Clarkson's Sunday Times Columns

Phat_J

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Hey, big thanks for posting these articles. I'm trying to find one that I believe is from Jeremy. He was talking about how people can be so proper and professional, but leave a complete mess in the public washroom. His theory is this is the only time in their lives they can "let go" and be complete primal savages. Does anyone know what article I mean? It was so funny. Thanks
 

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TOP TRACTOR: Farming might not seem the natural habitat of petrolhead Jeremy Clarkson, but the former Top Gear presenter is ploughing a new furrow as a conservationist on his Oxfordshire land, he tells Nick Rufford

Sunday Times
(Feb. 03)

We all know Jeremy Clarkson, the tell-it-straight TV presenter and Sunday Times columnist whose snappy one-liners and less than snappy dress have made him as popular with fans of fast cars as they have made him unloved by eco-minded types, especially those with a disdain for dad denim. So who is this country gent in Wellingtons and a Barbour, striding over ploughed fields among hedges and copses he's planted, pointing out species of wild bird that have recently returned to this part of Oxfordshire?

"When I first came here the skies were empty," Clarkson explains. "It took a while to establish the right vegetation and feed crop. The yellowhammer is listed as endangered, but there must be a hundred living in the hedge just 200 yards up from here. I've seen bullfinches, chaffinches, goldcrests. I've got owl boxes around the place, and lots of fieldfares come swarming by. In the space of five years it's started to look like Slimbridge [wildfowl reserve] without the geese."

On cue, a scarf of wood pigeons unfolds against the winter sky, and a solitary raptor hangs in the distance. Birds of prey are frequent visitors, Clarkson says. "I woke up the other morning and took a picture of a kestrel on the post outside my bedroom window. That would be a rare sight in London."

Rarer still, surely, is this glimpse of Clarkson the ornithologist, far from his natural habitat of a racing circuit or TV studio and way outside his west London comfort zone. Has he quit the fast lane? Definitely not, he says, though he has taken the first step towards a different style of TV car show, which means he'll be spending more time on his farm — nearly 1,000 acres of rolling arable land in deepest Oxfordshire.

It's a proper muddy, working farm, growing three staples: wheat, barley and oilseed rape. Previous owners paid little attention to native plants and animals. Clarkson, 58, replanted hawthorn and beech and cleared streams and ponds to create new habitats. One irony, Clarkson says, is that his land consumes more carbon dioxide through photosynthesis than he has ever generated driving gas-guzzling supercars. "I didn't buy a farm to offset my carbon footprint, [but it's] a happy coincidence that, should I ever get into a debate with a climate-change enthusiast, I can say I'm carbon-neutral."

He shares the farm cottage with Lisa Hogan, 47, his partner. There's an Aga in the kitchen and a telescope in the living room for birdwatching. Outside is a hole in the ground where the old farmhouse stood (Clarkson's former BBC co-stars Richard Hammond, 49, and James May, 56, blew it up for a TV stunt). Clarkson is planning to start constructing a new house this year, which news reports have described as a mansion with tennis court, swimming pool and media centre. Clarkson insists it's untrue. It will have six bedrooms, though, as reported, and be "lovely, but not Blenheim Palace". It's being designed to last the couple through to old age. "I've been careful to include wheelchair access. There is a gradient change over the site, and Lisa pointed out that we should avoid having a step, so we can zoom about in our wheelchairs without a problem."

His new-found green credentials are unlikely to make Clarkson any more popular with his critics. Last month he upset them again by declaring that the BBC was "up itself " and made programmes only for "seven people in Islington". Plus, its obsession with political correctness meant it was unwilling to hire men. "Honestly, poor old Nick Robinson going for an interview," he said, referring to the appointment of Fiona Bruce as the new host of Question Time. "No chance he [was] going to get it. Anyone who has got a scrotum — forget it."

It's a classic example of Clarkson humour, which his defenders say merely expresses what other people privately think. Detractors say his views are a throwback to a bygone age — and he doesn't necessarily disagree. "Maybe I am just a big old dinosaur," he has said. "The world isn't mine any more; it belongs to people my children's age [daughters Emily, 24, and Katya, 20, and son Finlo, 22]. They live in a secret world, on their phones and social media. I listen to them talking and think, 'This is an alien planet. I'm William Shatner and I've just beamed down somewhere.' " Nevertheless, Clarkson's viewing figures have never been higher. For a start, 5m-plus people tune in to watch him host ITV's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? — as big as the average audience for Top Gear, BBC2's motoring show, even when he was on it.

