Roll up your sleeve, Dame Judi: your next role is persuading cynical Brits to take the Covid jab (Dec. 06)
How on earth have we reached a point where scientists can develop a vaccine for a virus that was unknown a year ago, only to find that 15% or 20% of the population won't take it because of something a pissed-up pop star said on Twitter? Seriously. You have educated people saying they won't take an "untested Frankenstein drug, developed by Big Pharma", before rushing off to a dimly lit car park and scoring a gram of coke from a man called Barry the Bugle.
Even I'm sitting here thinking: "Why have we gone for the German vaccine that costs a fortune and melts if it's exposed to room temperature? Why didn't we select the Oxford option that costs three quid and is as stable as mineral water?" Plainly there's some Brexity governmental shenanigans going on.
This must be so dispiriting for the scientists who, by developing these vaccines in record time, have saved the world order. Because think what they've been through in their lives. At school, while we were all in the pub, smoking and chatting up girls by explaining that we'd seen Thin Lizzy, they were at home, reading chemistry books.
Then, after a friendless spell at university, where they were mocked for being nerdy and having spectacles, they got a job where the only benefit was a free lab coat.
While you were in the City, living it large, they were in a windowless room dripping liquids out of pipettes into Petri dishes, hoping and praying that there'd be an Alexander Fleming culture when they came into work the next day. But there never was.
Finally, though, the coronavirus arrived and they had their moment, but instead of being carried through the streets on sedan chairs by six greased eunuchs, everyone said: "Have you not seen I Am Legend? Emma Thompson thought she'd invented a cure for cancer, and the next thing you know, everyone is either dead or trying to eat Will Smith's dog."
'Twas ever thus. You had those boffins who worked for years on how they could get men to the moon and then, when they succeeded, van drivers said it couldn't possibly have happened because the astronauts would have been cooked by radiation. And now we have the same conspiracy theorists saying that, if you take the vaccine, you'll wake up in the morning looking like Mick Hucknall.
To try to balance this wave of negativity, NHS chiefs are said to be thinking of approaching what they call "very sensible" famous faces who could be used to persuade people the vaccine is not a phial full of thalidomide and that, actually, it will save your granny's life.
Right. I see. And who exactly will these very sensible famous faces be? Politicians? Don't make me laugh. We can all remember in the midst of the mad-cow disease outbreak, John Gummer, minister of agriculture at the time, trying to force-feed his daughter a beef burger to prove it was safe. We can also remember that she refused, so he had to eat it himself.
So, if it's not going to be a politician, who will it be? Sir Sir Attenborough is a name that springs immediately to mind, but let's not forget, shall we, that he has been banging on for years about how the human population is too enormous and must, if the world's rhinos are to be saved, be slashed. So I can't imagine he's in favour of halting the virus at all.
George Clooney then. Debonair. Plainly intelligent. And married to someone who's even cleverer. But there'd always be the nagging doubt that, because he's done coffee commercials, he'd only agreed to support the vaccine for the cash.
So what about James May. He is much adored by ladies of a certain age who may be sceptical about vaccines after the MMR business. It's likely, then, that he could talk them round, but if there are subtle side effects, it would be impossible to spot them in a man who's already so weird. "Oh, my God. Look what's the vaccine's done to him. He's just spent an entire day at a plywood exhibition." Don't worry. He often does that.
There are similar issues with Stephen Fry. "Christ, look what's happened to his nose!" And Mick Jagger. "Well, I'm not taking anything that does that to your hair." In fact, I've trawled the internet and the only person I've found who's normal, much respected and squeaky clean is Judi Dench.
So here we are. We have a vaccine that will save millions of lives and billions of jobs, and the only way we can get people to take it is by employing an elderly lady from Surrey to say you won't turn into Joseph Merrick? The problem, I guess, is that we simply don't believe anything we hear any more. It used to just be a few nutters who thought Elvis Presley was still alive and that the American government had aliens in a cave in New Mexico, but now the nutterness has seeped into every single corner of our lives. Two and two is four. "You say that, Grandad, but is it?"
It has been said that the internet is true democracy at work, because it gives everyone an equal footing. But the trouble with this is that Dave, a fat and single man, sitting in his mother's loft in a Motörhead T-shirt, has exactly the same space to air his views as The New York Times.
We have "influencers" whose facts are never checked and who can, and will, reach more people today than any professionally put-together newspaper. Every day, Kim Kardashian can and does out-Beeb the BBC.
We all saw, last week, that astonishing 3D map of the Milky Way. Well, that's what news has become: a big, cloudy muddle. It's sad — and it's bloody dangerous.
My hero Chuck Yeager rang. I flew 5,000 miles to meet him. You're late, was all he could say (Dec. 13)
They say you should never meet your heroes, and they're right, because I once met mine. His name was Chuck Yeager. He died last week and I should have been sad because I'd been brought up on stories of how this natural-born, stick-and-rudder, speak-as-I-find redneck won the war single-handedly, with no help at all from the RAF or Polish airmen. He was, according to himself, "the few" that Winston Churchill was on about.
He was shot down over France and evaded the Nazis to make his escape, then, two years after the war ended, he became the first man to break the sound barrier. He was, according to the author Tom Wolfe, who wrote extensively about his exploits, "the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff ".
Wolfe may have had a point. Two days before he attempted to break the sound barrier, Yeager went on a drunken horse ride across the high desert of California with his first wife, Glennis. And on the way back, the greatest pilot in history hit a gate he had not noticed, fell off and broke two ribs. Keeping this injury secret from the top brass would be one thing; leaning over to shut the plane's door would be quite another. So he had the flight engineer provide him with a 9 inch length of sawn-off broom handle to use as a lever, and off he went to fight the big ol' demon in the sky.
He was, then, like those British soldiers who won Victoria Crosses for charging down a machinegun nest armed only with a butter knife. A get-it-done-and-ask-questions-later hero. I worshipped him. And I dreamt of the day when we could share some sipping whisky as he told me what it was like when the Bell X-1's speedo went past Mach 1. And how sad he was when the achievement was declared a state secret and hushed up.
Yeager had been selected to fly the X-1 rocket plane even though he was not exactly the type of college-educated test pilot normally chosen for such a high profile job. Many hoped this bumptious man would fail. Most people kind of knew he would because, back then, the sound barrier was seen as a wall in the sky through which no machine could pass.
Towards the end of the war, when technological improvements to the engine had made the Spitfire extremely fast, pilots had started to report that, in a dive, the controls would start to freeze. Unbeknownst to them, they were being jammed by the beginnings of a shock wave people on the ground now call a sonic boom.
I had wanted to talk to Yeager about this for a television show I was making, and then one day, after months of me trying, he called my production office from his home in Sacramento, California, saying he would do the interview the next day. As I was in Chipping Norton, this presented something of a challenge, but as it was Chuck Yeager, I did a lot of tyre-squealing, and running at airports, and the next day the film crew and I pulled into his driveway at 3:15pm.
He was standing there, looking at his watch and, as I climbed out of the car, he said: "You're 15 minutes late." Naturally, I assumed he was joking, so I replied: "That's nothing. You were three years late for the Second World War." He turned on his heel, went inside and slammed the door.
After we negotiated for some time with his equally angry wife, he eventually agreed to do the interview. But only if we sat next to his extremely noisy fridge.
And so, with the sound recordist pulling disapproving faces, we began to talk about how the Americans had, let's say, "appropriated" a British wing design to get the Bell X-1 through the sound barrier. This wing had been successfully tested during the war and, as a result, the Berkshire-based company Miles Aircraft was well on its way to making a 1,000mph jet plane. But then the British government suddenly shut down the operation in 1946, having already given the project's research to the Americans.
Yeager denied all this, claiming the British were useless at everything and that "the only people I hated more than the Germans in the war were the English". This may have had something to do with the fact his dad had originally been called "Jäger", though he said it was because our tractors were too slow and our beer was too warm.
Fearing that the interview was not going very well — it was hard to be sure, as I couldn't hear much above his fridge — I decided to get technical and ask about the intricacies of the wing design.
"Don't you know?" he bellowed.
"Well, yes," I replied. "I've been reading up on this for months."
"So why are you asking me?" he demanded, his face purple with rage.
I'm not sure he understood how interviews worked.
I can't remember how exactly our chat ended. Not well, I think, because after a bit of legal action, he said the interview could be screened, but only if I said, on air, that Richard Noble's British-built ThrustSSC had not been the first vehicle to break the sound barrier on land because it had already been done by an American. I'm not sure he understood facts either.
Or childcare. He didn't invite his four kids to his second wedding and said, when things turned ugly: "I don't give a rat's fanny what the kids think of me and what I do."
I think we can put Yeager in the same category as Van Morrison, about whom it has been said: "There are two types of people in the world: those who like him. And those who've met him."
Which is why I shall choose to remember Yeager as he was portrayed on screen by the generous and brave and talented Sam Shepard. The right man who played a wrong 'un in what remains one of the greatest films made: The Right Stuff.
Ten gears, all of them made for overtaking The Clarkson Review: Lexus LC 500 convertible (Dec. 13)
Have you noticed that people have started to drive incredibly slowly? Sure, there have always been people who emerged on a Sunday to potter about as though they had all the time in the world, and more recently this disease spread to Saturday, when "going to B&Q in the Citroën Picasso" became a recognised family activity. But now everyone's at it, all the time.
Maybe this is because the government's war on speeding continues to take precedence over the war on crime, the war on terrorism and even the war on coronavirus. Now, even if you know where all the fixed cameras are, you still can't be sure, when you come round a blind bend, that on the other side of it there won't be a civil servant sitting in a van watching YouPorn while his camera racks up the cash faster than a charity telethon.
Or maybe it's because lockdown has taught us that, actually, we don't have places to go or people to see, because the government will pay us anyway. So we can afford to womble about at no miles per hour, like dandelion seeds on a lazy summer's afternoon.
It wouldn't be so bad if overtaking hadn't become a lost art, like glassblowing. But it has. Now, when someone drives up behind someone doing 25mph, they just sit there, making absolutely no effort to get past.
And now, to make matters worse, we find that the Highway Code has been rewritten to say that cyclists should be encouraged to ride side by side. This means that, in future, we will all be forced to travel at the same speed as a pair of wizened old socialists on their Raleigh Wayfarers.
No good will come from any of this. Because if you want to know what true gormlessness looks like, examine the face of someone driving slowly. They are dead-eyed and slack-jawed. It's the look of someone whose life has no meaning and no purpose. And it's affecting all of us. We are becoming a nation of people with no drive, no ambition and no hope of staging any kind of economic recovery when the pandemic has gone away. We must learn to speed up again.
And we can start with the young lady who was driving a horse box between Oxford and Reading the other night. And all the drivers of the 11 cars in her wake, who were seemingly quite happy to sit there, doing 12mph for mile after interminable mile.
I was not happy to sit there, because I was late. This is not something you will hear from me very often, because I don't do late. But I was running late because I was driving the new Lexus LC 500 convertible, and it has, easily, the most stupid satellite navigation system ever fitted to any car. Ever.
In every single review of a Lexus in recent years the sat nav has been singled out for criticism, and yet still Toyota continues to fit it. It doesn't work, because the movement of your finger over the touchpad has very little to do with what the arrow on the screen is doing. And eventually, after you've driven over a bump and pressed the pad by mistake, you will engage a feature you didn't want, or select a destination you are not going to. And there is no way back.
It's actually bloody dangerous to try to work the system while you're on the move, so I pulled over to try to explain that I wanted the map to face north, and that I wanted to go to the railway station in Hook. This process took 25 minutes. And that's why I was running late when I encountered the glacially slow horse enthusiast.
Happily the Lexus is able to make up some of the time you lose trying to tell it where you want to go, because under the bonnet is just the most brilliant engine. It's a 5-litre V8 and it doesn't have a turbocharger, which means the power that it delivers is real and not forced upon it by the teachings of Greta Thunberg.
The only slight problem is that it doesn't deliver quite as much torque as you might imagine, so, to get round that, Lexus has fitted a ten-speed gearbox. Which means that when you put your foot down to overtake, let's say, 11 cars and a teenage girl in a massive, slow-moving horse lorry, there's a pause while the engine brain decides which gear would be best. And it's just long enough for you to think, "Hmm. I wonder if I can make this overtaking move after all."
You can. Because when it finds the right gear, the Lexus sets off on a creamy, seamless wave of horsepower, which fills your head with serotonin and dopamine and all the other brain chemicals you need to stay alive and intelligent.
There are other good things about this car too. The two-seat interior, with seats in the back for shopping, is beautifully finished and nicely equipped and tastefully trimmed, and you never tire of pushing the button that changes the whole look of the dash.
Plus, the seat is as supportive as a celebrity shrink, which is handy because, ooh, the LC 500 doesn't half handle. And grip.
Some testers have criticised the ride comfort, saying the run-flat tyres make everything too jiggly, but I thought it was fine. Certainly it was preferable to the other option, which was to fill the quite small boot with a spare wheel.
I also liked the way I could lower the roof while driving behind a horse lorry, so that, when I could finally overtake, its driver would be better able to see the nature and nuance of my hand gestures.
There are some problems, however. First, there's the styling. It's striking, for sure, and adventurous and interesting, and I commend Lexus for its bravery in taking this route. But is it good-looking? Hmm. I'm not sure.
I'm sure about the price, though. It's £96,625 in the Sport + spec. And that means it's up against some very serious competitors, such as the Porsche 911. It's also up against the less serious but extremely good-looking Jaguar F-type R. But the car I can't get out of my head is the Ford Mustang. It's a big, brawny, Donald Trump-voting nitwit, yes, but it can do everything the Lexus can do for almost exactly half the price. And, thanks to its shouty V8, it makes the act of driving slowly fun, which is something that matters these days.
Is the Lexus built twice as well? Yes, probably, but, that said, I did notice a judder in the power delivery on the last day it was in my possession. It couldn't have been a fault, could it? In a Lexus? It seems more likely that, when I was trying to select Radio 4 on the idiotic touchpad, I'd engaged some kind of staccato driving mode by mistake.
All Prince Andrew's woes can be blamed on the bottle: he never has one in his manicured hands (Dec. 20)
Like everyone else in Britain, I've been completely ungripped all week by the stories about whether or not Prince Andrew had sex with Virginia Roberts. We have been treated to all sorts of lurid tales about what he allegedly got up to, and the suggestion is that he is a serial offender who roams the planet, in private jets that we paid for, in search of inappropriately young women.
Well, I'm sorry, but I don't believe that. I've seen Andrew at various parties over the years and it's very easy to spot what his problem is: he doesn't drink.
