Captain Slow and Colonel Panic

Three robots are squatting awkwardly in a circle of spotlight in the centre of a vast space, surrounded by the latest models of electric self-driving cars. One robot is taller than the others. One has a Liberty print shirt pinned awkwardly around its chassis. The third is shorter than the other two and has a painted face featuring glowing white teeth and whiskers. Other robots surround them: a few Roombas, swimming pool cleaners, robot lawn mowers, production line robots, robot bricklaying machines, and one of those dogs that does somersaults. The taller of the three main robots rolls forward and looks into the CAMERA EYE.


Hello. Good evening. Welcome. I greet you three times, as is the custom. Tonight we have a show for you. We sit in three new electric vehicles and put them through their paces. Then we compare: which is best?


Objectively, they are all the same.


We will establish dominance through challenge, as is the custom.


Always following the Three Laws of Robotics.


“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”

(Eyes flashing randomly)

But what about power?


All these cars have identical electric motors. All these cars were designed to be aerodynamic in a wind tunnel. All these cars are restricted to the legal speed limit. Only colour distinguishes them.


Then we will establish which is the best colour through challenge.

(turns to camera)

Which. Is the best. Colour?






You are both wrong. It is red. Let the challenge begin. I will drive the red car.


The red car will drive itself. You will sit inside it. I will sit inside the orange car. It is the colour of a beautiful sunset.


I will sit inside the blue car. It is the colour of a beautiful clear sky.


We will be conducted safely to our destination.


I will get there first in the red car. It is the colour of my angry eyes.


The red car will determine your time of arrival by assessing road conditions, and ensuring no injury to a human being or itself.


The red car will always drive below the speed limit and give priority to pedestrians and cyclists.

(Eyes dimming)

This unit is experiencing a kernel panic. Hold down the power button to restart. This unit is experiencing a kernel panic. Hold down the power button to restart…

(plays a little tune)

Recharge Roomba.

So, Farewell then, Amazon Prime


I’ve got a few months to run, since I pay annually, but I’ve cancelled my Amazon Prime subscription. It’s a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts. Not really. But it is a kind of protest. Here’s why I’m cancelling.

I’ll start with the most concrete reason why: although I’ve had a lot (too much!) of use of the free delivery side of things, I’ve not really accessed the video content much lately. Partly, that’s because it’s not very convenient. I’ve got an Apple TV, which I quite like. It’s got a good interface, it’s reliable and stable, and most of the things I now watch can be accessed through it. But Amazon have dug in their heels and refused to develop an Apple TV app. They’ve got apps for the iPhone and iPad, and you can watch on your MacBook, but they’ve arbitrarily picked on this one device not to support.

I can still throw stuff from my phone onto the Apple TV using Airplay, which works fairly reliably. Problem is, when I do that, I can’t use my phone for anything else. My other way of watching Amazon content is via the shonky app on my (old) Sony Blu-Ray player. The interface on that is terrible, and finding content is painful and slow.

So reason number one is this: Amazon are playing stupid games with Apple and their lack of support for AppleTV is nothing short of malicious.

Will I miss the actual content? Not really. Some of their stuff is okay, but none of it has that hooky, addictive quality that makes you care if you miss it. The show I enjoyed the most, Bosch, is pretty decent, and beautifully made, but it’s not so wondrous that I’d continue to pay for the service, as inconvenient as it is.

In fact, decent and beautifully made is a good descriptor of quite a lot of Amazon’s content. The Man in the High Castle looks incredible, but as far as character and story go, it’s just not that compelling. Red Oaks is pretty good, but I didn’t find season 2 as charming as the first. Then there’s Mr Robot, which is brilliant, and which is must-see TV, but since it’s not actually an Amazon production, I should be able to get it on DVD.

Which brings me to my most petty and childish reason for cancelling my subscription. The biggest ballyhoo Amazon has ever made about its content concerns The Grand Tour, Clarkson and co’s self-indulgent money pit show. Now, I’m sure many people over the years threatened not to pay their TV Licence because of various things Clarkson said or did. I wasn’t one of them, but I came to hate everything Top Gear stood for, so now I’m taking the opportunity to cancel my Amazon TV licence, because I don’t want to contribute one more penny to Clarkson’s lavish Chipping Norton libertarian lifestyle.

This last reason is petty, and if Amazon were to suddenly about turn and produce an AppleTV app, I might think again. But I’ve waited long enough, so the cancellation is in.

