Hell on Wheels: A Beginner at 50

“Hell on Wheels: A Beginner at 50,” by Hamish Bowles, was originally published in the August 2013 issue of Vogue.

I have been toying for some time now with the idea of Learning to Drive. Actually, I have been toying with the idea for two decades. Make that three: How time flies. But I am reaching a milestone birthday this year, and this conceptual plaything became more tangible when I saw a glint in Anna’s eye that suggested the formulation of a new Vogue challenge for yours truly. Truth to tell, I’ve always had a funny relationship with cars.

On my first day at nursery school, having chosen the butterfly coat hanger on which to hang my infant duffle coat, I disdained the model garage that all the other little boys were playing with and instead made a beeline for the suburban dollhouse that the girls were clustered around. Don’t get me wrong: In later life I’ve always enjoyed being driven, the getting from A to B deliciously unruffled and perfectly combobulated. But for years it didn’t occur to me to actually drive. And why on earth would it? Missing all the visual stimulation as I focused on the dreary tarmac’ed aspect ahead, ever alert to careless pedestrians or bounding deer. Oh, dear me, no. No, indeed. My inability to transfer a backseat mind-set to a driving-seat one was proven when I availed myself of the civic bicycle-rental plan in Paris a few years ago, and found myself so busy craning to look through tantalizingly half-drawn apartment curtains in pretty eighteenth-century buildings and the crowded windows of fascinating antiquaires that I shot up the middle of one-way streets and once smacked painfully into the back of a stationary garbage truck. But there are happy memories, too.

When I was a child we had a dear little Morris Minor, and a stalwart VW camper van equipped with a Bunsen-burner stove on which my mother miraculously concocted culinary triumphs and my father heated up instant Vesta chicken curries (I salivate at their memory). This behemoth also had a roof that punched up with concertina sides so that you could swing a brace of cots between it and pitch tent for the night. When I was six, this beloved vehicle transported us all on a memorable summer holiday through the Pyrenees, on through Franco’s Spain (where I was served a heaped plate of roasted nightingales in a village of barefoot children) to Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Sicily, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland—doubtless the source and fount of my subsequent wanderlust.

On my first trip to Manhattan in the eighties my interest in cars turned frankly nefarious when sundry club-kid friends taught me the art of appearing to loll nonchalantly against the bonnet of a Mercedes or similarly hardware-embellished vehicle while simultaneously wrenching off its hood ornament, later to be transformed into a hip-hop pendant suitable for an ensemble d’apparat at the Pyramid Club or Area. Even though I’m not entirely convinced I ever managed to successfully detach one of these trophies, the memories nevertheless skulked out of my guilty conscience several years later when I met a serious beau who was very proud of his 1972 Mercedes-Benz 280 SE with its beige seats of butter-soft leather and its handsome burled-walnut dashboard. His pride in this vehicle was matched only by his exasperation when he would find me, time after time, waiting expectantly for him to open the door of a grisly Ford Cortina or an equally naff car whose hue and dimensions, to my undiscriminating (or disinterested) eye, vaguely evoked his own chic motor. In a bid to liberate myself from the yoke of automotive dependency I decided, in my early 20s, to take lessons, and surrendered to the ministrations of a rather sharp, pukka woman who might have been just as effectively employed train-ing an errant spaniel to heel. She took me to the lonely cobbled backstreets of Notting Hill, and I struggled with the baffling gear stick and tried to avoid the odd perambulator (yes, it was that long ago). I felt that I might have been getting somewhere. But after several lessons a job at American Vogue spirited me to New York, and I decided that there was no way I was going to continue the experiment in the pitted thoroughfares of Manhattan, thronged with crazily zigzagging yellow cabs.


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