-letter ‘k’ elements, and c) becoming the repository of any spare low-level, passive-aggressive, anti-Welsh bemusement that might be knocking about). Did he mean me? On balance, considering that he was standing next to me, looking at me and talking into my ear-hole, I deduced he did. I was paying the price for drawing attention to myself; I get away with nothing. Everyone was waiting for my answer. I had reached a crisis and it was still only 10.21. There was nothing for it – I was going to have to unleash my devastating secret weapon: disarming charm. Ok, it’s become rather frayed at the edges over the years, but it’s seen me out of many an awkward corner I can tell you and it’s still there in the armoury when I need it. “I don’t know Dave,” I said with a small shrug and a shy, boyish flutter of the eyelashes. It worked. Dave got the chance to belly-strut to the blackboard, gesticulating a thumb in my direction and roar “Rich here doesn’t know when to stop! We wouldn’t like to be his passenger, would we? I’ll tell you, Rich, just in case you’re let loose on the road again. It is a unique sign. There is no other like it. It’s the only octagonal road sign!” He was enjoying himself, and that was thanks to me. I’d given him the chance to show off a bit and do his octagonal sign party-piece. Even better: for the sake of being centre-stage quite early in the proceedings I’d ruled out future attention. And best of all, the clock had got to 10.30. Only half an hour to the next break!
This ray of hope soon clouded over with the growing realisation that I was bursting for a slash. I knew where the bogs were – through the door marked TOILETS – but to get there entailed a walk of shame through the entire classroom. None of us had failed to notice one woman go through that door twice already, and I can’t have been the only one whose mind was crossed by the thought: “Poor dab, spastic colon…” I couldn’t let that foolhardy Marocchino be my undoing, there was nothing for it: tantric self-dehydration (another skill in my locker). This involves departing from fuddy-duddy three-dimensional ‘normal’ reality via some repetitive, soothing, metronomic physical activity or other (in this case, doodling absent-mindedly in my workbook). Legs tightly crossed, head down, I drifted through the minutes oblivious to Dave’s quiz until snapping out of it at 10.57 in time for Question 10: What is the only road sign that’s an upside-down triangle?* By 11.01 precisely I was in the urinals, pissing like a dray horse. It was one of those long ones that go on and on. And on. And on. And on. Having sent a veritable Severn bore out to sea, eventually I stopped, shook and, without bothering to wash my hands (to the disgust of onlookers), barged my way out of the building and rushed back to the smoking area, there to gleefully heap more scorn on the proceedings with my fellow nicotinoholics before, in the blink of an eyelid, it was 11.11 and we grudgingly went back in. Relaxing into my somehow inevitable role of class renegade, I was again last back in my seat. This time though I did it confidently, playing absentminded-nutcase to perfection. In any case, Dave, no doubt thinking about his lunch, was clearly past caring.
More than half-way through, bladder empty and the heady pleasures of the 12 o’clock break to look forward to: things were looking up. But not for long. Dave was at his whiteboard, scrawling truisms. I sulked beneath it, unable to dislocate my neck enough to read his lame prescriptions for happy motoring yet horribly cornered by the gaze of my 23 classmates. At 11.22 I started to get prickly hives and feel anxious. By 11.23 every fibre of my body screamed GET OUT OF HERE NOW. Yet again I was in crisis, and this time rescue came from an unlikely source: Dave. He started showing videos on the other side of the room. Phew! I could relax. 11.30 was approaching. Dare I hope this agony might one day end?
Thirty excruciating minutes of film of various driving scenarios then followed. I took to counting heads and, at 11.44, realised that the 24 people on the course were 12 women and 12 men. The more I thought about this, the creepier it got. Given that 55% of drivers are male, and males are more likely to commit speeding offences, the 50/50 split could not be coincidental, it had to be deliberate. That got me pondering what conceivable motives there could be for such pointlessly artificial social engineering. The authorities aren’t in the least bothered that only 20% of MPs are women, that only 20% of chief executives are women, that women are paid 15% less than men for the same work, etc, etc. But when it comes to a meaningless, innocuous, slap-on-the-wrist driving course they’re suddenly shit hot on equality. Unless the police (who contract out the ‘National Speed Awareness Course’ to a private company staffed by ex-cops like Dave) fancy themselves as a dating agency, there can only be one reason for this excessive fine-tuning: cynical window-dressing to cloak the profound institutionalised sexism that runs through the core of ‘Britain’ like the lettering in a stick of Blackpool rock. The puzzle solved in my own mind, I looked up at the clock. Thrillingly, it was 11.55.
