4 AM 30 March 2012 Nunhead Heights

I gave up driving a year ago. I was fed up with the never-ending hassle of having to work to get money to pay for it. That, and I forgot to put anti-freeze in the radiator before the freezing winter and the engine block froze. I killed the unkillable: An “H” reg Volkswagen Polo.  English people know what “H Reg” means.

Wednesday I flirted with a pretty girl from West Norwood, southeast London, outside the Source Below where I perform Lewis Schaffer is Free until Famous  – the longest running solo comedy show in London, in excess of 250 performances. See below for details.

I asked if she had a car as I wanted to see if she could drive to my place in Nunhead. If not, I’d have to reimburse her the bus fare. I have an electronic Oyster Card reader just in case a girl ever does make it to my flat. You wouldn’t believe how hard my manor is to find.

No, West Norwood frowned. She had failed her driving test five times.

Only 33% of London test takers pass the road test – it is so difficult. The test is 40 minutes long and includes backing around the corner – a maneuver so dangerous that one should be jailed for attempting it in real life. And it is impossible for anyone to drive for 40 minutes without putting someone in a life-threatening situation.

The test people keep adding additional stresses to make the test more “realistic” – they mean “harder”. The lastest addition was having your ex-wife in the car screaming “I passed the test the first time!” “You lied to me in New York!” and “Why can’t you just tell jokes?  You’re not supporting your family!”

The DVLA  website – the driving agency – claims that the average person in Britain who passes the driving tests has had 47 hours of professional practice. At £22 ($33) an hour that is £1034 ($1600) in lessons. And that is the national average and national costs. And that is just for the road test.

“Five times failed?” I smelled money on West Norwood. “Mmm. You’re the kind of girl I could borrow money from.”

I’ve taken my road test six times, failed four times – coincidentally a 33% pass rate – and had my license removed because of two speeding tickets in the first two years. I don’t remember being warned about that. I spent thousands and thousands of hard-earned American dollars from the Estate of Murray Schaffer, my dear departed father. I could use that money now.

In England, which includes the Dependencies of Scotland and Wales, there are two classes of people: Drivers and non-drivers.

You cannot imagine a Cockney Ratzo Rizzo – Dustin Hoffman from Midnight Cowboy – pounding on a black cab shouting “I’m walkin’ here!” The drivers own the road. The rest of us sulk in bitter embarrassment.

New York comic Rich Vos always got a laugh with the loser pickup line “Lady, I have a car.” On his first night performing at my misguided 2000 Edinburgh group show  “Lewis Schaffer +2” Rich Vos got not even a smile with that line. Nada. A lot of people don’t have cars in the UK.  The next night he didn’t use it. That is why he is on American TV and I am not.

It must be government policy in England to keep cars off the road. Their first step is the impossible driving test. The second is high insurance rates – £800 [$1200] for a 50-year-old in a £300 car. The third is high petrol prices – $8 an American gallon – few drivers complain because it keeps the roads open. The fourth is the removal of free on-street parking – including the space in front of the Source Below. Which was another reason I was asking the girl if she had a car.

The most cynical move is something called the “Congestion Charge”.

Drivers who live outside of the very centre of London have to pay £10 [$15] to enter the centre. Aren’t cities supposed to be congested? A city is place with a lot of people, and cars bring in people.  A non-congested city is the countryside.

Making drivers pay a tax to make London congested would be akin to taxing inner-city Londoners for staying home.  Inner Londoners should have to pay a “Decongestion Charge” when they don’t visit Nunhead.

The rich aren’t bothered by a £10 congestion charge – nor are the London cabbies. The rich don’t care that it costs a fortune to pass the driving tests or to keep a car on the road.  They have the money and are willing to pay for roads with fewer cars on them.

The West Norwood girl and I lose out. We are kept out of cars. I know if she had a car she’d be at my flat right now.


Listen to Lewis Schaffer on the Radio.
Nunhead American Radio with Lewis Schaffer every Monday evening at 10:30PM on www.resonancefm.com and 104.4fm London. Or listen to the show’s podcasts at bit.ly/NunheadAmericanRadio

See Lewis Schaffer live every Tuesday and Wednesday at the Source Below. Free admission. Reserve at bit.ly/londonfreeshow

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