Top Gear’s ratings collapsed when Jeremy Clarkson was fired for punching a producer who didn’t order him a steak. The details read like a short but interesting novel. The punch didn’t surprise me at all: supercars, which are Clarkson’s business, are mind-altering drugs. They make monsters.
Why was anyone surprised? Supercars, fists, bleeding and dead flesh – what’s the difference? Clarkson’s id is hungry. It must be fed.
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But not on Top Gear, which has had four seasons without the man. The next begins on Sunday with what is called, by the production team, “emotional depth”. Whatever that is, it will distinguish the show from Clarkson’s current resting place – The Grand Tour on Amazon, where he continues to boast about his gift for changing gears.
There is a new team of presenters – Freddy Flintoff, Chris Harris and Paddy McGuinness. McGuiness said, “there’s hugs and nice bits such as what we thought about Ethiopia”. Harris said, like a survivor of family therapy, “we hug each other. We didn’t hug each other before”. Flintoff promises, “honesty”.
But can they do it? Will viewers want it? More than 4.5 million of them left with Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May. Can cars – and specifically supercars (who watches Top Gear for a rebooted Honda Jazz?) – be uncoupled from heat and thwarted lust and intoxicated masculinity? Will Top Gear simply stop drooling over the Ferrari Lusso GTC4 (men like fast cars) and start drooling over the VW Up! (women like reliable cars)? Will they attempt mindfulness, with cars?
I don’t think you can untangle cars from rage. That is why Jeremy Clarkson is the greatest motoring journalist there is. He is almost a car. He punched a colleague for food; the combustion engine broke the world. Its roar – the sex growl – is mere pollutant. It’s an exhaust: what a metaphor.
I learnt to drive at 40. I waited so long because I feared cars; I thought they were the spirit animals of angry men. I was always day-dreaming on buses, which are a more female form of transport: meditative and collaborative. When I got married my husband forced me to drive. It took five years to learn not to put the hand-brake on at each roundabout. I failed my practical test so many times I had a favourite test examiner. He was called Dave.
When I finally passed my test, I got a job reviewing cars, particularly supercars. (A supercar is, essentially, a car that is better than it needs to be. And cars are better than they have ever been. If you doubt this, drive a Morgan. Or rather don’t. If you crash it, you will likely die).
My job was revenge on Dave at Garage X, who sold me a written off Vauxhall Corsa at full price. When I learnt this, my response was not masculine – beat him, eat him, threaten him with Trading Standards – but feminine. I said I was devasted and he gave me £700 back (from pity, not fear).
Why wasn’t I more like Clarkson? What would he have done to Dave of Garage X? Sometimes I think the rest of my life has been and will be revenge on Dave of Garage X. And what became revenge on Dave of Garage X became revenge on all men: I would take what they wanted for myself. I fantasised that I would drive into Garage X in a Rolls Royce Ghost and invent a spurious problem with the indicators. But in the end, I didn’t.
But a succession of supercars has been delivered to my house by men called Dave: Aston Martins, Bentleys, Rolls Royces, Ferraris, a Mercedes Benz G-Wagon (which was designed as a military vehicle for the Shah of Iran but is now updated with Disco lights for Covent Garden wankers). They were a drug I took to as I have taken to every other drug: with fanatical devotion.
I think I am not a very good reviewer of cars. I pride myself on not learning what torque is. I battle to squeeze a factoid, or a number, into a review: length of wheelbase, the time it takes to get from 0-60 mph, turning circle, and all that. That is how men usually speak about cars, because they cannot articulate the emotions they summon. They would rather dress up as Vikings. Except Clarkson, who does it all non-verbally: with squints, farts and, eventually, his fists.
I can articulate the emotion. I can measure it, in the same way that you know an art work is great without knowing why exactly it is great, by how high I get when I am in the car. I am a recovering addict and I know when I am being drugged. (What, for example, do they put in Pringles, which are not nice?). The day of the Goodwood media day, I got very high driving an orange Bentley GT and then a blue McLaren Spyder and a Rolls-Royce Cullinan. So, I review my own highness.
The car that makes me most high is the Aston Martin Superleggera (super light). It has blah torque, and the ability to make the sexual currency of a fat middle-aged woman rise by 20,000% in six seconds, which is immensely disorientating, and very pleasing, although, as with all drugs, when I am on them I cannot do much else.
I read What Car? but I cannot see the words. I am too busy dreaming. In supercars, I am hot – or, at least, I feel I am, which amounts to the same thing. I am skittish. Of course, it is my midlife crisis. When I set out in a supercar, my husband makes me wear my wedding ring, or I would park outside Screw Fix (or any builders’ merchant) all day. If you have ever felt you have not had enough attention from men your life, park outside Screw Fix in a new Aston Martin. Myths, as John Tolkien said, are true.
Cars are the greatest and most destructive drug we have yet abused. That is their wonder and their terror; why else would someone spend £250,000 on a Ferrari Lusso GTC4, which has only two doors? The idea of gentle, emotionally available cars and attendant criticism is a nonsense. It ought to be suppressed.