Authors: Jeremy Clarkson
Tags: #Fiction / General, #Transportation / Railroads / General, #Railroads, #Vehicles, #Airplanes, #Transportation / Ships & Shipbuilding / General, #Ships, #Transportation / General, #Transportation / Aviation / General, #Railroad trains
I Know You Got Soul
Jeremy Clarkson made his name presenting a poky motoring programme on BBC2 called
. He left to forge a career in other directions but made a complete hash of everything and ended up back on
again. He lives with his wife, Francie, and three children in Oxfordshire. Despite this, he has a clean driving licence.
Jeremy Clarkson’s other books are
Clarkson’s Hot 100
Clarkson on Cars
Born to be Riled
and the best-selling
The World According to Clarkson
Machines with That Certain Something
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published by Michael Joseph 2005
Published in Penguin Books 2006
Copyright © Jeremy Clarkson, 2005
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
The picture credits on page 234 constitute an extension of this copyright page
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject
to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent,
re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s
prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in
which it is published and without a similar condition including this
condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
This book is dedicated to my children, Emily, Finlo and Katya, who had to walk round the house on tiptoes, and not listen to Radio One, while it was being written
I’d like to thank my wife, who helped by locking the children in the cellar for three months and by agreeing that Radio One should not be played when ‘Daddy’s trying to write’. I’d also like to thank Rowland White at Penguin, who never shouted at me once.
I suppose the inspiration for this book came from my reaction to the Concorde crash in Paris.
Normally when a plane goes down we mourn for the people on board, but on this occasion I found myself mourning, most of all, the death of the machine. How could something so wondrous and dazzling have come to grief? It really was as shocking as the death, just down the road, in fact, of Princess Diana.
The fact is that most machines are just a collection of wires and plastic. The computer, for instance, on which I’ve written this book has no more of a heart than a Toyota Corolla, which in turn is no more soulful than a Corby trouser press.
But some machines do have a soul. Sometimes, as is the case with Concorde and the AK47, it’s because they possess that most human of qualities, a flaw, and sometimes it’s because they were born carrying the genetic fingerprint of a foolish and
misguided inventor. Count Zeppelin springs to mind here.
Whatever, just about all the machines here have formed the backbone of some incredible stories, none more so than the Spitfire. Of course we remember ‘the few’ whose bravery held back the Nazi hordes in that balmy summer of 1940. But, secretly, we know that much of their success was attributable to the incredible speed and manoeuvrability of the aeroplane they flew.
And yes, before you raise an eyebrow, I know all about the Hurricane but it lacks the film-star looks somehow, and the glamour. And anyway, I can’t pretend this book is a comprehensive list of all the machines ever made with a soul. Nor is there any scientific basis for the choices. My editor and I simply went out for lunch one day and came up with a list on the back of a napkin. They were machines we liked, picked for emotional reasons, using our hearts rather than our heads.
The hard part was choosing which machine from a particular genre should be singled out. All battleships, for instance, had soul by the bucketful principally because they were flawed and usually useless, but there was only space here to look at
one so I went for the biggest. And most useless of them all – the astonishing
The next difficult bit was choosing what to leave out. The Gibson Les Paul should be here, I know, but unfortunately, before I had the chance to include it the producer of
rang and said I really must get back to the bothersome business of making television programmes.
There was much brouhaha when the last Concorde touched down at Heathrow in the summer of 2003. Television stations went live to the scene, tears were shed and commentators talked about how it was the end of an era. And yet in the midst of all this were a handful of Guardianistas saying ‘good riddance’.
They pointed out that Concorde had cost £2.1 billion to design, which, even though this was the sixties, made it three times more expensive than the Dome. And with little specks of spittle at the corner of their mouths, they went on to remind everyone that for years the great white bird was, in fact, a great white elephant.
The taxpayer had met the cost of building it, and for many, many years they’d had to dig even further into their pockets to run it. And who benefited? Well, according to those of a sandal persuasion, it certainly wasn’t the ordinary working man in the street. No. It was a bunch of fat
capitalist corporate raiders going to New York to do another deal that would make life even less pleasant for the poor sods who’d paid for the plane in the first place.
If you squint a bit, it is possible to see the logic in this argument. But if you open your eyes, then I’m afraid it makes no sense at all. Concorde was indeed extremely useful for those who make and break companies and countries for a living. You could sell GEC and GM over breakfast in London and then, over a second breakfast in New York, buy Guatemala and Chad.