The people who arrive at these parties sober make small talk about house prices and schools, and then, after a few sherbets, they move on to gossip and noisily expressed opinions, and then, after a few more sherbets, they're fighting in the flowerbeds, dancing on the tables and suddenly finding the hostess irresistibly attractive.
Non-drinkers have to pretend to go with the flow, but, unguided by alcohol, they almost always get the timing wrong. So they arrive, leap onto the table and then, after some noisily expressed opinions, goose the hostess before sitting down for a quiet chat with the person next to them about how house prices have skyrocketed in their bit of Somerset.
This is Andrew's problem. We've read about his antics and we imagine he's a boorish, goggle-eyed halfwit. He probably is. But his main problem is that he's second-guessing what he should be doing. It's not instinctive for him, because he's guided through life by water. Same as the Torrey Canyon, and the Titanic, and the Exxon Valdez.
There's another issue too. As we all know, he is accused of sweating over a young lady in the nightclub Tramp, but he says this is impossible because he was at a pizzeria in Woking that day.
Somehow, though, the Daily Mail's Woodward and Bernstein have discovered that, actually, he was at home having a manicure.
I'm sorry — a what? I've looked it up and it turns out that a manicure is a process where someone softens the skin on your hands before shaping your nails and removing your "cuticles". You then pay them for this.
It's strange, but I'm now 60 years old and never once in my entire life have I thought, "Right. I've got a bit of spare time today, so I shall ask a young lady to come round and reorganise my hands."
I think there's something deeply sinister about male grooming. I watch all those aftershave advertisements that pollute the television at this time of year, and they're all the same. There's a Vespa and a horse and a girl in a cloak and, for no reason at all, a voiceover in French. And afterwards you're left thinking, "What was that all about?"
I'll give you a simple rule. If you trust everyone in life, you will be let down from time to time. If you trust only people who wear aftershave, you will be let down always. Because people who wear aftershave are mad. They must be, because who in their right mind thinks, after shaving, "Right. That's good. But it would be better if I made my face hurt briefly"?
It's the same story with people who colour-coordinate their clothing. It has often been said that if you want something done, you should give the job to a busy man. I'd go with that. Which is why you should never give a job to a man whose shoes match his tie. Because he's had time in his day to think about that, which means he will forget to post the important letter you gave him.
And then there's hair. I get mine cut at a barber in St James's because I can be in and out in less than 10 minutes. And because no one asks if I would like some "product" in it.
What is product? And why doesn't it have a name? We don't wash our dishes in product, or go to the fish and chip shop for product, and no one ever said, "Pint of your finest product, please, barman." But that's what weird men call the stuff they put in their hair.
I've been online to see what's in product, and it seems mostly to be butter. Unless you buy it from the Body Shop, in which case it's somehow "cruelty-free" butter. But, either way, I can't imagine how shallow a man's life has to be before he decides to rub a packet of Lurpak into his barnet.
It's possible that male grooming may be a consequence of not drinking. Because if you can't fill your spare time by going to the pub or opening a bottle of wine, you're going to come up with all sorts of damn fool ideas.
I know quite a few recovering alcoholics, and all of them are incredibly well groomed. Even when they pop out for the papers on a Sunday morning, they look like Roger Moore. One always smells of lavender. Another looks like a GQ cover star.
And let's not forget the much-missed and famously sober A.A. Gill, who could, and often did, while away a whole day doing nothing but touching cloth. And I don't mean touching it in the way he used to when he drank. I mean touching it. Feeling it. Moaning. Imagining what it would be like if it were turned into a pair of trousers.
Those who do drink will, I'm sure, be worried that if the lockdown continues much longer, we will be facing the very real possibility that we will damage our livers and catch diabetes.
But what is the alternative? If we give in to our fears, our lives will become empty and we will lose the ability to socialise properly.
And then, with all the free time we've been gifted, we'll end up having manicures and going to a Woking pizzeria before dancing the night away and then stopping off at a mate's home in Belgravia for a bath.
I've just the bird for your tiny festive lunch: Red tape has taken turkey off the menu in my shop but I'm hatching alternative plans (Dec. 20)
The muddle-headed progressives in the left-wing media exploded with joy recently as they explained that farmers will soon be getting government subsidies only if they build down-filled igloos for the newts and knit snazzy jumpers for the trees.
They went on to say that farmers affected by this include Sir Dyson, Mrs Queen, the Duke of Westminster and Prince Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud. And they're right. These people will be affected. But so will thousands of others who have just endured the worst farming year in living memory, thanks to the weather. And who now, thanks to Brexit and this subsidy business, face ruin.
This is what neither of the people who read lefty newspapers understands: that some farmers have Range Rovers and spend half the year spraying their subsidy cheques into Val d'Isère's cheese fondues, but the vast majority have to hold their trousers up with baler twine and burn their children at night to keep warm.
And what the lefties also can't understand, because they're too busy deciding whether to go to the women's lavatory or the men's, is that when England's farmers can no longer grow barley because in a climate-obsessed culture it just isn't financially viable, brewers will simply get what they need from Argentina, where there are fewer rules. Which means we haven't solved the environmental issues. We've just exported them.
Simple truths like that seem not to bother the bleeding hearts, though. They explained that farmers who didn't like the cuts in subsidies could sell their land to the poor, who of course are much better at everything than the rich.
Well, I've got bad news for you down there in Hackney and Islington. I shall not be selling my farm to a Palestinian refugee or anyone else for that matter. And, to make you even more angry, I shall remain in business by deploying the only thing I learnt at my very expensive public school: how to take a perfectly straight and simple rule and bend it so that it looks as if someone's spilt a bag of hairgrips into a bowl of Alphabetti spaghetti. "That's not a nicotine stain on my fingers, sir. It's potassium permanganate."
To limber up for this assault on the civil service and the left and George Useless at the bloody environment department, I'm going to try a new thing in my farm shop at Christmas, which is: not selling turkeys.
I do not keep turkeys, because they are even harder to feed than your wheat, gluten and dairy-intolerant teenage daughter who's just become a vegan. All they'll really eat are cherry trees and sunflower seeds and oats, but only if it's all dry and no other birds have stood on it.
After you've kept your turkey warm and entertained and out of the wind for 26 weeks, you will have to kill it, and this is where the government steps in. Because you can't just hit it with a brick or shoot it in the face. You have to stun it first, by breaking its neck, unless it weighs more than 5kg, in which case you must electrocute it. And you are allowed to kill only 70 birds a day. No, I don't know why either.
It makes little difference to me, because although I have a licence to drive a car and another that allows me to operate a shotgun, I don't have one that lets me sell you one of my own turkeys in my own shop.
Not that you're going to want a turkey anyway this Christmas, because you'll be eating your lunch in a tiny group of three or four. And one's bound to be a vegan. And the other's going to be bird-intolerant. So it'd be silly to cook something the size of a blue whale.
What, then, is an alternative? What am I legally allowed to sell you that you might actually want to buy? A crow? A badger? A dragonfly? This is where you have to get creative. This is where you have to look at the rulebook and spot what's not there. And who better for inspiration than the French?
For centuries people all around the world have cooked bread and cows and fish, but the French decided that a small bunting called the ortolan would be more to their taste. So they tried it and then thought, "Mmm, yes, but would it be better still if we caught it in a net and then put it in a box for two weeks, where the darkness will cause it to gorge on millet until it's dripping in fatty goodness?"
And, having decided to do this, they reckoned that they should kill it by drowning it in armagnac, and then, after plucking it, they'd pop it under the grill for eight minutes and serve inside a buttered potato. Oh, and people would eat it while wearing a large napkin on their head.
In any normal country the people would rise up and say, "That's stupid," but in France everyone said, "That's brilliant," and I'm afraid they have a point. Ortolan is, by far, the nicest thing I've ever put in my mouth. When you bite into it the bones are soft like a sardine's. And the taste is like foie gras on a bed of — how best to describe it?
Songbird, I guess.
Sadly, however, even though President Mitterrand loved the bird so much he insisted he had one for his last meal, by the late 1990s it had become so rare in France that serving it in restaurants was banned.
The end of the story? Nope.
Because now, if you know where to look, restaurants will sell you a nicely buttered potato for €90. And you get, free, a bunting in it. "But, monsieur l'inspecteur, we are not selling ze bird.We are giving it away. It clearly says so on ze menu."
This, then, is what I'll be selling in my farm shop this Christmas: potatoes full of golfinches and blue tits. It's bending the law, I know, but it'll be good practice for when the lefties and their new hero in No 10 try to turn the whole country into one big picnic site full of litter louts and wasps.
Even Hamilton would find it hard to handle The Clarkson Review: Ferrari 812 GTS (Dec. 27)
After Lewis Hamilton crossed the finishing line in Turkey and clinched a record-equalling seventh Formula One world championship, he spent the next hour vomiting dreary right-on platitudes into every microphone he could find.
Kids were told that if they stuck at it, they too could realise their dreams, which isn't necessarily the case because not everyone can sleep with Alicia Vikander.
After a brief pause while Lewis got in touch with his feminine side by pretending to have a little weep, he was really into his stride, urging the sport to be more woke on racial issues and more sustainable too. And then off he went to play with his vegan dog.
The only slight deviation from the Twitter playbook was an admission that as well as his usual post-race tipple, meat-free minestrone soup, he would allow himself some wine. This puts him a long way from Keith Moon and caused a friend's son to send me a text: "What an arse this man is."
He is not the only one to think like that. When Fernando Alonso won his world championship, thousands of delighted locals ringed the house where he'd been brought up, shouting jubilantly. But when Lewis won, his home town of Stevenage didn't react at all. It's as if he is not loved here.
That's a shame because when I first met Lewis, 13 years ago, he was a very engaging, very likeable and very polite young man. He was also, very obviously, an extraordinarily good driver. The best in history? The statistics say yes, and many people in and around the sport would agree. And if you argued they'd point to the race on that Turkish skating rink as further proof that superlatives are needed when discussing his abilities."He lapped his teammate," they'd say, forgetting perhaps that his teammate had damaged his car on the first corner, making it pretty much undriveable.
I'm not going to get involved in a debate about who's the best F1 driver, though, so let's move on to the fact that in Turkey the podium was occupied by Lewis, 35, Sergio Pérez, 30, and Sebastian Vettel, 33. All the twenty-something young guns were slithering hither and thither, attempting moves that were impossible and paying the price. The old boys, with their wise heads, just went about their business calmly and sensibly, and were the last men standing.
Is that what we want, though?
Old men bumbling along and staying out of trouble? Or do we want Max Verstappen pirouetting down the main straight and Carlos Sainz driving like he's in a Lancia Stratos and Charles Leclerc costing himself a podium finish on the last corner by attempting a smoky pipe-dream pass on Pérez?
Weirdly, while I enjoyed the antics of the embryos and the foetuses, and recognise that their oversteery antics and lurid lock-ups are pages they must turn until they too become rounded and complete, I did find myself rooting for Vettel.
Partly this is because I like him. He's very funny. And it is partly because, since Ferrari told him earlier in the season that he wouldn't be required next year, he has seemingly been on a mission to damage his car as often as possible.And he doesn't just biff a wing that would be fairly simple and cheap to repair. Oh no, when he goes off, he makes sure that all four corners hit the barriers as hard as possible.
This makes me happy because I'm not really a fan of Ferrari any more. It seems to me to be mostly a licensing operation for hats and T-shirts. Yet the fact the F1 team is in disarray this year — as I write, it is behind not just Mercedes but Red Bull, McLaren, Racing Point and even Renault — suggests the company's best engineers are working on the road cars.
And so it was with a spring in my step that I approached the new 812 GTS, which, Ferrari says, is the first V12 convertible it has made for 50 years. It isn't, but we'll gloss over that. The company historians are probably busy putting Seb's racer back together again.
I figured it would be a detuned, softened version of the ludicrous and way too powerful 812 Superfast that I reviewed some time back. But it isn't. It's just a Superfast fitted with a complicated folding metal roof.
There was a time when we liked these contraptions, but then we realised that, actually, you can never put them up and down in public because it looks as if you're doing some kind of weird and extravagant striptease. That's OK in Miami and Dubai, but in Cheltenham? Hmm. Not sure. I'm not sure about a lot of this car. Especially the styling. It is certainly striking, but it's a long way from pretty or even attractive. The back end is plain odd.
And then there's the interior, which is a mess. Ferrari needs to have a long sit-down to discuss its cockpits, because there are knobs and switches everywhere. I never once worked out how to put the lights on full beam, and there's no need for such confusion.
Nor is there a need for this much power. On a cold and drizzly day I took the car on my favourite test route and not once did I use more than an inch of throttle travel. So you're paying more than £293,000 for a car because it has a 789 horsepower 6.5-litre V12 under the bonnet. And most of the time you can't use it. It's too scary.
With the roof down things are even worse, because while the wind is deflected away from your head, it still feels as though you're in a bear that's fallen off a cliff. This car would be much better if it had only 300 horsepower on tap. And I haven't just thought of that on a whim. I really do mean it.
Handling? No idea. Every time I tried to do anything remotely interesting, the traction control light came on and that was that. I could have turned the system off, or put it in Race mode. But then I'm fairly sure I'd have had a Vettel moment and hit some things.
I get why some people would want a Ferrari. I went through that phase myself many years ago. But I cannot get my head round why anyone would want an 812 GTS that is too big, too heavy and far too powerful. And who, seriously, wants to do 211mph with the roof down? I'd far rather drive, and own, the smaller, less intimidating and less unnecessary V8 Roma. Or, if I wanted a convertible, the Portofino. I even like the way they are named after places in Italy. This is not something Aston Martin could do: the Aston Doncaster doesn't have the same ring. And no one would buy a Mercedes Düsseldorf.
They may well soon, however, name a car after Lewis Hamilton, because it would be a fitting tribute to a man who may get a knighthood or, on account of his tax affairs, may not. It'd probably be a car best enjoyed with the sound turned down.
Sorry there was no column last week. This fat, old former smoker got Covid for Christmas (Jan. 3)
Four days before Christmas, I woke in the night to find my sheets were soggy. And that I had a constant dry cough. So, the next morning, I borrowed a kit from my girlfriend and, after a nerve-racking 20-minute wait, a line didn't appear on the testing equipment. Phew. I wasn't pregnant.
But did I have the coronavirus?
Naturally, I went online to read all I could, and I quickly discovered the list of unofficial symptoms is so long that it includes absolutely everything. Shooting pains in your legs. Tennis elbow.
Housemaid's knee. Loose stools. Dizziness. A loss of taste. According to the internet, if you have anything at all, you should definitely get into your car and drive to Swindon, or Redcar, where recently trained civilians in white coats will tell you after a day, or two, or three, whether you must stay at home — or you should simply stay at home.