Then there are the repeats of old Top Gear episodes such as the Polar Special, the Winter Olympics and the attempt to cross the Channel in home-built amphibious craft, which are still shown back to back on satellite channels and attracted big audiences over Christmas.

When the BBC refused to renew Clarkson's contract after a catering-related punch-up, Amazon snapped him up, along with Hammond and May, in a £160m deal to make The Grand Tour. The show pulled in more than 1.5m "first streams", meaning people signed up in droves to watch it, though the company won't release exact figures. Clarkson has just been commissioned for a further series, spread over two years, but the studio format of the show featuring celebrity interviews in front of a live audience has come to an end.

Clarkson says it's because he's now too fat to climb on stage. Instead, the trio will be filming road-trip specials. Will life on the farm be enough of a challenge? "Yes, absolutely. Nothing fills me with more pleasure, as I head towards 60, than stomping about here on a winter's day, or even a summer's day. Any day, in fact. It's just, honestly, the nicest thing you can do. Even pulling a fallen horse-chestnut tree out from the pond is just deep joy."

Watching the new series of The Grand Tour, you could be forgiven for thinking that the change of direction has something to do with the tetchiness between Clarkson and May, nicknamed "Captain Slow".

In an episode yet to be broadcast, they have to assemble an off-roader to escape the Mongolian wilderness. At one point May grows so infuriated with Clarkson, he looks as though he might bludgeon him to death. But no: offscreen they remain the best of friends, even after 16 years of working together — though they would be the first to deny that a bromance between the presenting trio underlies the appeal of The Grand Tour, as it did Top Gear before it.

What's behind his decision to downshift? Clarkson's family lived at Home Farm in Burghwallis, South Yorkshire, when he was a boy in the 1970s. It wasn't a working farm, but the house was set in peaceful countryside. Is he returning to his roots? No, it's the punishing schedule, he says. No sooner do the three presenters stop work on one series than they begin on the next, a regime that has kept them away from their homes and families for as long as they can remember.

"I've had it up to here with Heathrow. I can literally go through that airport now with my eyes closed. I know where all the gates are. I know the security people. I've been going through twice or three times a week for 20 years, and I've just had enough. So the idea of somebody saying, 'You don't have to go through Heathrow any more; you don't have to get in a car; you don't even have to put on a pair of trousers in the morning,' is a blessing. You saw me this morning with no socks on. OK, I have shaved, but I'm covered in spots from five solid days of filming in a studio where you have to wear make-up. So it does fill me with joy, the notion of spending large chunks of the year up here farming."

Farmer Clarkson, it turns out, is already an established member of his community and popular with his Chipping Norton (population: 6,337) neighbours. "I used to tell him off for buying unhealthy food," says one motherly sort at the till of a farm shop. "Now he's eating local produce he's looking much better."

He's a regular at the village pub, where some drinkers think he should be the local MP — or prime minister, both positions once held by a local, now forgotten, politician called David Cameron. Clarkson has consistently dismissed the idea of involving himself in politics, even when 50,000 of his fans voted via the government's e-petition website for him to be prime minister (the petition was rejected on the basis that governments don't decide who gets to No 10). Nevertheless, the idea refuses to die. When a picture of Clarkson meeting Cameron, then prime minister, at a country show was published locally on a newspaper website, one reader commented: "The prime minister and the ideal prime minister."

The affection is mutual: Clarkson declares that the cafe in nearby Chadlington is "better than Fortnum & Mason's. You can't go in there and not have a conversation with them. It was once the post office, but now it sells the best carrot cake in the world. It says so on the label and you think, 'That's a ballsy call', but it actually, genuinely, is the best carrot cake … in the world. We're very spoilt here."

Sometimes, though, the two worlds of fast motoring and slow living collide, as when he drove home in a battery-powered Jaguar I-Pace, plugged it in to recharge it and fused all the lights in his cottage. A neighbour lent him the use of an electrical socket for the night so Jeremy could collect the car the next morning, fully charged.

He becomes quietly enraged when the local hunt blocks the road. "It's the pomposity of huntsmen: they stand in the road. I mean, they stand in the road, stopping the traffic on their — well, it's glue in an early state — enormous horses, blocking traffic and believing the whole world must stop so they can indulge their passion for hunting. Well, that's just ridiculous. I mean, if I decided I wanted to indulge in a pastime or hobby that stopped them going about their daily business, they'd be furious."