The Grand Boor (review)

grand-tour-20I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it, as the Top Gear schtick wore thin a long time ago, but I took a look at the first episode of The Grand Tour to see how Amazon had spent my licence fee Prime subscription.

The opening scene features Clarkson leaving Broadcasting House, handing over his lanyard, and walking away through the rain. As soon as my daughter saw this, she said, “This is just narcissism,” which was exactly right. Here’s a bully and a boor, a self-righteous, self-mythologising bore, indulging his own fantasy as the hero of his own narrative. In Clarkson’s hero’s journey he’s not the racist, sexist, apologist for neo-liberal elites whose ego became so inflated with success that he began to behave like a celebrity prima donna who can’t believe people don’t know who he is. No, he’s the poor, put-upon and misunderstood host of a harmless little TV show which gives pleasure to millions and is persecuted by the po-faced PC Brigade.

Of course, $160 million Amazon dollars and a year or so later, we have realised that the world we are living in is Trump’s World, Boris’ World, Brexit World, and the power that Clarkson has, as apologist-in-chief, is immense. Only losers are offended by Clarkson. The struggling Guardian, which continues to pretend it is ‘fearless and independent’ publishes as much Clarkson clickbait as it can, because the truth is that – like Trump – there is literally nothing Clarkson can do that will turn his legion of fans off. He can punch, lie, exaggerate, get drunk in airport lounges, and he still has his bully pulpit in The Sun, and he still has his Amazon cash to wave in our faces like a Harry Enfield character come to horrific, warty life.

So to The Grand Tour, with his sniggering foils, and his booming voice and his ridiculous supercars and his sycophantic audience who will boo a Prius to order. It’s every bit as bad and as boring as I thought it would be. God, the sheer tedium of watching a middle-aged white man drive a fast car around and around, up and down, back and forth. The blatant filler, as cynical and contemptuous as Woody Allen’s recent Amazon outing: instead of racing three cars down a track once, why not do it a dozen times? These morons will watch anything.

You feel sorry for the audience, really. You can’t help, in your liberal humanist way, have a degree of sympathy for the brainwashed. You know that the hypnotised never lie. Their function is to go along with the gag, to be convinced that it’s okay to dismiss minorities, or climate change, or wildlife – anyone who is not them – and to cheer a millionaire as he burns rubber and petrol and sneers at the people who facilitate his indulgences. Even Clarkson is just a cog in this machine, his role to be the entertaining front of the hegemony, to show how having horrible opinions is no barrier to success. He’s not much more important than the token black woman, positioned as she was to be visible in the background, over Clarkson’s shoulder, a smiling indulgence to his past racism and misogyny.

But is that some desperation I can detect, underneath the noisy bluster? I think it is. Clarkson’s voice is shot, his instrument broken, sounding permanently as if he is losing it through shouting. As a teacher, I know what that broken voice means. It means you’ve been struggling with your Year 9s, or 10s, your naughty Year 8 group. You’ve been having to raise your voice to be heard, to insist on getting your way. Clarkson’s voice has been broken by his trials. And in the tent/studio, it’s all a little more shouty and stiff and awkward. No more strolling about from point to point: they’re fixed behind a shit table on a shit stage, sitting on shit chairs, and that’s where they stay for the live portion of the show, sharing their angry banter. But it’s clear: there really is no friendship there, and the famous chemistry has not survived the controversies. The tinker-engineer and the local radio DJ are simply there to be foils to the bully and they know it, and we know it, and it’s embarrassing.

If Trump goes after Amazon it will be a sort of poetic justice. You want Amazon’s TV offerings to be as interesting as Netflix’s, but they’re just not. They mostly have a nasty undercurrent, a lack of taste, making Amazon the Microsoft to Netflix’s Apple. And the fact that Amazon have given Clarkson a platform means that they are participating in the oppression of everything decent and kind in our cruel world.

Top Gear was always a bit shit, wasn’t it?

misty mort 3Listening to the ATP guys discussing the ‘new’ BBC Top Gear, and noting the criticism on the Twitter and on Radio 4’s Media Show this week, I couldn’t help thinking, yes, but it stopped being any good a long time ago, didn’t it?

I was a young fan of the old, boring Top Gear, the one presented by William Woollard back in the day. The Clarkson Top Gear had its moments, when its budget was high and the stunts were a new thing, but then it quickly became a low-rent version of itself, growing ever more strident in its editorialising in an attempt to occlude the missing budget.

The thing about Clarkson’s Top Gear was it gave you three different types of Conservatism. There was James May, Telegraph columnist, a kind of traditional ‘one nation’ Conservative. There was Clarkson, libertarian neo-liberal, the quintessential representative of the Nasty Party. And there was Hammond, the local radio DJ who can’t believe his luck: the very image of a working class Tory.

