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

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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"
 

Revelator

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Messages
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Luxury brands have made a hell of the high street. Communist Laos was retail bliss (April 21)

If you take a stroll down Bond Street in London, you will find shops such as Chanel and Gucci and Tiffany, which keep bored, thin women amused and give the whole area a sense of affluence and style. If you shop there, you are saying to yourself that you have arrived.

But have you? Because if you go to the Westfield shopping centre, to the west of London, you will find exactly the same shops selling exactly the same things. And if you keep going west, to Heathrow, you will find them all over again.

Flying to Dubai? Well, guess what: they will all be in the departure lounge waiting for you. And when you get to your final destination, be it Shanghai or Saigon or Singapore, you will know when you've arrived in the city centre because there to greet you will be the holy trinity of Chanel and Gucci and Tiffany.

And all the other disciples. Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi, Blancpain, Breitling, Patek Philippe and so on. All of them are now in every big city everywhere in the world, and not a single one of them sells a single thing a sane person would want to buy. I mean, a cardigan for £1,200. That's mad and obscene and ridiculous, because when all is said and done, it's just bloody knitwear.

On my recent travels I became enraged by the way these ridiculous shops now dominate high streets all over the world. They rip the heart and soul out of a place. I remember a time when Hanoi and Saigon were very different, but now you have to tear down the curtain of globalisation to see where those differences have gone.

In one of the cities I visited, I met an American man at a Four Seasons hotel, who explained, in that big, dopey way that Americans have, that he was trying to visit a hundred countries before he died. So, I asked him what he'd be doing that day and he replied, "Well, I'm hitting the gym later and then the pool and I'm out of here".

That was it. He could then tick that country off the list, even though he hadn't actually set foot outside the Four Seasons. And I can sort of see why, because if he did go into the actual streets, he'd find Chanel and Gucci and Tiffany and all the other silly brands that now pollute the shopping streets in New York and Los Angeles and half the other big cities in America.

The problem, of course, is rents. If you put up a big new hotel complex, you want to charge big money for the shopping area on the ground floor, and the only people who can afford to pay are the big-name Euro-brands that sew some wool together and then find an idiot to give them £1,200 for it.

This, I decided, is the beginning of the end for capitalism. Because in a world where "greed is good", there's no room for imaginative thinking. Tried-and-tested trumps suck-it-and-see every time. Put it this way: if you have a shop, you'd rather rent it to Chanel, which will pay the bills, than an artist who makes great light fittings, because he or she might not be able to pay the bills. The result is that the artist ends up becoming an estate agent. And we have to buy our light fittings from John Lewis.

In my local town, there used to be a hardware shop where you could buy everything from a cuddly toy to a hammer. But it's gone now, crushed under the wheels of Aldi and Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, all of which have recently parked their juggernauts in the town square.

Where will it end? Will the day come, as it has in America, when Walmart simply swallows up everything, so consumers have no choice at all? Will we end up one day with one shop selling cardigans for £2,000 and another selling own-brand mince for 3p, and nothing in between? I really can see that day coming. It's the inevitable conclusion of the type of capitalism we've selected.

And I'm sorry but things are better in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, because even though Laos is a communist country, every single street-front property is a business. It may be only 4ft wide, but it will be a factory making replacement saddles for motorcycles, or home to a man making washing-up racks, or a restaurant, or a bakery.

I walked round Luang Prabang and the whole day I saw not a single shop that had another branch somewhere else. It was one-man band after one-man band. I bought handmade notepaper, and teaspoons made from the casings of unexploded bombs. I bought a teak bowl and a new belt and some lanterns, and then I had lunch, all in the space of a hundred yards. It was retail bliss.

I'm aware that there are areas of London that have been set aside for the same sort of experience. But you just know that when these pockets of resistance become successful, all the little independent shoe and guitar shops will be elbowed out by the might of Chanel and Gucci and Tiffany.

I pray, on my knees, every morning and night, that Jeremy Corbyn never takes control of the ailing horse that is Britain. But there are certain bits of a socialist programme we'd do well to examine.

Forget nationalising the railways and the power supply — that's idiotic. But taking control of the high street is a different thing. Commandeering empty shops and offering them for a small rent to small businesses — that would be using the teachings of Marx to further the cause of Margaret Thatcher.

It would also bring towns back to life, make shopping fun and allow Britain to become, once again, a nation of shopkeepers.

I hope it happens. In the same way as I hope the €200m donated by the boss of Louis Vuitton to help rebuild Notre Dame is given to a million stonemasons and carpenters and craftsmen. Rather than in one lump to Balfour Beatty.

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And the Sun column: "Should Africans starve so hippos are happy? Well, Sir David Attenborough says so"
 

Mr. Nice

Well-Known Member
Joined
Dec 6, 2007
Messages
2,410
This article reminded me of this song that I heard when l was in high school, more than 20 years ago now.

 

Revelator

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Mar 14, 2012
Messages
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Location
San Francisco
Styled for the city, made for the mud

The Clarkson Review: Suzuki Jimny (April 28)

Vegetable enthusiasts are forever telling us that it's possible to make delicious food from nothing but bark, seeds and roots. They say that, with patience, a pestle and a mortar, you'll be able to produce something just as appetising as a shepherd's pie.

And, what's more, they say there are now plenty of vegan restaurants, warmed by stoves burning Tories rather than logs and staffed by bright young things who have excellent colons and wonderful digestive systems.

All of this, however, defeats the point of being a vegan. Because if you're making moreish food, people will want second helpings. This means they'll eat more than they need, and the next thing you know, all of East Anglia will have to be smothered in plastic sheeting to satisfy their appetite.

This has always been the problem with meat. If you put a bit of sausage or a forkful of ragu in your mouth, you are consumed by an immediate need to have some more.Which means that pretty soon the world can't keep up with demand.

So if you want to go vegan to save the planet, the food you eat and make and serve to friends has to be disgusting. People should take as much as they can manage without vomiting — just enough to stay alive. That way the planet stands a chance.

It's much the same story with everything. If you want to save the world for future generations, you can't dress up your new life choices in butter and tinsel and hundreds and thousands. If you want the world to work for your grandchildren's grandchildren, then you have to be cold, hungry, smelly and uncomfortable until the day you die.

No, you can't use shampoo, and, no, you can't use soap either. You must give up everything that's made of plastic, which means you must also give up cleaning your teeth and shaving and wearing clothes. Remember Cambodia after Pol Pot came along? Yes, well, it has to be like that, I'm afraid.
In one respect, however, things needn't be so bad. At present I have a Range Rover. Actually, I have two, one for Sunday best and one for bringing sheep carcasses out of the pond. This is wildly unnecessary. No one needs two Range Rovers. No one needs one, in fact, or a Lamborghini Urus or a Porsche Cayenne or any of the other large SUVs that fill all the car parking spaces these days. They are the unacceptable face of where we've ended up (I don't really believe this. I'm just getting ready for life under Corbyn).

And I'm delighted to say that for £15,499, there's a solution. It's called the Suzuki Jimny, and even at that price you get air conditioning, cruise control, DAB radio, switchable four-wheel drive, a low-range gearbox and electronically managed diffs. That's got your attention, hasn't it? Even the higher-spec SZ5 that I drove costs only £17,999.

And there's more, because you get virtually identical styling to the Mercedes G-wagen. Yes, the Suzuki is a lot smaller, but there's a solution to that: simply stand nearer to it and you'll be completely fooled.

Everyone was. I drive a lot of fancy cars in the course of my job but none got quite so many admiring glances as the Jimny did. People were stepping into the road and taking pictures. Tourists wanted to know what it was called. Small wonder that, even as deliveries began, more than 4,000 people had expressed an interest in buying one.

Let's get the drawbacks out of the way first. It's not a Tardis. It's small on the outside and small on the inside too. The back seats are nigh on useless, so you may as well fold them flat and treat it as a two-seater. At least that way you get a boot.

Then there's the performance. Or rather, there isn't. The time it takes to get from 0-60mph depends on how much of a hash you make of the tricky clutch and the sloppy gearbox. And the top speed depends on how much pain your ears can take. Using headphones, I got it up to an indicated 88mph, but it felt like a spaceship on re-entry.

Comfort? Nope. This is definitely not a strong suit, I'm afraid. At slow speeds around town it's not as bad as its forerunner, the Suzuki SJ, but only because nothing is as firm as that. Not even a mountain. It's still pretty crashy, though, and at speed, by which I mean about 42mph, it's better but still fidgety. And it's prone to crosswinds. Plus, the brakes aren't up to much.

And apart from poor brakes, a bad ride, woeful performance, cramped back seats, a baggy gearbox and an odd clutch, it's also not that economical. Mainly because it is geared, in top, at 20mph per 1,000 revs. I have no idea why.

But it starts to snow, and you've got to get across your farm to repair a broken fence post, and then the Suzuki is brilliant. It skips along like a fallow deer, refusing to get stuck in even the deepest mud. If you fitted it with off-road tyres, it would get to places that would defeat a Land Rover. And not just because it's little and light. It also has good angles of approach; better in fact than the new Jeep Wrangler's. It didn't even seem to mind wet grass, or green ice as we call it round these parts. Nothing's unstoppable, but this gets close.

The Jimny, then, may look chic and urban and cool but underneath, it's a farmer-tool. And a serious one at that.

It is also a hoot. As you bounce along with your ears bleeding, you will have a smile on your face. And you'll be making other road users smile too. I put it in rear-wheel drive at one point and turned of f the traction control, and in one of my fields I was reminded what it was like to be five. I'd like to thank it for that.

Yes, it's riddled with problems you don't get in bigger cars. But it's bloody cheap. And with a ladder chassis, it'll be tough. And with that 1.5-litre, two-horsepower petrol engine, it's not exactly chomping its way through the world's resources. It's not even available as a diesel.

It is, then, the marrow of cars. There's a lot wrong with marrow. It's not meat. It's too hot to eat even 15 minutes after you've taken it out of the pan and it's not as fancy as arugula. But I like it. I could live on it, in fact … If you want a Range Rover, go ahead and buy one. But I can tell you this: apart from legroom in the back, all you "need" from a Range Rover you can get from this little Suzuki.

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Forget Chris Packham's ban — we farmers speak the only language pigeons understand (April 28)

Fishing. It's not one of my specialist subjects. I do not want to stand up to my gentleman's area in an icy Scottish river and I'd rather spend my spare time in the pub, with friends, than sitting, by myself, on a damp canal bank with a bag full of maggots. Fishing, really, is for people who hate their children.

But, this morning, I feel duty-bound to come to the defence of the nation's anglists, who are being blamed for an alarming drop in salmon numbers in Scottish rivers. There used to be a time when 25% of all the fish that left their birthplace came back. Today, it's just 5%.

Those who enjoy animal rights say fishermen and fishermen women are to blame, along with farmers and bankers and possibly Mrs Thatcher, and conveniently fail to mention a couple of important points. Almost all the salmon caught by anglers are allowed to resume their journey after they've been landed. And, more importantly, the mouth of every Scottish salmon river is patrolled these days by an armada of hungry seals.
You want to get the salmon numbers up, you must do something about the number of seals. But what? Seals have big doe eyes and puppy-dog faces, and no one wants to see them being beaten to death with bats.

This, then, is the problem with conservation. Protect one species — and seals are very protected — and it's going to have an impact on another. It's all a question of balance and being sensible. Which, I'm afraid, is hard when our government is being advised by a Swedish teenager and Chis Packham.

Packham is a wildlife presenter on the BBC, and I like him. He's a good communicator, fun to be with, hugely knowledgable about punk rock and able to tell a corn bunting from a reed bunting at 400 paces. He's also a fine lobbyist. So fine, in fact, that, having teamed up with a former conservation director of the airborne wing of the Labour Party, the RSPB, he was able to convince the government's conservation watchdog, Natural England, to announce that it is now illegal to shoot pigeons.