Even more infuriating, he says, is the government red tape that has sabotaged his efforts to lift the farm out of subsidies and make it more of a going concern. When he tried to grow crops on land that previous owners had put into stewardship (making them eligible for payments under the "set aside" scheme), he found himself mired in bureaucracy. "An official came with a sort of wooden square, like a fold-out ruler, and flung it at random into a field. Then she examined every blade of grass and plant in that metre square to see if there was anything protected. They find a rare grass and they say, 'You can't farm this field, but we'll pay you as though you were farming it.' It's called stewardship, but the idea seems to be that I'm unable to be a steward of this land but some civil servants are able to.

"Well, I take the global view that there's a lot of starving people, and the bigger the world's population gets, the more food we're going to need. So it's slightly mad to not farm things because there's a rare grass growing."

Likewise, his attempts at grazing sheep ran headlong into caps on livestock density. "I'm limited by the government to 0.6 of a sheep per acre. It's something to do with nitrogen going into the soil from their urine. I tried to get round it. I have a field surrounded on three sides by woods, so I said [to the farm agent], 'We could put as many as we like in that, because you can't see it from the road or any footpath.' And he said, 'No, they've got a satellite.' What? The government has a spy in the sky so officials can count sheep? How do they stay awake? I'm sure if you interviewed a proper farmer, they'd give you examples of a million idiotic rules. I've encountered one or two. You roll your eyes and think, 'There's probably a very good reason for this', but I just don't know what it is."

Clarkson insists that turning cars into ploughshares did not happen overnight. Ten years ago, when it seemed the unexpected success of Top Gear must surely be short-lived, he bought some arable land near Chipping Norton. "I was only going to buy a tiny bit, and then, when I came to look round, it was so pretty I just thought, 'Let's go all in.' " Since then, the Cotswolds has become fashionable and in parts resembles a rural enclave of Chelsea. Clarkson's neighbours include Prince Harry and Meghan and David and Victoria Beckham. He is keen to point out that the country-house-chic set live on the other side of Chipping Norton. He bought where he did to get away, not to arrive. When he examined the farm's books, it was clear it was financially barren, so he renamed it Diddly Squat. "Someone came to look at it in 2009 and said it was the shittiest land he'd ever seen. This is not East Anglia: the soil isn't rich in antediluvian deposits and volcanic nourishment. There's a light dusting of soil on top of solid Cotswold stone."

Having fallen under its spell, he set about trying to restore the flora and fauna. "When I bought it, there was an awful lot of grass but very little farming or wildlife. We planted maize and sunflower and mustard, and now the skies are absolutely rammed with birds."

Just in case he gives the impression he's become a vegan and started reading The Guardian, Clarkson is prone to walking round his estate with a 12-bore shotgun and blasting things out of the sky — mainly game birds — as well as dismantling dreys (squirrel nests, for the benefit of noncountry folk) to protect trees. He invites his neighbours along to wander round taking aim at pheasants, which, if they don't get out of the way, end up in Jeremy's pot. He calls it more of a mobile cocktail party than a shoot. An overabundance of good cheer, especially on New Year's Day, means the pheasants stand a better than even chance. "We all meet up, have some breakfast, wander about, moan about the hunt and then go to the pub for lunch."

Clearly he's not in favour of horses and hounds. It turns out not only do they block the road but they scare his flocks. "You get all the birds in the right place, then the hunt comes through and moves them again, which you don't want," he sighs. "It's all part of country living; you either shoot or you hunt." Has he considered banning the hunt from his land? "No, there are some people round here who would be very angry. What I thought would be fun is to one year invite the hunt and the antis and watch them have a massive battle." He quickly adds that he's joking, lest his critics take him at his word.

Having experienced the down-to-earth reality of farming life, he worries that TV nature programmes present an idealised version of an existence that's often wet, cold and barbaric. "Take Countryfile. I absolutely love it. But when Matt [Baker] has a go at, say, building a dry stone wall, he puts a couple of stones in and goes, 'Oh, I wish I could stay here all the time and just do this for a living.' The trouble is, what he means is, 'I've got to get back to London to go to the Ivy tonight with all my friends in media, and I'd have to take a massive pay cut.' There was one where a man was boiling wood to make fork handles and he says, 'Ah, I'd love to stay here and boil wood', and you thought, 'No you wouldn't. You can buy them for 99p from a pound shop.' " It turns out that Clarkson harbours a secret ambition to present his own show — one that would lay bare the realities, "including life, death and form-filling". He says: "No one realises how much form-filling you have to do as a farmer. Yes, an actual, realistic version of Countryfile, where there was death and blood and opinion, would be a great show."