All new Top Gear does is reveal the underlying staleness of the format. Chris Evans awkwardly trying to create camaraderie with Joey from Friends made everybody cringe, of course. Because if you’d thought about it for a second, the idea of the warm and fuzzy Ken Clarke-like James May bantering with the Trump-like Clarkson was similarly awkward.

Men talking about cars, like men talking about Golf, is simply their way of passing time before they die. Top Gear’s place on the Sunday schedule was to stave off that sinking feeling, that non-orgasmic la petite mort, you get when you remember it’s Monday tomorrow.

Finally: the last days of Top Gear

Why don’t cars give way to bikes?

My sister sent me a link to this article in the Observer, which asks if cycling has “finally” become a natural part of British life. As with most newspaper headlines that ask questions, the answer is, of course no. One of the things the article mentions is how much better cycling is in more civilised countries like Denmark and Holland – even France and the USA have a culture of treating cyclists with respect.

I often think about why this might be. Why is it that cycling, a hugely popular mass-participation activity, gets such short shrift when it comes to British public policy?

We were in Whitstable yesterday. Like the decent people we are, we used the Bank Holiday special Park and Ride and took the bus into the town*. If there’s a Park and Ride, I generally use it, because I am keenly aware that many towns, cities, and villages in this country (and in France, for that matter) are blighted by the presence of cars. The streets are too narrow, the buildings too old, there are loads of pedestrians, and the constant drone of insistent traffic is the ultimate spoiler. People who insist on driving into tourist destinations, jockeying for the limited space, are anti-social.

The kind of people who insist on driving their cars through the narrow streets of tourist destination are the same people, of course, who make life difficult for cyclists all over the place.

We are living in the end times of the motor car, I think. The popularity of Top Gear is explained by that. Top Gear is the last, decadent thrust of car culture into the bosom of civilisation. Its reactionary politics, its not-so-closeted racism, its vicious intolerance of difference, its championing of boorish self-centred behaviour: all these things are connected to its celebration of the dinosaur internal combustion engine.

That the British have a problem – not with cycling – but with cyclists, is all down to the problem we have with class. If America, the country that invented car culture, can respect cyclists, why can’t the British? The difference is our obsession with class, the need to feel better than others. As soon as someone gets behind the wheel of a motor car, they get a superiority complex. They undergo the usual personality change, and, in control of their own personal fiefdom for once in their lives,  they like to lord it over other road users. There are degrees of this, of course, and just as not all men are sexual harassers, not all motorists are aggressive sociopaths. But just as all women have suffered some form of harassment, all cyclists have encountered a motorist who seems to actually want to kill them.

I’m glad that Top Gear exists, because, like The Daily Telegraph, it gives you an insight into a certain mind-set. When you witness Clarkson chundering about Welsh people, or gypsies, or bus lanes, or teachers, or cyclists, you are viewing a synecdoche of the underlying attitudes of an enormous number of people, attitudes you should be aware of every time you take to the road. Clarkson is just King Cunt. We will never be Copenhagen, or Amsterdam, or even France, until British motorists stop thinking they have more rights than other road users, including pedestrians and cyclists. Lorry drivers, bus drivers, white van people, are all as guilty.

Even my wife commented (from the passengers seat) the other day, when she saw an oncoming cyclist in the middle of a single track road. “Get over to the side,” she said. I had to gently explain to her that a cyclist has the right to position him or herself wherever it is safest – the edge of the road generally being the most unsafe place to ride. All I had to do, in my car, was slow down and move aside – stop if necessary – to let the cyclist past. But too many drivers consider it a personal affront and humiliation to have to do this. I’m in a car, they think. My car cost way more than that bike, which makes me better than them. Why should I give way?

King Cunt Clarkson is on his final warning. The problem the BBC has is that it gave him a sweetheart deal which includes 50% ownership of the Top Gear brand. I suspect (or should I say hope) that the next time Clarkson opines that some group of public servants should be shot, or uses a racist slur he learned at his boarding school, it will be the end of both him and the brand. End times.


*The price of the Whitstable Park and Ride was extortionate, which is stupid and wrong. If it’s more expensive than parking in town, you’re defeating the object. In Strasbourg, we pay a couple of Euros for four return tram tickets and a parking spot. Parking in Whitstable cost six quid. This is just punishing people who are trying to do the right thing, which just about sums up the sickness that afflicts Britain.