Instead, because I know everything on the internet and social media is always wrong, I used an actual doctor and an actual laboratory, which revealed that I did have the coronavirus. And, immediately, all my friends wanted to know the same thing: "Who gave it to you?" Er, possibly someone who decided to drizzle a bit of bat onto his pork chop. But I couldn't see how that information would help me get better.
The doctor was very clear: I'd feel under the weather for between five and 14 days and then I'd either get better or I'd have to go to hospital. Where, because I am 60 and fat, and because I've smoked half a million cigarettes and had double pneumonia, I'd probably die, on my own, in a lonely plastic tent.
Naturally, social media had their own ideas on how I should stop this happening. Mostly, they involved kale and berries, washed down with cider vinegar and fair-trade honey. Basically, I had to eat everything from the Labour Party annual climate change and peace conference menu. Including the menu itself.
I also had to self-isolate. The government has been very clear on how this should be done: no going to the gym and no visits to any other household unless it's with your mother's stepchildren, who you may see, indoors, on a Tuesday, if you sit nearest the mantelpiece.
However, it has been much less specific on how you are supposed to isolate from your other half and her children when you're all squidged up in the smallest cottage in Christendom. Who gets the bathroom? Who gets the fridge? In the end, I took myself off to bed with the new Don Winslow book and a bag of kale to wait for the Grim Reaper to pop his head round the door. I'm not going to lie — it was quite scary.
With every illness I've had, there has always been a sense that medicine and time would eventually ride to the rescue, but with Covid-19 you have to lie there, on your own, knowing that medicine is not on its way and that time is your worst enemy. And that everything you read on WhatsApp and Twitter is nonsense: "My mate's a doctor and he says that if you're blood group O and smoke, you won't get it."
In desperation I'd tune into the BBC, where things were even worse because all it did was try to belittle Boris Johnson by going onto the streets and asking passers-by what they'd do. If there's ever an award for truly lamentable journalism, the BBC's News at Six team should win it for its efforts last year. Its message has been constant. You're going to die. And the Tories are to blame.
It's strange, but when people catch cancer, they are always told about people who had the exact same thing and got better. No one says: "Ooh, you've got it in the liver? I had a mate who got it there. Dead in a week." But it seems that's what you get from the BBC. Doom, with added gloom.
I didn't feel too bad. To start with, it was like the sort of cold where you carry on as normal while women point fingers at you and say: "I suppose you're going to say it's man flu?" And you say no and get in the car and go to work. But then my breathing really did start to get laboured, and there was always the doctor's warning ringing in my head about how it might suddenly get worse.
On Christmas Eve, it did. The Aga broke. Ordinarily I'd find someone who was away and use their oven. But no one was away. Everyone was at home, in their own micro-bubble, and even those with back-up cookers — which is everyone with an Aga — were unwilling to let me come round, because then their goose really would be cooked.
Still, on Christmas Day, my own children came round for 40 minutes and stood in the vegetable garden (we were in tier 2) around a fire that wouldn't light properly, complaining about the smoke while I wheezed, in a full body mask, miles away from any form of heat, or them, trying to work out if it was safe in my condition to have a glass of champagne. The World Health Organisation said no. Other organisations said "definitely no". But I persevered and eventually I found a website featuring a doctor in Darwin, who said that drinking in moderation when you have Covid is fine.
This is the problem we have. We keep being told that we know a great deal about Covid, but what I've learnt over the past 10 days is: we don't. We don't know how long we are infectious for. We don't know how to tackle it. We don't know what it does to us.
We don't know how long the antibodies last. We don't know how easy it is to catch it twice. And we certainly don't know if any of the vaccines will work long-term. I don't even know if I'm better now. Seriously, I have absolutely no idea.
Maybe the BBC should consider this and in future stop asking clever-clever questions designed to make Boris look foolish, and instead ask clever questions that will help us understand something that scares us.
You think Banksy's quick on the draw...
The Clarkson Review: Volkswagen Golf GTI (Jan. 3)
I see that Mr Banksy has been out and about again. This time he's painted a sneezing figure on the side of someone's house in Bristol, and now estate agents are saying this smallish, end-of-terrace gaff on what some people say is the steepest road in England could be worth £5 million.
Really? Because it's still the same house. Yes, it now features, on its gable end, an attractive piece of art that was created by a famous local artist, but the art is on the outside of the property. So if anyone's house has skyrocketed in value, it should be the neighbours'. Because they're the people who can see it.
The owners, meanwhile, will now have to lie in their beds at night, wondering if some local ragamuffins are at work with the methylated spirits, removing the painting. Because that would reduce the value of their house, instantly, by approximately £4.7 million. What Mr Banksy has gifted them, then, is a nightmare.
It does make me wonder, though. If Mr Banksy is keen to give his artwork to strangers, he should forget about putting his paintings on their houses and their garden walls. And put them instead on their cars.
I was thinking about this because I recently drove the new Volkswagen Tiguan. It is a perfectly sensible, well-made and well-thought-out SUV. Just like all the other well-thought-out, well-made and perfectly sensible SUVs that litter the market at the moment. It doesn't stand out in any way. But if it had a Banksy on the driver's door ... Maybe this is something I should consider. I'm reasonably well known, so at night I could creep into your drive and paint a picture of whatever is in my head on your boot lid, and then I'd have a website where I could let everyone know that, yes, it really is a genuine Clarksy.
The only drawback to this, of course, is that fairly soon I'd be reported to the police and I'd have to go to a magistrates' court, where a stern woman in a tweed skirt would call me a vandal, tell me it was inappropriate to paint a nude of Charlize Theron on a stranger's car and give me some community service.
So, back to the day job then, which is posting a thousand-word review of the Tiguan. I can't. It'd be like reviewing a fishfinger or a milk bottle. It has a 2-litre engine, some windows and a heater. So it will keep out the weather and move you around. The end.
We shall therefore skip to another car I drove recently. The new VW Golf GTI. This is my specialist subject. When we record Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, I always sit down with the slightly sweaty contestants beforehand and explain that if they've been asked about Greek mythology or Hilary Mantel or tiramisu or trees, they should phone a friend, or ask the audience, or flee from the studio. Because the "ask the host" lifeline will be of no use at all.
One of them invariably asks what I do know about, and that's easy. Progressive rock from 1971 to 1976 and the Golf GTI Mk 1. I also know a fair bit about the Mk 2 but then things get a bit hazy because the Mk 3, Mk 4, Mk 5 and Mk 6 were all a bit dreary. Then came the Mk 7, which I bought. It was a stunning car — proof that one thing really can be all things to all men — but now it's gone, and in its stead we have the Mk 8.
Straightaway, things look good, because it has the same chassis as the Mk 7 and the same engine, so the performance is the same too. However, after that, things start to look less good, because the car, er, doesn't.
It is, broadly speaking, the same length as the older car, but, somehow, it looks bigger and flabbier. And there really aren't enough design touches that distinguish this model — the icon — from its humdrum brothers. It doesn't immediately scream GTI.
There are some problems on the inside too, chiefly the infotainment system, which was designed by the sort of laptop enthusiast who believes that just because a facility can be fitted, it should be. It shouldn't, because when you have the ability to change the radio station, choose a new destination, adjust the suspension and change the weight of the steering, you are bound to end up with a screen that baffles and annoys everyone over the age of 12.
Car firm bosses must learn to tell the foetuses they employ to work on these systems that, unless they behave like adults, there will be no more ice cream at tea time.
Other than this, though, the Mk 8's interior is a symphony of good taste and common sense, with a couple of nods to history. You can have the same upholstery, for instance, that was in the Mk 1. And if you go for the manual transmission you even get the original's golf-ball gearknob.
There's more too. In the Mk 7 — and this is what makes me the perfect Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? host, because I know this sort of stuff — you couldn't have a sunroof if you specified 19in wheels. I don't know why, but it worried me. It suggested that with the big rims the body would flex, causing the glass roof to break. But whatever, you can have one now.
Not that you should, because sunroofs are a waste of time and money. They bring nothing into the car except more noise.
Driving? God it's good. It's better than good. It's exquisite. The lack of much in the way of low-down get-up-and-go suggests that the ubiquitous 2-litre turbo engine has been tuned to save bears, but there's always a low rumble from the exhausts letting you know that, actually, it hasn't. It is really quick.
And, ooh, it's agile. It doesn't matter which of the embryos' suspension settings you choose — this car just loves to push hard on a B-road. And yet, when you just want to get home, it can be comfortable and well mannered too. That's the party trick you don't get from other hot hatches. They're sharp or soft. The Golf GTI is both.
It's been said of John Lewis that it only sells what you need, not what you want. It's where you go for your washing-up bowls and your pillowcases. If you want a diamond brooch laced together with bits of Elton John's first wig, then you must go somewhere else.
The Golf GTI, then, is the John Lewis of cars. And if you think it looks a bit bland, send me a sign. I'll come round in the night with some paintbrushes and jazz it up a bit.
No diva, but too swish for muddy fields The Clarkson Review: Range Rover (Jan. 10)
I was out in my woods the other day collecting logs when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted what looked like a fox darting into one of my pheasant pens.
Luckily I was not packing heat, because it turned out to be a fox-coloured spaniel. It bounded over when I called, all ears, tongue and waggly tail, and I quickly deduced by reading the tag on its collar that it was called Rory. It's not for nothing that, round these parts, they call me "the detective".
There was also a telephone number, so I called it and it went straight to voicemail. Strange. If you lose a dog, you tend to treat your phone in the same way a sailor who has fallen overboard treats a life raft. It's the one link you have to the happy life you knew.
Perhaps, then, the owner had left his phone at home when he had taken his dog for a walk and was, even now, rampaging around the Cotswolds, in the manner of the chap who took the deer-chasing Fenton for a stroll in Richmond Park.
I waited and strained my ears, but could hear no one shouting "Rory!" And so, with darkness approaching, I decided I'd take the dog home. But there was a small problem: how exactly would I do that?
My farm car, a 13-year-old Range Rover, had been for a service the week before, and just one day later had broken down. Subsequent investigations suggested that one or both of its turbos had failed, along with the intercooler. It was, to use a simple English translation, buggered, and would cost more to mend than it was worth.
My other Range Rover — I like Range Rovers, OK? — was out of action too, because someone had borrowed it just the day before and had some kind of accident.
The third Range Rover that lives on the farm was, that day, doing errands in Norfolk, and the fourth, a brand-new 2021 model I had on loan that week from Land Rover, was far too new and shiny to be used for transporting a very muddy spaniel.
And so we arrive at the biggest — and only — problem with this car. It was designed 50 years ago to do two jobs. You could use it on the farm during the day, and then, after hosing down the interior, use it at night to go to the opera. No other car has ever been able to pull that trick off. Not even the Mercedes G-wagen.
I said last week that the Volkswagen Golf GTI was the only car you need, and that's true — unless you want to do farming during the day and then go to the opera at night. In which case the only car you need is a Range Rover.
So why then do I own two? Ah, well, that's the issue. My four-year-old Vogue SE is a bit plush. I use it mostly for going to and from London. I don't even use it for shooting. And I'm not alone. Most of my friends round these parts have Range Rovers as well — it's a uniform, really — and it's the same story with all of them.
With the new version the problem is more acute because there are glass screens for all the controls and new, softer, wider seating, which is upholstered in the finest leather. It can be used, of course, for uprooting trees and transporting logs and pulling stranded tractors out of the ditch, but you wouldn't, any more than you'd play football with that Louis Vuitton ball that was recently offered online for more than £4,000.
Land Rover would say that you can still do all these hirsute, manly things with other cars in its range, but I'm not interested in its other cars. I'm sure they're very nice, but I like the Range Rover. The proper one with the splitfolding tailgate and the imperious driving position.
And the new one is even better. The engines, for the most part, are smaller than ever, but thanks to all manner of electronic trickery and hybrid tech they are even more powerful. So now, with the diesel D350 model, you get all the torque you need and about 30mpg. Greta Thunberg should get one.
More impressive still, however, is the way this new car glides. I used it to get from Chipping Norton to Manchester, via Ludlow in Shropshire, which meant we barely touched the motorway network at all, and it was sublime. According to the company's blurb it has the same suspension setup as before, so it must be the seats, or fairy dust, but something makes it uncannily comfortable.
It was also fun. I'm not suggesting it's a Mazda MX-5 or a Porsche 911. It's not fun like that. But it is a hoot to zoom along at a fair old lick in something that weighs more than Lincoln Cathedral.
But what about reliability? People say Range Rovers have always been hopeless, yet the fact of the matter is that my four-year-old car has been as solid and as dependable as John Terry. And the much older 57-plate car was reliable too, until its turbo seized. So it has also been like John Terry. Brilliant — if we ignore the fact he allegedly slept with a team-mate's girlfriend.
Despite everything, though, we can no longer judge the Range Rover as a dual-purpose car. It's a great everyday car, but when it comes to driving a muddy dog two miles cross-country, you'll need an old Toyota pick-up as well.
I don't have an old Toyota pick-up, but I do have a six-wheel-drive former army Supacat. So my girlfriend brought that to the wood, we put Rory in the back and off we went.
Later, after I'd given him some of the stew I'd made the night before — he liked it, unlike everyone else — and a bowl of water, I tried the number again, and this time it was answered very quickly by a woman. But I couldn't hear what she was saying because in the background there was a clearly distraught little girl sobbing and saying over and over: "Is it Rory? Is it Rory?"
I explained that I did have Rory, and I then heard a whoop of relief. It's possibly the nicest sound I've ever heard. The sheer joy of a little girl finding out that her lost dog is safe and well.
It put me in such a good mood that I'm going to give the new Range Rover five stars. It's so good at doing the opera part of its job that we can ignore the fact it's now too posh to do farming.
I've also decided that whatever it takes, I'm going to repair the broken engine in my old car. Because it's been in the family so long, it's become our Rory.
Is there anyone honourable in government who'll take on this deadly cladding disaster? (Jan. 10)
What a winter. America is teetering on the brink of civil war, a more infectious new strain of the virus has arrived from South Africa, we are all locked up like hedgehogs, Brexit is messing up food supplies to Northern Ireland and the normally placid state of Denmark has been rocked by a children's animation featuring a man with an enormously long penis.
And I've not been able to concentrate on any of it because, as a result of the Grenfell fire, the insurance bill for the six-storey building where I have a flat in London is set to rise from £8,000 a year to more than £60,000.
When I found out, I made some noises in The Sun, and immediately a government housing wallah called Baron Greenhalgh who sounds as if he should be a Child Catcher/Dick Dastardly baddie in that Danish penis story went on Twitter to say I can afford it.