The idea of Clarkson at the wheel of a plodding tractor instead of a 200mph Lamborghini is not as far-fetched as you might think. At the BBC he proved he could turn his hand to pretty well any type of presenting, including documentaries on the wartime Arctic convoys, on a British raid on German U-boat pens and on Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Since he left, the BBC has struggled to match his audience-pulling power. As if to prove it, a BBC Top Gear DVD released for Christmas last year features not the show's new presenting team, but resurrected highlights of Clarkson's antics. The BBC's strait-laced reputation provided the perfect foil for Clarkson's humour, while its finger-wagging management helped by repeatedly admonishing him for lapses in taste ("His clothes, for example," Hammond once suggested).

Interestingly, the take-no-prisoners humour that got Clarkson into trouble at the BBC has created scarcely a ripple at Amazon. "The difference is, Danny Cohen [the former BBC executive whom Clarkson accused of being obsessed with political correctness] isn't at Amazon," says Clarkson. "The Corbyn army is not there, so we just get much less bother."

There may be a hint of double standards in Clarkson's criticism of rural programmes — he's not about to give up his London social life or his penthouse. He'd miss the bustle and the noise. In the city, he says, you sleep through police sirens and car alarms without a care. In the country, the slightest sound at 4am is enough to have him reaching for his gun cabinet, even if it is just a badger on patrol.

While he's in town, he employs others to do the nitty-gritty stuff. "I have a chap who has a farm down in the village, [who] has got all the kit. I just pay him to put the seeds in and nourish and harvest them. In the fullness of time I'd ideally love to do that myself."

When he has turned his hand to the heavy lifting, he's made mistakes. "One year I decided to store [grain] on the runway of an old airfield at the top of the farm. But when it was scooped up, tiny bits of gravel came up with it, and it was worthless. I looked into the cost of building an actual grain barn — one where the floor is ventilated, so you dry the grain from underneath. It was a quarter of a million pounds. How many years do you have to farm just to pay off the barn? In terms of return on investment capital, I don't see how farming pays at all. How big does a farm have to be if you can't make money on a thousand acres? If it floats, flies or farms, rent it, seems to me."

Another lesson he has learnt is how many gambles there are in modern farming. "You harvest your crop, put it in store, then wait for the opportune moment to sell. You're betting on the futures market. Storing grain is very expensive, and if you make the wrong call, you can lose big time. A lot seems to depend on the weather in Russia."

Even if Diddly Squat farm makes no money, and even if he can't grow more crops or graze more livestock, tending the land and preserving it as a wildlife refuge is reward enough — with the occasional cull to keep numbers in check, naturally.

Clarkson the conservationist. Who would have thought it from a man who in his days on Top Gear once declared: "Norfolk people are so inbred, they can't tell the difference between a Ferguson tractor and a Ford Capri"? Yet stranger transformations have taken place. Who knows, the man striding off to repair an owl box could one day be the new Sir David Attenborough.
 

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Cheat, love, bray: let me put my ass on the line and tell you that the donkey sex scene was real (Feb. 03)

There's no easy way of saying this, so I'll just jump straight in. While driving through Colombia last year, I encountered a man who was making love to a donkey. Further investigations revealed that he was not an escaped lunatic and that a lot of the men in his village do the same thing when they're bored or lonely.

Now I know the programme that I make for Amazon is supposed to be a car show, but I thought the donkey story was interesting. So we broke out the cameras and filmed one of the men making the two-backed beast with Eeyore. And then we spoke to his mates, who were at pains to point out that they only had sex with the female donkeys, because doing it with a boy donkey would be weird, obviously.

The scene was part of a show that was released recently and almost immediately the Pop Idol winner Will Young responded by saying something about how the car I'd been using was gay. Or not gay. Or that it was gay but we shouldn't have said so. I can't quite remember. Everyone else, on the other hand, wanted to know why on earth we'd faked the donkey scene.

Yup. Everyone had looked and listened and then decided that because they had never seen a man having sex with a donkey on their way to work at a warehouse in Huddersfield, I couldn't have seen it either. So it must have been fake.

This accusation of televisual jiggery-pokery baffled me, because let's just say we'd wanted to film a story that was not true. Why, in the name of all that's holy, do you think we'd come up with the idea that a man would have sex with an animal? And even if we did, then what? Do we just go up to someone and say, "Hey, mate. I'll give you a tenner if you'll do a bit of roadside bestiality"? And what do you think the Colombian government would have to say about it? I once put a lavatory in my car in Mumbai, saying that it'd be useful if I got Delhi belly, and now I'm banned from India. Then I said that eastern Turkey felt less safe than Iraq, and now Johnny Turk won't let me visit any more.

