‘When I have to give up the driving, I hope I die fairly quickly’

TV review: Too Old For the Road? quickly becomes a vehicle for wider, poignant considerations

John Walsh, doing his driving test at the age of 101

John Walsh, doing his driving test at the age of 101

 

Sitting at home in a contemplative mood, but speaking without a trace of self-pity, a man is moved to consider his life, his car and the future.

“The main thing I would hope,” he says evenly, “is that when I have to give up the driving, that I would die fairly quickly.” Ordinarily, this would strike anyone as a maudlin thought; an inability to imagine life beyond horsepower. But here, the sentiment is quite extraordinary.

The speaker, John Walsh, is a Tipperary driver with a new electric car and he is 101 years old. Even as you admire his lucidity, his exercise routine and his articulate concern for the environment, you can’t help but wonder about the extent of his accumulated carbon footprint: He has been driving for eight decades.

If Too Old For the Road? (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm) gets plenty of mileage from its subject – drivers above the age of 70 must routinely reapply for their licences, threatened by declining health or eyesight – it is because driving represents myriad things. Driving is agency, independence, responsibility, control. We’re slow to relinquish it. Producer and director Shane Hogan concentrates on five older drivers, most in their 80s (John, in many regards, is the outlier) but while this is a documentary on motoring it quickly becomes a vehicle for much more.

“I don’t want to drive, but I have to,” says Michael, an 83-year-old Kilkenny man, unfussy about his independence and short of illusion. He has age-related macular degeneration, a vision impairment, which means that he will soon be unable to visit his wife, the resident of a nursing home.

You worry that some of Hogan’s footage, observing the glacial process of reverse manoeuvring or an occasionally unsteady sway from correct lane positioning, might be used as evidence against his subjects. But the programme itself is similarly prone to veering, sometimes between the nostalgic lacquer of its sound track and talking head reminiscences, to the uninterrupted lensing of personal distress.

“It’s terrible to be getting old, you know?” says Michael, briefly emotional at being burdened and alone. “Nobody wants you.” (Later, he is in bluff good humour, joking with his passengers about the clarity of his eyesight: “Lucky for you lads.”)

Anne Moore on the road
Anne Moore on the road

Joan, another sprightly 86-year-old, is just as wily, using a paintbrush to conceal fresh car scratches (“Sure, nobody would know the difference,” she laughs mischievously.) But a court summons in Galway for a speeding offence is harder to brush off and it lends her story its arc. Accompanied by her daughter – whose ribbings are both affectionate and nervous – it prompts reflection on the accidental death of Joan’s son (“He was a bit like his mother,” she says, “never listened”) and later her husband, tying the car to both her independence and sociability.

The nation, it is strongly implied, doesn’t offer much in the way of alternatives. As another daughter says of her mother, Anne, “If we had a transport system that was any good she might be able to use that. But we don’t.”

John Taylor who drives an ice-cream van as he has no pension
John Taylor who drives an ice-cream van as he has no pension

The documentary avoids direct collision with sorrow, but, like John Taylor still driving his ice-cream van – a touchingly futuristic vehicle designed in the 1960s – because he has no pension, it hints at the inevitability of dispossession, one way or another. There’s a heart-rending irony here. Preparedness has always been an important qualification for the licenced motorist, but who sees this coming?

“That’s life,” says Michael, as though it also follwed the rules of the road. “You take it as it comes. It throws all kinds of things at you.”

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