Yes, Your Baronness. I could also afford to buy every corner shop in Hartlepool, but that doesn't mean I want to. And, anyway, as you acknowledge, most of the tens of thousands of people affected by these gigantic insurance premium hikes cannot. And I really do mean gigantic. Some have gone up by 1,200%.
These people desperately need to get rid of the troublesome cladding that cocoons their high-rise properties, and many are saying that the bill for this should be met by the developers, who have profited wildly from the housing boom in recent years. This has struck a chord with lazy, dimwit socialists, who say that the boss of a housing company has a jet and an island, while the people who bought his flats are having to burn their cats to stay warm.
For sure, the Grenfell inquiry is discovering that some halfwits from some two-bit companies were running around like contestants on The Apprentice, actively boasting about how they got round the fire regulations, but most property development companies were following the guidelines laid down by the government. And, plainly, those guidelines weren't good enough. They certainly weren't easy to understand and they definitely weren't enforced properly. It's the government, then, that must be held accountable.
However, right now, people with flats in high-rise buildings are not the only Oliver Twists at the door of No 11, queuing up for a bit of gruel. Travel agents, gym owners, publicans, airlines, cruise ship operators, hairdressers, dog groomers, farmers and sex workers are all pleading with the Treasury for help. Everyone is.
Rishi Sunak goes on the news most nights to say that his magic money tree is not bereft of fruit just yet, but the time will come when someone in a suit with a James Bond baddie accent says: "Look. You may be a sovereign state now, and you may be able to print as much cash as you like, but enough is enough." And then what?
Well, it seems to me that we should have a look at the insurance industry. Many companies are saying to those in high-rise buildings that they must employ fire wardens if they want to have any cover at all. And because mortgages insist on that cover, homeowners are being forced to acquiesce.
But hang on. If you are paying for burly men to patrol the corridors of your building 24 hours a day, with a wheelbarrow full of extinguishers, then there is absolutely no chance of a fire taking hold. Which means the cost of fire insurance should be zero.
In my building, the cladding is not flammable, the fire system would be rejected by the Louvre for being too exotic and the lift can be used even if there's an inferno. So why has there been an eightfold hike in the premium? It feels like blatant profiteering.
And on that front, there is hope, because insurance companies are not run by idiots. Fairly soon one of them will realise that if it lowers its prices, everyone will flock to its doors, which will force all the other companies to lower their prices too. It may take a while, but eventually I see the insurance premiums of today coming right back down again.
Maybe this is something the government could do: start the ball rolling by insisting on some reasonableness. That wouldn't cost it anything. But even if the premiums do come down, it doesn't really address the big issue: the fact that tens of thousands of people are holed up in flats that they know, for sure, will kill them if someone six floors down has a faulty toaster.
The hour's exercise these poor people get every day is not to keep them fit it's to let them breathe a sigh of relief.
And there's more. Because it's known that the flat they scrimped and saved to buy is a death trap, it is completely unsellable. So they are wasting thousands of pounds a month, paying off a mortgage on a flat that is worth less than their washing-up bowl. That's not what Mrs Thatcher promised.
I understand, of course, that property, like scratchcards and blackjack, is a gamble, and that sometimes it doesn't pay off. I once bought a flat because it overlooked the car park of the gym Diana, Princess of Wales used. And a week later she died. Which meant my flat had a view of a car park.
Sometimes it happens that they build a bypass through your back garden, or a railway line. It's a risk we take. But this cladding business goes beyond some poor sod losing his shirt. One night he could end up sitting in his window box, watching the fire brigade ladders wobbling about 50ft below him as he wonders whether to fry or fly.
I'm not sure that the evil Baron Greenhalgh is the man for the job, but we do need someone kind to sit down in a room with everyone involved and say: "Out of the goodness of our hearts, we simply must do something about this."
"Church of Jezza?
SO, it seems the people of Jezza, a wonderful little town in Uganda, east central Africa, have named their local church after me.
I’m not quite sure what I’ve done to deserve such an honour. Maybe it’s something to do with my initials. Or maybe they heard that I’d come back from the dead after catching Covid. Well, I’m sorry to pour cold water on that one but for me, Covid was nothing more than a small cold. If it’s worse for you, I shall pray for your swift recovery. And who knows? Now I have my own church, that might even work."
Where's our Dunkirk spirit? Indoors, moaning that the sea's a bit choppy and the boat smells (Jan. 17)
In the late spring of 1940, more than a third of a million lantern-jawed soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force were lined up on the border between France and Belgium, each with a pocketful of Woodbines and a plan. They'd give Jerry a whiff of Sten and then they'd go home for tea and medals.
Instead, they did quite a lot of fleeing and panicking, and when they reached Dunkirk, still fleeing and panicking, it really did look as though virtually the entire British Army would be captured before the war had even got going.
These were grim times, so Winston Churchill sanctioned something called Operation Dynamo, which called for anyone with a boat to sail over the Channel and pick up as many soldiers as they could.
We all know what happened next, and we all like to think that in similarly dire circumstances we, as a people, would stiffen our lips, hoist our sails and do exactly the same as our grandads did. But I seriously doubt that.
If Churchill made his plea to the nation today, it would be followed by an incredulous-looking Jon Snow on Channel 4 News saying, "Do you know what the public-school-educated drunk is suggesting now?" And then we'd have Diane Abbott saying that the mission would cost eleven and a million and thirty thousand pounds, before we cut to a series of vox pops in which a collection of people in tracksuits made working-class noises about how t' bloody Tories shouldn't have invaded Poland in t' first place.
I wish I was joking, but you have only to look at the reaction to every single development in the pandemic to see that I'm not.
We have a vaccine. That's tremendous news. Let's rush to Oxford and employ an army of greased eunuchs to carry the scientists who developed it so quickly through the streets on golden sedan chairs. No, on second thoughts, let's not. Instead, let's wonder if this vaccine will turn us into Stormtroopers or Borg or White Walkers, and then let's break into the lab where it was developed and free the animals it was tested on.
Seriously, taking to the pages of social media to complain that the vaccine was tested on stoats is like the people of 1940 taking to the streets of Ramsgate to hurl abuse at the people who went to Dunkirk because their motor launches caused so much climate change.
Then there's the roll-out. We're behind Israel because it has four national health services that compete with one another for patients. But, that said, we are miles ahead of France and Italy and even Germany. This country is doing a bloody good job, but will anyone say that? Nope. Instead, all we get is cynics saying: "Ha. You want to inject 14 million people by the spring. Not even Frank Lucas* managed to do that many."
There was an old lady on the news last week complaining that she'd had to wait in the cold for her jab and there'd been too many steps and ramps in the vaccination centre. I couldn't believe it. Scientists had developed something that would save her life. The workers of the country had paid for it. And all she could do was moan. If I'd been the interviewer, I'd have wheeled her into the river.
Which brings me on to Fulham football club. Unlike millions of people who are stuck at home, with no job to do and no social life, these footballists are allowed to meet up with their mates and do what they love once or twice a week. But when their fixture against Spurs was moved with just two days' notice, they whined like stuck pigs. I'd have pushed them into the river as well.
Along with Marcus Rashford. But only because he plays for Manchester United. On the food front, I think his fight is noble and well judged, and I agree that some shameless profiteering is going on. But I am fed up to the back teeth of the whingeing this story unleashed.
We live in a country where children from less well-off families are entitled to free lunches when they are at home. Yippee. But instead of celebrating that fact, and concentrating on making sure the food they get is not half an ounce of mould and a dead dog, I heard a woman on the news the other day demanding that she be given £30 to provide lunch for her child. Thirty quid? Where's she going to take him? Fortnum & Mason?
Another said it was no good providing actual food for her kid and she wanted a voucher instead. Presumably so that she could exchange it at the supermarket for fags and scratchcards.
And don't get me started on head teachers, because, as far as I can tell, instead of working out how they will educate their pupils in these troubled times, every single one of them is to be found on the news every night, with his laptop at the wrong angle and a terrible painting in the background, saying that Boris Johnson should buy every child in the land an iPad and that no teacher should have to work again, ever.
The fact is that life, for 98% of the population right now, is pretty bloody awful. And for the other 2% it's worse because they've died. I get it. No one wants to sit at home all day. No one wants to wait in the cold for a vaccine and then find that it's been cancelled because the delivery lorry is stuck in the snow. And, yes, we'd all like to go to the Caribbean next month, but we can't.
In the olden days, a British person would have dealt with these trials by going outside to help push the stuck vaccine delivery lorry. But not any more. Now, we're more likely to storm out of the tent in a sulk of shuddering shoulders and tears, saying: "I am just going outside and may be some time — and if you don't like it, you can all eff off. And I want a free laptop."
Between you, me and the gatepost ... I can't work machines and I've spent the winter guzzling toast. I'm not sure I'm cut out for this (Jan. 17)
It's been an exciting morning on the farm. I've swapped 56 tonnes of hard core lying around in the yard for 84 tonnes of topsoil. Although when I say "I've" swapped it, what I actually mean is that "I've" been sitting at the kitchen table while a man in overalls has swapped it.
I was going to help. I got up early, full of vim and determination, and I pulled on my wellies and a thick coat and a fur hat with ear muffs, but it was one of those damp northeasterly mornings that can penetrate all known materials, including skin and bone. The thermometer read 1C. But it felt colder than that. So I went back inside, took off my coat and my hat and my wellies and made some toast.
Ordinarily, in the depths of winter, arable farmers are to be found turning their subsidies into glühwein and hot cheese in the Alps, but as that's not possible this year because of the Covid, they are all stuck at home, doing jobs that have needed to be done for years.
And for the first time since I began 18 months ago, I'm wondering whether my heart is really in the whole farming malarkey. While I very much enjoy driving round the farm in my Range Rover looking at stuff, and doing a spot of light cultivating on a glorious autumn evening, I am not even remotely inclined to go out in the middle of January to mend a gate.
Furthermore, I am not able to. You know those little sachets of wasabi you get with takeaway sushi? Everyone else can get into them with no problem at all, but I cannot. Nor can I follow even the simplest instruction booklets. And then there's my phone. When it updates itself in the night, I have to throw it away because it's different. And different means worse.
All this means that when I'm presented with a gate that's not attached to a gatepost any more, I'm stumped. Usually I'm so stumped that I'll spend 15 minutes wondering loudly why the hinge fell off, and then I'll go back inside for some toast.
Sometimes, though, if the broken gate is sheltered from the wind and it's not 1C, I'll look for the detached hinge, and then, when I find it five or six feet away, I'll wonder loudly how the bloody hell it got there. Then, because I'm no longer able to bend down and pick it up, I'll go inside for some more toast.
Most people can bend over to pick stuff up without thinking, but it's no longer possible for me. If I bend at the hips, I get a jarring pain in my kidneys, and if I bend at the knee, I know I will not be able to get up again. This is a problem, because the ability to bend over in farming is as important as the ability to do strangling in the special forces.
The knee issue also means I am no longer able to jump off things. And that's the second thing farmers must be able to do. Jump off trailers and walls and gates. Bending over and jumping off things — I'd say that's 80 per cent of a farmer's life. The other 20 per cent is going to the hospital to have your arm sewn back on.
Happily, my arm is rarely in danger of coming off, because I still have no clue how to attach any machinery to the back, or front, of my tractor. So, instead of trying, I choose to sit at the kitchen table reading the papers, while munching gently on a well-buttered pikelet.
There is, however, no getting round one job. No matter what the weather's doing, I have to fire up my six-wheel-drive ex-army Supacat, attach the ex-army trailer using an extremely manly Nato hitch and head into the woods for firewood.
Firewood used to be a simple thing, but now the government has decided to complicate matters by banning the sale of wet logs so people don't burn them. Quite why anyone would want to try to burn a wet log, I have no idea. It'd be like trying to stay warm by burning a wet towel or a wet dog.
But, anyway, as I understand it, I can no longer use soggy, mossy logs that have been lying on the ground, and instead — for the sake of the environment — it seems I have to chop down trees. Naturally I'm not very good at it.
In my head a chainsaw is a tool of the gods. No one picks a fight with someone who's revving a Stihl. Brandish one and you're the most powerful person in the room, unless someone has an AK47 — and even then it's by no means a foregone conclusion.
And yet, when I have one in my hands, I always have the sense that I'm the one most likely to be injured. I am in constant fear, for example, that the chain will come off and cut me in half. Or I will slip, and then I'll be in A&E with all the other farmers, having a limb sewn back on. Chainsaws terrify me even more than sharks and quad bikes.
And if I take a brave pill and get cracking, I will only ever get halfway into the tree trunk before it jams, and I'm not able to unjam it, because all the safety equipment I'm wearing means I can't see anything. At a rough guess I'd say 20 per cent of the trees in my woods have chainsaws stuck in them.
Sometimes, though, I will get a tree to fall over, and then, after I've climbed out of the branches and repaired my lacerated face, I have the job of loading it into my trailer and trying to get out of the wood. I can't do that either.
Thanks to their ability to lock all the wheels on either side, just as a tank can lock its tracks, Supacats can turn in their own length, which makes them incredibly manoeuvrable. But when a trailer is attached, the turning circle is measurable in light years.
This means I have to cut down more trees to create a path back to the world, and because there's no more space in the trailer, they have to lie on the ground becoming wet and illegal.
And do you know how long a tree lasts in my firepit? Well, if it's a good size, I'd say: "Less than an hour." And then it's back to the wood for more deforestation and devastation. If only we could still use coal.
But we can't. And when the day comes when we aren't allowed to use oil and gas either, the only way we will be able to stay warm is to go for a brisk walk.
I did that the other day, and in a field I thought I'd planted with grass I found thousands and thousands of radishes. Which on reflection may be adolescent turnips. Like I said, I may not be cut out for farming, because either I don't know what I'm doing or I can't be bothered to do it.
Going, going, gone — my opening bid for online auction glory ended with a fat lot of nothing (Jan. 24)
For the past year or so, I've been living in the world's smallest cottage while a team of men in hard hats and visible clothing build me a house. The first lockdown meant nothing happened for five weeks, but despite this, it's now house-shaped. It even has windows, and soon it'll have a roof.
By the summer, it will be finished and then I'll have a problem, because all the furniture I currently own would fit in the downstairs lavatory.
That's why my eyebrows shot up by 6 feet when I was told about a local chap who was selling virtually all the contents of his large country house in Oxfordshire. It's called Aynhoe Park and apparently it's been used as a party venue in recent times for celebrities such as Kate Moss and Cara Delevingne. So everything in there was pretty groovy. Especially the stuffed giraffes and the picture of a naked young lady being pleasured by a swan.
