Authors: James May
Tags: #Non-fiction:Humor, #Travel
NOTES FROM THE HARD
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To Pullin and Green, for the
It is time, now that someone has raised the truly preposterous notion of
congestion charging in our national parks, to acknowledge a few painful realities about the
countryside. There is a feeling at large that cars somehow do not belong in the countryside; I now put it to you that in fact the countryside belongs to the car.
Before anyone writes in with a volume of Rupert Brooke, I should make it clear that I understand perfectly the position occupied by the rural idyll in the English national consciousness; how its gently swaying fields of corn are instantly evoked by thoughts of home when abroad; how the memory of England endures not as a shopping centre or theme park but as an endless Arcadian vista who gave her flowers to love etc. But how are we to enjoy all this, if not from the car?
You could go for a walk, say some, but have you seen the size of the place? It would take me two days to reach the edge of it from where I live, and even then there would be a few golf courses to negotiate before I arrived in the other Eden. Cycling? Civilised
bicycles only work on the road, and the road is only there because of cars. If you try off-roading on one of these so-called 'mountain' bikes, farmers will shoot at you. And I have to say that if I were a farmer, and you rode across my field with an inverted polystyrene fruit bowl on your head astride £2,000-worth of unobtanium, I'd shoot at you as well.
No – the problem is not that people keep driving through the countryside, it's that people keep living there.
If you're a farmer, tilling manfully on the land to produce the things I love to eat, then that's fine. Likewise a gamekeeper or some old toff, since they're not safe in the city. Also fine is running a country pub, as that's where I like to stop for a pie. But the rest of you – and especially those of you who think a two-inch-high ribbon of tarmac is somehow 'ruining the countryside' – can bugger off, because your houses are spoiling the view from my Porsche.
If, for example, you're a merchant banker working in the City, you should live in the City near the bank. If you're the manager of a country bank, you should live in the flat above it or in a windowless bothy alongside. Similarly, working for a software consultancy and living in the sticks is as absurd as turning up for work at a software consultancy in a straw hat singing ee-aye-ee-aye-oh. I don't want to escape to the countryside in my car to be rewarded with an endless rolling panorama of Barratt Homes. It's the ruin of England.
Everyone I know who lives in the cuds is, in terms of their demands, aspirations and general lifestyle, exactly the same as my neighbours in London. They are separated from me by nothing more than a very, very big garden. They drive into the town every day and complain about congestion, without stopping to think for long enough to realise that the road isn't there so that they can come in, it's there so I can get out in something with a flat six and enjoy a world as Adam would have known it.
The harsh truth is that cod country living is a privilege bequeathed entirely by the roads and motor transport. So if you live in Chodford and despise all things automotive, you should live as I imagine country folk did before the car was invented. That is, like a chicken; in your own poo, driven mad by blight and at the mercy of wild animals. You should ride a donkey, and the road to your damp dwelling should be a rough track beset by bandits and deranged inbreds with huge hands and one eye in the middle of their faces.
Actually, I'd go further than that. You should not be allowed anything in life that is in any way dependent on road transport. So no fresh shiitake mushrooms from the charming deli in the village, because they arrived in a van. You'll have to bake your own bread in the little cubby holes at the side of your Aga – the ones with the red-hot handles. And no reading the
because it isn't really a telegraph at all. It comes in a van as well.
Anti-car sentiment is nowhere as incongruous as it is in the countryside. In fact, the beauty of the countryside in modern times is that you can drive through it, look at it and then leave it alone. Its principal function is for the growing of carrots, but after that, it's what sports cars were invented for.
I've now been sitting here for some hours looking at a picture of the Jaguar X-Type estate fitted with the maker's optional
'Sports Collection' body styling package. And I have to say, I'm just not sure about it.
To explain why, we have to go back a few weeks to an idle evening when I decided that I would make a Chinese meal. And I don't mean one contrived from a packet sauce and a tin of water chestnuts. I mean the real thing, like that bloke Ken Whatsit would do.
Now, I don't really rate myself as a chef. Anything outside the orbit of the old school favourites – shepherd's pie, cheesy pasta – is frankly a bit of a mystery. But that doesn't matter, because you can buy sets of instructions for clever cooking and the picture on the front is usually so good it's tempting just to eat the book.
I did everything properly. I went to a Chinese supermarket for the ingredients and I borrowed a wok from a neighbour. The preparation time amounted to many hours of careful chopping and straining.
But then it started to go wrong. I've heard a theory that oriental cooking is the way it is because of a historical shortage of fuel, so everything is cut up small and it's all cooked together in one very thin utensil that becomes blindingly hot in seconds. It all happened far too quickly.
I think the word that best sums up my Szechuan double-cooked pork with chow mein is 'grey'.
Undeterred, I decided to try an Indian instead, since the cooking process would then be much more leisurely. I visited a proper Indian food shop and started from scratch with raw spices, ghee, basmati rice and what have you. I ground, roasted, made pastes, marinated things overnight – in fact, my chicken tikka bhuna with peas pilau took almost two days to complete. It could best be described as 'brown'.
As a result of all this I have decided to abandon any ridiculous pretence of being multi-culti and acknowledge that if I fancy a Chinese or an Indian, I'll find some Chinese or Indian people to make it for me. There are several within a few hundred paces of my house, as it happens, and they are much, much better at this sort of thing than I am because they are steeped in the appropriate culture and traditions; rather in the way that I know, almost instinctively, what to do with Spam.
Similarly, I may have spent many hours as a boy sketching supercars in the back of my geometry exercise book with my Oxford Mathematical Instruments set, but I will still recognise that real car
designers are better. So if I buy a car that I think looks good, I'll leave it alone. I don't order a butter chicken from the Light of Nepal and then start adding some extra ingredients I brought along from home.
In fairness to Jaguar, the 'Sports Collection' body package is the work of the factory, so presumably all the bits will fit properly. But I can't help wondering why, if it looks so good, they don't just make it like that in the first place. And in what other arena of sporting endeavour is weight added for no performance gain? This is like an Olympic sprinter thinking he'd be better off if he was a bit fatter.
Car manufacturers are developing an unhealthy appetite for mucking about with things that were already right. I've just driven a new and extra-sporty version of the Audi
TT, which has a harder suspension, ridiculous bucket seats that feel like, well, buckets, daft alloy wheels that stick out further than the tyres and which you will kerb on the way home from the showroom and, worst of all, a black roof. They've completely ruined it. It was a seminal and much-trumpeted bit of automotive design, but somebody imagined it could be improved with a tin of Humbrol enamel. Even the
Subaru Impreza Turbo, which comes sort of pre-kitted, looks better left alone.
I know the modifled-car scene is a huge and vibrant one. I've examined the work of the lads who are into it and a lot of it is really exquisitely done and bought at the expense of still living at home with mum. Good for them. But I still don't believe I've ever seen a modified Citroen
Saxo or Vauxhall
Corsa that looked better than the ones Citroen and Vauxhall came up with.
So here's a tip. If you open the fridge tonight and find that it contains, like mine, a pork chop, some potatoes and a sprig of broccoli, have pork chop with potatoes and broccoli for dinner.