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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.

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