So do you really think I'd want to tell a blatant lie about Colombia? Because those guys probably wouldn't send me a polite letter asking me never to come again. They'd send a man to cut off my arms with a chainsaw.

I'm afraid, then, the scene wasn't faked. It was real. The interviews afterwards were real. It was all on television with subtitles. And no one believed it.

I think the problem started with poor old Bear Grylls. Until then everything on the television was true and real because the person doing the talking was Sir Robin Day or John Noakes. A sensible man with sensible clothes and sensible hair. But we learnt that the bear that attacked Bear in one of his camping programmes was actually a member of the production team in a bear suit, and this opened the floodgates.

The BBC was forced to admit that a scene in its epic Human Planet series showing a tribal family in Papua New Guinea living in a tree house had been a setup, and it previously had to concede that footage of a tarantula in a Venezuelan jungle had actually been shot in a studio.

Oh, and then there was "Wolfgate", when the Beeb said the wild wolf it had just shown was actually a partly domesticated one. Everyone was very angry, and I can't see why.

It costs a fortune to send a film crew to a remote location and an even bigger one to house it and feed it while it trudges about looking for its quarry. You want to pay for that? Or would you rather the producers set something up in advance so that they weren't wasting your licence fee on a scene you aren't going to believe anyway? It's now reached the point where people don't even bother telling the truth. You had Boris Johnson and his merry bunch of cohorts running round in the run-up to the referendum saying that if we left the EU we'd be able to give the NHS an extra £350m a week. That was a complete fabrication.

Then you had Donald Trump, who'd seen photographs of the crowd that turned out to watch Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009 and photographs of the measly crowd that turned out to watch his. He knew we'd seen them too, but even so he apparently asked the government photographer to edit the photos to make his crowd seem larger. He's the most powerful man in the world, and he's forever lying.

I look now on the internet at all the stuff that's been written about me in recent times. And a huge amount of it is wrong. So we must assume that a huge amount of the stuff about everyone else on the internet is wrong too. It's scary.

Later this year we will show you a Grand Tour programme we made in Mongolia. We will explain that we are in the most sparsely populated country on Earth and that there is not a single shred of evidence in any direction for hundreds of miles that man has existed.

We will drive across this wilderness in a car we have built ourselves, and we will be seen living like animals, for days, in the frozen expanse of nothingness. It is all true and it is all real. And at the end I guarantee someone will write to say that it was faked and that we stayed in hotels.

It's a shame, really, because when we don't trust anything we see or hear, we lose our ability to be amazed. You can't stand back in childlike wonderment at something if you automatically think it's computer-generated imagery. And how can you form an opinion when you don't believe anything anyone says or anything you read? Sometimes it's healthy to believe that man walked on the moon, that Facebook has some good points and that in Colombia there is a small group of men who shag donkeys.

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And here's the Sun column: "Jeremy Clarkson tells Will Young, ‘I’m not homophobic… I very much like watching lesbians on the net’"
 

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Credit card, toothbrush — I'm off on my mini gap year. And on that bombshell ... goodbye!
(Feb. 10)

When Richard Hammond has a crash and needs to spend a month in hospital being put back together again, it plays havoc with the filming schedule, but we usually cope. However, on the day he returned to work after his most recent accident, I was struck down with pneumonia. And was told to live on a yacht in the Mediterranean for a month.

This threw a whole toolbox into the works, and I knew that no matter how hard we scrabbled to catch up, there would come a time when filming would have to stop so that some actual forward planning could happen. This would mean that for about three months I'd be at a loose end. And I wondered what I would do to fill the time.

I quite liked the idea of eating crisps and watching Cash in the Attic reruns until I became one of those comically fat people who appear in the tabloids, being winched into an ambulance. But then I met some friends who'd decided to take their young kids out of school and bugger off to surf in Sri Lanka for a while. And it got me thinking. Maybe I could do something similar.

"So you're going to spend the time learning how to surf?" said another friend. No. I'm too old for that. And I don't like weed. But I did fancy the idea of going somewhere and achieving something.

Helping to build a school in Africa, perhaps, or clearing some landmines from Cambodia. This appealed, so for a while I looked into the possibility of giving my time to a charity. However, charities tend to view men of my age who suddenly decide to go to southeast Asia with a fair bit of suspicion, and also I'm not very practical. I think if I built a school, it would fall over, so I figured they'd be better off with my money than my time.

