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."