Now I'm not going to be silly about this. Last weekend, as the sun blazed down, I very much enjoyed sitting in the garden listening to the wood pigeons cooing away. It's a sound that makes me feel warm and fuzzy. And I don't hold with the argument that town pigeons should be hounded to extinction because they crap on your car. They do, but it's not a big issue to get a hosepipe and wash it off.

However, I'm a farmer these days, and one of the things I grow is oilseed rape. I grew enough last year to make 100,000 bottles of vegetable oil.
This year, though, things are tricky, because a weed called black grass, which is immune to herbicides, is ravaging the crop.

And what's left is being half-inched by pigeons. I'm told that I can try scaring them away with loud bangs and kites and statues of Jon Pertwee, but I'm also told by the Viyella army of local countrymen that none of these things actually works. You have to shoot them. And now we can't.
Score one for Packham and Corbyn's RAF. But hang on, because if there's less oilseed rape, that means there's less vegetable oil, which will drive demand for alternatives such as palm oil. And palm oil production is what's destroying the jungles of Indonesia, and with them the orangutan.
So what the do-gooders have done by helping the pigeon, which is as prolific as nitrogen, is kill more of Borneo's endangered orange monkeys. And that's obviously idiotic. Happily, there seems to be a solution.

For nearly 40 years farmers have been using a so-called general licence to shoot pigeons, because they're protected under wild bird legislation, drawn up to save important stuff like the osprey and the golden eagle and so on.

In short, you could get permission to shoot certain kinds of common and unimportant wild birds, such as pigeons and crows and magpies, if it was bleeding obvious they were stealing eggs, pecking out the eyes of lambs or devastating crops. Well, thanks to Chris Packham's lot, that permission has now gone.

There is one idea for keeping the pigeon under control. Simply remove it, along with the crow and the magpie, from the legislation covering wild birds. Then no special permission to kill it is necessary. It's not as if this minor shift in the law would cause millions to take to the countryside each weekend in weirdo NRA combat strides, because to shoot a pigeon you need a gun, and you still need a licence for that.

But will the government allow a pigeon free-for-all? It should. It makes sense. We live in weird times, though, when governments in general and ours in particular are entirely detached from the real world. They seem to live in a universe full of unicorns and magic fairy dust. So there's no way Michael Gove, who's running the countryside this week, is going to say, "Lock and load, Farmer Giles. Let's waste the motherf **!" So what about this for a plan? We pat Chris Packham on the back and say, with a magnanimous smile, that he has won. A bit like remainers are being urged to do by Brexiteers. But then we carry on as before. A bit like Brexiteers are being urged to do by remainers.

Seriously, can you see the police being that bothered? Really? About the death of a pigeon? And how would they ever know? A shotgun is noisy, but it's not so noisy that it can be heard in the nearest police station, which these days is usually 20 miles away. And only open from nine to five. On a Tuesday.

Plod isn't interested when I have a gate or a quad bike nicked, so I can hardly see a Swat team coming through the door with an enforcer ram because they suspect the pie I'm taking out of the Aga has four and twenty pigeons in it.

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And here's the Sun column: "First rule of Bank Holiday DIY — don’t injure yourself and enjoy a beer instead"
 

93Flareside

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Luxury brands have made a hell of the high street. Communist Laos was retail bliss (April 21)

If you take a stroll down Bond Street in London, you will find shops such as Chanel and Gucci and Tiffany, which keep bored, thin women amused and give the whole area a sense of affluence and style. If you shop there, you are saying to yourself that you have arrived.

But have you? Because if you go to the Westfield shopping centre, to the west of London, you will find exactly the same shops selling exactly the same things. And if you keep going west, to Heathrow, you will find them all over again.

Flying to Dubai? Well, guess what: they will all be in the departure lounge waiting for you. And when you get to your final destination, be it Shanghai or Saigon or Singapore, you will know when you've arrived in the city centre because there to greet you will be the holy trinity of Chanel and Gucci and Tiffany.

And all the other disciples. Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi, Blancpain, Breitling, Patek Philippe and so on. All of them are now in every big city everywhere in the world, and not a single one of them sells a single thing a sane person would want to buy. I mean, a cardigan for £1,200. That's mad and obscene and ridiculous, because when all is said and done, it's just bloody knitwear.

On my recent travels I became enraged by the way these ridiculous shops now dominate high streets all over the world. They rip the heart and soul out of a place. I remember a time when Hanoi and Saigon were very different, but now you have to tear down the curtain of globalisation to see where those differences have gone.

In one of the cities I visited, I met an American man at a Four Seasons hotel, who explained, in that big, dopey way that Americans have, that he was trying to visit a hundred countries before he died. So, I asked him what he'd be doing that day and he replied, "Well, I'm hitting the gym later and then the pool and I'm out of here".

That was it. He could then tick that country off the list, even though he hadn't actually set foot outside the Four Seasons. And I can sort of see why, because if he did go into the actual streets, he'd find Chanel and Gucci and Tiffany and all the other silly brands that now pollute the shopping streets in New York and Los Angeles and half the other big cities in America.

The problem, of course, is rents. If you put up a big new hotel complex, you want to charge big money for the shopping area on the ground floor, and the only people who can afford to pay are the big-name Euro-brands that sew some wool together and then find an idiot to give them £1,200 for it.

This, I decided, is the beginning of the end for capitalism. Because in a world where "greed is good", there's no room for imaginative thinking. Tried-and-tested trumps suck-it-and-see every time. Put it this way: if you have a shop, you'd rather rent it to Chanel, which will pay the bills, than an artist who makes great light fittings, because he or she might not be able to pay the bills. The result is that the artist ends up becoming an estate agent. And we have to buy our light fittings from John Lewis.

In my local town, there used to be a hardware shop where you could buy everything from a cuddly toy to a hammer. But it's gone now, crushed under the wheels of Aldi and Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, all of which have recently parked their juggernauts in the town square.

Where will it end? Will the day come, as it has in America, when Walmart simply swallows up everything, so consumers have no choice at all? Will we end up one day with one shop selling cardigans for £2,000 and another selling own-brand mince for 3p, and nothing in between? I really can see that day coming. It's the inevitable conclusion of the type of capitalism we've selected.

And I'm sorry but things are better in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, because even though Laos is a communist country, every single street-front property is a business. It may be only 4ft wide, but it will be a factory making replacement saddles for motorcycles, or home to a man making washing-up racks, or a restaurant, or a bakery.

I walked round Luang Prabang and the whole day I saw not a single shop that had another branch somewhere else. It was one-man band after one-man band. I bought handmade notepaper, and teaspoons made from the casings of unexploded bombs. I bought a teak bowl and a new belt and some lanterns, and then I had lunch, all in the space of a hundred yards. It was retail bliss.

I'm aware that there are areas of London that have been set aside for the same sort of experience. But you just know that when these pockets of resistance become successful, all the little independent shoe and guitar shops will be elbowed out by the might of Chanel and Gucci and Tiffany.

I pray, on my knees, every morning and night, that Jeremy Corbyn never takes control of the ailing horse that is Britain. But there are certain bits of a socialist programme we'd do well to examine.

Forget nationalising the railways and the power supply — that's idiotic. But taking control of the high street is a different thing. Commandeering empty shops and offering them for a small rent to small businesses — that would be using the teachings of Marx to further the cause of Margaret Thatcher.

It would also bring towns back to life, make shopping fun and allow Britain to become, once again, a nation of shopkeepers.

I hope it happens. In the same way as I hope the €200m donated by the boss of Louis Vuitton to help rebuild Notre Dame is given to a million stonemasons and carpenters and craftsmen. Rather than in one lump to Balfour Beatty.

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And the Sun column: "Should Africans starve so hippos are happy? Well, Sir David Attenborough says so"
This right here is what I hate so much about America. I travel for work and am in a different city every week. I’ve seen both coasts multiple times and many many places in between. Every town looks like a flintstones background.
 

Mr. Nice

Well-Known Member
Joined
Dec 6, 2007
Messages
2,410
But so far, as I know, he hasn’t set up any camps for torturing political prisoners, or overseen a genocide, or eaten his mother, or kidnapped a child to use its organs for medical experiments.
No, he has only removed thousands of children of asylum seekers, many of whom may never be returned to their parents. People who were guilty of fleeing the violence in places like Honduras, and El Salvador, and who are further being made victims by the United States, and the decisions made by the Trump administration.
 

Revelator

Active Member
Joined
Mar 14, 2012
Messages
375
Location
San Francisco
The Chinese take a wrecking ball to red tape. If only they'd apply it to our crumbling bridges (May 5)

Barnes is a part of London that fell asleep in 1953 and still hasn't woken up. But hidden behind some period net curtains on the main drag is a brilliant little restaurant called Riva. I tried to go there for dinner last night but, annoyingly, Hammersmith Bridge, which connects me to it, was shut.

I assumed, of course, that it had been closed by the safety and health army so that workmen could safely retrieve a cyclist's dislodged saddle bag. Or because a Swedish teenager was staging some kind of environmental protest.

But no. It had been shut because engineers reckon it's on the verge of collapse. No surprises there. It was built 132 years ago to carry tiny little thin people on penny farthings over the Thames, and now it's being pummelled and shaken to within an inch of its life by the hundred buses that use it every hour.

Still, no bother. This is Britain.

Ground zero for engineering. So, Hammersmith and Fulham council, which owns the bridge, only need find someone with overly tight trousers and a pair of heavy shoes and the whole thing would be fixed in a jiffy or, better still, replaced with something strong and wonderful. Maybe we could get Norman Foster to add the finishing touches.

Apparently not. The bridge has been closed "indefinitely", which means absolutely nothing is being done to mend it. They've identified the problem and decided to do nothing about it. It's a good job they're not vets: "We could mend your dog. But we won't."

The Labour-run council says it can't afford to fix the bridge because of, yawn, government cuts. And Transport for London can't help out because it's spending all the money it will ever have and a trillion more on Crossrail. And it is also being blamed for having steadfastly refused to ensure only one bus ever crossed the bridge at any one time.

So that's that. Thanks to petty party-political point-scoring and a blinkered devotion to Dickensian trains, Edwardian bicycles and postwar omnibuses, one of London's 33 bridges across the Thames is now out of action.

They have a similar problem in America, where a survey last year found that 56,000 bridges are now so worn out they are in danger of falling down.

In China things are different. The Chinese recently had a Hammersmith-style problem with one of their bridges. And do you know how long it took to sort out the financing and get a replacement up and running? A year? A month? Nope — 43 hours. That is not a misprint. Less than two days to knock down a bridge. And build a new one.

Mind you, they do get some practice, because since 2010 they have built just shy of 200,000 road bridges. This means that for the past nine years they've been opening 60 new ones ... every day.

And it's not as if they're made from box girders and old railway sleepers. Almost all of them are bold and elegant and delicate and mesmerisingly beautiful. And they are machine-gunning this science and this art into the landscape once every 24 minutes.

Mind you, the Chinese are not hamstrung by the red-telephone-box mentality that plagues Britain. When British Telecom suggested replacing its famous old boxes with something that smelt less of urine, everyone said it was the end of days.

Much the same thing wold happen if anyone suggested simply pulling down Hammersmith Bridge and replacing it with something less wobbly. "Noooo," they'd wail. "You can't demolish Hammersmith Bridge. It's grade II* listed and beautiful."

Well, it shouldn't be, because it isn't. The towers are too low, the pillars are too squat and it's painted the exact same colour as a Second World War German soldier's underpants.

Tear it down, I say. Or blow it up. I don't care. Or leave it for pedestrians and build a new one over the top of it, sweeping from the A4's elevated section in a graceful arc all the way to a soft touchdown on Barnes Common. In China they could have that sort of thing up and running by Wednesday.

Sadly, though, we can't, because the powers-that-be would rather sit round in their meetings, calling one another comrade and blaming Thatcher and Osborne and the effing Tories. And everyone in power is now entirely convinced by the Swedish teenager's delusional notion that we can function as a society while producing no carbon dioxide at all. Meanwhile, you and I are in a traffic jam and Barnes is even more cut off than usual.