The idea of taking a mini gap year still appealed, though. Only a week after I was booted out of school I was working on a local newspaper, so I never got to do what's now considered a rite of passage for every middle-class child in the country.

And I didn't want to wait until I retired, because travelling when you have wonky knees and poor bladder control probably wouldn't be much fun.

What to do, though? I don't want to learn to fly, because that's just maths and weather and a stupid phonetic alphabet. Cooking? Nope. That's just peeling vegetables. Tennis? Not unless I had a boy to pick up the balls. And travelling the world with a small boy is not a good look.

Someone tried to convince me I could learn to paint. But I know how to paint. You dip your brush in some oils and smear it about on the canvas. Anyone can do that. It's just that everything I do ends up looking like a dog.

As I dithered and procrastinated, it was becoming clear that my temporary redundancy would begin in a month and I hadn't even worked out where to go.

"India," said everyone. But I can't do that because I'm banned. Also, India is nowhere near as amazing as they'd have you believe.

Australia? Been there. America? Yup, all 50 states. South America is ticked off, as is Africa, apart from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which I don't fancy, mainly because it doesn't sound very democratic to me. For a while I toyed with the idea of taking a gap year at home, but then I read that there will soon be martial law, so that was a no-no as well. Europe was a worry too, in case I wasn't allowed back.

Eventually I decided I would write a book. So I started to think about characters and motivation and plot, and then there were only two weeks to go and I knew what was coming. I wouldn't go anywhere. I'd squander this gift of free time, and I wouldn't write a book either because I'd be too busy watching Cash in the Attic.

But then, one day, I awoke knowing that I'd go to Singapore and catch the Eastern & Oriental Express to Bangkok. Full of vim and vigour, I cranked up the internet and discovered that the train is fully booked from now until the end of time. And that it takes only three days, which isn't long enough to write a book. Plus I hate trains.

And then someone pointed out that I'd spent most of my working life travelling and that it would be silly to spend my time off doing even more of it. This was all becoming annoying. I think most of us would love to take a sabbatical, but as it's going to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, you don't want to get it wrong. Which means you become too afraid to do anything at all.

Then there's the Presbyterian work ethic. When you've had your nose to the grindstone for 30 years, you become enslaved to the concept. In the same way that long-term prisoners struggle with freedom when they finally get out of jail, I was struggling with the very idea of going away. It would feel alien. Weird. So I was making up all sorts of reasons why it couldn't happen.

Then, last Friday, I recorded the last bit of voiceover for the current series of The Grand Tour and, with the production team starting preparations for the next one, I went home, turned on Cash in the Attic and opened a packet of cheese and onion crisps.

And that night I came up with a plan. So tomorrow I am going to Heathrow with a credit card and a toothbrush, which will probably be confiscated, and I shall look up at the departure boards and simply go to whichever destination I like the look of.

It means I won't be writing this column for a little while. But I'll see you on the flip side to let you know why I haven't finished my book yet. Or started it.

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A family guy makes a giant leap for vankind.
The Clarkson Review: Peugeot Rifter

(Feb. 10)

On old Top Gear, a show hosted in the 1980s by the cheerily jumpered William Woollard, I was never really allowed to drive cars that were interesting. "Nobody is interested in interesting cars," the boss told me once.

So, week in and week out, I had to review boring cars, until one day, when I was presented with a Renault Clio, I literally couldn't think of another way to say: "It's just another bloody car." So I left and went on to be a useless chat show host.

I had a similar problem recently while driving round in a Skoda Fabia. It was just some metal and glass and plastic, in an arrangement. There was nothing wrong with it. It didn't explode every five minutes and it wasn't full of wolves. But there was nothing especially amazing about it either.

I couldn't possibly think of 1,200 words to say about it. But, happily, I can easily think of 1,200 words to say about the car that replaced it. The Peugeot Rifter.

You may have heard the people in The Grand Tour's office laughing when it arrived. Wisely, the delivery driver parked it on the far side of the car park, but even though it was raining, everyone went outside for a giggle. "Ha-ha-ha," they all said. "You've got to spend all week in that."

They did have a point. It'd be like being a clothes reviewer and spending a week walking round in a brown suit that was 14 sizes too large. And made from pleblon.

And then there was the name: Rifter. That sounds like some kind of drug paraphernalia. Or one of the services offered by an escort at a Frankfurt airport hotel. "Ja. I do rifter." So it's a stupid-looking car with a silly name. And it's a Peugeot. I don't want to sound like a stuck record, but Peugeots are the new Volvos.