I went to a viewing, which, in lockdown, was quite tricky, as it's difficult to juggle a pen, a notebook, the 390-page-plus auction catalogue, a mask, a cup of coffee and a phone. And it was even harder to hear what the guide was saying when he was talking through three layers of germ-absorbent material and I was 9 feet away. Or see what he was talking about, because the mask meant my glasses kept steaming up.
But after just three hours, I had decided that I would be bidding for 30 of the 605 lots.
I have it in my mind that auctions turn retail therapy into a sport, because, using quick wits and a numbered table tennis bat, you're competing for glory against a room full of opponents. There's even an audience to whoop and cheer and applaud when you win.
That's why charity auctions always do so well. No one actually wants a rugby ball signed by Lawrence Dallaglio, but sitting at a table full of attractive women competing for it is like a mating ritual. And going home with it means you are the king zebra, the walrus with the biggest tusks, the alpha lion.
There's something else too. Auctions are impossibly glamorous. We see this all the time in films — elegant rooms full of people in black tie and ball gowns, discreetly bidding for a watercolour because they know something the rest of the contestants don't. An auction then is where the wise and the well read go to find a bargain.
Of course, in these Coviddy times, the Aynhoe Park event was all being done online, so the day before the sale I went to the auctioneer's website and inputted my credit card number, its expiry date, that little number on the back that's pretty much rubbed off, and all my contact details, which means I'll now get junk mail to the end of time.
And, the next morning, I was told that I'd done something wrong and that I wouldn't be able to log on. This happens every single time I try to use the internet because all websites are designed by foetuses.
Happily, the auctioneer agreed to call me on an old-fashioned phone when my lots were about to come up, so I made myself a cup of coffee and some snacks and sat back, rather looking forward to the day ahead.
I knew I'd be up against some stiff competition because the sale had been written about in every newspaper — apart perhaps from the Daily Mirror and the Morning Star — and every house round here had a catalogue on the ottoman.
It was a big deal. I had a friend in faraway Tooting in south London, who was after a 6 foot floor lamp in the shape of a palm tree, and another who called from the Turks and Caicos to say he wanted a wooden head.
It was sad that we wouldn't be in the same room, but after the sale was over, both, I knew, would be staggered and impressed when they heard about the haul I'd amassed. Thirty pieces. I'd be the cock of the walk.
The first lot in which I'd expressed an interest was No 3, a pair of large mustard-coloured "castle chairs" that had a guide price in the catalogue of between £1,500 and £2,500. That was steep, especially when you factor in the 25% "buyer's premium". And the VAT on top of that. But these things were as luxuriant as Laurence Llewellyn- Bowen's hair, so I liked them. I wanted them. And soon they would be mine.
Bidding opened at £3,000, and before I'd had a chance to fall out of my chair, it had reached £4,000. The man on the other end of the line asked if I'd like to go higher, and after I stuttered "no", I heard the gavel fall.
I figured, though, that this was nothing more than early-doors enthusiasm and that as the day wore on, and people settled down, the prices would fall. But no. Every few minutes, the phone would ring, the bidding would start way above the guide price and end up moments later in the stratosphere. One rather pretty dragonfly wall light that had an estimated value starting from £1,000 went for 12 times that.
I guess the problem was simple. People knew the recent history of Aynhoe Park. They knew that Kate Moss had read by the light from that dragonfly and that Colin Firth had sat in those armchairs and that Cara Delevingne had slept in that bed. And they were paying big money for this celebrity connection.
But whatever the reason, when the gigantic two-day sale ended, I had bought the square root of absolutely nothing at all. Which means that when the lockdown ends, I shall have to visit my local and rather excellent antique shop where I can buy all the things I need for about 50 quid.
Already, I have my eye on a mirror that's currently being displayed in the window.
It's only £25, possibly because no one from Love Island has ever used it as a chopping board.
Prepare for a whack from Thor's hammer
The Clarkson Review: BMW 5-series (Jan. 24)
If you are going to get coronavirus — and, let's be frank, you are — now would be a great time. Because you can just sit in your bedroom eating cheese and drinking wine, knowing that even if you could get up there's nowhere to go and nothing to do.
Stupidly I caught the bloody thing on December 22, which meant I missed Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and the game shoot I host every year for my neighbours and their children. And, to make matters worse, I was also unable to drive my new Bentley.
In the summer I spent many happy hours with an extremely keen salesman, who had plainly learnt his customer-relations skills from British Airways' cabin staff, choosing what sort of leather I'd like and what sort of wood. "Any American walnut for yourself at all, sir?"
Eventually, after a seven-month wait, it arrived: the very first new Flying Spur V8 to roll of f the surprisingly busy production line. I was very happy and leapt about in the yard, clutching my tinkle and making satisfied "ohhh" noises as I pushed and pulled the deeply chromed organ-stop vent knobs. My grandfather always had Bentleys and I think he'd be pleased to know his grandson has gone down the same road.
But I couldn't go down the road. I couldn't even go down the stairs. All I could do was sit by the bedroom window, looking at its big shiny disc brakes becoming rusty and brown. It worried me that it would feel sad, having been delivered to its new home, only to find its new owner obviously wasn't interested. As if it had gone to one of those Middle Eastern types who buy a Ferrari and then leave it in an airport car park for five years.
After days, when I was finally allowed out of the bottle bank my bedroom had become, I was desperate to go somewhere, but, unfortunately, my timing was off again. Because the third great lockdown had begun. So I had been confined to barracks and now, even though I was a walking antibody, I was confined to barracks again.
Happily I was allowed to go to the village shop for newspapers and milk, but it felt wrong somehow to use a Bentley for such a trivial job. It would be like flying to Jersey in a space shuttle. So, because my old Range Rover was in hospital having new turbochargers fitted, I decided to use the car I'd been sent to test over yuletide. And which had also been sitting around doing nothing for two weeks.
It was a dark blue BMW 5-series of some kind. Yes, I noticed as I got in that it had an M badge on the front wing, but that doesn't mean anything any more, because BMW puts M badges on every damn thing these days. I bet if you go to the lavatory at its head office in Munich the bog rolls come with a Motorsport logo.
Sure enough, when I pushed the starter button the engine burst into life with all the excitement and pizzazz of a Welsh parliament committee meeting on road safety initiatives. And having pulled the gearlever backwards twice to make the car go forwards, I dribbled down the drive thanking God for the heated steering wheel. And nothing else.
When I came out of the shop I noticed that on the boot lid it said M550i, but again that doesn't mean a lot these days. There was a time when the first number told you what sort of BMW it was and the last two how big the engine was. A 325, for example, was a 3-series with a 2.5-litre engine. A 730 was a 7-series with a 3-litre engine. But now BMW plucks the last two numbers out of a bag.
To prove the point to myself, I waited until I reached the bottom of my drive before having a "told you so" stab on the throttle. And, oh my God, did I get a surprise. Because this quiet, unassuming, four-door saloon took off as if it had been hit up the backside by Thor's hammer. You thought the last M5 was quick? This thing gives it a run for its money.
Further investigations revealed a 4.4-litre turbocharged V8 under the bonnet that produces almost no noise at all, and 523 horsepowers, which are sent through an eight-speed gearbox to all four corners.
That's why it had set off so quickly. Because it's immensely powerful and has four-wheel drive. Over the next few days the weather did all the beastly things it can do in the winter, which meant that the Bentley continued to sit outside my house and I went everywhere in that astonishing BMW.
Oh, and don't think it's just an understudy stopgap until the new M5 comes along, because it's more than that. Frankly, I reckon the M5 will just be a 550i with added noise and discomfort.
Soon I began to hunt around for things to dislike, but there was nothing. I've not enjoyed the steering feel in high-performance BMWs of late — the last M3 I drove was shockingly bad — but this was quick when you wanted it to be quick and soft when you didn't. It's the same story with the ride and the handling. Without touching any of the buttons that alter the suspension, it was darty and agile on country roads and felt like a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy on the motorway.
The seats were perfect, the driving position was perfect, and you didn't have to be Bill Gates or 12 years old to find your way round the infotainment system. What's more, the headlights are capable of illuminating Exeter, even if you're in Norwich, there's tons of room in the back, and you get more space in the boot than you do in the back of a Lincoln Continental.
And it's all wrapped up in a body that's so completely devoid of showiness that you can drive around in a pandemic and no one notices. Audi and Mercedes do cars similar to this, but both of them make Tarzan noises and have Dynasty shoulder pad wheel arch extensions. The Beemer, meanwhile, makes no attempt at all even to hint at the power it can deploy. I really liked that.
I suppose at this point I should mention that there are lots of new 5-series models. There's a diesel and a plug-in hybrid, and even the cooking models come with some kind of polar-bear-friendly recharging system that's not interesting. Unless you enjoy talking about benefits in kind. But the stand-out star is the faultless and fabulous M550i.
That said, I was very happy to see the back of it. Because, finally, I could take my new Bentley for a drive. We went to the post office yesterday. Today I shall take it to Burford to drop off some jam. These are exciting times.
Don't join a gym. Come to work on my farm (Jan. 31)
Dry January went well. Sales of wine increased by a third and of beer by nearly a half. And that's just what people drank while they were making cocktails. Tequila sales rocketed by 56 per cent and rum was up by a whopping 64 per cent.
I understand this philosophy and employed it myself in the first lockdown. Every evening, as the sun sank over the beech trees into yet another soundless crimson goodbye, I'd open a chilled bottle of rosé and sit listening to the wood pigeons until I decided that what I needed most of all was a mojito. So I'd sway around the kitchen garden, collecting mint, and then, to soften the blow on my stomach lining and liver, I'd nibble on fresh watercress from the stream until it was time for a swift Baileys and bed. God, they were wonderful days. Quiet days. Happy days.
However, they did take their toll. When we were allowed back into the world, I was so fat I looked like Ayers Rock on a unicycle.
I couldn't bend over to do up my shoelaces, I walked as though I'd had a trouser accident and my knees ached constantly from the sheer effort of keeping my landmark-sized torso upright. Which is why, when this lockdown started, I adopted a different strategy.
This time I decided I'd emerge at the other end a new man.
A better man. People would stop me in the street assuming I was Iggy Pop or Willem Dafoe. I'd be like those fell-farmer chaps you see on Countryfile who are 95 years old but can still run up a Scottish mountain while carrying a sheep. In short, I would replace booze with exercise.
If you go to a gym, you pick things up and you put them down and you look at yourself in the mirror and then you go home. Whereas if you go and do proper old-fashioned farming, with proper old-fashioned tools, you come home at the end of the day having achieved something.
And don't say, "But I haven't got a farm," because, let's face it, you haven't got a gym either. You pay to use someone else's, and if you pay me I'll let you come to Diddly Squat and help me chop logs.
Actually, this may be a neat solution to the financial problems caused by dwindling agricultural subsidies. Farmers can rent axes to attractive young avocado enthusiasts and send them of finto the woods.
Now is the best time of year, because the seeds are in the ground and it's too wet and windy to do any spraying. Farmers, therefore, are forced to turn their attention to muscle-building maintenance, mending gates, replacing rotten fence posts and repairing walls that the badgers have knocked down. So if your name is Arabella or Camilla and you really want some taut abs, send me a cheque for a hundred quid and I'll set you to work.
To make sure the idea worked, I decided to do hedge trimming. Normally I use an enormous and ugly machine fitted to the back of my tractor, which goes through a hedge and everything in it like a power drill through a bag of muesli. That's why we have to trim hedges now, before the birds start nesting.
This time, however, I'd be doing it manually. I therefore needed a tool of some sort, and that was good news, because it meant a run to StowAg, which is the best shop in the universe. If you want something ugly and practical and farmerish, this is where you go. If this place wore a shirt, it'd be Viyella, and if it had shoes, they'd be as stout as they were brown.
I was distracted at first by the pig troughs and horse buckets and meaty-looking chainsaws, but eventually I found myself among the branch-cutters. There were many to choose from, but I'm a man who equates weight with quality, so I went for the heaviest.
Back at home I pulled on my gym kit: a tweed coat with 20 12-bore cartridges in each pocket, and a pair of wellies. And off I went into the big green, to trim a hedge that in the past year had enveloped a little-used gate.
Here's how it works. You find a branch that has grown over the gate, follow it back into the hedge, insert the cutting tool and squeeze the handles. Then you grab the severed branch and, after the thorns have torn chunks out of your hands, you walk back to the farm, get in the car and go back to StowAg to buy some sturdy work gloves.
Soon I was hard at it. Bending, stretching, squatting and squeezing with all my strength to go through the bigger branches. My arms ached from the effort of lifting my overly heavy tool, my glutes were throbbing and my heart was beating 19 to the dozen. It was minus 1C out there, but my face was red and in my tweed coat I had moob sweat. I also had a pile of branches and, most importantly, a fully functioning gate. Can Joe Wicks say that after one of his workouts? Can Mr Motivator?
That afternoon I decided to knock in some fence posts, and that's even better. Again, there's a machine that can do it very simply; you just sit in the warmth of the tractor and push a button. But, again, I elected to go old skool and used a fence-post knocker. It's like a section of steel drainpipe, sealed at one end, with handles attached on either side.
Operating it is easy. You position the pipe over the post and, summoning all your strength, use the sealed end as a giant hammer. I've seen some fairly brutal-looking workout equipment in gyms, but nothing gets close to this. Using a Force USA Monster G6 power tower is like angling on the Shropshire Union Canal. Building a fence is deep-sea fishing for marlin. It's why you will never see a fat fencing contractor.
I did two posts and my arms had had it. They hung by my sides as if they had been filled with zombie spice. And I still had the long trudge up what feels like the steepest hill in England back to my farm, with all that lead in my pockets and with mud-caked wellies that weighed 200lb each.
That night I was feeling so righteous and so full of fresh air and so healthy that I didn't want any wine or beer. I didn't even want a mojito. Instead I drank water from my spring and, using bread that had been made from my own wheat, made a tomato and ham sandwich.
I've always seen my farm as many things: a place of great beauty, a fun business and, if I'm honest, a good way of passing on wealth to my children without the taxman getting involved. I never really saw it as a wellness spa, though. But that's what it has become. And I recommend it because, like I said at the start, dry January went well. I enjoyed it.
Self-rule’s not going to work, chaps. I tried it at home and we couldn’t even agree on supper (Jan. 31)
Seven years ago the Scottish decided they'd like to be part of the UK. So now it looks as if they are going to be asked again. And they will keep on being asked until they decide that they would like to go their own way, without a currency, a viable economy or anything much to sell, except grouse shooting, salmon fishing and a dribble of oil.