There is only one solution: we need to get rid of democracy. It doesn't work. America was given the choice of a woman with a rictus grin or a man with a bath mat on his head. And now a load of its bridges are about to fall down.

Here, it's likely we shall end up with a choice between Pol Pot and Boris Johnson, and to get across London we shall have to go through Bristol.

Back in the Sixties things were much better. You had Tony Benn running amok, and it was all very ugly for anyone with more than £2.50 to their name, but we did get Concorde. He pushed that through. Can you see Theresa May doing that today? Spending billions on a new type of plane? Benn was also responsible for the Post Office Tower. Sure, it didn't have any stairs, and anyone going to the top floor in the lift would have to spend most of the morning going back down again, but it remains one of our most iconic landmarks.

If we had a benevolent dictator — and I'm thinking really of me — a new Hammersmith Bridge would be nearly finished by now, the leaders of the local council would be in prison for moaning, Barnes would have decimal currency, Donald Tusk would have a thick ear and we'd be out of Europe without a backstop, or with one, or whatever it is that people want.

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My rebellion on the road to extinction: The Clarkson Review: Audi R8 V10 Performance (May 5)

As I write, hundreds of men and women with unnecessary hair are blocking up London by staging kumbaya singsongs and holistic wellness seminars at key intersections. It's hard to understand what they want, exactly, as their keynote speaker is a girl of about eight who probably still believes in unicorns. But I think it has something to do with climate change and Jeremy Corbyn and being bored.

Presumably they would very much enjoy the life I've been leading for the past couple of months. I lived on an island of f the coast of Vietnam where there were no hire cars. So I used a bicycle, and each day would pedal through a jungle, in the sunshine, to the fabulous market where I would buy fresh fish and unusual vegetables.

Of course, you can't use a bicycle in Britain because you're going to get knocked off and damp, but on that island it made sense. Yes, the saddle was so hard that after a week my arse looked like a baboon's that had been sandpapered. And I never stopped swearing at the gears. Why did it need 21? I wanted two: one for level ground and one for hills.

Apart from this, though, I enjoyed myself, mainly because the Vietnamese have developed a new system for getting about. It's called "anything goes" and the rules are simple: if you do something that doesn't cause a fatal crash, it's fine.

Traffic lights, for example. If they are green, you go through them as normal. If they are red, you go through them as well, but to make sure there's no fatal crash, you blow your horn.

Pulling out of a side turning? You look left. You look right. And then you set off no matter what's coming. And to alert other road users about your intentions, you sound your horn.

The horn is a crumple zone, a seatbelt, a crash helmet, a set of antilock brakes, an airbag and a collision-avoidance system all rolled into one. You deploy it when you are approaching a junction and when you are leaving it. You deploy it when you see something coming the other way. You sound it when you are about to overtake something or when you are being overtaken. You sound it, too, when you see someone you know, and you sound it constantly if you are driving on the wrong side of the road. In a Vietnamese driving theory test, the answer to every question is "I sound my horn".

I'm back in London now and it's all a huge shock. First of all, you can hear birds singing, which, thanks to the constant horn-blowing, you cannot in Vietnam. And second, instead of a bicycle, I have been getting around in an Audi R8 Performance — the fastest road car to wear those four rings.

There have been beefed-up and hunkered-down versions of the R8 before, and it's hard to see why the Performance is faster or better. It produces only a little more power than the old Plus. And yet it's quicker from 0-124mph than a Porsche 911 Turbo S. And with a top speed of 205mph, it's faster flat out than a light aircraft.

But it's not the speed that really matters in this car. It's the feel of the thing. And all of that feel comes from the fact that it uses a V10 engine. Almost all cars these days are turbocharged, and that's fine. Turbos produce the power and the torque while keeping the polar bears happy. And there are very few drawbacks. Lag, for instance, has been virtually eliminated. However, comparing a turbocharged engine to a normally aspirated V10 is like comparing a piano to the organ in St. Paul's Cathedral.

When you put your foot down in a V10-powered R8, and the double-clutch gearbox works its magic, clinging to its prize like a kingfisher clinging onto a wriggling fish, and as you rocket down the road in a blizzard of G and thunder, it's hard not to think, "Yes, this is what a supercar is meant to be like".

I'll be honest with you, though. After two months of driving nothing but a bicycle, and with news of those eco-halfwits filling the traffic reports, I did think for the first day or two that cars of this type were a bit stupid and unnecessary. It was hard to watch Sir Attenborough in that new Netflix series, gently castigating us all for messing up his film set, and then go to work in a car that sounds like a volcano. You should see the exhausts on it. I've seen smaller railway tunnels.

After a few days, though, normal service was resumed. I began to realise that a V10 is better than a bicycle and that having fun at 180mph is more important than having angst about plankton.

I began to appreciate the engineering, too. I mean, this is a massively powerful car and it makes do with a gearbox that has only seven speeds. Which made me question, once again, why my gap-year bicycle needed 21.

And then there was the Audi's ability to settle down when driving round town. It would glide over speed bumps without scuffing its nose, and would jiggle and wiggle over potholes without transmitting news of the shoddy workmanship to the seat of my pants.

There were one or two irritants, though. They probably thought they were being ever so clever moving the screen from the centre of the dash to the instrument binnacle. But when you turn the wheel to back into a parking space, you can't see the reversing camera. And the bonnet catch was so stiff you had to take a running jump at the bonnet to get it to close properly. Oh, and an awful lot of stuff is an optional extra — the diamond stitching in the roof lining for example: that costs £2,500. And how small does your penis have to be before you think,"Yes. I need that in my life"? The car itself is actually quite good value. I know this is not a view that would go down well at the holistic wellness seminar or in the common rooms of Momentum, but it is, actually. For a truly fast, viscerally exciting, all-wheel-drive, mid-engined supercar that you really could use every day, £141,000 is not bad at all.

There's just one problem. The whole point of a supercar is that you don't use it every day. It's meant to be special. Something you take out only at weekends, and only if the sun is shining. Using a supercar to go to work is a bit like going for a walk in a dinner jacket. Or for a swim wearing your grandfather's half hunter.

So, while I admire the Audi and I liked driving it, I'd always spend a bit more and go for its virtually identical twin sister — the even more viscerally exciting Lamborghini Huracan. Because if you're going to buy a car that annoys Sir Attenborough, you may as well get one that really annoys him.

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And here's the Sun column: "Rocks the size of Kim Kardashian’s bum could kill us all…so the only thing to do is drink"
 

Revelator

Active Member
Joined
Mar 14, 2012
Messages
375
Location
San Francisco
We love reaching the places other car shows can't. But thanks to Isis, we're stuck with Slough (May 12)

There seems to be a general consensus that Isis has been pretty much wiped out in Syria and Iraq, and that in former strongholds such as Raqqa and Mosul, people are now hanging up curtains and tending to the geraniums in their window boxes.

Certainly we are seeing fewer online videos these days of people having their heads cut off, or captured airmen being burnt alive. Which means we've all gone back to worrying about the important things in life, such as clean air in the community, and badgers.

However, the Grand Tour television production team had a meeting last week to decide where we'd go to make our next special. The idea of these shows is simple: we drive unsuitable cars through extraordinary and difficult terrain in remote and largely unvisited parts of the world. It's like Attenborough, only with more falling over and fewer facts.

In the past 18 years, we've been to many fascinating and beautiful places. And Argentina. We've done Botswana and Namibia and Mozambique and Vietnam and Burma and Thailand and the southern states of America. We've been to the North Pole and Mongolia and Chile, twice. In fact, we've done nearly all of South America and, after a gruelling journey from the Iran-Iraq border to Bethlehem, we've pretty much covered the Middle East as well.

The world is a big place, though, so you'd imagine there is still plenty of ground left to cover. And so did everyone in the room as the meeting began. But as it finished two days later, we were forced to conclude that while Isis may have been kicked out of Raqqa (been there already) and Mosul (done that too), it is still making huge chunks of the world unvisitable.

We began by thinking about the Sahara. We'd buy some crappy old hatchbacks and drive them somehow to Timbuktu. Except we wouldn't, because where would we start? Libya? Algeria? Northern Nigeria? None of those places is a haven of peace and tranquillity. And even Timbuktu plays host these days to sporadic and vicious terrorist attacks.

So we looked further east and things were no better. Sudan is a no-no and so is its southern neighbour, the imaginatively named South Sudan. Somalia is even worse, and while Eritrea is fairly stable, the Foreign Office advises visitors not to go within 15 miles of its borders. Which sounds fine, except Eritrea is only about 40 miles across, which means we'd have to go to the dead centre of the country and spend a week not moving a muscle.

At this point James May began what turned out to be a very long story about Lawrence of Arabia. We had some lunch as he talked about various battles and the sort of motorcycles Lawrence liked, and we enjoyed some coffee and biscuits as he spoke of various Arabs with whom Lawrence had fought. And then, over a brandy, he said we should attempt to follow in Lawrence's footsteps from Saudi Arabia to Cairo. This would be an epic journey, except it would mean crossing the Sinai peninsula and, thanks to Isis, the chances of us all arriving on the other side with heads were slim.

To try to get away from the terrorists' wretched clutches, we turned our attention to those islands that blur into one another between Asia and Australia. But time and again, Google searches revealed nearly all of them have an Isis presence. There was even a bomb in Bali recently. And not a Jägerbomb.

A few years ago there were reports of Isis saying that its goal was to create a hardline Sunni state that stretched from west Africa to the far end of Indonesia. It would be a bigger empire than ours, or even the monster created by Genghis Khan, which stretched from the Danube to the Yellow Sea. And, as it seemed a ridiculous notion, I dismissed it as nonsense. But it's not nonsense.

The group may only have a couple of hundred tooled-up lunatics in Egypt or Timor, but that's all it takes to create a no-go area for Johnny Westerner. And that, I guess, is the very definition of terrorism. The trick, then, would be to find a part of the world where there are no tooled-up lunatics, which is why we started to look at the glorious-sounding Andaman Islands, off the coast of (mostly) peaceful Thailand. But there's a tribe on one of these islands that will kill anyone who lands. They even shoot arrows at helicopters that arrive to collect the bodies.

It's the same in the Democratic Republic of Congo: they don't kill you because they hate Christianity or democracy or women in miniskirts, they just kill you. Borneo? Well, once you've seen all the fallen-down trees and homeless monkeys mooching about, what's left to talk about? It's all so depressing that after a while the meeting room sank into a pit of thoughtful silence as we wrestled with guilt over the mess our generation has made of everything, and the inevitable consequence. No one dared voice it, although we all knew it had to be said ... "Australia," I muttered.

But of course we couldn't go to Australia, because you set off from one side and absolutely nothing happens until you get to the other. It'd be the most boring show in history. And thanks to the relentless paparazzi, everything we said and did would be reported long before the programme was shown. If Australia's paps had anything to do with it, we'd already know what happens at the end of Game of Thrones.

This left us with Europe, which, apart from a small bit at the top of Scandinavia is hardly unvisited and surprising. Driving through Germany in a small Peugeot is not the bedrock of great primetime TV. Plus, by the time we start filming, we'll be out of the EU, which would mean a three-day wait on the M20 for customs to check the carnets.

I guess, then, that next time out it'll be a Grand Tour special in which we travel the entire way across Berkshire. Pity.

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And here's the Sun column: "If you can put up Ikea shelves, I am pretty sure you can build an AK47 or a revolver"
 

Revelator

Active Member
Joined
Mar 14, 2012
Messages
375
Location
San Francisco
A safe space to melt a snowflake's heart: The Volvo XC40 (May 19)

A couple of weekends ago I took part in a tennis tournament. I turned up with a sore head from the night before but, despite this, couldn't help noticing that in the car park was a new Volvo XC40 with its engine running.

No one was in it and no one was about, so when I got to the court I asked whose it was. "Mine," said a friend. "I picked it up yesterday." I explained that its engine was still running. "I know," she said. "I can't work out how to turn it off."