They are cars for people who hang things from the rear-view mirror, which is an internationally recognised sign that you can't drive. It warns other road users to be aware that you will definitely do something harebrained and foolish with no warning. All Uber drivers have things hanging from the mirror for this reason.

All of which meant I was very happy as I climbed aboard and brought the dismal diesel into life. This would be a no-star car, and I'd have a whole joyous week thinking up a million new metaphors to explain why.

At first, however, there was no opportunity to think of anything at all, because the car was busy telling me — using the exact same klaxon as they use in a diving submarine — that I was the Duke of Edinburgh. And then, after I'd fastened my seatbelt to show that I was not, it went crazy again because it thought I was going to crash into the car park's automatic barrier. This is a car that panics, very often and very loudly. Presumably because it knows that it's a Peugeot and that its elderly driver could well be under the influence of Gracie Fields.

However, while in the car park I noticed that it had an exceptionally tight turning circle and that the steering was almost comically light. And then, as I drove over the speed hump at the exit of the car park, I noticed that I didn't notice. It was uncanny.

Around town this is almost certainly the most comfortable car you can buy. The wheels are like special forces soldiers. They deal with potholes without any of the squeaky,"Did you see that?" histrionics you'd get from an ordinary set. At speed they can't cope at all and flop about in a blizzard of confusion. But this will not trouble a Rifter driver, because they will never travel at speed.

Once, I overtook a slow-moving old lady in a Rover, which meant driving for a little while with two of my wheels on the grass verge. The vibration was so bad that it felt as if I were being hosed down with .50-calibre machine-gun fire. But, once again, the Rifter driver will never experience this, because he or she will not overtake anyone — ever. Overtaking, in a Peugeot driver's mind, should be a criminal offence.

I have no problem with this. The Rifter is not aimed at someone who wishes to set a lap record at the Nürburgring. It's aimed at people who do not want to set a lap record at the Nürburgring, which — let's think — is just about everyone in the world.

And they're going to love the soft town ride and the light steering and the sixpence turning circle. They're going to love the space too.

Let's not mess about here. The Rifter is a van. It was designed to be a van, and even though the back is full of seats now rather than tools and cement mixers, it's still a van. This is bad if you want snappy service at the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo — you'll be sent to the tradesmen's entrance — but if you want to move your kids to university or go on holiday for a fortnight, then it's brilliant.

The boot on the five-seater I tried was big enough for three St. Bernards, and then there was another massive luggage area for suitcases in the ceiling. And there's so much space in the cabin that at one point I actually misplaced a one-litre bottle of water. You could play hide and seek in there, and win, even if you were fat.

It's a nice place to sit as well. There's a cool art-deco light installation on the panel running the length of the passenger compartment and above that a glass roof. There's also a funky steering wheel and good-looking trim on the dash. My test car even had foldaway tray tables in the back, like you get on an aeroplane.

The very first car I reviewed on the then new incarnation of Top Gear, in 2002, was the Citroën Berlingo, which was also a van with seats in it. I loved that and, I'll be honest, I loved the Rifter too.

On a blustery day I noticed that it was affected by crosswinds at motorway speeds, but, again, this is of no concern to the Rifter driver, because they will not be doing motorway speeds. They'll be doing 40mph, in the loser lane, desperately trying to find their lost handbag and getting their specs tangled up in the religious artefact hanging from the rear-view mirror.

If this is you — if you are a normal person with normal children and you want a normal car to do the school run and trips to the garden centre and annual trips to the seaside — it's fabulous.

And I've saved the best bit until last. Prices start at £19,689. Even if you go for a seven-seater with an eight-speed automatic gearbox and all the bells and whistles, it's still only £27,359. That's bonkers cheap for a car this size.

I know plenty of food snobs who moan while sucking on a bit of wagyu beef and whimper when exposed to a particularly foamy sauce. But everyone of them will appreciate fish and chips dripping in salt and vinegar and served in yesterday's newspaper.

Well, that's what the Rifter is.

It is not good-looking or subtle, and it probably won't be the most reliable car you've owned. But it's honest and good value and, if you just want a car, bloody good.

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Link to the Sun column: "Duchess of Cornwall is wary of Cuba and its food — it’ll be better when they replace communists with chefs"
 

Revelator

Active Member
Joined
Mar 14, 2012
Messages
348
Location
San Francisco
What did I do on my gap year? I discovered that Chinese tourists need to learn some manners (April 14)

I am back. My gap year is over. And I achieved nothing. The plan was to spend a couple of months in Indochina, writing a book. But it turns out that writing a book is much, much harder than reading one, so I did that instead. And then, in the heavy, hot, windless evenings, I'd slip into a linen suit and pop into town to sneer at the Chinese tourists.

