Jeremy Clarkson

Clarkson on broken Britain

JC on broken Britain

Today, if something is made to perform a function, it will perform that function for a short while, and then it will stop, and you will throw it away.

This applies to everything, except fondue sets. Actually, it might apply to fondue sets as well, but no one can be sure because everyone's fondue set is at the back of a kitchen cupboard where it's been since the fateful night 30 years ago when it tipped up, spilling hot fat all over your uncle, killing him.

The other exception to this is the tube of "Easy-Wipe" oven cleaner that you saw being advertised on the television. Oven cleaners don't stop working after a short while. They never work in the first place.

Anyway, it applies to everything else. Examine, if you will, exhibit A: your mobile telephone. How long have you had it? I'm willing to bet the answer to that is "less than two years". Good. So what happened to the one you had previously? It's in a drawer somewhere isn't it? And it's broken. It might not have been broken when you put it there. But it is now.

That's the miraculous thing about items that are built to perform a function in the 21st century. They certainly break when you drop them on the floor or they fall down a lavatory or off a boat. And they break for no reason one Tuesday. But they also break when you leave them alone.

Exhibit B? Well, that can be any electrical item bought for you (or your parents) as a wedding present. Does your old toaster work? What about the Magimix? The microwave? Nope. You threw it out years ago because it suddenly decided one day to die, along with the portable DVD player you bought when they first came out. Still got your first iPod? Of course you haven't. It froze back in 2005.

Let me give you a list of things which I currently have, and which aren't working. The lights on my porch. The lights in my garden. The internet in my flat. The phone in my flat. My freezer. My Sonos music system. My laptop. The padlock to the paddock gate. Even the left-hand gatepost at the top of my drive.

This was built just 10 years ago, but in the winter frosts water which seeped into the stone, froze, thawed and blew the top piece to smithereens. Yes, that's right. These days, we can't even build a gatepost that lasts. They could build a sodding cathedral in the dark ages, using mud and coal. But we can't build a gatepost now.

And here's the really big nuisance. In the brief period when something does work, it becomes invaluable. You wonder how you ever managed without it. So when it stops, your life is ruined.

Imagine trying to work today without a mobile phone. Unless you are a deep-sea diver, or a miner, it would be impossible. We used to manage, but now it would be like trying to work without a head. Or lungs.

Sky+ is another fine example. We used to watch a TV show when it was on. And then we spent a few years on our knees, with our arses in the air, setting the timer on our video recorders for Tuesday to record a programme that was on on Sunday. And then along came Sky+. When that doesn't work, and it doesn't quite often, it's as though your face has been amputated.

All of this is making life extremely expensive, because when something goes wrong, you cannot repair it. No one can mend Sky+ or an iPhone. You have to get a new one. And you have to get a new one immediately because life is impossible without it.

‘Imagine trying to work without a mobile phone. It’d be impossible. It’d be like trying to work without a head. Or lungs’

Part of the problem is the designer. If an item were built solely to perform a function, then it might stand a chance of not breaking. But because everything these days is ‘designed', form is allowed to kick function out of the back seat and into the boot. This applies, especially, to shoes.

The idea is, of course, that if you have a ‘designer' product, it won't matter when it goes wrong because by then, it will be unfashionable and time for a new one anyway. This month, for instance, I'm supposed to hope that my iPhone suddenly explodes because then I have an excuse to buy the new version with the HD video facility.

I have decided that if I were to live my life again, I would build a house with no gadgets in it whatsoever. And when I say no gadgets, I mean nothing from the 21st century. There would be no insulation in the walls. The windows would be in wooden frames. The lights would be 40-watt bulbs the shape of cul-de-sacs. Low energy, one touch, enjoy-your-food pinging dishwashers? Nope. And I'd have a typewriter.

Strangely, however, I'm not sure that I would apply this logic - and it is logic - to cars.

I have spent a great deal of time in the last few weeks driving around in cars from the Eighties which, when you're my age, was yesterday. But despite this recent-ness, none of them had air bags, or satnav, or anti-lock brakes, or iPod connectivity, or valves in the exhaust to produce nice noises at high revs, or adjustable side bolsters on the seats, or automatic wipers or indeed any of the things you find these days on even a Kia Cee'd.

Of course, all of the aforementioned things became invaluable the moment they were first invented. Would I buy a car these days that could not play the songs from my iPod? Not on your nelly. And it's the same story with satnav.

However, what makes these products different from the products in your home is that they are still working.

You bounce through pot holes at 70mph. You leave them outside when it's snowing and when it's 90 degrees. You let your dog play with the buttons. And still they continue to play the Doobie Brothers and find the quickest route to Bishop's Stortford.

It's the same story with the rest of the car. When was the last time you broke down? Unless you have a Peugeot, the answer is "I can't remember". When was the last time you had a puncture? Not that long ago, a tyre would burst because it was bored with being a tyre. Now you could drive through a nail factory and emerge on the other side still with 30psi at each corner.

Part of the reason for this is that despite strenuous and understandable efforts from the car makers to turn their products into disposable designer items to be bought and discarded like handbags, they remain a ‘big buy'.

There's more though. BMW knows that if you buy a Z4 and it goes wrong after six minutes, you will replace it when the time comes with a Mercedes. No big deal. It's effectively the same thing. Both have steering wheels, pedals, speedo, wheels and so on.

This is the problem we have with iPods and Sky+ and Gaggia coffee machines and British Telecom's internet services. If you do decide to switch horses, you end up with more instruction books, more buttons you don't understand and realistically, just as much of a chance of complete failure within a few days. So when my iPhone goes wrong, I buy another. I don't even consider a Raspberry.

I therefore have a suggestion. To make the world a better and easier place, car firms should be allowed to run it. At the moment they are all running around swallowing one another up. This needs to stop. Instead, they must run about swallowing everything else up. I want Ford to run Apple. I want Mercedes to buy Gaggia. I want BMW to sell me a freezer that works. And I want a chap from Nissan to repair my bloody gatepost.

Jeremy Clarkson, Column

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