Further probing revealed that she had picked it up from the dealership, driven it home but not worked out that you had to put the gear-lever in Park before the engine would shut down. So she'd left it running, gone into her house, had supper, gone to bed and the next morning driven to the tennis tournament. In her head, the engine was designed to stay on for ever.

Which raises a question.What is the bloody point of reviewing cars for people who think that an engine simply stays on for the life of the car? More than that, in a world where infant Swedish girls can dictate government policy on nuclear power, industry and farming, what's the point of reviewing cars at all? I look every week at dear old Autocar magazine, still churning out 3,000-word road tests on the latest Renault Dingleberry, and I find myself thinking: why? It talks about tread shuffle and lift-off oversteer and how the steering has a dead point around the straight-ahead, even though the modern customer doesn't even know how to stop the engine.

In the olden days, when cars were all propelled into existence by the adventurous mind of a madman, and there really was such a thing as the "open road", road testing made sense because a Humber and a Rover were completely different. Companies were experimenting with new types of axle and new clutches and new braking systems. It was all vivid and exciting, and there were no speed-camera vans.

Not any more. Under the skin, your car is almost certainly identical to your neighbour's car. They've all been squeezed and squashed and hammered into uniformity by safety regulations and rules on what can come out of the exhaust pipe.

And young people, whether they are gen Z or snowflake or millennial, don't really want to drive any of them because they cost too much to run and park and service and buy, and it's easier to use a train that comes with wi-fi.

But still Autocar magazine drifts round the bends of Wales thinking that everyone wants a 240Z.

How the Volvo XC40 handles when you lift off at Millbrook proving ground's alpine course is less relevant than how the woman in the car factory's canteen ties her apron strings. Because it's being bought by people who — let me say this again — cannot turn the engine off.

If I were going to buy a mid-sized soft-roader like the Volvo, I'd have a Range Rover Evoque. I recently tried the new model, briefly, and, trying to be understandable to an audience that is more interested in kale and ear buds, I must say I liked it, especially the seats, which were covered in cloth.
I don't know why leather seats are perceived to be upmarket, because that makes no sense. The Queen doesn't sit on leather furniture, because it's too hot on a hot day and too cold when it's cold. Yes, leather is easier to wipe down, but when did you last have a trouser accident when driving? The other reason I liked the Evoque is that I like Range Rovers. They are stylish and, behind the glass screens and the South Audley Street kudos, they really do work when they are up to their door handles in sludge. No shoe can pull off such a convincing double act.

But I'm aware that many people don't like Range Rovers. They tell jokes about hedgehogs and say they are drug dealers' cars. If the company is bought by the French, a possibility as I write, it will provide another reason for mirth. Round where I live, many locals are up in arms about Soho Farmhouse, simply because the people who go there do so in Range Rovers. I'm not sure why, but no car brings out the inner communist in people quite so violently. You could drive a Range Rover through Guildford on election day and Corbyn would take the town in a landslide.

Until recently, however, there was no alternative if you wanted a mid-sized SUV. No, let me rephrase that: there were hundreds of alternatives and they were all crap. Unadventurous, dowdy, overly large, unnecessarily expensive, useless off the road and soggy on it.

In recent years, however, they've started to look quite cool.

There's a Hyundai of some sort that wouldn't have looked out of place on Space 1999, and a Kia too. Ford's new Kuga has a chunkiness that's appealing, but standing head and shoulders above these also-rans is the Volvo XC40.

It's a very good-looking car. It's comfortable and well equipped with a cool screen and optional Apple CarPlay and Harman Kardon sounds. Then there's that Volvo-sponsors-Sky-Atlantic chunky-jumper sensibleness, even though it's built by a Chinese company, in Belgium.

Not that long ago, Volvo announced that all its cars would have diesel engines, but then came the eco U-turn that meant diesel cars are no longer remotely interesting to anyone. So now Volvo is hedging its bets. As a result, the XC40 is available with a choice of power plant: diesel or petrol, with electric and hybrid versions at a later date.

You can also have manual or automatic transmission, and two or four-wheel drive. Stick with two, because if you want all the wheels to be driven, you'll be needing an Evoque.

Unless you are interested in being alive. I'm not saying the Range Rover is unsafe. I'm sure it isn't. But the Volvo seems to be in a different league. I mean, look at it this way: in 15 years, the number of people killed in the big-selling XC90 model is … zero.

Its newer little brother is crammed with so many safety features, I think you'd be in more peril at a game of bowls. It scans the road ahead for obstacles, and if you don't act after being warned, it will jam on the brakes for you. The steering system will override your commands if it thinks you're going to run off the road, and if you do, for whatever reason, the seatbelts tighten and the seat frame collapses to make it softer should you hit a tree. And this is just the tip of Volvo's mission statement, which is that by next year no one in the world will be killed or seriously injured while in a Volvo. That is one ballsy claim.

Handling? Speed? Fuel economy? Yes, it has all of those to some degree, but in the world of SUV road testing, they don't matter. What matters is the sheer level of safety for people who can't turn the engine off. And what matters even more than that is that I won the last set in the tennis tournament 6-0.

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Hook up the lie detector, then tell me the Jeremy Kyle affair isn't about punishing poor Brexiteers (May 19)

If you host a weekly radio show for 10 years, you will have broadcast millions of words into the homes of listeners. All of them can have been well chosen, thought-provoking and beautifully pronounced, but if the next four you select are, "He f* your granddaughter", you're in trouble.

Inside a courtroom, previous good behaviour is taken into account. But on the outside it's a different story.

Danny Baker entertained millions for many years, but then one day, and for reasons that are unfathomable, he decided to post a picture on social media of some posh people posing with a well-dressed ape. He argued that this was not in any way racially motivated, and I'd like to believe him, but it was no good. No second chances.

He was out.

You sometimes get the impression that if a modern-day television or radio executive found that the handle of a drawer in his kitchen had come loose, he'd knock his whole house down.

In recent times we've waved goodbye to Jonathan Ross, Bargain Hunt's Tim Wonnacott, Mark Lawson ... I'm sure there are more but none springs to mind at the moment. And all undoubtedly feel like the hero of that old joke. "I built a bridge with my own bare hands, but do they call me John the Bridge Builder? No. I make love to one goat ..." Everyone you know in film, television, politics and business is only one flippant remark or one cross word away from being John the Goat Shagger.

Last week it was the turn of Jeremy Kyle, whose confrontational morning show on ITV was axed following the death of a guest.

As I write, the hyenas and vultures are picking over its carcass, saying that such lowbrow nonsense should never have been broadcast. And that its like should never be seen again.

I see. So what sort of show should be beamed into the plasma-filled homes of the fat and the unintelligent? Repeats of the Richard Dimbleby lectures? I have not seen the Jeremy Kyle Show, but I have been in the Salford studios when it was being recorded, so I've seen the audience, none of whom has read Architectural Digest. It's obvious from their leggings that what they want from a TV show is two overweight people slagging each other off until one is escorted from the studio by a security man the size of a Buick. This causes them to moo and low like farmyard animals, both in the studio and in council houses all the way from Wolverhampton to Carlisle. It's modern-day Saturday afternoon wrestling.

And you'd imagine that the soft-left intelligentsia on Twitter would be happy to let the farmyard animals in the north of England have this kind of thing to distract them from mending the latch on their outside lavatory doors or warming up after a chilly dip in the tin bath.

I mean, these good northern people are proper, honest socialists. Except that, now, they're not. They're Brexiteers. Which means they must have their playthings taken away.

Look at the state of the country's pubs. They're closing at the rate of 18 a week. Bitter sales, meanwhile, remain moribund while craft beers gain in popularity. No. 6 cigarettes have been replaced with the vape. And this is all fine if you have a disposable income, but what if you don't? What if you are more worried about finding some money for the kiddies' tea than you are about global warming? Let's not forget: to be green, you first of all have to be in the black.

The bright and the sassy may moan about the dumbing-down of television, but they can go out for craft beer and a crafty vape at a whole-food restaurant tonight. Plus, they have all sort of things on BBC4 to stimulate their neurological route map. And access to Netflix and Amazon and BT Sport and Sky.

It's the same on the radio. The BBC runs two full-time stations for a tiny number of remainers, and absolutely none at all for people who voted Brexit.

Last week a crowd of people in Pontefract cheered and shouted support for Nigel Farage and Ann Widdecombe, who'd dropped in to say a few words. And they were treated by commentators as if they might have some kind of warty plague. I'm surprised there haven't been calls to take their liquorice cakes away from them.

I voted remain. And I still lie in bed at night hoping that some way can be found to turn back time. But I don't hate Brexiteers. I don't want to punish them. Yes, many wanted out because they want less immigration, but that doesn't make them Hitler. And, yes, some are far to the right of the political centre line. But few, I suspect, are as far to the right as Corbyn is to the left.

All of which brings me back to the Jeremy Kyle Show and the ridiculously gleeful reaction to its demise. Sure, a guest went home having failed a lie detector test and, it seems, took his own life. That is extremely sad and it's probably right the show is canned. But it should be replaced with something similar. Something with its eyebrows in its hairline.

Think back. When Michael Lush plummeted to his death while rehearsing a stunt for the Late, Late Breakfast Show in the 1980s, someone realised that Noel Edmonds, the presenter, couldn't very well announce Lush's demise and follow that with a cheery: "But coming up later, a skateboarding duck, and we pour goo all over Olivia Newton- John." So they axed the show immediately. But they didn't give up on light entertainment, or Edmonds for that matter.

Let me finish with a question. If Cliff Richard had decided to kill himself after footage of the police raid on his home was broadcast, would the BBC have decided to cancel the news? No, I don't think so either.
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And the Sun column: "Not just the rich will quit Jeremy Corbyn’s Britain — it will be anyone with belongings"
 

Revelator

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Messages
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Let them laugh: it's a lunatic in disguise: The Clarkson Review: Renault Mégane RS Trophy (Sunday Times, May 26)

Quite often, when I sit down at a party, the person next to me will turn and say sternly: "You're not going to talk about cars, are you?" It's odd. When they find they've been seated next to a merchant banker, they don't say: "You're not going to talk about merchant banking, are you?" This is because they'd be happy to spend the evening talking about merchant banking. Or golf. Or weeping sores. Or the joys of animal cruelty. Or anything. Just not cars.

I have a friend called Charlie who likes horses.And because no one has ever said to him,"You're not going to talk about horses, are you?", he does. Constantly. He talks about the 3.20 at Lingfield and someone whose pet was faster than someone else's pet in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. And people lap it up. They laugh and they joke right up to the moment when I ask if anyone's seen the new Koenigsegg, and then it's as if a townie has walked into a country pub on Dartmoor. The silence is immediate.

Even people round the table who I know for a fact like cars come over all Judas Iscariot and deny it. Because for some reason cars cannot and must not be the foundation stones for social intercourse. Admitting that you even know what a Koenigsegg is means there's something wrong with you. So you have to keep your interest hidden. You have to behave like a Freemason.

All of which brings me to a club that's just started near where I live. As it's for people who like cars, I shall not tell you its name or where we meet. But meet we do, every so often, on a Sunday morning round the back of some farm buildings where no one can see.

And it's weird. I see people there I've known for years, and there's never been a suggestion they have any petrol in their arterial route map. I've seen them listening to Charlie rambling on about horses and merchant bankers droning on about merchant banking, and not once have they even suggested, quietly, that they have a collection of Astons that would fill six postcodes and a Bugatti Royale in the barn.

There are also people there that you know. Household names. People who've said in interviews that they like Jane Austen novels and flower arranging and saving shrews in Borneo. Yet there they are, getting out of a bloody Daytona. Which they've never mentioned at all. Because it would be more socially acceptable to say, "Yes. I traffic in human slaves."

It's liberating. We stand there in the cold and the rain and, hidden from the world, we talk about transaxles and camber and aluminium, and there's no shame. No one tells us to shut up. No one calls us bores or climate-change deniers or murderers. I guess that is what life must be like for Conservatives.

