Alexei Sayle: Spare us a witty reinvention of the motor car...

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Indy Lifestyle Online

A few weeks ago, I went with the restaurant reviewer of another paper to have lunch at a place called Hibiscus, which had moved from Ludlow, where it had gained two Michelin stars, to Mayfair. He and I both found the food ludicrous and the atmosphere oppressive, but other reviewers, (including one from this newspaper, for example) raved, and the London listings magazine Time Out gave Hibiscus six stars out of five, the first time it has done such a thing.

Yet to me and my companion, the meal was pretty poor, "hibiscus flower and olive-oil soda" and "monkfish with an emulsion of Douglas fir" are two dishes I can remember; a lot of it tasted like medicine, and the rest a bit like household cleaning products.

The worst was a witty reinvention of the sausage roll (which came at a 12.50 supplement). I don't know how a food product could really be witty: aren't witty things supposed to make you smile or laugh? No food can do that, apart perhaps from an opium omelette or a nitrous-oxide cake.

Trying to figure out why Hibiscus existed, why critics lauded it and other restaurants like it, and why the rich patronised it, I came to the conclusion that such places have the same appeal to the wealthy as modern art and haute couture.

The theory being that any ordinary, dull person can wear comfortable clothes or hang nice things on their wall, but only the rich display the disagreeable in their homes, wear the repellent, and go to restaurants to eat the uneatable. This is how they show that they are superior to the masses.

Mind you, you could say that the joke is on them as they sit in their gloomy restaurants eating fish covered in tree.

Then I began to wonder if there is any equivalent to Hibiscus in the motor industry, and do we who write about cars also deliberately boost the abstruse as the food critics do? Certainly, there are cars that are ridiculously expensive, pointless and powerful Maybachs, Pagani Zondas, Ferraris, and so on but to me they still seem like solid pieces of engineering. You couldn't deny that, in many ways, they are obscenely expensive and wasteful they don't basically do anything that a Mondeo couldn't do but still I think that they are not silly in the way the food at Hibiscus was. Expensive cars go fast, they stop, they go round corners, they are not "witty reinventions".

I'm not entirely sure what a witty reinvention of a car would look like. It would probably have six tiny wheels made of tin, one mahogany seat, and the steering wheel in the boot.

I think, though, that it is certainly not us motoring journalists who keep cars from being pointless and ridiculous. Rather, it is the mass of regulations to which they have to conform these days.

Recently, I spoke at a debate about cars at the Design Museum in London, and a lot of the panel were moaning about how all the great, madly distinctive cars are in the past, asking, "Where are the Citroën DSs and Mk 1 Range Rovers of today?". But I, annoying contrarian that I am, pointed out that this perceived lack of idiosyncrasy is a function of modern cars being forced to be so safe, cheap and economical.

"After all," I said, "nobody goes about saying, 'Oh, what about them old planes they used to have, they were wonderfully distinctive, weren't they? I used to love it when they caught fire and crashed all the time. Let's have them back!'."

Then we all went out to dinner at a smart restaurant and ate quail fried in chipboard.

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