It is the day of my Speed Awareness Course, the punishment handed down to me after I was caught driving at 36mph in the Leigh Sinton area by my old enemies, the West Mercia Police.
I arrive at the designated office to be met by a cheerful man named Garbo who immediately tells me where the toilets are, even though I did not ask.
“Come in,” he says, and I walk into a holding pen where the rest of my peers are sitting. So this is what the criminal fraternity is like.
Immediately, an older Asian man starts laughing at me. I’m not sure whether this is intended to be one of those power plays like they have in jail, where older inmates start chanting “new fish” and so on, but as he arrived only a few minutes before I did it is doubtful he had time to establish a sustainable pecking order that quickly. Rather, I think it’s because there is the general feeling in the room of slight giddiness; we’re all naughty kids about to do detention.
In here are people of all races and ages, though it’s mainly men. Garbo tells someone else where the toilets are, even though that guy didn’t ask either. A slightly gruff man in his sixties arrives in a panic because he realised he didn’t bring his reading glasses with him. So he’d run off to a shop to buy some off-the-shelf reading glasses, but because he couldn’t see very well he didn’t realise the ones he bought had huge cartoon eyelashes on the front. This has only compounded his fury at being here.
Soon we are reminded where the toilets are and then asked to choose our tables. The older, posher people gravitate towards one table. Another table is entirely made up of older Asian men. Another table is a bunch of white media types who don’t realise they’ve all come dressed exactly the same. We are blatantly forming our prison gangs. I choose a table with a woman in a headscarf who drives lorries and two boy racers who look like they probably have bright green cars.
Someone asks where the toilets are and everyone else looks at them like they’re mad.
Our instruction begins. As well as Garbo we have another man named Mr Kwok, who is Chinese but whose accent implies he may have learned English from a Dutchman. Mr Kwok proves a lively prison warder. A Ghanaian man transfers to our wing, and it is clear from the outset that this is an inmate who finds everything hilarious. Maybe he’s done Speed Awareness bird before. But he also has a cheeky side. Whenever we are asked to pick up our handsets and anonymously vote on anything (“Is it safe to speed?”; “How fast should you drive down suburban streets?”) he does his best to subvert the votes (“Yes it is safe to speed”; “You should drive at 70mph on suburban streets”). He loves seeing his silly votes on the big screen. What’s worse is, muggins here is getting the blame for it. Mr Kwok keeps looking at me and smiling whenever these rogue votes come in.
“I think we have a comedian here today,” he says, winking at me, but if he took the time to look at my Wikipedia entry he’d see I have been categorised as a ‘Humourist’, which is a whole other thing.
I feel a great sense of injustice at being blamed for skewing the votes. For the record, I have voted exactly the way I am supposed to vote in the first few minutes of this tight four-hour course, and I intend to sit here for the rest of this four stretch saying exactly the same thing over and over. But the class joker continues his undermining of Mr Kwok, who takes it all in good spirits and ploughs ahead regardless (which is not a phrase you should use when describing your driving). Soon there are more rumblings of unrest. The media people are starting to whisper private jokes. The boy racers start shouting out silly answers. Poor Mr Kwok!
Well, I will be Mr Kwok’s greatest ally today! I don’t care if this gets me a shanking when we break for croissants in two hours. I’m going to be the most goddamn speed aware Speed Awareness Course attendee Mr Kwok or any of these clowns has ever seen. I start shouting out real answers (“There might be a junction coming up!”). I try to complete complicated acronyms (“COAST! Concentrate! Observe! Anticipate! Two others!”). Soon I am proud to say I am elected table spokesman – the very first spokesman our table has ever elected! – with special responsibility for saying things like “speeding is wrong” out loud. You see? That’s what they say you have to do in prison. Use your time. Educate yourself.
And though I am making light of it here, I do learn a lot from Mr Kwok. It is a thankless task, educating drivers who already arrogantly assume they know exactly how to drive. It’s also truly horrifying how things can go wrong in a heartbeat.
Soon, our four hours are up, except for the ‘soon’ bit. I ask my table if anyone fancies meeting up a year from now to swap memories, but they all say they have to go to the toilet.
Thankfully, Garbo’s there to point the way.
Do not follow this sign
Rebeka Luniak was on a bus to Vesuvius (everything in this sentence is true) when she spotted the sign above the driver’s head. I have literally no idea what it means, but I do think it might lead to a tribunal.
Annual correspondent Gareth Hutchins brings news – as he does every year – from the Lambeth County Fair, where he was perusing the first prize winners and noticed that it had been a very strong year for courgettes.