All of which brings me to the new Renault Mégane RS Trophy. This is not a car that would go down well with ordinary people. It's yellow. Very yellow. Yellower than a posh person's Sunday morning drinks-party trousers. And it's loud enough to scare dogs when you start it up. Muggles, then, would hate this car.

And, because it's a Mégane, petrolheads will hate it too. Thanks to a brilliant Alan Partridge scene years ago, the Mégane is seen by people who meet behind farm buildings as a coma with windscreen wipers. Two tons of solid yawn. Nick Clegg with a boot. We don't want one and that's that.

The problem, however, is that it's really, really good. The bald figures don't seem that impressive. It has a 1.8-litre engine, which is small. So to get it to cough up 296 horsepower, it must have a turbocharger the size of a wheelie bin. Which means lag and torque steer and all sorts of general madness. Remember the lunacy of early turbo cars from Saab and Porsche and BMW? That.

Renault may bang on about Formula One-style ball-bearing technology, but there's no getting round the fact that it is squeezing a quart from a pint pot. And there's also no getting round the fact that the Trophy is no faster in a straight line than the much more sober Golf R. The Golf is more comfortable than the Renault too. But then a lot of things are more comfortable than the Renault: falling down the stairs, being waterboarded, cutting your arm off with a saw — the list is endless. It's so bouncy, in fact, that around London I used my own Range Rover instead.

Out of London, though, it's different, because when you take this car by the scruff of the neck it's a riot of colour and sound and terror. I've never taken LSD on the world's fastest rollercoaster, except that now I sort of have. Four-wheel steering means it doesn't go round corners in the conventional sense. It darts. Thanks to that rock-hard suspension and chassis stiffness, it turns like a pigeon.

And have you tried to shoot a pigeon? Well, you can't, for two reasons. One, it's now illegal, and two, these airborne rats can dodge lead. The Mégane could too. If I were in the special forces, I'd go into battle in one of these things.

Of course, Renault has made quite a few exciting hot hatchbacks in the past, but all of them have been let down by a sense that they've been cobbled together from the trays you get in a box of chocolates. And then fitted with all sorts of electronic stuff rejected by Casio.

This one, though, is different. It feels as though it has been screwed together by someone who doesn't have a Disque Bleu clamped between his teeth. And the materials feel more than a thousandth of a millimetre thick. Using touch alone, you'd swear you were in a Golf.

And unlike the last hot Mégane, this one has a back seat and the ability to go over speed humps without leaving half its bodywork behind. This is a car, then, you could use every day. Apart from the ride. And you can get around that by buying the standard, non-Trophy model, which saves you a chunk of change as well.

Or, if you want to spend more, you could buy the Alpine, which has the same engine and the same sort of performance. I haven't driven it but my colleague on television, James May, has, and he liked it so much he bought one. This means, of course, it's rubbish.

I'd stick with the full-on Trophy, go for the flappy paddle box rather than the notchy manual and put up with the spinal damage.

And the ridicule, because, with all its lights and its big exhausts, this is a car that screams: "I am interested in cars."And that's like walking down the street in a fluorescent T-shirt that says: "I'm going to vote Conservative."
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Tie the model-railway vandals to the tracks and we'll get this country back on the rails (Sunday Times, May 26)

It is impossible to name the saddest photograph ever taken. There's one in my hall of a gathering of women in Chad. I find it heartbreaking because all the men who should have been in the frame were dead. And doubly heartbreaking because the person who told me that fact was Adrian Gill, who'd been there when the picture was taken.

On a less personal note, we have the picture, taken on that terrible day in 2001, of the upside-down man who'd leapt from the twin towers. And that monk who set himself alight on the streets of Saigon. How desperate do you have to be before you think, "Right. I can only sort this out by setting myself on fire"? More recently we had the awful shot of that dead three-year-old Syrian refugee on the beach. That was hard to stomach. And years before that, the little African kid, his belly distended by hunger, crouching over in the parched earth, while in the background a vulture waits, drumming its claws, for the inevitable moment it can start dinner.

Strangely, I'm never moved by grief caused by a natural event. Show me a fat man from the Southern states, wailing at the spot where his trailer used to stand before the good Lord took it away, and I'll turn the page. Tsunamis, earthquakes, tornados and hurricanes — these things come, they cause sadness and they go.

Whereas sadness caused by man-on-man cruelty — somehow that's a whole different story. Show me a photograph of an old boy fighting back the tears on Remembrance Sunday; or Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked from the effects of a napalm strike; or a bunch of flowers left on the railings outside an off-licence to mourn the victim of a stabbing. That's what'll do it for me. And that's why, last week, I was moved to unmanliness by those photographs of a ruined model railway engine.

It's easy to poke fun at people who have train sets. They're obviously introverts who would rather spend their evenings painting little plastic milkmen and cobbler's shops than talking to their wives. They're friendless and lonely and tragic. But they are part of the patchwork quilt that makes Britain British.

They are a keystone species, like starfish in a Pacific rock pool or wildebeest on the Serengeti. Without model railway enthusiasts, in their comfortable jumpers and their sensible shoes, Britain would be no different from Libya.

On a Monday evening, members of the Market Deeping Model Railway Club meet to chat about how Vauxhall's mustard-yellow paint can be used to create British Rail warning signs and listen to interesting talks on the importance of using a fine saw to separate parts from the sprues. I guess it would be like spending a night in James May's head. And that's fine. These elderly souls, in the autumn of their lives, are happy in their harmless world of fine paintbrushes and tweezers and turning bits of fluff into realistic farmyard animals.

Occasionally they put an exhibition together and take it to venues in the Peterborough area, so children can see there's a world beyond their games consoles and their social media. And that if they don't work hard in school, it's where they will end up.

Last weekend they were staging just such an exhibition in the pretty Lincolnshire town of Stamford, when some kids broke in the night before and smashed the whole thing to smithereens. The little railway buildings, the signals, the points, everything. Engines were hurled to the ground and stamped on. Thousands and thousands of hours of work was ruined in a few minutes of wanton cruelty.

I know the work was pointless. I know that it furthers humankind not one jot and that it's this love of steam trains and Enid Blyton and running through wheatfields that caused Brexit. But it made those old men very happy. And now that happiness has been taken away by some yobs. And I hope that when they are convicted, the judge sentences them to death.

I have a friend who did not go out and did not drink for three years. Every penny he earned, he put into a pot, until he had enough to buy an Aston Martin. Eventually he had enough for a five-year-old example and was beyond happy when it arrived. He immediately went for a little drive and then afterwards wrapped it in a blanket and locked it in a barn.

And the next morning he found that someone had broken in and keyed the bonnet. This is a man who's served in Iraq. He's been under fire and he's fired back. And yet he was distraught. So I hope that when those responsible are found, they get the firing squad as well.

Oh, and while I'm at it. I now have CCTV at my cottage, and when I'm next there I'm going to review the tapes so I can see who broke into my vegetable patch last week and stole my marrow. And be warned: when I've done that, I will find you and I will kill you.

There's a lot of talk at the moment about what constitutes a hate crime. Well, I'm upset by the people who smashed up that train set and by the kids who vandalised my mate's car and by the rambler who stole my marrow.

Britain is about to enter a new period in its history. No one knows how we will get there, but when we do, it would be a good idea to remind people that if they vandalise a train set or a car or a marrow, they are demonstrating their envy of the owner. And that envy is the root cause of all hatred.

Look at all the pictures that have made you sad. Deep down, just about all of them were caused by envy. Acting on it is the worst crime, and anyone who does so must face the consequences — which at the very least will be having whatever you broke shoved up your backside.
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And here's the Sun column: "Even Boeing couldn’t beat three-time Formula One king Niki Lauda"
 

Revelator

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Messages
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Location
San Francisco
We turn up our noses at invasive species, but at least skunks are spicing up the sticks (June 2)

Alarming news from north Nottinghamshire. It seems a brace of wild raccoon dogs have escaped and are running about making blood-curdling screams and attacking farmyard animals. Many fear it's only a matter of time before they eat a child.

According to The Times, one resident said she had heard a "terrifying noise like I have never heard before" and that her husband went out with a dog. She didn't elaborate on what sort of a dog he was going out with, or what this had to do with the story, but did add that in a two-hour assault the raccoon dog attacked anything that came near and that a goat emerged from the melee with a sore shoulder.

Hurriedly taken photographs show that the creature looks like the result of some terrible early-days teleporter accident. If you've seen The Thing, you'll know what I'm on about. It's a hideous-looking teeth-transportation device with the meanness of a hyena and the savagery of a wolf, to which it is related.

Despite this, however, police are simply urging locals to stay indoors and whimper until the situation has normalised. No actual action is being taken at all. This may have something to do with the fact that the raccoon dog lives on small insects, crops and — on anniversaries and special occasions — mice. The only real issue, as far as humans are concerned, is that they are a bit smelly.

So, in fact, they are pretty harmless and I wish them well, in the same way that I wish the small flock of parakeets that flutters in a blizzard of colour around my London flat well. Like the raccoon dogs, they are not native to Britain, but I welcome them as I welcome the Vietnamese people who arrived recently and opened a restaurant in my neighbourhood.

The fact is that Britain has by far and away the most boring collection of indigenous wildlife to be found anywhere on earth. We have no wolves or bison. Our birds are mostly brown and only one of our snakes is even a tiny bit venomous. Australia has kangaroos, Canada has mooses, there are jaguars in America, polar bears in Svalbard, and even somewhere like Italy, which you'd expect to be pretty barren, there are great white sharks off the coast. Whereas in Britain we are so desperate for variety, we make up stories about monsters in lakes and big cats on Exmoor. And we treat the badger as if it's a Bengal tiger.

However, owing to lots of overambitious customers who buy peculiar pets and allow them to escape, Britain is filling up fast with weird and interesting animals.

It's reckoned there are more than 1,500 wild boars running free in the Forest of Dean. They are magnificent — like huge hairy hovercrafts. On an island in Loch Lomond there are wild wallabies and in the Lake District there are coatis strutting about with their priapic tails and their cute foxy faces.

Oh, and then there's the striped skunk. Perhaps the most striking feature of this little fella is the sac of mucus on either side of its anus. If threatened, it will turn and squirt the contents of these sacs into the face of the aggressor. Apparently, the smell is a sick-inducing mixture of garlic, sulphur and sewer gas, and it's so strong there is no creature on God's earth that'll hang around to get another dose. It is the ultimate weapon. The daisy cutter of the animal kingdom.

In the olden days, people would keep skunks as pets, but in 2007, when the government should have been concentrating on sub-prime mortgages, it decided that its time would be better spent introducing a law banning people from removing a skunk's anus sacs. And when this practice became illegal, baby skunks were simply released into the wild, where they live now. Perhaps this is why ramblers always wear cagoules, because they know there's a chance they may get squirted in the face with a gallon of anal skunk ejaculate. Hope so.

Interestingly, the government is not that bothered about skunks running wild in Britain. And it is actively encouraging the reintroduction of beavers. That's probably because these species, like the wallabies and coatis, are seen as either harmless or beneficial, like French chefs and German engineers. However, when it comes to other species, it reacts as though half of Somalia has landed on the beach.

Take the coypu, which is like a big rat. They were first brought from South America to Europe by French fur farmers in the 1880s, but this didn't work as the locals kept eating them. Later, they were brought, once again for their fur, to East Anglia. But when the market for wearing rat skin dried up — can't imagine why — they were released.

And immediately, everyone was encouraged to go outside and kill one as soon as possible. In 1961, 97,000 were slaughtered. The following year 40,000 went to meet their maker. This is because the coypu can destroy marshland. Left to their own devices, they would wipe East Anglia from the map and Norwich football club would be playing matches on Dogger Bank.

It's the same story with the Siberian chipmunk. This is prettier than Brigitte Bardot's nose, and as it sits there, nibbling away at a hazelnut, you can't see a problem. But if you see one, you are urged to contact Defra, the environment ministry, which will be round with a marksman far more quickly than if you rang to say your Syrian neighbours were stockpiling ammonia.

