Crammed into the sidecar attached to Pa’s motorbike, Ma, LittleBro, the budgie and I followed the removal van across the City, not dilly-dallying on the way. We were moving from our tiny first floor flat to a house in the suburbs of North London. It would be just like in my favourite Janet and John books, with a real garden and an upstairs. All very exciting and not in the least scary.
Later, I visited a friend from my old school. Pa collected me on his motor-bike and I clutched round his waist as we swerved between the taxis and big red buses, speeding over the Thames with a grand view of the river. All very exciting and not at all scary.
Pa graduated from riding his motorcycle combination to a three-wheeled car, which was covered by his motor-bike licence. Then, at last, a real car with four-wheels which Pa taught himself to drive from a book. Grandad sat next to him as Pa got to grips with the controls. Grandad couldn’t drive either but looked as though he could, which was the key thing.
We started making weekend trips to see Nanny and Grandad in South London; attempting to fend off the car-sickness with singing and counting coppers. One particular road in Finsbury Park had so many hills and turns, we called it the Big Dipper and urged Pa to drive as fast as he could to make it exciting: though always, of course, within the speed-limit. Or we would play ‘let’s not stop at traffic lights’, creeping up to them really slowly so we kept moving for as long as possible. If the car actually stopped, They got a point; if not, we did. They rarely won.
When I was twelve, I started taking LittleBro and his friend up to London on the buses. We’d buy Red Rover tickets, which allowed you to hop on and off the bus platforms as often as you liked. Armed with a bus-map, we explored the sights: Number 10, Buckingham Palace, Battersea Park. Grand stuff and not at all scary.
But at some stage, something turned me from a regular little Michael Palin to the wimpiest of wimpy travellers; and wimpy I remain.
I worry now about missing trains, losing tickets, taking the wrong trains, getting off at the wrong place. I fret about crashing on the motorways or having cars fall off the transporter in front or driving over the edge of bridges. Lucy Mangan says wisely that the key indicator of a successful marriage is whether you agree about what constitutes a reasonable stopping distance. My preferred stopping distance is measured in kilometres not feet: ActorLaddie and I are still trying to find a compromise on that one.
As for aeroplanes, worries about connections and tickets are insignificant compared to the Big Question: whether the thing will actually stay up in the air.
Strangely, my first few air trips were fine: that holiday to Spain, weekend trips to Paris. Then ActorLaddie went to work in Lithuania for a few months.
He was working as a Trouper in the making of Series Three of ‘The New Adventures of Robin Hood.’ The Troupers played all the parts around the main characters: the Beautiful Lady Warrior Marion, the Mighty Little John and, of course, that all-American hero himself, Robin Hood. The tales were faithful to the original; ActorLaddie appearing as priest, sorcerer, wedding guest and a variety of peasants and yokels to retell how Robin Hood rescued Lady Godiva and, later, joined forces with Queen Boudicca – pronounced Bow-a-de-see-a (a compromise from the original pronunciation of Bow-a-de-che-a).
Anyway, ActorLaddie found that he couldn’t spend all of his daily allowance in Lithuania, and bought a plane ticket for me join him for the last few days of filming. I parked YoungLochinvar and InfantPhenomenon with Ma and Pa and headed for the airport. The plane was quite small, the journey very turbulent and I basically screamed my way there and back again, to the delight of my fellow-travellers. Other attempts at plane journeys have been no more successful: a short flight to Glasgow for my cousin’s wedding was only achieved through a mix of alcohol, i-pod, blinkers and extreme yogic breathing.
Perhaps it’s something to do with having had children? Childbirth is known to spark off strange effects: the continual emptying of bank accounts, for one. GrannieBorders was unable to eat bananas after having had ActorLaddie and, since having YoungLochinvar, I’ve not been able to wear polo-neck jumpers without feeling nauseous. Maybe somewhere in the mix of post-natal hormones is one designed specifically to keep you at home; safe, where the sky won’t fall on you.
But here, in Rome, I have found at last my perfect form of transport. I have fallen in love with the number 8 tram, which takes us from the end of our street bang into the centre of Rome.
It is very cheap – 1.50 euros; so just over a quid. It turns up every five minutes from early early to late late. It is air-conditioned. It has wi-fi. It is always full but never to the extent that your nose is jammed into someone else’s arm-pit. The people are friendly: today we sat opposite an elderly lady determined to chat to us about ‘Mama Kate’ and ‘George’ and ‘Princess Diana’. We kept indicating that we didn’t speak Italian but that deterred her not the least: she just spoke slower and louder. You’d never catch the Brits doing that.
The tram has level access so wheel-chairs and push-chairs zip on and off with as much ease as the fleet of foot. Just as well, as a fair percentage of passengers get on pretty heavily laden: smart-phone in one-hand, small dog in a shopping basket grasped in the other, ice-cream in a third. And that’s just the nuns. And, of course, it runs on rails in its own little space: no worries about stopping distances or other traffic. The perfect mode of transport.
We’re now past the half-way point in our holiday and I’m starting to miss home already. I’ve just got to wrestle with the problem of how I can smuggle the tramback with us in the sleeper-train. It is, to quote the masters, a transport of delight.