Originally written during a summer holiday, this is one of my favourite pieces talking about the impact of being told I no longer had the vision to be able to drive
First published: 23 August 2021
It’s a sunny Sunday evening in mid-summer and I’m sat with my brother-in-law outside the village pub just down the road from the south Wiltshire house our families are renting this week not far from the historic city of Salisbury. One of the locals has just stopped for a quick chat on his way back home with a top-up from the bar. He’d been telling us about how he’d come to move to the hamlet 26 years ago after pulling into the pub car park in his S3 Lotus Esprit and the gearstick came off in his hand (living up to the affectionate name Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious).
At this point, a black hot-rod pulls into the car park and out gets the local brewer (who also happens to be a critically acclaimed Hollywood director) with his partner and stops to have a quick chat with the local before heading indoors. The hot-rod is a rebuilt Ford Model C roadster with an exposed, highly chromed (and very loud) V8; the throbbing sound echoing around the valley as the engine dies. Now, with the gradual cooling tick the only sound, the local returns with pictures of his fateful Lotus.
The whole experience got me to reminiscing about how cars have been my passion – for as long as I can remember. I used to love going to shows with my dad, walking around all the classic Jags, MGs, Healeys and Triumphs, the sounds of the B-Series 1600s, the magnificent Jaguar straight sixes, and the throbbing Rover V8s. Combined with the smell of engine oil and aged leather, I would yearn for the day when I would finally have a garage full of these rare beasts.
Scroll on 30 or so years, and I sat in the driver’s seat of my own Jaguar XF-S on a crisp autumn morning, firing up the V6 for the drive across the South Oxfordshire downs on my way to a routine eye appointment. For these appointments I always end up with dilated pupils so my wife, Kath always came along to drive me home.
The difference between this, and all previous appointments was that this appointment, on the 14th October 2020, I would be sat in the driving seat for the last time: You see, my consultant, affectionately referred to as “The Prof” by her clinical team, would have the unenviable duty of advising me that my vision no longer met the minimum legal requirement to drive.
It is a legal requirement to inform the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licencing Authority) of any condition that may have an impact on your ability to drive such as diabetes, epilepsy and various eye conditions, including mine. The DVLA may then place certain conditions to ensure that you continue to meet the minimum driving standard. For me, the condition was to have an annual visit to the opticians to check I can read the chart to the fifth line down.
For those of you who are not aware, to be able to drive in the UK, your visual acuity must be at least 6/12 (or 20/40 in old money). This means that from 6 metres (20 foot), you must be able to see an object with the same clarity that someone with typical vision would see from 12 metres (40 foot) away.
On the 14thOctober I was told that my own vision was 6/15, just below the standard.
Since being diagnosed more than two years earlier with the degenerative eye condition known as Cone Dystrophy I have always dreaded this day, knowing of course that it will come.
It is fair to say that words cannot describe the anxiety that comes with this annual eye test, but with the COVID-19 pandemic all of that had been put on hold and licences were automatically extended to cover the backlog. Despite this, when my licence expired in August 2020, I booked myself for a check-up at my local opticians – for my own peace of mind – and felt like skipping out of the consulting room when she told me I still (just) met the standard.
Little did I know that this would only last for a few more months.
At this point, I’m sure that some of you reading this are thinking “you’re going blind, not dying” and, of course you are correct, I’m not dying. But I am losing part of my identity as I see it; imagine having the independence that something like driving brings for over 20 years, for it be taken from you. No, it doesn’t compare to a diagnosis of terminal illness, but it is traumatic, nonetheless.
No longer can I take my 18-year-old out driving nor (worse still), make the 2-minute run to the shop for a pint of milk whilst the tea brews (that is now a 20-minute round trip and a stewed cuppa!). Of course, I could ask Kath to go for me, but that’s just one more thing to do on top of everything else she has to do in the morning.
It is also what it signifies. Being told you can no longer drive is the first big milestone for most of us with a degenerative eye condition. Until this point, in the main I was able to carry on as if it was not happening.
For me, as my vision has continued to fade (it is now 6/60 in my right eye and 6/36 in my left), it carries with it any chance of stripping down and cleaning the jets on a SU carburettor, setting the points on a distributor, or adjusting the valve clearance on an overhead valve four pot. Meaning, the idea of getting a classic car to tinker with is laughable.
Even reading about them in my classic car magazines is akin to Schrodinger’s Cat. If I don’t open the cover, there’s still a chance I can read about “Magnificent Merc SLs”, “Supercar Legends” or “Great British Dream Drives”. Instead, the back issues of Classic and Sports Car continue to pile up, envelope intact, next to my desk.
This where I find myself on my sight-loss journey – the things that I used to take for granted are becoming more and more inaccessible and even the things I can do are becoming more complex.
Swimming is another example in the category of ‘didn’t see that coming’. Previously I would swim at least three times a week in my lunch break. Now it’s a two-hour round trip and that’s without even getting in the pool! Suffice to say, my gym membership is in good company with my Classic and Sports Car subscription. I know I could cancel the membership or change the subscription to digital-only, but I’m not ready to do that. Not yet anyway.
It reminds me of watching my wife’s grandmother get angry with herself when her Parkinson’s stopped her from doing simple things, things which she had done for almost 80 years, but now I understand how she was feeling, I have so much admiration that she always dusted herself off and kept going. From her I take inspiration.
So, I may not be able to drive, fix, or even read about cars, but there are so many things I can do instead: I can still get out walking, and I now always have a notebook with me ready to jot down my musings (some of which aren’t complete drivel, and will no doubt be published here). The cars are still part of me of course, in fact a few weeks ago, we all went to a county fayre and there was a small collection of classic cars. The sights, smells and sounds were still as I remember. The pangs of regret that I will never be able to bring my own car were there of course, but we still whiled away many enjoyable hours wondering up and down the rows of marques and dreaming…. hoping perhaps, that a breakthrough is made so that perhaps one day, it could be me sat there, flat cap on, polishing the wing of my Alfa as others look on in wonder.
You can but hope…
Thanks for reading