Actually, if you rang to say your Syrian neighbours were stockpiling ammonia, they'd arrest you for being racist. This is what the people of north Nottinghamshire should remember. It's what we should all remember. Racism is still a thing in the animal kingdom, so if you want the police to come quickly, and preferably in a gunship, don't describe the crime that's been committed: simply say there's a Siberian chipmunk on your bird table.
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The Clarkson Review: BMW X5
COMPLICATED IRRITATING GIMMICKY: Packed so full of gizmos, there’s no room for fun (June 2)

Seat’s new Tarraco. I would definitely get into one of these cars if there were an earthquake and I needed somewhere to shelter from falling masonry. I’d also climb aboard if it were raining hard and I had no umbrella. But to use as a car, or even a place to sit and listen to the radio? No.

Many years ago, on old, old Top Gear, I was asked to review the then new Vauxhall Vectra and I couldn’t think of anything to say about it. Well, it’s happened again. The Seat is not just dull, it’s criminally dull. It’s Jane Austen dull. Double maths dull. And it costs about £3,000 more than the Skoda Kodiaq, which is exactly the same car.

Volkswagen, which owns Skoda, bought Seat because it wanted to add a bit of flair and Ibiza lounge music to the mix. But there’s no flair in the Tarraco. It’s like sitting under a desk. So if you want a boring seven-seater car, buy the Skoda and let me move on to something more interesting.

But not much more interesting. When the first BMW X5 came along, it was obvious the engineers had spasmed and writhed in torment over how such a big and heavy car would sit in the showrooms of a company famed for making “the ultimate driving machine”.

They did their best and put it on sale with tyres that were broader than Sir Chris Hoy’s thighs. And because its contact patch with the road was measurable in hectares, it sort of worked. You could really hustle and it wouldn’t wobble about like an amateur marathon runner’s legs when the finish line was in sight.

That was a long time ago, though, and thanks to awful cars such as the X2 and the X3 — which is so dull it makes my teeth itch — BMW can no longer claim to be guardian of the cup from which the god of petrol drank his last. It’s just another car maker. It still makes some tremendous cars but as often as not its new models are just kitchen units with windscreen wipers.

Take the new Z4 as an example. BMW executives didn’t sit down in their German suits with their German slide rules and think about exactly where the engine should be mounted for perfect weight distribution and how exactly to minimise the turbo lag. They just rang Toyota and said, “Wanna go halves on this?”

And then there’s the X6. Which is aimed fairly and squarely at the sort of man whose watch is bigger than his face. This is a car that spells out a crisp, unambiguous message about its driver, and that message is: “I’m a cock.”

All of which brings me to the new X5. The new model no longer has Chris Hoy-style tyres — there’d be too much rolling resistance, and that would make a polar bear’s house melt. Instead, it has a massive grille. This, then, is a car that shouts, from about five miles away: “I am a BMW.” And that would be fine if it were true.

The car I drove was fitted with a 3-litre twin-turbo diesel that produced 261 horsepower. And that, in a car that weighs more than two tons, is enough — if the car is a Kia or a VW. But it is not enough in a BMW. You put your foot down and you accelerate, but not in a manner that causes much response in the trouser department.

Handling? Yes, it can do that. And stopping. But at no point do you think, “Oh yeah. This is something special.” What you do think is, “Hang on. Why’s the dash just gone crazy? And what’s that bonging noise?”

I’m no electronics expert. I can’t post an Instagram story without blacking out most of west London. But it seemed to me that the car’s electronic brain was having to reboot itself every few minutes. I’d imagine this is a fault.

Or it could just be that it’s too overloaded. This is a car that won’t let you stray out of your lane without indicating. It wrestles the wheel from your grasp if it thinks you’re doing it wrong. And finding the sub-menu that turns off that feature is so complicated, you need a computer to drive while you find your spectacles and get busy with the mouse.

Then there are the charge points. I have a dongle thing I plug into these so I can have wi-fi, but the X5 wouldn’t let me do that. Either in the front or the back.

There’s more. If your passenger talks with his or her arms, and a lot of people do, the volume of the radio goes up or down. And if you put your phone in the centre console, Apple CarPlay is activated whether you want it or not. Then there’s the key that allows you to remotely activate the heater and check how much fuel is in the tank, all from the comfort of your kitchen table. That’s great, but it means you have to walk about with what feels like a 1970s television set in your pocket.

You get the sense, when you run through the endless electronic features on this car — and we haven’t even got to the 15,000 roof lights that were fitted as an option to my test car — that BMW set out to make a car with all the latest gimmicks and gizmos, even though they don’t all work properly. And when they do, the brain that controls them gets so tired it needs frequent naps.

I’ve even heard of one X5 that lost all power to the driver’s door. Mirror. Window. Lock. The lot. That would be really irritating.

And by concentrating so hard on gesture control and remote Apple CarPlay, they didn’t really think about what the traditional BMW driver wants. Which is a bit of old-fashioned analogue fun. Oh, and a lined door pocket, which isn’t too much to ask for in a car that costs more than £60,000. And a seatbelt that adjusts so smaller drivers don’t have their head sawed off as they drive along.

It’s a long time since I drove a car with as many design flaws as this. Mostly, reviewing cars is down to taste. “A great car apart from the shape of the gearlever.” That sort of thing. But the X5 is full of stuff that’s not been thought through properly. Except the gearlever. I liked that, actually.

This means that even if you buy the petrol-powered version, which does deliver some clout and will make a lovely noise, you’ll still get home in a foul temper because you spent the journey having a full-on fight with the steering wheel.

After the Tarraco and the X5, I was losing the will to live. But then I went to Italy and drove the new four-wheel-drive Alfa Romeo Giulia. And that’s a car I didn’t want to get out of.
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And here's the Sun column: "Find oil on the moon and football finals will be held there too"
 

Revelator

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Messages
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Location
San Francisco
Higher truths are out there, and you don't need crampons or a death wish to reach them (Sunday Times, June 9)

Last weekend, 94 emergency people with lights on their heads spent many hours trying to rescue an elderly man who had burrowed like a rabbit under the Yorkshire Dales and then broken his leg. And while they were at it, another call came in to say that a rabbit lady in another hole, in Cumbria, had also fallen and badly injured her leg.

Sadly, because of the difficulties in getting him back to the surface, the rabbit man did not survive. But I'm delighted to say the rabbit lady did.

I do not wish to take up caving. The idea of wiggling through a narrow hole that could collapse at any time, hundreds of feet below the surface, fills me with utter dread. But I do see the appeal for those who are not scared of being buried before they're dead. Because that hole where the rabbit man died is unmapped, so who knows? There could be a huge cavern down there, full of luminescent pink fairy dust and diamonds.

This means that caving is actually exploration. And the people who do it are the Abel Tasmans and the Roald Amundsens and the Neil Armstrongs of the modern age. They really are going where no man has gone before. That's why I'm saddened by the death of the old boy last weekend. He was a brave soul and should be remembered as such.

Back in Victorian times, the world was awash with possibilities for those who didn't want to sit through another piano recital in the village hall. They could go and find the source of the Nile or the middle of Australia. But everywhere has a flag on it now. Which is why, last month, a man with some fizz in his veins drove his submarine nearly seven miles below the surface of the Pacific to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Some people are wired that way, in the same way as some people are wired to watch Love Island.

I also understand the appeal of other extreme sports, such as cycling on one wheel into the path of oncoming lorries. This is a thing in London these days. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of kids take to the capital's streets to wheelie down the wrong side of the road, dodging traffic and doing tricks. "Knives down, bikes up" is their motto, and I wish them all well.

I don't like skiing. It's very tiring and the prices are as stupid as the boots. But as a man who likes to drive quickly, I can see why someone would want to hurtle down a mountain on the very edge of control. It's a rush.

What I don't understand, however, is mountaineering. I was once interviewing a Frenchman called Alain Robert beneath the arch at La Défense in Paris, when, without as much as a by-your-leave, he started to climb up it. Now I don't know if you've ever examined this colossus, but it's completely smooth. It'd be like climbing up a massive plate-glass window.

Since then, Monsieur Robert has climbed all sorts of tall buildings all over the world, and all he ever gets after reaching the top is arrested. So it all seems rather pointless.

I watched a documentary last week about a wiry American fella who decided one day that he'd like to climb the 3,000ft Dawn Wall in Yosemite national park. It had never been done before, so in some ways you could argue that he was pushing the limits of what's possible. But the record for eating baked beans with a cocktail stick currently stands at 275 in five minutes. And, I'm sorry, but if, one day, someone managed to eat more, you could hardly argue that he was the next Sir Ernest Shackleton. And eating baked beans with a cocktail stick is no different from being a fly on a rock face in California.

Less dangerous? Not really. The wiry American fella's climbing partner spent most of the ascent falling off and he didn't die once. All he ended up with at the top were some hurty fingers.

For real danger you need to go up Everest. It's claimed 11 souls this year alone. It's proper mountaineering. You have to clamber over foothills made from the rubbish dropped by those who've done it before, and you have to navigate round all the frozen corpses of those who haven't.

And then you must stand in a half-mile queue of cagoule people, comparing lip balm and debating whether Viagra really does help with altitude sickness (it doesn't — I've tried), before, eventually, you get to the summit and someone takes a picture of you. Or is it you? In all that clobber and with your face behind an oxygen mask and tinted goggles, who would ever know? I agree that mountaineering is difficult. If I ask one leg to support my weight, it always goes wobbly, and, to make matters worse, my gut means the rest of me is always about 2ft from the rock face. I wouldn't do it. But some people like to set themselves challenges. They don't care that a million others have done it before. They just want to prove that they can be one of them too.

However, if you get it wrong, there is expense and helicopters and using a head wand for the rest of your life. And as a result, surely, you'd be better off using your spare time to do something worthwhile.

It's hard to find undiscovered places, but all around us are scientific truths that have not yet been found. Or even thought about. There's a line in the closing monologue of the breathtakingly good Chernobyl series on Sky: "[Truth] is always there, whether we see it or not ... The truth doesn't care about our needs or wants. It doesn't care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time."

This is correct. The truth about everything that we don't yet know will lie in wait. Until someone puts down his crampons and his karabiners. And finds it.

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Birdsong at the speed of soundless: The Clarkson Review: BMW i8 Roadster (Sunday Times, June 09)

Not that long ago I reviewed the then new McLaren 720S and, to recap, I said it was a nerd's car and that the engineers who created it would have been better employed by the company's Formula One team. I mean, who in the real world wants to download data from the onboard computer to see how they've done on their journey home from work? I also said it was too complicated and that its brakes were odd. By which I meant weird. By which I meant terrible. And I concluded that what it needed was some magic fairy dust. Think of it as hair. Yes, a young woman can look lovely when she comes out of the barber and everything up top is neat and tidy. But I guarantee it will look better first thing in the morning when she wakes up.

Well, this is exactly what McLaren has done with the 720S — messed up its barnet by removing it altogether. This ruins all the rigidity, adds weight and turns what was designed to be the last word in engineering perfection into something that's just fun. And apart from the brakes, which are still terrible, I loved it. And I loved it right up to the moment there was a wailing noise and all the power stopped happening and a tow lorry had to come.

So let's move on, shall we, to the BMW i8, which has undergone a similar operation to create what's called the i8 Roadster.

When I first drove the i8 coupé a few years ago, I was extremely impressed with how you could commute to and from work on silent electric drive, then blast past Porsches on a weekend trip to the countryside.

I also loved the way it had an electric motor powering the front wheels and a rear-mounted, three-cylinder Mini engine powering the back wheels, and yet, somehow, it didn't split in half every time you pressed the accelerator. Which it would do if I'd been involved in the design process. In fact, despite the complexity, it was no harder to drive than a Nissan Juke.

Since then, however, two things have happened. I've grown bored and weary of the whole idea of sustainable motoring. It's a nuisance, really, and only a government could think you can tackle conspicuous consumption by buying cars that have, in effect, two engines. Indeed, I said on television that I will never buy an electric car, and I'm not that interested in hybrids either. They make no sense, and they make no difference, ultimately, to the air you breathe.