It was then that my phone rang. During his introduction, all those aeons ago, Dave had asked us all to turn off our phones. The reason I didn’t comply was simple: I don’t know how to. That’s right, I’m yet to master the on/off button on my brand new Samsung Galaxy Note 3 – so what? After years of putting up with people breaking into spontaneous hoots of laughter whenever they saw my mobile phone, I finally upgraded the other week. In truth I only did it because the old one was so clogged with gunk the slider and half the buttons had stopped working. In car terms, terms Dave would surely understand, I have gone from a Trabant to a Ferrari in one bound – and it’s taking a bit of getting used to. The beast can do anything: recognise my voice, answer me back, read my mind, launch a small nuclear war or tell me how many metres to the nearest stockist of sea purslane (nice wilted down with butter, cream and capers). Now I get to mock the Luddites with their steam-driven 3G contraptions and say things like “Get hip with the Now Generation Daddy-o” to amuse them and garner easy popularity for my knowing self-deprecation. However, I still can’t turn the fucking thing off. Nor am I yet able to change ringtones, so the whole class was treated to the Chinese factory’s default setting for a text message: a horrible snatch of generic string quartet elevator music. Worse: they presumed I had chosen it! I wanted to shout out “No! I’m into Cybergrind, Rotterdam techno and Musique concrète!” Fortunately, Dave butted in to save me once more. “There’s always one, isn’t there Rich?” he snorted. I had given him an opening to be sarky again while simultaneously making him feel good about himself by bringing out his paternal instincts: a result! It was midday. Fag time!
Down by the bins I read the message: “The eagle has landed”. This was more good news; it meant I would be sedated enough to put up with another few days toiling on articles for the Daily Wales and watching all the work disappear when the ‘Server’ fails without acting on my standing threat/promise to quit.
In an instant it was 12.10. “Come on Rich, not long to go mate!” joshed Dave as I yet again brought up the rear. “What do you mean? There’s still 50 minutes!” I wisecracked on the downbeat. You needed to be there; only Charalambos didn’t laugh at that one. The twat probably couldn’t grasp the Cardiff idiom.
By the time we’d all settled and Dave had got the video working it was 12.17. There were 43 minutes left: we were in the home straight, we could see the finishing line, a pinprick of light was appearing at the end of the tunnel (relish that mixed metaphor, I use them sparingly). Nothing untoward happened for some time. Dave droned on about repeater signs and street-lights and I erected an impermeable bubble of indifference around myself while using the time productively: drafting a selection of possible resignation emails to my Daily Wales colleagues on the blank pages of my workbook. 12.30 came and went. It must have been around 12.40 when Dave reached his killer challenge. In four groups of six we were to discuss and come up with an answer to the question: How can you instantly find out the speed limit on any road if there are no signs to tell you?^ If there’s one thing I hate it’s the ‘Group Discussion’, so I switched off and contributed not one syllable. Likewise Lady Muck and Charalambos. The other three came up with the fairly plausible answer of going by the speed of the general flow of traffic until you get to a sign. I wanted to say “when you see a flashing blue light in your rear-view mirror,”, but didn’t dare make another ripple. We were all wrong. Dave put us out of our misery at 12.50 and arrived at his final, climactic pep-talk. Dragging it out, he concluded with a word game in which he went round the whole room asking each of us in turn to give one word or phrase summing up what we’d learnt today. And, lo and behold, because of my position in the corner, I was to be 24th of the 24. The clock limped to 12.56.
Person 1: Concentration
Person 2: Observation
Person 3: Anticipation
Person 4: Change
Person 5: Space
Person 6: Time
The jammy bastards on table 1 have taken all the good words!
Person 7: Slower
Person 8: Consideration
Person 9: Safety
Person 10: Crime
Person 11: Awareness
Person 12: Skill
The swine on table 2 have dredged the barrel!
Person 13: Caution
Person 14: Maturity
Person 15: Common sense
Person 16: Insurance
Person 17: Expense
Person 18: Calm
The sods on table 3 have ransacked the thesaurus!
Person 19 (Lady Muck): Children
Person 20: Old people
Person 21: Weather conditions
Person 22: Police
Person 23 (Charalambos): Watch. Sign. Learn
Person 24 (Me): Araf
Dave understood. It was a devastating denouement. Right at the death, against the odds, I had captured the Moral High Ground! The clock struck 1.
* Give Way
^ Look down the next side road