Clarkson on: Britain
This article was first published in June 2001.
Assume for a moment that you are Hong Kongish. You have read in the newspapers about Cool Britannia with its ice-white restaurants and its prime minister who greets youths with a high five. You know that the old stuffy Britain, the useless Britain that gave Hong Kong to the Chinese, is a thing of the past, so you think it'd be a good idea to come the UK for a look-see.
So, you board the train in downtown Kowloon and head for the airport. On the short journey, down tracks built over the sea, the ride is smooth, the carriage has been cleaned by oral hygienists and you have a personal TV set with a choice of movies or rolling news. Nice.
And then you board the aircraft. Not Cathay Pacific, of course, you want a taste of Britain from the start, so you go for British Airways. Not so nice.
I've just come back from a holiday in Barbados and simply couldn't believe how badly things have slipped at BA. I was greeted by a stewardess who, with all the panache of a '70s Saturday morning shop girl, asked if I'd like juice or water. What happened to the champagne and nuts?
Later, in a period of turbulence she woke me, pointed at my sleeping wife and said "Tell her to put her seat belt on". And then, for breakfast, when I asked for a croissant, that is precisely what I got. No table cloth, no butter, no knife. Just a lump of croissant.
Then, we landed at Gatwick to find that the Virgin Jumbo which had left after us in Barbados was already there. The BA 777 may be cheap to run, but it has the cruising speed of a wheelbarrow.
Oh, and Branson can stop smirking because I'm told he's configured his faster 747s to hold 560 passengers. Presumably, the thinner passengers are asked to snuggle down in the butt cheeks of those who are a little fatter.
Anyway, refreshed after his croissant, our friend from Hong Kong lands at Gatwick (yes, I know BA's Far East flights go to Heathrow, but not this one. OK?) and he heads off for the train ride into London. Now, I used this service recently and it was bad enough to make my eyebrows spin. Late. Cleaned by the blind. And with an engine that Brunel would have called old fashioned.
"I’m telling you. Nothing in this Godforsaken country works any more"
Still, he climbs aboard and is bumped through a haze of burnt cow smoke into London where the Real IRA are blowing things up, the hotels cost £5million a minute, the tube doesn't work and the deputy prime minister talks like Joda, but in a Yorkshire accent. To disguise his Welshness. Then he'll find that his mobile won't work in Fulham and that half of the people he's come to see are at home that day waiting for people from BT to answer the phone, or someone from Thames Water to come and mend a leak. He'll then get mugged by a gang of Albanian refugees and, when he goes to the hospital for treatment, a doctor, who is fourteen and has worked for the last two years non-stop, injects drain cleaner into his spine and kills him.
I'm telling you. Nothing in this Godforsaken country works any more. As I'm sure you know, they have just finished widening the M25 across its entire western section, but I see on the Highways Agency website that they're now planning to widen it again. How can this be? If traffic levels have not risen in the past year, why didn't they make it wide enough in the first place?
And if wider motorways are the answer, why have they just announced that the infernal M4 bus lane has been an unqualified success and will be here to stay? Answer me that one, Fat Boy.
But, worst of all, they've announced that throughout the summer, there will be seven separate maintenance projects on the M25 and that, from 7am-9.30am and 4pm-7pm, drivers should seek alternative routes.
WHAT! The magnificence of this stupidity beggars belief. If you live in Hertfordshire and work in Surrey, there are no alternative routes. None. Do they really think that any one of the 170,000 people who use the M25 each day is there for fun?
And nor can the poor buggers use public transport either, since the trains keep crashing and the tube drivers are usually on strike, as they maintain their drive for more time in bed.
Then we have to consider the sheer length of time these roadworks take. I once saw a team of Japanese navvies resurface the equivalent of Park Lane between sunset and sunrise, but here they're shutting lanes on the M25 for three months to change a cat's eye.
I'm not an engineer, I admit, but really, how can it take the whole summer to put a new layer of tarmac on a few miles of road? Give a German three months and he'd have time to take the road away, plant crops, harvest them and build a new road.
Of course, the longer they keep the cones out, the longer the special speed limits stay in force; thus the more fines they'll get to fund the agencies that dream up annoyances for the driver.
Cool Britannia? If you are reading this outside the UK, stay there. The only thing that's cool about this place is the bloody weather.