Richard Hammond on: the school run
Of the many things for which I regularly have the mickey taken out of me on TopGear, the Hammond family's yoghurt-commercial lifestyle stands out as a particularly well-placed, accurate stab.
Despite the world's conviction to the contrary, I have never actually had my teeth whitened or dyed my hair, but my family and I do live, it's true, in a comforting blur of rural happiness, riding ponies, walking dogs and feeding ducks. All of which is smashing: rosy cheeks, chunky woollen wear, Sunday lunches, bracing country air and all that. But I do sometimes envy those families who've got it all organised and sorted with their urban lifestyle.
I feel a twinge of jealousy watching TV adverts where you see the dad kiss his family goodbye and set off to commute a mile to work, while the kids trot down the road to school with their shiny backpacks full of sandwiches and the mum sets off in a small sports car to her office a mile away. The Hammond crew's school run is 50 miles there and back, and often has to be done three times a day, to accommodate whatever after-school hockey match, theatre performance or birthday party must be attended. And the closest thing I have to an office is a shared corner of the TG production office at the BBC, meaning my ‘commute' is a round trip of 250 miles.
I have, of late, had more opportunities than usual to spare Mrs Hammond and do the school run myself, following our recent, unscheduled return from Argentina - of which we shall speak no more, other than to say it was a coincidence. It just was. And even if it wasn't - which it was - what were they thinking, throwing rocks at 20-year-old researchers and camera assistants, thousands of miles from home in the middle of the night?
Anyway, it seems that there are some who refuse to believe that we didn't decode the numberplate's hidden message, indeed that we chose the plate, the car and planned the entire film on the basis of what would have been, anyway, a pretty weak gag. The fact is, we didn't look at the numberplate other than to acknowledge that it had one when we filled in forms to buy it and ship it. I have never looked for messages in a numberplate of any car I've bought.
A friend turned up at the school gates, very proud of his new Discovery, and particularly so of its numberplate which, he claimed, spelled out - with a combination of Bs, zeros and eights - ‘boob'. I hadn't spotted it until he pointed it out but did then enjoy laughing at it. He laughed a lot louder when I rolled up in our new family car, also a Discovery, the numberplate of which, he pointed out, spelled, thanks to a combination of ‘V', ‘A' and ‘G' another word possibly pertaining to bits of a lady but of an altogether less appropriate nature at the school gates. I had never noticed this, nobody since has noticed and, anyway, it's only my numberplate and I don't care what it spells out, it's just there to identify my car. And, if someone does notice, I don't expect to be stoned at the gates.
Anyway, the aforementioned numberplate had forced an early return for me from the southern hemisphere, and I was glad to take up duties as the school run taxi driver.
On Day Two, it was impossible to miss the fact that the 25 miles of winding country roads to school were unusually clogged. There's always traffic - it's a busy route - but this was different. The local motorway was, it turned out, closed due to having been turned into a skidpan by a lorry crashing and emptying its load of oil on it.
I knew something had happened before I saw the diversion signs because, I suddenly realised, I didn't recognise the cars and trucks around me. Which meant that normally I did. The red Golf usually parked at the top of a blind crest, the psychopathic sheep farmer in the Defender who absolutely will have a big one on a blind bend one day, even the little old lady whom I am convinced waits along the road in her Ford Focus for me to leave my gates before setting off ahead of me to keep my speed down to 12mph... all of these people became familiar characters in a soap opera that I had got to join in every morning.
The plot's a bit thin, the action can be slow, but the scenery's great and I really enjoy it. Injecting all these new characters had ruined it for me. I resented the dismal twerp in a green Toyota Corolla who insisted on cruising at a steady 35 through the 50mph limits and then accelerating to a steady 45 for the 30mph stretches.
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They were by no means as dangerous as the young lunatic in his black Corsa whom I dread encountering every morning on the hill past the pub by the converted chapel, but he's a familiar character now, he's part of our play, part of our club.
They'll fix the M50 one day soon, and all these unwelcome invaders will leave our road and we can get back to our normal morning and evening rituals and perhaps take a fresh look at the unique little club to which, it turns out, we all belong.
Strangely enough, when you have to spend some time away from home, it's the small, inconsequential things you miss, like the characters in your daily school run.