Although, sadly, none of those things would actually be allowed in the green and unpleasant socialist utopia envisaged by Nicola Sturgeon. Naturally she is glossing over the downsides of going it alone and focusing instead on the raw emotional appeal of selfdetermination, and this plainly strikes a chord with large numbers of people in the central industrial belt. They've seen Braveheart, they've heard the rhetoric and now they want Sexit — not that many are calling it that yet.
Nigel Farage and Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson pulled off a similar trick before the Brexit referendum. They sold the EU to us as a gravy train for people who couldn't get a proper job in the real world, and all over England's industrial belt, people bought into that too.
Self-rule is very much in vogue at the moment, from Catalonia through Corsica and Greenland and South Ossetia to the Nascar-watching and bassfishing towns of Butthole County, South Carolina. But, I wonder, where does this enthusiasm for independence end?
Let's just say, for a moment, that Scotland wanders off and that Wales and Northern Ireland follow suit shortly afterwards. That would leave England on its own for the first time since it annexed Wales in 1284.
Think about that. No regional politicians hoovering up every penny we make and then going on the radio to moan about it. No more Caledonian communists standing in our queues at Heathrow. And we can wave goodbye as well to that Welsh parliament chap whose suits don't fit. It sounds like bliss. England, governed for the English, by the English.
But hang on a moment. Because if you live in Toxteth, you really don't want to be governed by the Tories. These manicured toffs who say "lavatory" and "napkin" and go on holiday with their "chums" every year may be English, just as you are, but they are as alien as an actual alien.
And Sir Keir Starmer won't work either, with his Lego hair and his softly-softly socialism. What you want is a combination of Derek Hatton and Steven Gerrard, with a sprinkling of secondary picketing.
So do we give Liverpudlians a chance to become independent as well? Maybe it's not such a bad idea, because, unlike the Scottish, they already have their own language.
The problem is that if Liverpool is granted the chance to go it alone, then other cities and towns would insist on following suit. And soon the people of Harrogate would be governed by that nice Oswald Mosley and Southend by Ross Kemp. And then what?
Would we end up, one day, with the Cotswolds being recognised by the UN as an independent state? Why not? We all live in honey-coloured houses, in double-barrelled downs, surrounded by rolling hills and people called Annabel, so — obviously — we all want the same things.
Ha. That's like saying everyone in Cornwall has a potty mouth and is a chef just because Gordon Ramsay has a house there. Or that everyone in Somerset is Jacob Rees-Mogg.
We are definitely not all the same in this neck of the woods. I live in Chipping Norton and I reckon that people from Stow-on-the-Wold are all morris dancers, that people from Moreton-in-Marsh are rural halfwits and that people from Burford are so southern they're basically French. I would not want to be governed by anyone from any of these places.
I'm not certain self-rule would work very well, even if it were limited to my own village. I've lived in the area for 25 years and my children were all brought up here, but to this day, people still pop round with milk and bread to help me "settle in". Though when I say "pop round with milk and bread", what I mean is "sneer at me in the local paper shop". The only thing that unites us is a deep and abiding hatred of light aircraft. And badgers.
What about self-rule in my own house? Ha. That definitely wouldn't work, because although there are only three of us here, we cannot even agree on what to have for supper. Last night the two others formed themselves into a government, poured bird food into a frying pan and ate that, while deciding whether to watch a "hilarious" Hollywood blockbuster about some divorced middle-aged idiot who's trying to pick up young women, or something with a dead labrador in it. It's like living in a mad and gluten-free world of primary-coloured romcoms and yoga — and it's terrible. I'd rather Derek Hatton were in charge.
Recently, I started to think that, actually, I wanted to take self-rule to its ultimate conclusion and declare myself an independent state. But I'm not sure that even this would work, as my stomach wants a chocolate biscuit and my heart really doesn't, while my head wants another glass of wine but my liver is very prissy and woke on the matter. I'm therefore a one-man war zone.
Which brings me back to the next Scottish referendum. I'm speaking now as someone who doesn't mind if the Scots go. I would even find the catastrophic consequences for Scotland quite funny. But I have to say that, really, the only reason they'd put a tick in the "McYes" box is that they have an almost religious belief that the English are fundamentally terrible. And there's the problem. Belief, I'm afraid, is the shore on which the waves of reason break and die.
This tsunami of online porn is ruining sex for real people — and Mr Darcy hasn't helped either (Feb. 7)
We like to imagine that the internet is for looking up bird calls and important historical dates and where George Washington was born. But actually at least 25 per cent of all online searches are for pornography. So we were given a research tool that allows us to access all human learning and all human understanding, and what we do with this vast electronic library is use it to watch people mating.
Right now, almost 4.7 billion people on the planet have access to the internet. And each year hundreds of billions of sex video clips are viewed online. You think your kid spent last week in his room doing home schooling? Dream on, Grandad.
And it's not just the number of people watching porn that boggles the mind, but the number of people who must be making it. If you had decided at the start of the first lockdown to sit and watch all the material on the Pornhub website alone, how long do you think it would have taken? A week? A month?
Nope. The actual answer — and I'm not making this up — is 173 years, according to one report.
So where's this waterfall of sex coming from? I guess the only answer, really, is absolutely everywhere. Keep going for long enough and eventually you'll find your old music teacher on there, doing the deed with your milkman.
And now it's time to put on a serious face, because the ease of access to this torrent of porn has a great many people very worried. Though when I say "people", what I mean is "women". They say online pornography gives impressionable boys an unrealistic view of what sex is, and what it means and what's acceptable. And I have to say that there may well be some truth to this.
If you were to use the internet as a research tool, you would deduce that all lesbians are in fact 6-foot blonde Ukrainians who sit around all day in stockings and suspenders. None of them ever wears Birkenstocks or dungarees.
Meanwhile, all straight women are up for anything that pops into their partner's head. If he gets all his sex education from Pornhub, a young man will think that there's something wrong with him if his girlfriend doesn't invite her best-looking friend to join them between the sheets. And that he's not doing it properly unless he pulls her hair and strangles her while she's hanging upside down from a wardrobe door.
But the truth is that many women don't like to feel as if they've been interrogated by the CIA in Guantanamo Bay. Or pushed down a flight of stairs by a burly marine.
Porn is an issue in marriages, too, because if a man spends all day watching perfectly toned couples at it for hours in a variety of positions, it sows the seed of disappointment when his other half comes home from work and spends all evening eating lard and breaking wind.
I hate to use the expression "in my day", but in my day pornography was a hint of nipple in a glossy magazine and sex was something that came along infrequently, and only after several dates. Furthermore, it was conducted in a manner learnt from looking at the pictures in biology books.
I'm not suggesting that a lights-out, missionary approach is the way forward, because, of course, everyone has different tastes. Nor am I suggesting that "love" must always be a feature, because that's difficult if you're in an alley round the back of a pub in Rotherham with someone you met 15 minutes ago.
But I do worry that modern-day internet pornography is giving teenage boys a sense that sex must always be an American Psycho performance of some sort. That if you're not having it in a pod on the London Eye, you're doing something wrong. And I therefore sympathise with women who find this both worrying in theory and wearisome in practice.
However, there's a flipside to this coin, because while porn is giving boys a warped idea of what's meant by sex and romance, period drama is doing the exact same thing to girls.
They all fell in love with Mr Darcy, and now us boys are expected to spend our days in frilly white shirts, walking out of lakes. And it's considered rude if we don't notice when a woman moves a chair back slightly from the dinner table so we can see a hint of ankle.
Period drama tells us that girls communicate by twiddling their hair and moving their eyebrows, but it's a language boys don't understand. You might as well reveal you fancy us by saying: "Ich mag dich."
I would say, therefore, that any television drama that begins with a horse and carriage crunching to a halt outside an agreeable stately home is just as damaging to boy-girl relationships as YouPorn.
There's a similar problem with chickflick romcoms as well. Thanks to Richard Gere and others of his ilk, a boy is now expected to win the girl of his dreams by arriving for a date sticking out of the top of a white limo with a bunch of red roses in his hand and Verdi's La Traviata on the stereo.
And I'm sorry, girls, but if you expect a boy to pick you up from your job on the factory floor in a crisp white naval uniform and then carry you off to bed on a wave of Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes, you can hardly complain when you get there if he asks you to slip into a PVC gimp suit.
In short, then, men and boys should agree to give up watching pornography if women and girls agree to give up watching chick flicks and romantic dramas with Colin Firth in them. Because then neither of us would have any unrealistic expectations.
Do I feel lucky? Not in this unmighty mouse
The Clarkson Review: Jeep Renegade (Feb. 7)
About a week into the most recent lockdown I decided to go on holiday. I'd had enough. I hadn't seen the sun for weeks, I hadn't been warm for months and I'd recently had Covid-19, so I wasn't in any danger of catching it again or passing it on.
Yes, I knew I shouldn't go away and that I'd be in serious trouble with every curtain-twitcher in the country if I were caught, but I decided I'd put on a big face mask and a T-shirt saying "I am Piers Morgan" and run the gauntlet.
I did some research, found a spot in the Caribbean that was open for business, and even some flights. So I'd tell the authorities I needed to do important research for work, pack a bottle of factor 8 and bugger off.
I was quite excited. I like messing with authority. Always have. Very early in my school career I decided that, before I left, I'd break every rule in the book. And then, having achieved this by the age of 16, I decided to break some rules they hadn't even thought of yet. This meant smoking in chapel, doing an entire chemistry lesson naked from the waist down and doing handbrake turns on the new all-weather sports pitches in my mum's Audi 80. One night I even put Polyfilla in every single lock in every single door in the entire school.
I've had that attitude my entire life, and so when I'm told to wear a mask and keep my distance and stay at home, I find it very easy to think: "Right. Good idea. I'm off to Antigua."
There's no way I'd have been caught. I'd even figured out that I had no television work until April, so no one would ever see the tan. But then, just two days before the planned departure, I realised that, actually, my holiday would be morally wrong. So, much as I don't like being the school swot, I didn't go.
There's more. I have not been to Barnard Castle and I have not hosted an orgy in a Manchester apartment with a colleague and some young Instagram enthusiasts. And, for the most part, I have not been out unless it was absolutely necessary.
This meant that, for many days, I was not able to drive the Jeep Renegade that I had on test. This is the manliest-sounding car yet made. It's a Jeep, which means it can trace its bloodline back to the Second World War machine that General George Marshall described as "America's greatest contribution to modern warfare". And it's called a Renegade, which means it's the sort of car that would smoke a cheroot and wear a poncho and ask its rivals if they think they're feeling lucky.
Even the trim levels are taken straight from Clint Eastwood's back catalogue. There's the Longitude and the Night Eagle and the Trailhawk, and all of this is very odd, because if you peel away the badges and the body, what you find underneath is a Fiat 500X.
I therefore didn't mind not driving it. Because why would anyone want to drive a mouse in a gunslinger outfit?
However, then it snowed and that changed everything. Yes, the government was still saying we all had to stay indoors, washing our hands and wearing a face condom whenever we spoke, but when you have a four-wheel-drive car and it snows, no government guideline is going to keep you inside.
You've put up with the fuel consumption and the guilt and the awful handling all year, so on the one day of the year when the weather actually makes such a car worthwhile, you're going to invent a reason why you simply must go for a spin in it.
I therefore decided it was essential I drive the Clint Mouse to a nearby village to pick up some lunch. And on the way I witnessed a strange phenomenon that snow brings out in 4x4 drivers.
On a normal day, if you are on a single-track road and a big off-roader is coming the other way, you are expected to move over. But when it's snowing, quite the reverse is true. People with 4x4s will gladly drive onto the verge and into hedges and up near-vertical banks to let you by. It's a way of showing you they'd been wise to buy a Chelsea tractor.
I encountered one man coming the other way in a BMW X5 and it was hilarious. So determined was he to demonstrate the off-road prowess of his 4x4, he bloody nearly rolled it over. Another, with a cheery wave, drove his Mercedes G-wagen into a swamp.
Now, at this point you're probably expecting me to say that I was managing perfectly well in my little Jeep and that I didn't need oncoming motorists to perform automotive suicide on my behalf. But that would be wide of the mark, because the Jeep was, in fact, hopeless.
There are many models to choose from and many different engines. Most have only two-wheel drive, which means they aren't really Jeeps at all. But mine was a four-wheel-drive plug-in hybrid called the Trailhawk 4xe.
Let's start with the bad points.
At £36,500 it is more expensive than it feels, and at almost 1.6 tons it's heavier too. Also the steering is vague, the engine is coarse, the gearbox is constantly confused, the wind noise is laughable and the interior looks like a Sanyo music centre from the late 1970s.
And now it's time to move on to the really bad points. There's nowhere comfortable to put your left foot when you are driving along, the seats have all the give of a bodger's wheelback chair, and while the performance appears to be there on paper, there's no evidence of it in real life.
It's the same story with fuel consumption. We're told it can return about 128mpg, but reports suggest that in the real world it'll struggle to do half that.
But what of the off-road ability?
Well, the Trailhawk badge means that it has successfully completed the 22-mile Rubicon trail that largely crosses the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, and that sounds impressive. But I've driven this route and can report that it's mostly granite, which has a grip level somewhere between glue and those gloves Tom Cruise had in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol. If one wheel is touching the ground, even slightly, you will be able to keep going.
Oxfordshire in the snow is an entirely different proposition and, as a result, the Jeep kept darting around as though I'd inadvertently selected "bowel loosening" mode instead of Snow in the settings. And, of course, normal tyres meant it was useless in the rough stuff.
I worry too about the complexities of a hybrid system in which an electric motor and a lithium-ion battery are used to propel the rear wheels and the engine is used to drive those at the front. Will that last for a long time, and what happens if you try to ford a river? Will you end up electrocuting all the trout?
Actually, scratch that. I don't worry about this at all. It's irrelevant, because you're not going to buy this car. No one is, unless they are completely mad.
The sty's not the limit for my great escape geniuses My pigs keep making a bid for freedom — like Steve McQueen's Cooler King. Their heroics might just save them from the frying pan (Feb. 14)
My signature dish is a pork and pepper pasta. Though when I say "signature dish", what I mean is "the only thing I can cook". Here's the recipe. Coat some diced pork tenderloin in flour, fry it in my own vegetable oil with some chillies, green peppers, onions and mushrooms, and then, after adding stock, a splash of cream and seasoning, serve it on a bed of fusilli pasta. It's nice.
And it's not the only pig-based food I enjoy. I'm very partial to crackling and sausages, and I love ham with broad beans in a parsley sauce nearly as much as I enjoy seeing a suckling pig spinning slowly over an open fire with an apple in its mouth.