But for these people it was only a tool, a timesaving device, like an electric razor or a toaster. And from inside the plane it really wasn’t anything special. There was no shortage of legroom but the seats were no wider than the seats you get on a National Express coach, and headroom was pinched too.
What’s more, because of the weight, passengers were denied even the basic frills that are commonplace in cattle class these days. Yes, the wine was fine, and free, but there was no in-flight movie system, no little map telling you where you were, no video camera in the nose wheel. You spent
three hours in a seat with nothing to do but devise a plan for buying Peru while staring at the bald patch of the man in front, who was trying to bankrupt Poland.
Exciting? You’d think so, wouldn’t you, tearing through the stratosphere at Mach 2, but actually it wasn’t exciting at all. Sure, there was a meaty kick on the runway but it was no more thrustful than a BMW 330i. And there was a satisfying surge as the tail cleared Cornwall and the pilot lit the afterburners to break through the sound barrier. But you could get more of an adrenalin rush on any fairground ride.
Far, far below, people crossing the Atlantic on boats would hear the sonic boom and yet on board there wasn’t even a judder as the sound barrier was breached, and there was no view either. People say you could see the curvature of the earth but really it was no more pronounced than it is from the beach. And nor was it black or purple up there because, contrary to popular belief, you were not on the edge of space. You were not even halfway there.
Concorde flew at 60,000 feet, which is twice as high as a 747 goes, and that sounds impressive. But
60,000 feet is only 11 miles and that, when you remember the moon is 240,000 miles away, is not really very far at all.
So, on the upside Concorde was quick and comfortable because it did fly above the turbulence. But on the downside it was cramped, boring and so noisy in the back that Michael Winner and Roger Moore would have fist-fights over who’d get seat 1A where it was only deafening.
I flew on Concorde twice. Once when I was given an upgrade and once as a guest on its final flight from New York. I never paid for a ticket and I never wanted to because I never saw it as a tool. For me, watching Concorde was so much better than being on it.
This is the point the Guardianistas missed. They thought the ordinary miner and nurse had paid for Concorde and derived no benefit. But we did. Because we were the ones on the ground, pointing…
For eighteen years I lived in Fulham, slap bang in the middle of the flight path into Heathrow, and as a result I never once heard the second item on either the six or the ten o’clock news. Every night, at 6.03 and 10.03, the gentle hum of London would be drowned out by the immense
crackling thunder of those four Olympus engines. And every night I’d go to the window to watch the source of this roar slide by.
In Barbados all the planes are made to fly miles from the coast so they don’t disturb the holiday-makers. But Concorde was allowed to come right down the beaches of the West Coast, skimming the palm trees with its broken nose, the jet wash rippling the sand. To watch the Americans wetting themselves with excitement over the spectacle – and it was pure theatre – made me almost gooey with pride.
£2.1 billion? Bah! It was cheap.
It was a scientist with NASA who summed up Concorde better than anyone I’ve ever met. ‘Putting a man on the moon was easy,’ he said, ‘compared to getting Concorde to work.’
First of all there were the political hurdles. To get Armstrong onto the lunar surface NASA simply furnished a bunch of German rocket scientists with a lot of American dollars and sat back to reap the rewards. But over here we had no German scientists. They refused to come here after the war because it was felt we didn’t have enough money.
They were right. We had the bones of an
engine but not the funds to build a plane. So in 1962 we had to join forces with the French, who had the bones of a plane but no engine. This meant France and England would have to work together. And that’s a bit like Arsenal teaming up with Manchester United. Macmillan and de Gaulle fell out after about seven minutes. No one could even agree about how Concorde should be spelled – with or without the ‘e’.
It was Tony Benn, the then minister for science and technology, who pushed the deal forward, forcing the French to sign a ‘no-get-out clause’. This meant that, no matter what, they would be required to stick with the project and not pull out leaving the British taxpayer holding the billion-dollar albatross.
It sounded like a good idea at the time because you can’t trust Johnny Frog. However, as the years rolled by, it was a succession of shaky British governments who wanted out but couldn’t because of Benn’s clause in the contract.
Meanwhile the engineers were hard at work. Now you have to remember that this was a time when top-loading washing machines were considered advanced. There were no CD players or push-button phones. There were computers, but
they were the size of houses and took all day to get through the seven-times table. So Concorde was going to be designed by men, with pencils.
It seemed like a truly impossible dream. There were fighter jets capable of getting through the sound barrier, but they only had a range of fifteen minutes at full power and they were flown by RAF pilots who sat on ejector seats and needed oxygen masks. What’s more, after one sortie the planes would need weeks of maintenance.