Clarkson on: luck
I want to start this month by talking about luck. On the one hand we have Ringo Starr who wakes up every morning in a huge house on a bed made of money. And what's he done to earn this?
Someone once said to John Lennon that Ringo wasn't exactly the best drummer in the world to which John replied, "Not the best drummer in the world? He isn't even the best drummer in the Beatles".
Ringo is king of the lucky club. A club that also includes his wife, Barbara Bach, former Bond girl and possibly the worst actress ever. Then there's Roger Moore, all the supermodels, the Marquis of Blandford, Richard Branson and, of course, Ray Mears who makes a fortune every year because he can cook snot on a beach. These are the people who won joint first prize in the lottery of life.
Then, at the other end of the scale, there's me. I make the orphans in the engine room of a Malaysian paddle steamer look like Flavio Briatore. The forgotten families of Brazil go to sleep every night on the rubbish tips of Sao Paulo saying "Well, at least we're not Jeremy Clarkson."
In Monopoly, I go directly to jail and stay there. In bridge, I'm the three of clubs. And at the races, my horse goes home in a butcher's van. In any game of chance, I'm the paper to your scissors, the stone to your good fortune. I always, always lose.
Strange to report then that I love gambling in general and black jack in particular. It's the thrill. Being dealt an eight and hoping, praying, sinking to my knees and whimpering like a dog, that the next card will be a three. Then I could double my bet, get a picture, and win!
It never happens, obviously. It's always a five, but that's all right because what non-gamblers don't understand about gambling is this: winning is not important.
If all I wanted was more money, I'd plonk myself at the roulette table and play one of the systems. But what's the point? That's doing maths for a guaranteed pay back. And that's not fun. That's called accountancy.
Being there is what it's all about. The agony of choice, the frisson of hope, the black shroud of despair. PJ O'Rourke once said that his idea of heaven would be watching the entire Mexican air force crash land on a petro-chemical refinery. But for me, I can think of nothing better than those days back in the Eighties, playing cards at my little underground casino on Lower Sloane Street with its roaring fire and its fresh coffee. The joy was unparalleled.
This is why I've never enjoyed playing in Las Vegas. Oh, I'm sure it was fun in the days when Robert De Niro was in charge and Joe Pesci was in the back room, putting someone's head in a vice. But today, Vegas has changed and it feels like you're playing against corporate America.
The dealers are simply a far flung tentacle of that amorphous, unseen being known as the corporate shareholder. And their job is to get your money into the Nasdaq system as fast as possible. It's as impersonal, and as fast, as a back-street hand job in downtown Saigon.
"I genuinely worry about people who fill up whenever the needle drops below half"
I was thinking all this last night as, once again, I found myself driving home with the fuel needle bent double over the bump stop of empty. Thinking about the appeal of gambling was a sort of answer to the perennial question: ‘Why do I do this?'
It's not just me either. Tiff Needell, formerly of this parish, went everywhere with both the rev counter and the fuel gauge in the red zone. He never went into a filling station with the engine still running.
And why not? I genuinely worry about people who fill up whenever the needle drops below half. How empty must your life be, and how unimportant your journey, if you have time to stand and watch the pump dispense the fruits of your labours in a digital blur?
It's not the expense; oh, we may moan about the price of petrol these days, but that's not the issue here. It's the tedium. It's hard to think of anything, apart from being dissolved in a bath of acid, which is less enjoyable than standing in a filling station, pumping fuel.
It's particularly awful when you have a Jaguar because unless you have the nozzle arranged just so, it cuts out every second and a half. Then you have the pumps which deliver fuel at the rate of a gallon an hour, and those with stiff grips which give your hand cramp, and those which deliberately deliver exactly 1p more than you'd planned.
The whole event is an affront to the senses. The fluorescent half light, knowing that the smell is giving you cancer and that when the tank is finally full, you'll be in a shop which only sells carcinogenic pies and radioactive drink. Why do petrol stations have to be like petrol stations? Why can't they be like Victorian railway stations or cricket pavilions? Why can't they be designed by Conran with splashes of zinc here and there? Who says that I must have a Fuse bar every time I fill up? What if I want a lobster?
And as you look about, the whole place is full of people who don't really need to be there, people who are filling up long before the engine actually coughs. I bet Norma Major keeps the diesel tank topped off. And I bet Ozzy Osbourne doesn't.
I don't either. When I'm driving up a motorway with the fuel light on and a sign says ‘services 1m and 29m', I always, always, always go for the furthest target. And when I get there, I'll often drive past that one too.
Now you probably think this is a pointless game. You think that there's no prize if I win and a long trudge in the rain if I lose.
You will also explain that even if I do make it home, on fumes, the car will not miraculously fuel itself overnight. It will have to be filled eventually, so why not now?
True, but on a motorway with nothing but Gareth Gates for company, things can get dull. Playing fuel light bingo brings a bit of excitement to the monotony. The will I/won't I gamble puts some fizz in my blood stream and an extra boing to my heart beat.
I am now the world expert on which cars go how far below empty on the gauge. Fords are good, but Porsche's are bad. When a 928 says it has no fuel on board, it has no fuel on board and you judder to a halt.
That's not bad though. One failure in 25 years on the road. I'm surprised they haven't asked me to be the new voice of Thomas The Tank Engine.
This article was first published in April 2003.