The other thing that's happened is that the i8, weirdly, has started to look old. The problem is that it was specifically designed to look futuristic, and all things designed to look like they're from the future almost immediately look like they're from the past. Put simply, this car is about as on the money as Thunderbird 2. On the basis that it looks curiously old-fashioned, then, and it uses a drive system I no longer find interesting, and it's a convertible that cannot be driven by a man of my age with the roof down because it sends out a lot of messages, all of them wrong, I wasn't really looking forward to my time in the i8 Roadster.

All the problems with the coupé reared their heads straight away. The windows do not go all the way down, so you can't drive, Italianstyle, with your elbow on the sill. And the boot is tragically small. And there's nowhere to put anything in the cabin, not even the key. Plus, it costs almost £127,000, which is a lot.

But despite all this, and despite my reservations about the styling and drive system, this is a hugely likeable car. You know when you sit next to someone at a party and everything about them seems to be wrong, but by the time pudding comes, you know you've made a friend for life? It's that.

Much of the appeal comes from the fact it doesn't feel like a normal car. It has a steering wheel and see-through windows and everything operates in a conventional way, but the noises it makes and all of the things that flash up on the dash are odd, interesting and peculiar. It's an accountant, but with a ponytail.

This is especially apparent when you lower the roof. Do this in any other convertible and what you can hear is the fuel exploding and gases flooding out of the tailpipe. But in the i8, using electric drive only, all you can hear is birdsong.

This is a completely unique experience. Man has never been this fast this quietly in all of history. You can reach a fair old lick on a horse but all you can hear is the damn thing snorting and panicking and thudding. You can reach big speeds on a bicycle, too, but then all you can hear is your own heart and the wind. And if you fall off a cliff, the peace and quiet is normally shattered by the sound of your screams.

In an i8 Roadster, there's none of that. Its eco-tyres are thin and stealthy, and the electric motor is nowhere near as loud as the wood pigeons and the skylarks.

And then you take it out of Chris Packham mode, push the gearlever to its Sport setting and now all you can hear is the little turbocharged engine burping and rasping, and the exhaust occasionally spitting. And, ooh, it's a nice car to hustle. It feels so light, so dainty, so right.

Annoyingly, though, it feels as if the suspension is made from pig iron. This makes life very bumpy on a normal road and almost intolerable in a pot-marked town.

My biggest worry about the i8 Roadster, however, is that it's a critic's car. Think of it as one of those incredibly difficult dishes served up by a gifted provincial chef in an almost silent restaurant. A food reviewer would sit in deep reverence, masticating gently and marvelling at the textures and the flavours and the skill that brought everything together so well.

The i8 is like that. I do genuinely marvel at the brilliance of the thing and I absolutely loved driving it for the sake of just driving. But could I live with a car in which there's only space for the occupants and nothing else, not even a phone? Could I live with the silly doors? Or the windows that don't go down properly, or the way the charger can't be used for charging anything? Could I live with the bumpiness? No. Not really. For going home after work, or going to the shops, I'd rather have a much less expensive BMW M3. In the same way that for a TV dinner you'd rather have a shepherd's pie than an ortolan.

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And here's the Sun column: "TV ads have overshot the mark and become too PC when they should be funny"
 

Revelator

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Messages
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A splash of Pekingese, a dash of Basset and, voilà, I've crafted a Crufts-conquering Frankenpooch (June 23)

Figures out recently show that only 98 Old English sheepdogs were registered with the Kennel Club in the first three months of the year. And now everyone is sobbing and mewling and saying that soon the Dulux dog will become extinct.

Now, when a rare bat is in danger of dying out, all housebuilding is put on hold and councils are ordered to devote 90% of their resources to making sure it's saved. Heavily armed patrols are used to preserve the last white rhinos. And because of the polar bears, we all must put our patio heaters in the bin and walk to work in shoes made from potato peelings.

But the Dulux dog is a pet. So the only way it can be saved is by forcing people to buy one, and I'm not sure that's possible. Most people would prefer a Labrador, because, unlike an Old English sheepdog, it can see where it's going. Also, while a Lab is endlessly greedy and will continue to eat until it bursts, it doesn't defecate twice a day into its own hair.

Maybe when Jeremy Corbyn is in power, dogs will be allocated by a government department and you'll have no choice over what breed you get. But he isn't, so you do. And only a tiny number of people are choosing Old English sheepdogs. Maybe if Kim Kardashian or Nicholas Witchell were to buy one, the decline would be arrested, but that hasn't happened yet.

In the past, many famous people, including the Vanderbilts and the Guggenheims and Franklin D Roosevelt, had Old English sheepdogs, but the last famous person to have one was Sir Paul McCartney. And he ate it.* There's a vault buried deep inside a mountain in Svalbard, Norway, where examples of all the world's seeds are kept, but there is no such thing for dogs. So when the dog-loving public falls out of love with a breed and no celebrity is on hand to make it popular again, it will die out. This has happened many times in the past.

I assumed when I first saw a stuffed example of the now-extinct kuri dog that the taxidermist hadn't been very good at his job. But further research has revealed that it really did have ridiculously short legs. It was also stubborn and had a useless sense of smell. Small wonder it never caught on.

Then there was the Cordoba fighting dog from Argentina, bred, as its name suggests, for fighting. Unfortunately, the breeders were so successful that whenever two dogs were brought together for mating purposes, they tore each to pieces before any impregnation took place. As a result, pitbulls are now used instead.

The Hawaiian poi went west because one day it was forced to become the world's first vegetarian dog. Which meant that, like human vegetarians, it soon became listless and wan, and then its breath smelt so bad that even other dogs wouldn't mate with it.

All these dogs are now gone, but here's the thing. When one breed dies out, it's possible to simply create another. That's not easy with monkeys or whales, but, that said, a grizzly bear will occasionally do sex with a polar bear. I'm not sure what this proves. That bears aren't racist? That's about it, though.

With dogs, things are different. In the UK, there are 221 officially recognised breeds. And all of them are man-made Frankenstein dogs that were created by lunatics.

To make a new breed that will be recognised by mad-haired Crufty people, you need to start with two pedigree dogs whose bloodlines can be traced back to William the Conqueror. And what you end up with after an evening of heavy dog love between the Duke of Spaniel and Contessa de Alsatian is ... a litter of mongrels.

Over the following decades, though, the duke and contessa will create more of these mongrels, and eventually, when you are very old, you will start getting those to mate with one another. Yes, this means daughters have to get with their dads, and brothers and sisters have to make the two-headed beast while you watch. It's a bit like life in Louisiana.

After a very long time, however, you're still nowhere near getting official recognition for your new breed.

Take the current trend for crossing Labradors and poodles. This was a bad idea because both breeds are prone to wonky hips and any cross is going to end up yachting its way through later life. But it was a brilliant piece of marketing, because who doesn't want a dog called a labradoodle? Everyone did. And today you can buy third or fourth-generation 'doodles, but don't think for a minute that it's an officially recognised breed. Because it isn't. In the dog world, it's a parvenu, an upstart — that fat woman who befriended Rose in the film Titanic: fun, but not the right sort.

Creating a new breed is like haute cuisine. You start with good, pure ingredients, add a splash of Pekingese if you want extra snappiness, or a hint of Basset if you want something that trips over its own ears, and then you use patience and diligence and lots of castration on the dogs you don't want, and eventually you can win Crufts with your 2 inch-tall Siberian tiger dog. Because no one else has made one.

It's easier, probably, to create a new cat breed, because their equivalent of the Kennel Club, which is called — and I'm not making this up — the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy, is run by people who love cats. Which means they'll be lonely and will want to talk to you on the phone.

Dog people are usually too busy to do that because they've got to take Rover for a walk, or feed him, or, if he's an Old English sheepdog, use a comb to try to get some of the dingleberries out of the hair round his bottom.

*He didn't really.
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A porridge recipe that fails to stir: The Audi TTS roadster (June 23)

There are many ways of getting to sleep. What I do is imagine that James May is explaining how electricity works or talking me through the achievements of T.E. Lawrence. However, as you've never really seen James May unedited, this wouldn't work for you. So how's this for a suggestion? The Audi TT.

It's the most unexciting exciting car yet made. As faultless and as exquisite as a diplomat's handshake, it comes at you with a beaming smile and a superb suit, but it is completely incapable of ruffling feathers. Were it a person, it would agree with everything everyone says.

Back in the days of Top Gear, we took an Audi TT to Iceland and made easily the most unmemorable 20 minutes of television in history. The skies and the glaciers and the vast lava fields did their best, but they were no match for the smiling porridgeyness of the central character. I did my utmost to think of mad similes but there was none. It was just a nice car.

Later, on The Grand Tour, I tried again with the TT RS, taking it to Croatia. And do you remember it? No, of course you don't. It's like trying to remember the lunch you had on a Tuesday in 1986. The car was fabulous. It had such an insane turn of speed that it could hang on to the coat-tails of a Nissan GT-R. It could — and did — outpace an Ariel Nomad on a rally stage. And it was strong and well made and it produced huge volcanic noises and wasn't even very expensive and … you can't remember a thing about it.

The Audi RS 3. You can remember that very clearly. That was a car that wormed its way into the heart of petrolheads everywhere. But even though the TT RS was pretty much the same under the skin, it didn't even make a blip on your radar screen.

It's a bit like one of those blonde women that host stuff on early evening television. Amanda and Cat and Holly and Rachel and Caroline and Tess. They're all very nice. They're all good at their jobs. And we enjoy watching them. But they never say anything that rocks the boat. They never say the f-word. They may spend their evenings strangling cats and watching jihadist videos on YouTube, but on screen all we get is the lip gloss and the shiny hair and no opinions on anything.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when I went outside last week to find that the car I'd be reviewing was yet another Audi TT. This time, a convertible version of the TTS model. God almighty. It'd be like reviewing a show on puppies hosted by Anthea Turner. You know there will be no moment when she grins at the camera then sticks a finger into a Labrador's tea-towel holder. It's just going to be half an hour of cute pink "aww" noises.

A quick glance round the interior reveals nothing but well-thought-out design and a surprisingly big boot. The knobs are big and easy to use. The sat nav screen is located in the instrument binnacle, where it's in your line of sight.And the seats are both supportive and comfortable.

We've been making cars for more than 100 years now and the TT demonstrates Audi is well on top of the game. All of the things that might at one time have driven us mad are gone. There's now just a wall of common sense, layered on top of good practical thinking.

Happily, however, the TTS roadster had some surprises in store, the first of which arrived like the elephant's turd on Blue Peter when I went for a drive in central London. The road surfaces here are bad — not New York bad, but bad enough to be annoying in any car that isn't set up properly.
And, crikey, the TTS was jiggly.

I put the suspension in its Comfort setting but it didn't make the problem go away. This, then, is not a car in which your passenger is going to be able to send a coherent text. Of course, it could be argued that because it's the S version of a sporting coupé, I shouldn't mind the bumpiness, but what's the point of a Comfort setting when it doesn't provide any real comfort? Later, I left London for a trip to the countryside and long before I even got to the M25, I had to pull over and check the roof was sealed properly. It was. This car is loud, therefore, on purpose. You can hear every atom passing over the canvas roof right up to the motorway speed limit, when their anguished cries are drowned out by an astonishing din from the tyres. This is a car that will give you a headache.

The next day the sun was out, so I lowered the roof and drove on country lanes to the pub. And normal service was resumed. It was all lovely. If it had been a ploughman's lunch, the cheese would have been crumbly, the apple crisp, the pickle from Branston and the onion sharp enough to cross your eyes. If it had been a film, it would have been Avengers: Endgame, a wonderful example of movie-making in the 21st century.

As I got into open country, I did think for a moment that Anthea really was going to put her finger in the puppy, because it was quite windy in there. But then I found the button that raised a small flap behind the front seats and, having pressed it, it wasn't windy any more.

I missed the TT RS's turn of speed and its noise, but the simple TTS model is much less expensive and, for the money, it was all I could have expected. The ride comfort, so poor in town, became bearable, the steering was lovely, and here's something really good: it was the first Audi TT I've driven in recent times that didn't come with squeaky brakes.

