10 Aug 2008

Jeremy Clarkson

Many of you who read this blog (the vast majority of its visitors come from the good ol' US of A) wouldn't know who Jeremy Clarkson was if he came up and twatted you with a dead haddock.

He is, to put it bluntly, one of the funniest/most infuriating/knowledgeable TV presenters/columnists/writers I have ever seen/read/agreed with/yelled at.

He co-hosts the stratospherically popular TV show Top Gear (I would have called it a TV "car" show, but to place it in that particularly small box doesn't do this genius of a show justice) and writes a driving and opinion column for The Times (that's The London Times to you yanks).

All of this prologue is so I can post his latest car review column from the most recent Sunday Times...it's a perfectly-written, hilarious and creatively-turn-of phrase-ed example of why I love him. See for yourself...

Sarah Brown, the wife of our prime minister, is a complete mystery. For all I know, she collects fish, is qualified to fly fighter jets, has two left feet and sounds exactly like that woman with the broom in the Tom and Jerry cartoons. You even have to say “Sarah Brown, the wife of the prime minister”. Which was unnecessary with Cherie Blair or Denis Thatcher.

All I do know is that she looked at the country’s 28m men and thought: “No. They are all horrid except for Gordon.” Which must mean she’s a bit odd. And let’s be honest here shall we; like all women in and around British politics (with the notable exception of Samantha Cameron), she’s not exactly a purring sex kitten.

Things are very different in Italy where Silvio Berlusconi has filled his entire cabinet with ex-glamour models. And naturally, this brings me on to France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Unlike anyone in British politics, he attained high office and responded immediately by replacing his wife with the almost impossibly gorgeous Carla Bruni. Her mother is a concert pianist, her sister an actress and film director, and she’s an heiress to an Italian tyre fortune. We’re talking good genes here. And you can see them all in those cheekbones. I’m very much in love with Carla.

More than that, I’m very much in love with the French for taking her into their hearts. That’d never happen here. Imagine, if you will, Gordon Brown winning an election (hard, I know) and then ditching Sarah for Abi Titmuss. He wouldn’t last a week.

Weirdly, however, while the French like a good-looking woman in the Elysée Palace, they plainly have trouble with aesthetics in other departments. Take the oyster as an example. I have no idea who first cracked one open, peered at the snot inside and thought: “Mmm. I’m going to put that in my mouth.” But I bet he was French.

Of course, Paris is a fine and handsome city but the man who dreamt up those 12 wide boulevards radiating from the Arc de Triomphe was called Haussmann. And while he was born in France, his parents were from the disputed province of Alsace. Which technically makes their son an Alsatian. Which means he was a dog.

It’s also true, of course, that Parisian women are very elegant but I always think they were put on earth to make Italian clothes look good. And have you ever been in a Frenchman’s house? Holy cow. It’s an orgy or horror: antimacassars, Dralon, floral wallpaper, Formica and chintz. The minimalist Danish look completely passed them all by, leaving them all stuck in Huddersfield, in 1952.

France itself is a beautiful part of the world and the French language is spoken honey - unless it’s being used in a pop song, obviously; in which case it’s as attractive as an inside-out horse.

But just about everything the French make or do is lumpen, ugly or odd. This is especially true of their cars.

If you asked anyone to name the 10 best-looking cars ever made, not a single person with functioning retinas would put a French car on their list. Renault occasionally does something appealing like the Avantime, but mostly it believes we’ll buy its cars specifically because they’ve got big arses. Peugeot can do a good-looking car but only when it pays Pininfarina to design it. Left to its own devices, it mostly does bland, with occasional gusts of awfulness like the 309. That really was a mobile wart.

That leaves Citroën and, of course, what it has done mostly over the years is best described as, er . . . brave. It’s hard, really, when it presents a new car to find the right word. It’s best to imagine Heston Blumenthal has just asked you, eagerly, to try his new dog turd-flavoured ice cream. You can’t be honest and say: “That was terrible.” So you go for “brave” or “very striking”.

Today, though, Citroën is starting to buck the trend. The C5 is exceptionally good looking. The C6 has great presence, and if you drive through town in a C4, no one is going to point and laugh. But then, just when you think Citroën has got the idea, out pops the new Berlingo.

The old one was just a van with windows and it struck a chord. Oh sure, it looked like a frog that had sat on a spike, but there was something rather appealing about the nononsenseness of a box with seats. Especially as it retailed for about 60p.

Sadly, with the new version, they’ve tried to disguise the window cleaner origins with chrome this and flared that. What they’ve ended up with is a plumber in a tux. It looks and feels completely wrong. Almost certainly, then, you will see it and immediately decide to buy something else. This would be very big mistake.

I’ll start with the problems. Um . . . Well, the tailgate is so huge that when you push the button it will rise up, and unless you’re standing well back - which you won’t be because you’ve just pushed the button - it will smash into the underside of your chin and remove your whole head. This would become wearisome. But aside from this upside-down guillotine feature, and the British female politician looks, the rest of the car is an object lesson in common sense.

Prices start at less than £11,000, which is very low for something with this amount of interior space. It rides more smoothly than a Jaguar XJ8 - they should have called it the Aeroglisseur - and it is the first car ever to come with a loft. I mean it. There is an internal roofbox into which, I’m fairly certain, you could fit a pair of modern-day skis. And that’s just the start. There are so many cubbyholes and oddment stowage boxes that you could hide a priest in there and never find him again.

The car I tested had a 90 horsepower diesel, which meant I couldn’t go very fast. But on the long straight between Shipston on Stour and Chipping Norton, I did get past a tractor in just 18 minutes. So it’s not the end of the world. And better still, it should do 40mpg easily.

It’s a good car, the Berlingo. And in these difficult times, it makes even more sense than usual.

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