In a restaurant, I'll happily order pig's cheeks, unless it has trotters on the menu, in which case, I'll have those instead. And as we know, a bacon sandwich made with sliced white bread and Heinz tomato ketchup can cure hangovers, vegetarianism and even the common cold. Never in the field has so much been given to so many by one animal. And as a result, I'm thinking of becoming a pig farmer.
There are other reasons too. Pig foraging disturbs and invigorates the soil, causing roots, bulbs and seeds to germinate. And their manure is teeming with goodness, which means I'd spend less time driving about in my eight-litre tractor, showering the farm with chemicals. So, they are not only delicious and versatile, but also good for the environment. Perhaps that's why so many eco-people look like Arnold out of Green Acres.
Pigs can also be used to settle neighbourhood disputes. Let's just say you're a farmer and someone whose house adjoins your land is annoying in some way. You could ask the courts for help, or the parish council, or the local newspaper, but in my experience these things never work. It's much better to put pigs in the field next to his gaff and say you won't move them unless he backs down.
I really couldn't see a downside to my pig plans, but before diving in, I decided to dip a toe in the water and start of f with a couple of kunekunes. This breed was on the verge of extinction in the 1970s but since then it's become the trendy, must-have labradoodle of farmyard animals, and everyone with half an acre now has a couple truffling around in the brambles.
It makes sense, as they come with built-in fur coats so they can live outside all year round and as they are the only true grazing pigs, they can survive quite happily on nothing but grass and vegetable peelings. Also, they are surprisingly cute.
Maybe this is because pigs are actually very similar to human beings. Their organs are laid out just like ours, which is why they are often used for medical research, and their flesh is so similar that weapons specialists often use pigs to test the effectiveness of bullets. What's more, pigs know to disregard their own faeces, they have long eyelashes just like Twiggy, many can speak 40 languages and a recent study found they can operate a computer joystick. Pigs can even recognise themselves in a mirror.
They are also, I've learnt, extremely good at escaping. I put them in a field that was used last year to grow vegetables, so it's teeming with discarded chard and potatoes and beans. It's pig heaven. I even bought them a nice house with a window and angled it so they have a lovely view down the Windrush valley.
But they obviously hate it in there because on the very first day, both of them charged the electric fence and were gone. And have you ever tried to herd pigs? It's like trying to sweep air. And if by some miracle you do get them back in the right general area, they take one look at the orange string that gave them an electric shock on the way out and that's it — they're gone again.
To make matters worse, pigs can travel, I've discovered, at several hundred miles an hour. It took four hours and six people to get them back in their pen and 30 minutes later, they were out again. It was cold and dark and sleeting, and this time one of them went into a hedge and refused point blank to come out. The other kept biting my leg.
Yesterday morning I noticed they'd turned their house into a vaulting horse and in the afternoon I received a call to say that one of them was riding a motorcycle down the fence line between Germany and Switzerland.
I've now built a proper wooden fence and when I took them some vegetable peelings, one of them was sitting in the corner of his house, endlessly throwing a baseball against the far wall, while the other was making what looked like a glider.
All farm livestock will try to escape. But usually their attempts are opportunistic and badly thought through. My sheep will saw themselves in half to get through a gap in the hedge, my hens will risk an encounter with Mr Fox as they make a break for freedom and my trout will wriggle across ten feet of grass to get from their perfectly lovely pond into a nearby bog.
The pigs are different. They understand searchlight patterns and always go in different directions when they're out. I haven't given them names, for obvious reasons, but if I did, I'd call them Stephen and Stephen. After Fry and Hawking. They're that clever.
And yet, in some ways, they are like children. When I feed them, the big one always stands in the trough so the smaller one can have nothing. And God, they fight. Constantly. Usually over whose turn it is to play with the telescope they've made.
This worries me because what I have in the field, when all is said and done, are 420 sausages. Pigs are a business. You get a sow pregnant, she has a dozen piglets and you can either sell them at eight weeks for about £50 each. Or you can keep them to adulthood and sell them for £600 a pop. That's not profit, though.
You've got to factor in the cost of feeding them, and housing them in what's basically Parkhurst and the cost of killing them and butchering, but you should clear £200 a pig. It's not dog-breeding money but it's better than a kick in the face.
The trouble is that I like my kunekunes. I like the noises they make and their spirit and even their scrunched-up faces. I had no real problems taking my sheep to the abattoir and even less hawking a trout from the pond when I'm hungry, but I don't think I could eat the pigs. They've put me right off pork, in fact.
Tomorrow then, I'm going to chop up some swede, celery, mushrooms and onions and pop them in a slow cooker with some browned cow. And I shall serve it six hours later with some buttered mashed potatoes. It'll be my new signature dish.
And then, after I've fed the pigs and tickled them behind their ears, I'm going to see if it's possible to make bacon out of hens.
A history lesson that floats my boat: the stories of British slave rescues we never hear about (Feb. 14)
Until last year no one had really heard of Edward Colston. But then, all of a sudden, every muddle-headed leftie decided that he was the bronzed embodiment of Saddam Hussein, so they raced into the centre of Bristol and, having hit his statue with their shoes, tore it down and threw it into the harbour.
Soon, other muddle-headed lefties from other towns and cities were rampaging around looking for other statues to hit with their shoes. At one point they even considered Nelson, wondering whether the possibly pressganged sailors on his ships were technically slaves, but before coming to a conclusion they decided that none of their snowflake members knew how to use a ladder, and that toppling the admiral without one might well be a health and safety issue. So they descended on Winston Churchill instead.
Meanwhile, some Jeremy Corbyn enthusiasts at Oxford University had become consumed by a small stone man called Cecil Rhodes and decided he had to go in the Cherwell, while others wanted to do the same to Ted Hughes, for some reason. However, after it emerged Hughes was from an end-of-terrace house in Yorkshire and not a cotton plantation in Louisiana, the witch-hunt began to run out of steam and universities went back to getting the Chinese to sponsor various fellowships. Because of course China has never had any kind of human rights issue.
Then, last week, the whole cancel culture movement reared up out of the bath again, like Glenn Close, when something called Historic England said it had identified a list of villages in the UK that had links to the slave trade.
Brockenhurst, in Hampshire, has been outed because a very old pub there is named after a family who may have once bought some Trinidadian sugar, and Nunnington in North Yorkshire was put on the naughty step because there's concern about how its school was built. And where the money came from.
Right. Good. This was excellent research, and I'm sure the people who live in these places are now burning their houses and pubs and schools down and moving, heads bowed in shame, to an area that was never involved in slavery. Spain, perhaps, or Portugal.
In the meantime, I've been doing some research of my own about the Royal Navy's West Africa Squadron, which was formed in 1808, just a year after Britain abolished the slave trade. It was stationed at first in Portsmouth and equipped with two warships, and its job was to patrol the west coast of Africa, apprehending anyone who was ignoring the new law.
To begin with, things were tricky because it could only stop ships flying the British flag. But after the Napoleonic Wars were over, a chap called Viscount Castlereagh, the 2nd Marquess of Londonderry, ensured that France, Spain and Portugal would stop slaving as well, and, as a result, the Royal Navy was then allowed to stop and search their ships too. If you're from Northern Ireland, you can be proud of that.
And people from London can be proud of the squadron's commander, Sir George Collier. He massively increased the number of ships in the squadron and was told: "You are to use every means in your power to prevent a continuance of the traffic in slaves." He pursued this order with vigour.
Britannia claimed that it ruled the waves, and Britannia was going to damn well prove the point.
The slavers responded by building faster ships that could outrun the navy's powerful warhorses, but our top brass was quick to come up with a solution. A captured and very fast Brazilian slave ship was renamed HMS Black Joke, and in just two years it freed thousands of slaves. Weirdly, today, British schoolchildren are not taught about the vessel, or the bravery of its crew.
In one engagement it spent 31 hours chasing a Spanish brig called El Almirante that was en route to Havana. When the British finally caught up, they realised that their two tiny guns were no match for the 14 monsters that the Spaniards could muster. But after little more than an hour, 15 of the El Almirante's crew, including the captain, were dead, and the remainder had surrendered. In the hold, the captain of the Black Joke — a man called Lieutenant Henry Downes — found 466 slaves, who were later landed and freed.
This sounds like the sort of exciting story that would enliven a history lesson, but I'm afraid no one really knows anything about Downes. I suppose his story doesn't tally with current thinking.
Before the West Africa Squadron was disbanded in the 1860s, 2,000 Royal Navy sailors had given their lives while capturing 1,600 slave ships and freeing 150,000 slaves. It had been a huge operation — swallowing up 13 per cent of the navy's manpower — and it's reckoned that it cost far more than Britain earned from its earlier slaving enterprises. Again, that's not something you'll hear in many classrooms.
Nor do you hear much about the navy's east Africa operation, which was still going in the 20th century and at one time included apprehending slavers out of Zanzibar. And you certainly don't hear anything about the brave men who served on these ships. Most were from ordinary villages such as Brockenhurst and Nunnington, but for some reason Historic England has chosen to ignore them completely.
I guess that muddle-headed lefties really don't like the idea that for nearly a hundred years, and at vast expense, the country that they hate waged easily the most morally just war of all time.
These, then, are the sort of people who'd look at the life and times of Nelson Mandela and say: "Yeah, but let's ignore all that post-Robben Island stuff and focus instead on the fact that he once blew up a railway line."
Buying door knobs for my new house is murder, but just think how many poor Putin has to pick (Feb. 21)
Footage emerged recently of President Putin's new house and, crikey, it's a whopper. The master bedroom, for instance, covers an area of 2,800 sqaure feet, which means it alone is four times bigger than the average house in Britain. The style of the house, which has a hookah room — I think I've spelt that correctly — an amphitheatre and a secret tunnel dug into a nearby mountain, is described as Italianate, and, if you squint, that's probably true. Though the interior is more Dubai meets Wilmslow with a splash of Viv Nicholson thrown in for good measure.
Naturally, many questions are being asked in Russia about this extraordinary cathedral to the God of excess, but I have just one: how the bloody hell did Vladimir find the time to build it?
Five years ago my house was blown up and I started work on a replacement. This is a dream for many people. We've all seen Grand Designs and we all want some of that action. Choosing the angle the house will face, so that the morning sun illuminates the breakfast table and the evening sun warms guests on the terrace. Choosing the materials and the staircase and the light fittings. And having Kevin McCloud round when it's finished, so he can do an eloquent piece to camera about your genius and then join you for drinks in the sunken garden.
I figured that building my house would be easy. An architect would draw up the plans, a quantity survey would work out the cost, a project manager would handle the day-to-day issues and a 30-strong army of men in plastic hats would turn up to make the pipe dream a reality.
I reckoned my job would involve nothing more than leaving them to it. I was, however, wrong. My job, in fact, was to choose what sort of handle I'd like on the laundry room door. And what sort of metal it should be made from. And then, having travelled to London to visit a door knob shop, where I was presented with a bewildering selection, I'd choose brass, only to find six months later that because of Covid, or possibly Brexit, or a combination of the two, brass wasn't available and would nickel do instead?
After this, I had to choose what sort of knob I'd like on the sitting-room door, and whether the door between the kitchen and the back kitchen should have a handle instead, because I'd often be going through it laden down with stuff and it'd be better to go for something I could operate with my knee. Then I'd find that, because of Covid or Brexit, handles weren't available in steel and would wood do? Right. So what sort of wood? Cedar? Japanese oak? Holly?
God alone knows how you would be able to do any of this if you were also having to launch your Sputnik vaccine and sort out Chechnya and work out why none of the nerve agents you'd developed at vast expense seemed to work properly.
And then there's the sanitary ware to think about. I've often said that nothing in life is as awful as trying on trousers.
Hat shopping with a girlfriend, having a prostate exam, listening to The Archers, all of them are walks in the park compared with the misery of going into a hot, cramped room to try on a pair of strides, knowing full well that the pair with the 32in waist that you've selected will have been given the wrong label and that you'll need a 36 instead. It's the lowest point in a man's life.
Except it isn't. Being dragged to London to spend a day choosing what sort of flush handle you'd like on your lavatory is worse. There are millions of options, and when you've made a selection, you're told to choose which one of the 118 chemical elements you'd like it to be made from. Rhodium? Cobalt? Tin?
You're then told that you need to go through the whole process again with the towel rails and the taps and shower heads, and after a while you realise that it's all pointless, because in all your years you've never once been to someone's house and thought, "What a lovely bogroll holder." The fact is, they don't matter. A bent coat hanger would do the job just as well.
In the olden days, when I used to go to airports, I'd stand at the carousel and wonder why you never, ever, see two suitcases that look the same. It's as though Samsonite designs a pink one with a zip on the side and then, after one has rolled off the production line, scraps it and makes one in black with green leather straps.
Well, it's like that, times a thousand, with light switches. And you can't just rush in and buy the first one you see, because in the back of your mind you know you're creating a Grand Design and they have to be right. All 300 of them.
The only good thing is that there's no rush, because today the outside of my new house is a very large collection of scaffolding poles, and inside, the ceilings drip like the roofs of the caves in Derbyshire. If it continues to rain as much as it has been doing, it won't be long before stalactites start forming.
But the delays to the build, caused by Covid, are OK, because I've just had a call to say that the door handle I chose for the storeroom isn't available, because of Covid, and would I mind having another look in the supplier's million-page catalogue to see if there's anything else I like?
I think this is why those Russian agents are so busy running round the world smearing novichok and polonium on various door handles. It's not the people they're after. It's the handles themselves. Putin's had enough of them. And I can see why.
This is a thrill ride you won't want to miss
The Clarkson Review: Toyota GR Yaris (Feb. 21)
I really didn't want to drive the new Toyota Yaris. I'd seen in my diary that it was due to come for a week at the beginning of February and all through January I was filled with a constant, draining need to oil the service revolver and write a note to my children.
The Yaris is a car you buy because you think the Honda Jazz is a bit too racy. It's for recently widowed old ladies who need something to get them and their friend Peggy to the bridge club. That's it. It has no other purpose. It's completely unreviewable and when I learnt that the model I would test had a three-cylinder engine, I very nearly called Toyota to cancel the booking. That, however, would have been a very big mistake because the Yaris that turned up was the GR model, which means that, actually, it isn't really a Yaris at all.
To understand this car — and you need to because you are going to want one — you must delve into the rule book that governs international rallying.
If a carmaker wanted to enter a car into a rally in the Eighties, it had to produce 5,000 roadgoing versions, for ordinary people in ordinary showrooms. This is why we ended up with cars like the Lancia Delta Integrale and the Ford Escort Cosworth.
