This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.
When I heard about the recent car accident involving Prince Philip and then saw the pictures, like everyone else I was amazed and relieved that no-one had been seriously injured. Then of course the world took to social media to give their advice to the ageing Duke. Overwhelmingly people thought Prince Philip should not be driving at 97 years. Everyone has a point. It seems that Lady Luck was with the occupants of the two cars involved and the worst injury was a broken wrist. I imagine though that they are all very shaken up.
However this accident also brought back such strong and emotional memories of the moment that my siblings and I realised that we had to stop our mother from driving. Once again Lady Luck was involved but this time it was not an accident.
I had ordered my mother a load of fire logs and I was there when they were delivered. The delivery man recognised my mother and said that he had found her, in her car, in his field very late one winter’s night. She had turned off the M4, she had no memory of why she was on the M4. She had seen the sign for her turn off but mistakenly taken a slip road onto some farm land. Her car had come to a halt in a ploughed field. Luckily the farmer (the log delivery man) had seen the car headlights. He went to investigate. He found my mother confused and frightened. Nevertheless she insisted on getting back on the road and going on to the correct turning. The farmer stood down as she was a formidable lady.
If I had not ordered the logs I would not have known about this incident. I then enquired of my mother’s friends and there were similar stories. She had turned up for lunch, hours late, having got lost. In this instance she only had to travel to the next village.
Making the decision for her that she should not drive was an easy one. We were so scared that one day she would hurt herself or someone else and we would then bear the guilt. However implementing our decision was another matter.
It meant that my mother’s world shrank to an unacceptable size for her. She would have to rely on well-meaning and kind neighbours to take her wherever she wanted to go. My mother had never had to rely on anyone in that way, she was the one who would help others. She was a very good driver and had driven a Red Cross ambulance at the end or the war. Seemingly this made her exempt from any driving test.
My father was a ‘petrol head’ coming from a family of speed lovers. His cousin had held the world land speed record for some years. They were a family of racing drivers. Both of my parents would sit and watch Formula 1 racing on a Sunday. This was much like others following their favourite sports team. It was nearly as important to them as going to Mass on Sunday morning. It was definitely part of the Sunday ritual.
My father relinquished the keys to his car quite easily. That was because it would be ‘Lolly’, his adored wife, who would be driving him everywhere. Together they went on road trips all over the UK visiting cousins and distant relatives. Family was another passion of theirs.
As my brother was probably the only person my mother would listen to when it came to cars, I delegated the job of taking the car away from her to him. It took some time, much failed persuasion, and in the end a tow truck. I don’t think she ever really forgave us.
As her dementia got worse she gradually forgot all of our names but never the existence of her car. She was always telling me that she was going off to visit a friend and when I offered to drive her she would say she was quite capable of driving herself. I could understand that she didn’t want to be reliant on me and nor did she want me at lunch with her girlfriend. It changed the dynamic.
Her visits to London to visit a cousin in Chelsea were curtailed when, instead of popping a few coins in a meter, she had to use a mobile phone to book parking. I have friends much younger than she was then who still cannot get their head around this.
I could understand how she felt but it did not mean she could be allowed to roam freely as who knows where she could end up.
Obviously this in no way compares to Prince Philip as he has a fleet of chauffeurs to take him wherever he commands. However he too has always loved his cars and so this would be an admission of old age if he was to stop driving. Due to modern life he must always travel with a bodyguard but sitting behind the wheel of his car makes him feel like he is in command.
I recently read Michelle Obama’s auto-biography. In it she told a story about her acceptance of lack of solitude. A while after she left the White House she found herself on her own in her house in Washington. Her husband and daughters were out. It was late and she was hungry so she wandered, with her two dogs, into the kitchen. She chose to make herself a cheese toastie. She then sat in the garden and ate it. It was then that she realised she was on her own. For once she had made her own sandwich without anyone offering to do it for her.
Michelle Obama accepted that over the wall there was a security guard but she still appreciated this moment of solitude. She was also in control of her choices. She, like Prince Philip, will never walk down the street without a bodyguard so these small moments are so precious. I guess the Duke feels like that when he gets in his car.
It is easy for all of us who have our freedom to dictate that the Duke should not drive any more. It is the right thing to do for the safety of everyone. However I can only wish the family the best of luck in persuading him to hand over his keys. He would seem as stubborn as my mother, fiercely independent and so not open to debate on this topic.
I leave you with one of the famous gaffes made by Prince Philip to a driving instructor in Oban, Scotland, during a 1995 walkabout:
“How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to get them through the test?”