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'I've never had a failure'

They wear instantly recognizable expressions on their faces: the instructor and the instructed. The roads near our house are, as my wife would say, ''hoaching'' with them - a Scottish word that can be applied with apparent indiscrimination to crowds of anything from shoppers to cattle, from sea gulls to sunbathers to (in this case) Learner Drivers. They crawl up our avenues, freeze bemused at crossroads, practice emergency halts and three-point turns, and hesitatingly negotiate tricky corners. To these wide, tree-lined streets come Glaswegian automobilists of the future - and their teachers.

The sight of them takes me back to that period of teenhood which, once over, was so happily dropped from the memory. It was like an initiation ceremony, the Driving Test. The question ''When do you take your test?'' could refer to only one looming event; and, as you fingered through the Highway Codebook in a vain attempt to remind yourself yet again which order traffic lights change colour in , or what is the correct procedure if a wild horse should rear at your approach down a narrow country lane, you muttered, with an unconvincing show of self-confidence, that the test was due to take place at 10:45 a.m. the following Monday.

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Many years after my tests (yes, there were two) I happened to have a chat with a retired Driving Examiner. It was only then that I realized there might possibly be another view of the Driving Test as an institution. Previously I had seen it entirely from the victim's standpoint, as it were.

It had never struck me that the examiner might have prayed for safety as the two of us approached the parked car at my first test's outset. His apparent calm - as we lurched out of second gear (the clutch imprecisely in time with the accelerator), narrowly missed a strolling cat, and shot round an S-bend mostly on the wrong side - I took to be real calm. And when he suddenly looked with obvious drama first left and then right, and cleared his throat dryly, I never for a moment thought that I might have driven us both straight over an intersection with a Give Way sign. (To this day I am certain there was no such intersection or sign, or else that he had greatly exaggerated their existence.)

Then, after I had given him concise and immaculate answers to his obscurely phrased questions on the Highway Code, he had the gall to intimate that I had not yet reached the standard required and that he was going to - ah, nightmare word! - fail me. All I could do was look at him with ghastly disbelief wondering how he could possibly have come by his qualifications as a Driving Examiner.

My instructor couldn't believe it, either. He was (as many of his profession seem to be, perhaps on account of the courage involved) a retired Army Man, and his often repeated slogan was that he had ''never had a failure.'' But now he had had me.

''Was,'' he asked, ''the examiner a small, black-haired fellow with a moustache?'' a nettle stinging his voice.

''No,'' I said miserably, ''he was grey and bulky.''

'A-ah.'' He seemed deep in thought. ''Did he ask you about rearing horses?''

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The post-mortem that ensued was lengthy. It arrived at the conclusion that the examiner was probably inexperienced, or needed to keep up his monthly quota of failures, or had argued with his wife at breakfast. One thing was indisputable: Faultless instruction had made me a model driver. And this temporary setback was an enigmatic aberration.

My friend the retired Driving Examiner laughed when I told him of this sad episode. But he convinced me that perhaps, after all, I had not entirely deserved to pass on that occasion. He did admit that it is only one man's intuition, in the final analysis, that passes or fails a candidate, and that no examiner is infallible.

But he then described how necessary it had been for him on numerous occasions to seem tranquil and impassive when he was not, and he at last earned from me a certain respect for his calling. He said he had once been driven into a shallow river. He had been propelled through a shop window. He had been wrapped round a lamppost. He had sat by, without any effective power to stop it, while a candidate had literally demolished the gearbox of the car in her efforts to turn around in a side street. He had received abusive letters from a driver he had failed. The trouble was that she had already been failed at least once by each of the other examiners at the centre, so that he came as the bitter end of a long narrative. The Driving Examiner's lot, I decided, is not necessarily a happy one.

I passed my second test. It's years ago now, but the relief and jubilation are easily recalled. At last I was an adult member of the tribe. I fancy it must have been the small examiner with black hair and moustache.

As for my instructor - I bumped into him (on foot) a year or so later. I don't believe my face was familiar. We chatted. He said he's been teaching driving now for many years. He said, ''I've never had a failure.''

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