On one excursion in Laos I lost my mind and decided to visit a temple. This is never sensible, because no temple is interesting and none was built in a spot that's convenient. They're always in a cave or on a mountain. And I never get that. How long would a supermarket last if it were on top of Ben Nevis? Anyway, this one was on top of a hill, which meant climbing 600 steep, narrow steps. And about halfway up I met a million-strong party of Chinese holidaymakers coming the other way.

I squeezed into an alcove to let them pass, and not one smiled or even attempted to say thank you. They just marched past in their stupid pop socks and face masks — an unsmiling, ungrateful and never-ending column of worker bees on day release.

Later I found another enormous group of them sitting on a low wall, their minibuses blocking the town as they ate a picnic lunch. And when a klaxon announced that it was time to go, every single one of them simply threw their plastic containers and water bottles over the wall and mooched off.

Elsewhere they scream into their phones, play computer games with the sound turned up and allow their children to do exactly as they please in restaurants. And have you seen Chinese tourists in a queue? No, of course you haven't. No one has.

I'm not alone in thinking this. On my travels I met many guides and waiters and shopkeepers, and none had a single good word to say about their Chinese visitors. They come. They stay in Chinese-run and Chinese-owned hotels. They make a mess. And a noise. And when they go there are always replacements. It's a conveyor belt of awfulness that's ruining the world.

There are many theories on why the Chinese are so badly behaved when abroad. Some say it's because China is corrupt, which fosters a dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest mentality. Others say that in China's super-cities it's important to be overbearing and shouty or you will be trodden on.

But I believe there's a simpler reason.

The Chinese are unused to foreign travel and, as a result, they simply don't know what's acceptable and what's not. And we can't scoff, really, because back in the mid-1960s, when package holidays to the Costa del Sol were invented and we were new to foreign travel, we were just as bad. We spoilt coastlines and filled fishing villages with chip shops and wobbled about in a beery haze, with our red-and-white stripy arms and our propensity for vomiting and fighting.

The Germans were also terrible when they first decided that holidaying abroad was a good idea. They put on uniforms and marched into Amsterdam and Paris, and the world was ruined for years.

Then you had the Russians.

Remember when they were unleashed, strutting about in their tiny swimming trunks, spraying champagne over one another and pulling Putin faces if you appeared to disapprove? Today, of course, the Germans and the British and many Russians are pretty good tourists. We look at frescos and try the local cheeses and attempt to say things in the local language. But our children are not. This is because they're new to travel as well. All their lives they've been told to sit up straight and put their iPhones away at mealtimes, so when they are suddenly allowed to go to Magaluf and do what they want, they end up in a hospital with an itchy crotch and a tube up what's left of their nose after it came into contact with a bartender's right fist.

For a solution to all this, we should take a leaf from the book of Sri Lanka. I'm told — but the high commission won't pick up the phone or answer emails, so I can't verify it — that Sri Lankan nationals wishing to travel are forced first to attend lessons on how to behave when abroad.

I find this hilarious because of all the places I've visited, Sri Lanka is the most polite and charming. Why would you teach someone with impeccable manners how to queue and look interested when visiting a temple? It'd be like giving Mrs. Queen lessons in how to hold a knife and fork.

But imagine if Qatar sat its citizens down and said: "Look, chaps. When you take your Lamborghini to London this summer, don't rev its engine at four in the morning in Knightsbridge, because in England this is deemed unacceptable."

Or if the American government took Wilbur and Myrtle into a room at the airport and said: "By all means chat to other Americans you encounter while travelling, but not across a swimming pool."

I know the Chinese government is trying to tackle the problem of bad behaviour from its tourists by confiscating the passports of repeat offenders, and I know too that in the fullness of time experience will teach them the importance of saying "please" and "excuse me".

I hope that happens soon, because then we can go back to thinking of China as a country that hacked its way into the 21st century, grabbed the South China Sea, ripped off the designs it could copy and stole those it couldn't, bullied its way into Indochina and Africa, littered coastline after coastline with terrible three-star casinos and condos that have made property prices skyrocket and almost single-handedly kept the ivory trade going.

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And the Sun column: "Police have to get angry and get out there to stop violent stabbings — already the country is a worrying mess"
 
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