Richard Hammond

Richard Hammond on: family cars

never went to university. I wish I had, though. Mostly because I’m not very good at arguing, and a few years of hanging with bright, brainy types debating stuff might have refined my technique away from the petulant, sulky frenzy I deploy today when challenged on anything from career issues to a dinner menu. 

Recently though, I thought I’d managed, for once, to carry out the sort of measured, tactical move I so envy among the better-educated: I conceded a battle. It had raged on for years and concerned my wife, my daughters and our family car. The car in question has changed over time; it’s been a Defender, an old Volvo, an aged Range Rover, another Defender and is now a Discovery. What hasn’t changed, though, is the state of it. 

The seats morph from cloth to leather, but the mulchy mass of sandwich boxes, chocolate wrappers, hairbands, hockey socks, old magazines and varied, unidentified, organic matter slowly rotting on top of and around those seats has retained a remarkable consistency over the years... as though an outgoing family car were simply mucked out into the new one to maintain familiar continuity, like a favourite compost heap. I have railed against this: complained, shouted, moaned and whined. And to no effect.

My darling wife and equally darling daughters have carried on conducting their experiment in materials decomposition during the daily school run. 

On the rare occasion I have driven alone in the family car, I have been haunted by rustlings and hisses from the back seat – there are life forms evolving under there, I’m sure of it, and I think I heard something whisper my name under the
back seat once. It’s scary. But more scary still is the response, should I choose to complain. Everyone’s car is, I am told, like this. Which cannot be true, I counter, because if it were so, then society could not have successfully kept the plague in check. 

But, this week, I gave in. I conceded, I swallowed my fatherly pride and declared that, yes, that was just how a family car ends up and that I would put up with it in future without complaint. I attached a small but significant caveat to my concession – they could keep the car in whatever state they chose, but they would keep it for 25 years. I would not, I announced, be replacing our expensive and once very smart Discovery until 2039. And by this move, I figured I had conceded a battle, but with an eye to winning the war. We went out that day as a family. We played crazy golf, visited a butterfly farm and got lost in a hedge maze. We got back in the car to come home. And I learned that the war had long since been lost anyway and I was fighting in the name of something incomprehensible to them.

Izzy, my eldest at 13, climbed into the car along with the rest of us, though separate on account of earphones connecting her head to her iPhone. We drove off. Music played on the stereo, we chatted, usual family stuff. Izzy asked if I knew where her phone was. I rustled through the debris in the door bin, fearful of losing a finger to some dreadful, snapping creature living its life in the dark and filthy debris. Will.i.am played on the stereo, while I searched. And then Jason Derulo took over.  “But we’re listening to your phone on the stereo, aren’t we? It’s Bluetoothed to the dash.”

“Yeah, I know, but I need the phone itself to send a text.”

“But...” 

She had climbed on board, flipped out her earplugs as the phone had reconnected itself to the car and played her music through the stereo. Then the phone had got lost in the jumble of garbage at her feet and now she wanted it to send a message. It was a seamless transition: music through earplugs, get in car, music carries on in car. I can spend 20 minutes faffing about to hook up my phone to the car and then a further 20 trying to make it play my music through the stereo. Or I might spend 10 minutes rifling for a CD. 

The idea of a CD is inconceivable to Izzy and her contemporaries. Music is not something that manifests itself physically in any way, apart from making people dance at parties. There is no ‘thing’, no disc, no cover art, no physical realisation of your favouring of a particular artist or band. I grew up with my music collection as a real, physical thing, something to be transferred between bedsits and flats. It would be displayed somewhere prominent, where I knew a visitor would be forced to loiter, eyes scanning the colours and text on the sharp spines of the CD cases for clues about me. 

I could tell people my aspirations and sensitivities through my record collection. Choice of CD was as revealing as a person’s choice of car. A beat-up VW Beetle full of Joni Mitchell CDs signalled something very different from an old Land Rover full of heavy metal. Izzy’s music is just something that’s always there. She buys tracks on her phone, but they can never be seen or touched. They follow her around in the ether, transferring seamlessly from her headphones to the speakers in the car. The music is just there, around her, because she likes it. 

 

The idea, then, that a car is precious and important because it might be used to signal information about yourself
is, and possibly always will be, entirely alien to her. It’s significant only in the sense that she goes through a door in one place and gets out again where she wants to be. Maybe she and her contemporaries will always view them the same way they think of their music: it’s just something that’s always there. You wouldn’t want to touch it, to hold it in your hand or to look at it, it’s just handy when you need it. Oh my God, I need to get out in my Mustang, now...

Richard Hammond, Column

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