So, would I buy one? Well, no. The noise on a motorway is too much and I spend far too long bumping around on the small bit of London's roads that hasn't been converted into cycle lanes. But there's more to it than that. It's the way a car such as this would never compel me to go for a drive. All that horsepower, 93 miles of headroom and four-wheel drive and, actually, you know what? I'll walk. I need the exercise.

I suspect it'd be the same story with the Mercedes SLC and the new BMW Z4. I have driven neither but they will both suffer from the Audi's inability to pout and give you a come-hither look. They are just very, very good machines, when what you really want from a convertible sports car is something else, something more.

Which is why I'd rather have an infinitely more terrible Triumph TR6, which would break down whenever it was cold and overheat whenever it wasn't.

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And here's the Sun column:
"It’s fine to commit crime… as long as getaway car sticks to the limit"
 

Revelator

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Messages
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Nice set of pipes, but they've blown it (June 30)
The Clarkson Review: BMW 8-series coupé

I've never subscribed to the popular view that the future will be more bleak than the past. With every passing minute, our lives improve. New things are invented to make things easier, and new drugs come along that take away our eye infections and our erectile difficulties. We get better-looking, too, and better box sets.

But over dinner recently we were discussing Britain's future and, after a moment's thought, one chap said: "This country is f*." Naturally, I wanted to react with a "Steady on", but I also took a moment to think and I reckon he's right. It is.

Both of the dismal candidates vying to become Tory leader and prime minister are saying they will deliver some form of Brexit, but they won't, because it's not possible. It is too complicated.

If you'd had a vote asking people if they'd like to be billionaires with a yacht in Antibes and a supermodel girlfriend who's allergic to clothes, everyone would have hurried off to the polling station to say, "Yes, please." But no politician could have delivered such a thing. It's the same story with Brexit. It really is.

Then you have Theresa May's idiotic promise that Britain will produce no greenhouse gases by 2050. That's not possible either. If you built a new generation of carbon-capturing power stations, and removed every car with internal combustion from the road, and replaced the boiler in every single house, and made the eating of meat illegal, you could reduce our carbon emissions by 96%. But 100%? That would require technology that hasn't even been invented yet.

So we will be pursuing two goals that can't be achieved, which means that at some point everyone will say: "Oh, let the old fella have a go." So then we will get Jeremy Corbyn.

There's other stuff too. A police force that will only get off its arse if Jo Brand says something unpleasant about Nigel Farage, or if it thinks a dead celebrity once saw his niece in the shower. And a social media steering committee that will not allow white people to help starving Africans.

There's more. I can't abide the wastefulness of HS2 or our blinkered love affair with the doomed National Health Service. I'm fearful about how many jihadists may be living in northern English towns and I cannot understand why airport security staff won't use profiling.

Other things I don't understand? Self-service checkout systems in the supermarket and why a motorway must be closed for hours after every accident. Sorry, collision. There's no such thing as an accident any more. Because if it's an accident, then no one is to blame, and that, in the world we've created, is impossible.

Sorry. I'm conscious that this is supposed to be a motoring column, so let's get to the point. A wise man once said that if the car had been invented yesterday, no government would let ordinary members of the public drive one.

That's happening here. We are facing a blanket 20mph speed limit in towns, more cycle lanes, more cameras, more smart motorways and bigger penalties for any infringement, no matter how minuscule. The joy of the open road has been sucked from our consciousness. We aren't even allowed to see cars being driven quickly in advertisements, even if that's the whole point of the car in question.

In motor sport, we have Formula One, which has fewer thrills and spills than cricket, and drivers are penalised for overtaking. Or for not being overtaken.

And then there are the cars we drive that wrestle with you when you change lanes without indicating, and bong when you don't put a seatbelt on, and perform emergency stops if they decide you're a rubbish driver. It's almost like they don't want to be cars at all. They'd rather be washing machines or pencil sharpeners or a biscuit-eating health-and-safety enthusiast.

You'd imagine BMW would be fighting this. It built a reputation on making the ultimate driving machine. So you'd expect the new 8-series, its flagship sports car, to be a giant two-fingered salute to the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.

When I first encountered the V8 version, in Georgia, for an item on The Grand Tour, I was a bit underwhelmed. Its wheels appeared to be a bit skinny and there was a whiff of Toyota about the rear end. It also didn't appear to have a particularly exciting-looking interior and, while it was extremely fast, there were many driver aids that caused even James May to froth gently at the mouth.

Of course, because James was championing it, I was duty-bound to find fault, but the truth is, I've always liked BMW's big coupés. I actually owned a 3.0 CSL many years ago, and I've always hankered after the car that replaced it, the M635, and the car that came after that, the 850i.

Then there's the now-defunct M6 Gran Coupé. In Australia once, on a farm the size of southeast England, I drove this car from our location, on private gravel roads, back to the farmer's house about 30 miles away, and it remains the best drive I've had, in any car. The sun was setting, the savage heat was dying and, with the traction control turned off, I just drifted along in a beautiful series of gentle slides.

So while I may have been rude about the new 8-series to annoy James, the truth is, I was rather looking forward to having a go myself. I therefore borrowed one. And BMW sent the diesel.

Few companies make a diesel-powered coupé in this part of the market, and I'm not surprised. Diesel power isn't what you want in a car of this type, and especially not now, when the fuel itself is viewed in the same way as we view Harvey Weinstein and Rolf Harris.

Yes, the six-cylinder turbo engine produces 315 brake horsepower, and that doesn't sound too bad. But it's the wrong sort of horsepower, which comes in all the wrong places. You want a car like this to sing, not trudge.

In the other version, with the proper V8, you'd be encouraged to press on, in which case you'd notice the four-wheel-drive system that engages when you're on the raggedy edge, and the active steering that goes light and tight in sharp bends. You may, if you are a road-tester on a car magazine, even notice the improved aerodynamics. But in the diesel, you just turn on the radio and sit there until you arrive at your destination.

There's another problem too. If you avoid the options list altogether, it costs a shade over £75,000, which doesn't sound too bad. But Auto Trader is full of diesel-powered 6-series Gran Coupés for less than £15,000, and there's no reason to suspect that a similar fate won't befall the 840d.

Which means you'll have a car you won't enjoy, in a country that won't let you even if you could, and it'll cost you a fortune. So how's this for an idea. Buy the V8 instead, and move to Italy.
 

Revelator

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So thrilling it leaves brilliant in the dust
The Clarkson Review: Ferrari 488 Pista (July 7)

I bought a Ferrari once. I'd been making a television programme about Italy and figured that to bring some spectacle and noise to the endless parade of food and suits, it would be a good idea to borrow something called an F355.

I'd driven a Ferrari before, of course. A couple, in fact. One had been the Mondial and the other a 348 GTB, and I'd raved about them, writing my road tests in a mixture of drool and sycophancy. But the truth is, I hadn't enjoyed them much.

This is because the Mondial was the worst and ugliest Ferrari ever made. And the 348 sat on tyres that were apparently made from wood. When the car was driven slowly they were hot and difficult, and when it was driven what passed for quickly at the time, they were hot and difficult and scary.

I assumed, because I was a young chap with little experience of fast and exotic cars, that I was missing something. I was like a man with a private pilot's licence being handed the controls of an SR-71 Blackbird. Even if he found the whole experience hideous and awful, he was never going to say so when he got out.

I therefore wasn't expecting much from the F355. It looked very similar to the 348, and I didn't really understand at the time why the fitment of five valves for each of the eight cylinders would make much difference. I didn't even know what valves were, if I'm honest. Or cylinders.

But, oh my God. That Ferrari opened my eyes to a world that I didn't know existed. A blurry world. A world of G-force and curious sensations in the seat of my pants. "Wow," I shouted at the camera. "This car has five valves per cylinder." I then paused, dropped it down a cog and yelled: "And you can tell."

After making a few observations about sexuality and adding a couple of weird similes, I came back to Britain in a pensive frame of mind. Because I just had to have one. It was how I'd imagined cars would be when I was young. Full of fire and brimstone. Connected directly to the driver's sex glands.

The problem was that it cost £90,000, which was out of my league. So I decided that to get the ball rolling, I'd buy an old 328 instead. I did all the research and toddled offto the Ferrari showroom, which was on a roundabout in one of those ghastly towns to the west of London.

And I didn't fit. The salesman said they could remove the runners and bolt the seat directly to the floor, but my wife, who was about three feet shorter than me, thought this was a bad idea. So we looked at each other, and then we looked at the F355, which was on the other side of the showroom, and that was that.

I went for the GTS model, which came with a lift-out roof panel that could be stored, using nothing more than a telehander and six burly men, behind the front seats. Where it would squeak incessantly. And because I was a Ferrari new boy, I did the Ferrari new-boy thing and ordered it in red. With cream-and-red seats, and red carpets. "Ah, I see you've gone for the homosexual pack," said Steve Coogan, who had an F355 too.

Since those days, many things have happened. Steve's become very right-on, I've grown out of mid-engine supercars and Ferrari has become so up itself that it prefers customers to arrive at the showroom near the roundabout in a superyacht, on a canal that's been specially dug by an army of eunuchs.

It's why I went on to buy a Lamborghini Gallardo and then a Ford GT. And it's why, if I absolutely had to have a mid-engine supercar these days, I'd buy some kind of McLaren. It's also why, when I review a Ferrari, I now want to say it's awful, just to piss the company off.

All of which brings me on to the limited-edition 488 Pista, which is a stupid name. It means "track". Which means this car is aimed at the sort of man who has his own racing circuit, possibly in Qatar. And cars that are designed for tracks in the Middle East rarely work well on damp roads in Buckinghamshire.

Because it's designed for the track, it is fitted with four-point harnesses that prevent you from leaning forward to see what's coming at junctions, and it has no sat nav, fairly feeble air-conditioning and very little in the way of soundproofing. All this was done to save weight.

And Ferrari continues to make the controls almost impossible to use by putting most of them on the steering wheel. Which means they're never where you left them.

Oh, and then there's the price, which is more than a quarter of a million pounds. Plus another quarter of a million pounds to fit it with extras such as seats and windows and carpets. And another quarter of a million to ship it every summer from the Middle East to Knightsbridge.

So it's far too expensive, badly equipped, made by a company that hates you and fitted with seatbelts that mean that at every oblique junction you must rub the rosaries and hope for the best.

So far, so good. Ferrari will be very cross, and that makes me happy. However, despite all the problems, the Pista is one of the most exciting, thrilling, beautiful and satisfying cars ever made.

It makes all other cars feel as though they're built from moss and bark.

It is superb.

There was a time when any car, even a Ferrari, struggled to cope with 711 brake horsepower. The back end would skitter about, and you could never — not on the road, at any rate — use full throttle in any gear for more than a second or two.

But it's not like that in the Pista. To make the engine feel naturally aspirated rather than turbocharged, the torque is limited in the first six gears. So you don't get that wheel-spinning madness. Which means you don't get the terror. This is a car you can drive fast. That you'll want to drive fast.

And then there's the handling, which is faultless. You find yourself going round quite significant corners at ridiculously high speeds and there isn't even a chirp of protest from the tyres. Or your passenger, because it all feels so completely controlled.

You'd imagine that, to achieve this, the suspension was harder than a communist's heart, but no. Put it in Bumpy Road setting and it glides along. It's the same story with the sound. Yes, it's not particularly exciting. It doesn't make a noise like 4,000 yards of ripping calico, but even with very little deadening material under the carpet, it's not bad at all. It even has a surprisingly large boot.

After a few days I began to question the promise I'd made to myself that I'd never buy another mid-engine car. And certainly not a Ferrari. Because the Pista is not just good. Or brilliant. It's way beyond that.

All of which is very bad news for my colleague James May. He bought the Pista's predecessor, the 458 Speciale, as an investment. But, at a stroke, the new car has rendered it valueless. The poor man will have to scrap it, I fear.
 
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