Later a new rule was introduced that said carmakers had to make only 200 roadgoing versions. That's why we got the short wheelbase Audi quattro, that nutty Peugeot 205 T16 and the ridiculous rear-engined Metro.
Today carmakers must produce a whopping 25,000 versions of a car they enter into a world championship rally. Which is why the sport is now full of dreary Hyundais and Volkswagen Polos, and no one watches it. The RAC rally used to be Britain's biggest spectator event. Now you get more people in the bedroom of someone with a temperature and a cough.
Toyota has plainly decided to do something about that. So instead of putting stickers and some knobbly tyres on an ordinary Yaris, it has built an all-new version — a version that shares almost no components at all with its bridge four brother. And now it has to find 25,000 people in the world who'll want to buy one.
First things first. The engine. It's a three-cylinder 1.6-litre turbo, which doesn't sound particularly rallyish. But here's the thing. It does. The noise may be artificial, but as you bumble along there's a deep, offbeat thrum, as if you're sharing the car with a snoring dog. It's tremendous.
Then, when you put your foot down at low speed in a high gear, it's like you've gently woken the dog. There's a stirring. A sense of enormous power coming to life. And it is enormous. The engine may by tiny, but it produces nearly 260 horsepower, which, in a car that weighs only about as much as a match, means some serious get up and go. Full-bore standing starts are hysterical because it sets off like a ball from the penalty spot.
To make sure none of the power is wasted, there's a four-wheel-drive system that moves the oomph to whichever wheel is best able to handle it at any given moment. There's even a small readout on the dash to show you what's going where, but if you are going quickly enough for the system to be working, trust me, you won't have either the time or the inclination to look at the dash. Let alone reach for your spectacles first.
This is a car that made me laugh out loud. I took it into my fields one morning and made a terrible mess, but I didn't care because it was a complete riot. And once I'd got the hang of how it handled and how the system that enables you to choose between Track, Sport or Normal made no discernible difference, I went onto the roads, which were made from sheet ice. And it was a riot there too.
When you feel the traction is gone in a normal car, there's always a hair-raising moment when you think, "Crikey, I hope I can rescue this situation," but in the Yaris, with its front and rear limited-slip differentials, you just think, "Oh goody. This'll be fun."
It's uncannily easy to control and because of that you feel like a driving god. Like you could win a rally. Like you are doing.
This is one of the most enjoyable and thrilling cars I've ever driven. It's like a puppy dog version of the Nissan GT-R and I adored it.
Drawbacks? Very few. The interior is a bit Yarisish and because the sat-nav screen sits on top of the dash under the rear-view mirror, there's an almighty blind spot. Oh, and you do sit quite high up, but that's because rallyists like it that way. In Formula One the drivers basically lie down as if they're in bed playing a video game — which they sort of are — whereas their counterparts in rallying like to imagine they're sitting upright at a desk, working.
There are other examples of this rally thinking too. Instead of an electric handbrake, which would be of no use at all in Corsica or among the lakes of Finland, you get a proper lever; it even disconnects drive to the rear wheels when you pull it.
Then there's the space in the back, by which I mean there isn't any space in the back. The enormous front seats mean there's no legroom, and because Toyota's motorsport aerodynamicists wanted a sloping roof so they could put a rear wing in the airflow, there's no headroom either.
In other ways, though, there's no evidence at all that it's a rally car. It's got sensors that tug at the wheel when you stray out of lane and all the other appurtenances of modern living. Perhaps the most incredible thing is the way that such a sport-focused car isn't particularly uncomfortable. It doesn't glide but it doesn't jar either. And even on a motorway the silly racing tyres fitted to my test car don't make a racket.
I suspect this may have something to do with the fact that there are 4,175 weld points in the GR Yaris, 259 more than in the normal car, along with 116ft of structural adhesive. The body, then, is as rigid as a cathedral and that gives a sense of great quality and refinement.
I've saved the best bit till last, though. Prices for a standard car start at less than £30,000. Even the one I drove with all the bells and whistles and red brake callipers is only £33,495. I can think of nothing, apart from this newspaper and a McDonald's Happy Meal, that represents such good value. And that truly makes this car perfectly in tune with the times.
Today people have a problem with privilege. The famous must beat themselves with twigs, the educated must drop their aitches and royalty must fly in the back of the plane. Which is why wealth must be stealthy. You can only swan around in a Ferrari or a McLaren if you have skin thicker than a thick-cut pizza.
You may think, if currently you drive a Porsche 911 or something of that ilk, that the Yaris GR, a small three-cylinder Japanese hatchback, would be quite a comedown, but it really isn't. It's that good, but you'll need to get your order in quickly. Toyota is making 25,000 of them and that's not going to be enough. Not by a long way.
I'm now reliant on a robin for excitement: Birdwatching — yes, birdwatching! — is now a highlight of my days and the little red-breasted warrior is proving king of the Clarkson garden (Feb. 28)
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was formed towards the end of the 19th century in a bid to stop rich women decorating their fur coats with the feathers from great crested grebes.
I find this surprising because, back then, there were many problems in the world. The Greeks and Turks were at war with one another. American troops were slaughtering people who at the time were called Red Indians. Britain had just suffered its first ever terrorist attack (at the Greenwich Observatory), the Swedes had discovered a link between carbon dioxide and global warming, and all over the world people were dying in vast numbers from the bubonic plague, leprosy, smallpox and cholera.
But despite all this, some idealists in Manchester said: "Yes. But what matters most of all is the way toffs are using grebe feathers to decorate their coats."
The RSPB has been at the vegan end of the political spectrum ever since and must now be viewed as the Labour Party's Luftwafe. I'm surprised it hasn't adopted the Palestine sunbird as its emblem.
However, despite this, they do organise the rather excellent Big Garden Birdwatch every year. It's very simple. People are asked to sit at the kitchen window for an hour, making a note of all the birds that drop by. It's a good way of seeing what breeds are up and which are down, and it's become the biggest bird survey — in the world.
It's so big that before it began this year, an extra 300,000 fat balls were bought online. Meanwhile, the sale of seed skyrocketed and in my local town it was impossible to find any peanuts on the shelves at all. I had to buy pistachio nuts instead.
Yup, I took part. I like birds; always have. I've littered my farm with kestrel and owl boxes, I've planted the margins with a turtle dove mix to try and attract one of the most endangered birds we have, and in the cold snap I spent hours trudging round one field as I'd had reports that a lapwing had moved in.
On top of all that, I don't trim the hedges, so they now look like Germaine Greer's lady part, and I've put so many insect-friendly flower strips through the big fields that from the air it looks like they're made from corduroy.
And I like to think it's working.
Back in the summer, I saw a flock of goldfinches, and in one uncut hedge there are more than a hundred yellowhammers. This is a bird the RSPB once said was in grave danger, thanks to the motor car. Really? Are they suggesting the yellowhammer is less able than other birds to get out of a car's way? Or that "motorists" have made it part of some weird game to keep the kids amused on long journeys. "Hey kids. Look what just smashed into the windscreen. That's ten points!!!!"
The Big Birdwatch, however, is not interested in what's on the farm, only what's in the garden, so having peeled the pistachio nuts and loaded up the bird table with grease and lard and grain from last year's harvest, I sat back with my monocular and my notebook and some reference books to start the count.
First up was a robin followed shortly afterwards by a blackbird that the robin chased away. It then proceeded to chase away two sparrows and a pied wagtail. It was so busy chasing everything away, in fact, that so far as I could tell, it never actually ate any of the food I'd prepared.
There was a similar problem on the hanging basket of nuts. A blue tit arrived and was quickly joined by a great tit. There was space for both of them to eat in peace and harmony, but no. They decided to have a fight. On and on it went, in a blur of flapping and pecking and squeaking.
In the olden days when Sir Attenborough told us interesting things and wasn't just a stuck climate change record, he would say that all creatures are careful not to burn more calories than could be provided by available food. But those two tits would have needed a McHappy Meal with fries to put back what they lost in that scrap.
In my mind, I'd see a nuthatch and a nightjar and a green woodpecker but after half an hour all I had was the angry robin, which had secured the perimeter and was now doing sentry patrols, and the two fighty tits.
We see similar character traits in birdwatchers as well. In New York, a full-on civil war has broken out between twitchers, with one group saying rare bird locations should not be publicised on social media and the other happily tweeting the GPS location of a snowy owl they've just seen. Everyone's so busy hurling insults that no one would notice if a dodo appeared in Central Park.
Meanwhile, back in Chipping Norton, I'd given up with the garden itself as the tits were now re-enacting a scene they'd seen in Avengers: Endgame and the robin was setting up a minefield. Instead, I'd turned my head to the sky but here too there was an issue, because although I know a bit about ornithology, I have to admit that one small brown bird looks pretty much like all the other small brown birds when the backdrop is bright and it's doing 40mph.
Sir Starmer's air force has produced a handy online guide to help us identify a bird we've seen. But the only information I had was "it was brown and in the sky" so I was rather stumped.
I began to speculate how much more fun a garden watch of this type would be if I lived in the Seychelles, where there are terns that appear to be made from a translucent porcelain. Or Papua New Guinea, where there are crows that look like luminous satellite dishes, and the Disraeli Gears album cover and Ed Sheeran.
Our crows are much more boring to behold but that said, they are extremely clever. It's known that pigeons can tell whether you have a gun or not but crows go one step further. They can tell what sort of gun it is. "Ha. That's only a .410. He'll never be able to hit me with that."
I proved this 40 minutes into my Big Garden Birdwatch by going outside with a 20 bore. The pigeons scarpered immediately, but the crows just laughed at me, knowing they were well out of range. They were correct too, and having proved it, there were no birds in my garden at all.
Here's the funny thing though. After the survey weekend finished, I continued to put seed and nuts and fat in the garden every morning, and I now spend well over an hour every day staring through my monocular at the comings and goings. This morning a wren came. It scampered down the wall on its funny little legs but before it reached the little pile of seed, the robin arrived out of the sun and scared it away.
It is a phenomenally violent little thing, fiercely protective of its patch and not afraid to take on birds that are twice its size. Small wonder it was recently voted Britain's favourite bird.
Bog off — the last thing the north needs is to become the gloomy, waterlogged Peat District (Feb. 28)
Before the most recent general election, Boris Johnson announced that he would level up the UK and bridge the north-south divide, and as a result I whooped and hollered like a contestant on a game show who's just won a speedboat.
For many years I've worried that by far the biggest problem facing Britain is the enormous difference between life under the weeping willows on the banks of the Thames and life in a syringe-strewn northern hellhole where houses cost a pound. Because how do you make policies that suit what are effectively two different countries? It'd be like sorting out a single fiscal and social plan for both Manhattan and Maputo. It'd be impossible.
And then there's the problem of London. Apart from a few weird places such as Australia and Burma, I know of no other nation on earth where the capital city is so completely unrepresentative of the country it sits in. Paris feels French. Berlin feels German. Rome feels Italian. But London? It's perhaps the greatest city in the world, but it's nothing like anything you'll find outside the M25. London and Hull, for example. They don't even feel as though they're in the same solar system. And that's wrong.
Many efforts have been made to level up Manchester in recent years, and as a result there are many tastefully restored warehouses and the canals are no longer full of upturned Vauxhalls. So I've always wondered why similar efforts cannot be made in Pontefract and all those other towns where people die at the age of 52 from something disgusting.
That's why I was so pleased when Boris said that he'd "unlock talent in every corner of the UK" and that the wealth gap between London and the rest of the country was an "injustice" that needed to be fixed. This was a man who was talking my language.
Except it now turns out he wasn't, because it seems that what the government would most like to do with the north is spend £200 million on turning it into a peat bog.
Yup, it has apparently decided that, rather than build exciting new spaceports, it would prefer to remove all the brilliant Victorian drainage systems to create a staggering 2,700 square miles of ombrotrophic wasteland, where nothing but moss and heather will grow. And children inherit nothing but the curtains. Naturally, this has something to do with carbon dioxide.
Fans of the scheme say it's great news for insects. Which is obviously what they're now calling people in the north. But how can that be so? Peat is the decaying remains of plants that died 12,000 years ago.
The new bog will stretch all the way from Stoke to the Scottish border, and we are told that walkers will love it. But they won't, because peat is hideous and cloying and it wants your wellingtons. But only after it's broken your ankle. It's like a never-ending game of outdoor Twister, only the smell's worse.
You can't even burn it in your range to keep warm at night because, while peat is good for carbon dioxide, burning it somehow isn't. And this is what the government wants the north to be. Not crammed with industry and commerce, or well-drained farmers' fields teeming with food. Just a sad and gloomy place full of cold people and dead toads.
Even green people don't approve.
Speaking from their burrows under the Euston Road, they concede that the bog could store maybe 400 million tons of carbon but say that storing carbon is nowhere near as effective as not producing it in the first place. In essence, they're saying the peat bog simply allows the government to step back from its plans to confiscate everyone's Range Rovers.
And they point out that the timing of the plan's announcement is interesting, as it comes just before Boris sits down in Cornwall with Angela and Joe and that Macron boy to dream up new ways of keeping Sir Attenborough and the angry Thunberg woman off their backs.
Me? I hope that when this meeting is over and the news-friendly, short-form noises have been made, we can get back to the election promise of not turning the north into a swamp, and concentrate instead on turning it into a vibrant place full of sci-fi monorails and happy people who are not all catatonic on spice.
We all agree that America is split in half by a cultural and financial divide, but even so, between Los Angeles and New York there are places such as Houston and Minneapolis and Atlanta that are filled with gleaming skyscrapers and coffee shops where you aren't necessarily stabbed if you ask for an almond milk in your skinny latte.
Germany, too, has many regions, but none is especially dominant. Even the east, neglected so badly and for so long, is now chock-full of immaculately restored cities such as Zwickau and Zittau.
Then there's Dresden, where communism ruined what hadn't been flattened by the RAF, but, despite this, it's now bite-the-back-of-your-hand beautiful. Probably because, after reunification, no one in the Reichstag said: "Oh sod it. Let's just turn it into a peat bog."
It's the same story in Italy, where, outside Rome, you've got Milan, Turin, Florence and Venice. The country is awash with places you'd be happy to call home. And it's the same in France, where Paris now has a down-at-heel feel but a lot of provincial cities don't.
I guess we should finish up in Holland, which was a coastal bog until engineers reclaimed it from the sea so they could build a den of iniquity there. And, having seen that Amsterdam worked very well, they did the same sort of thing on the other side of the world, creating an embryonic city in the boggy swamps off the east coast of America. That went on to become New York — the birthplace, pointedly, of Boris Johnson.