The M1 gene
Writing and driving. Driving and writing. Linked in my memory.
My father started writing fiction in 1954. From the proceeds of his first book, he bought an Austin A30 and named it after his publisher. In 1960, the first of his books was filmed, and he upgraded to a Rover 90.
We lived in Liverpool but spent a lot of time driving to London, so that he could meet his agent, his publisher, and actors interested in his upcoming film projects. The 200 mile journey used to take a day, past the same landmarks: real places with fictional-sounding names. ‘No Man’s Heath’. ‘The Devon Doorway’. Sandbach. Brownhills. Markyate. Past places with secret names we’d given them, like ‘Bird House On A Pole’, wherever and whatever that was. There’s nobody left to ask.
On 2nd November 1959 when I was aged three-and-a-bit, everything changed. We were on our way back to Liverpool, and had reached Slip End (a name you wouldn’t put into fiction unless you were after a Bad Sex Award) when we arrived at the entrance to this new motorway thing, called the M1. We met a roadblock. The Transport Minister was about to cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony.
We were first in the line. Snip – the policemen let us through – my father floored the accelerator of our chunky Rover 105S (funded by more published novels) and, doing 80 mph, it was the first car to roar past the Minister. I was sitting in the front passenger seat (seatbelt? What seatbelt?). And so, writing was the reason I was the joint first person on the northbound M1 motorway – the photo shows our car. I remember the crowds of people leaning over the bridges high above waving to us, as we zipped along the concrete-coloured road.
There was no speed limit on the motorway in those days. According to the faded newspaper clipping in the family archive, the Minister was appalled by how fast our car had gone. My father got his name in print yet again, in a letter to the paper printed soon afterwards, saying that there was no reason for the Minister to have been appalled; if one could not maintain a car’s advertised cruising speed on a completely empty road, there was little point in using the road. He apologised for frightening the Minister and reassured him that he had never exceeded 70mph on any subsequent journey on the motorway. This was fiction, too – I remember doing the ton on the M1 more than once, over the coming years.
Today, I live near the M1, close to the place where I got my 15 minutes of fame in 1959. My father, driven down by dementia, no longer writes. I drive for an hour to see him. He doesn’t know who I am and doesn’t speak. I showed him a magazine, containing my first story. I told him this was the fourth publisher I tried: how you have to keep on trying; how there’s nothing like the high you get when a story’s accepted. He looked at me and smiled. Writing is in our blood.
Maybe driving is, too. My younger daughter passed her driving test first time, after only five months practising, with me as a Munch ‘Scream’ lookalike in the passenger seat stamping at a non-existent brake pedal. I hope my grandchildren will write, too. If not, I hope they’ll inherit the M1 gene, and give me rides when I’m too old to drive. Driving and writing. Writing and driving. Driven to write.