James May

James May

A crude awakening

If you're anything like me, you probably buy your bog roll in hospital-sized packs of 12. A 12-pack offers peace of mind. That leaning tower of tissue on the bathroom shelf means I can relax in the little room in the certain know-ledge that I'm not going to be caught short.

When I've just got a new 12-pack in, it's amazing how profligate I can be with the stuff. A roll here or there has no real bearing on the motions of the May household. But when I'm down to two rolls I become a bit more frugal, and when I'm down to the final few turns of the very last roll I start to panic.

Eventually I enter the karzi with Top Gear for what the Americans call a ‘rest' and the naked cardboard tube mocks me from the holder on the wall. I now have two choices.

I can skip quickly down to the corner newsagents, where bog rolls cost a pound each and the grinning proprietor knows he's got me with my trousers down. Or I can start looking for an alternative. Jeremy's page, for example.

The latter is the more ethical course of action in the long run. Eventually, the trauma induced by the shiny, scratchy Top Gear paper will drive me to work harder at my design for a domestic pulping machine that recycles old car magazines into luxury four-ply velvet lavatory tissue. Industrial bog roll will disappear overnight and the business of wiping your arse will have become cheaper and much more ecologically sound. It's tough on Andrex, but that's progress.

Now let's consider another essential resource, oil. All of a sudden, people are concerned that it's going to run out. And one day it will, but so what? So far this stuff has lain in the ground for millions of years being of no use whatsoever to man or beast. What are we supposed to do? Leave it there? Oil is as useless in the ground as bog roll is on the newsagent's shelves.

Oil, as anyone who was at the Kyoto summit will tell you, is pretty dodgy stuff. When you burn it, it produces all sorts of pollutants that make you ill or screw up the weather. In which case, it would be a good idea to get rid of it as soon as possible, and the best way to do this is to turn it into petrol, pour it into the tank of my old Bentley and drive somewhere.

This is the most environmentally sound way of ridding the world of the oil menace. If I don't do this, someone will make it last much longer in a Renault Clio diesel, or turn it into vacuum-formed packaging or cheap plastic novelties for Christmas crackers.

My whittering left-wing middle-class mates tell me that the Bentley is immoral, and that we should eke out our oil reserves so that our children and grandchildren can have some. But why? Do they really want their descendants' lives blighted with this muck? Let's concentrate on using it up and then, as with the bog roll, we will be forced to come up with something better for them.

And we will think up something better. I know, because recently I had a go at driving a traction engine. This was a wonderful old machine. Steam power remains a source of wonder; a 35-ton load was being hauled along thanks to the same simple physical phenomena that makes my old camping kettle whistle at tea time. The sweat and toil of the steam-era engineman is also undeniably romantic, and I hope the steam rally and its attendant eccentrics remain a feature of British bank-holiday life for ever.

But glorious and nostalgic as steam is, there was a darker side to the technology - it was unbelievably dirty. The filth that chuffed out of the chimney of this thing kept me in the shower for a day. Steam engines were never fuel-efficient and the fuel was nasty, nasty coal - look at the brickwork of any old and unrestored building near a railway line to get an idea of just how much cack a relatively small number of steam engines produced.

"Oil, as anyone who was at the Kyoto summit will tell you, is pretty dodgy stuff" 

If every vehicle on the road was instantaneously replaced by a steam engine, you'd just have time to notice that you couldn't see anything out of the window before you died of bronchitis. Fortunately, the sheer bulkiness of steam technology and the miracle of internal combustion ensured that the Aveling and Porter Indomitable road-engine was never going to be produced in huge numbers. Instead, I hear you cry, we have millions of cars. Thing is, the desire for personal transport existed before the car came along and was simply the spur to coming up with something better.

The desire for personal transport was there even before the steam engine, in fact. That's when we had horses. These are fuelled by horse feed - oats and what have you - but the by-product is horse shit. If every household had a horse, our towns would be knee deep in the stuff and your house full of flies harbouring the sort of diseases that kill children. It happened in the slums of Victorian Britain.

And all this is before we consider some of the other arguments in favour of the car. Horses have their own minds, are too far off the ground and don't have proper brakes. Traction engines have been known to explode, weigh as much as a small house and feature chain-driven steering that is geared far too low and lacks ‘feel'.

Steam power was ultimately more useful than pure horse power, which is why it came about. I'm confident it was ultimately less damaging as well. Petrol and diesel are, in turn, better than coal and water and, all other things being equal, they have done us less harm. So the world is not going to pot after all - it's getting better.

But it's now time, once more, for something new, and the impetus for it will come not from legislation but from necessity. I don't know the answer to the great energy debate and, frankly, if I did I'd be off working on it and making my fortune, instead of wasting my life away trying to keep you amused for five minutes while you sit on the throne.

But there will be an answer. I really believe this, but if you disagree, I've already told you what you can do with this column.


James May, Column

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