In a nondescript side street of an unpretty north-west London suburb there sits what Jeremy Clarkson, a man who effectively does brash for a living, describes as "the most vulgar vehicle I have ever seen." It is a state-of-the-art stretch Hummer, all black, with tinted windows, headlights the size of dinner plates and a front grille that growls. In its smaller format, the Hummer - basically a 4x4 with an attitude problem - has been the car of choice for brash, vulgar American hip-hop stars for a decade now. But, as with all things American, they are beginning to make an impact over here too, and nowhere more so than in the stretch limo game. For those who want to feel (omega) like a celebrity on a par with, say, Big Brother's Chantelle (and many clearly do), then the Hummer is the way to go. It's a nightclub on wheels, the ultimate white-stilettoed pulling machine. Whichever way you look at it, it isn't subtle.
This one is 30ft long, seats 16 and comes with a megawatt sound system that, by obligation, pumps out a remorseless tirade of Ibiza-friendly dance tunes. Right now, all is quiet and serene within. The black leather seats and faux-velvet lining are spotless and pine fresh. Empty champagne glasses sit next to several bottles chilling on ice. But, as owner/driver Chris Mills of Hummer Time warns, this is merely a temporary lull. Our destination tonight is the capital's West End, where Mills will be paid to sit in traffic jams while his cargo of paying customers will drink, shout, dance and - who knows? - perhaps even fornicate in the back, all for the handsome price of £400 an hour.
"You've got to be prepared for any eventuality in one of these things," says Chris, a likeable, garrulous man whose bulk also suggests it would be unwise to mess with him. "Hummers prompt a reaction in everyone."
He sparks the ignition, and begins to negotiate the car towards today's first fare. En route we get reactions Chris has come to expect. People stare, point, wave. Some make "tosser" signs.
He shakes his head: "You'd never see someone doing that to a Bentley, would you? But something snaps in people when they see a Hummer. I've had eggs thrown at the windscreen, key scratches along the door. It's jealousy, pure and simple."
17:15 hours The first pickup turns out to be a bunch of tweenies. Angus is 11 years old today, and his parents have hired Chris to take him and 14 friends up West in style. Initially, Chris is wary. Children can be a handful: "Feet on the seats, breakages, drinks spilled." But these kids remain unerringly unfazed. "Oh," one says, "we all get them for our birthdays. They're very popular."
Three years ago, there were just 3,000 stretch limousines in the country; now that number has quadrupled. Initially, they were for businessmen and the rich. Now, souped-up and often sprayed pink, they have become widely popular in a society obsessed with the notion of celebrity and convinced, somehow, that a ride in one elevates them, albeit fleetingly, into just that.
One company boss, who wishes to remain anonymous, says his fleet is often used for illicit purposes, on the (correct) assumption that £400 an hour buys you a certain decadent freedom.
"If you want to use it to have sex in the back," he says, "that's fine. We'll give you that privacy. Hire a stripper and bring her along? No problem." And drugs? "Well, as long as nothing gets out of hand. It's nothing that doesn't go on in nightclubs, right?"
He then tells me that one of his most regular clients is a producer of low-budget porn movies who sets many of his films in the back of one as it cruises through town. "Gives you something to think about next time you see one, doesn't it? Anything could be going on behind those blacked-out windows..."
A growing cultural phenomenon they may be, but they haven't gone down well with everyone. Transport minister Karen Buck recently announced an increase in complaints about them, particularly from taxi drivers: they clog the streets, they are environmentally unsound, and are potential death traps. Seatbelts, for example, are not yet compulsory in stretch limos.
Even some of London's nightclubs are beginning to view them with a certain disdain. "Ten or 15 years ago," says Paul Stringfellow, brother of Peter and co-manager of the infamous Covent Garden lap-dancing club, "if a stretch limo pulled up (omega) outside our place, a celebrity would step out. Nowadays, people fall out of them, and they are anything but celebrities. Mostly, it's girls on a hen night, and of course they are already completely drunk and out of control because the car is filled with alcohol. A nightmare sometimes, them girls."
While the club would never actively discourage potential customers from arriving in one, you sense they'd rather have little to do with either them or the raucous revellers they carry. "A celebrity would never be seen dead in one of those things nowadays," Paul reflects. "We had that Bryan Adams in the other week. Turned up on his little motor scooter thing..."
19:35 hrs With Slough's impeccably behaved children now safely deposited into a child-friendly restaurant, Chris parks alongside Burger King on Tottenham Court Road so he can clean up in preparation for his next load. Saturday night is heating up, and the limo's presence causes the inevitable stir. Tourists whip out cameras and pose along its shiny black flank. A gaggle of teenage girls approach, celebrity antennae twitching.
"Someone famous in here?" one asks quizzically. Chris, dustpan and brush in hand, grins expansively. "Me!" he beams.
The girls look doubtful, but then their minds begin to work: a flash car, the presence of The Independent on Sunday's photographer, bottles of champagne. Now convinced he is telling the truth, one of them comes up with further irrevocable proof: "Course he's famous. He's wearing loads of bling, innit?"
Chris, heavy with jewellery, roars with laughter. "Two questions," the first girls says. "One, who are you exactly? And two, you gonna let us have some champagne?"
21:00 hrs "Aggro is pretty common," Chris says, as he negotiates the limo down Ladbroke Grove, where the looks the vehicle receives become noticeably less benevolent. "It's a good idea to always be prepared." He recalls a few weeks previously when a group of four drunken youths approached the car and began kicking it in the name of hooligan fun. The occupants cowed within, but Chris stepped out to confront them. The four rushed him, one of them smashing him over the back of the head with a bottle. Bleeding heavily (and later requiring stitches), Chris made chase. Things got ugly. The police were called. "But that was an isolated incident," he stresses. "I'm not a violent person. The last thing you want on your party night is for things to get out of control, and mostly they don't. But it can happen."
At a little after the appointed hour somewhere along the Harrow Road, the last party of the night arrive: six women aged between 18 and 25, each poured into a figure-hugging dress, and each clearly excited about the prospect of their big night out. They won the limo's services in a raffle, which is fortunate, says Kim, 25, "cos we'd never be able to afford anything like this otherwise." Kim is a stay-at-home mum who believes in the maintenance of her social life. Her sister, Jenny, 23, puts in 80 hours a week in two jobs (tyre factory by day, pub by night), and therefore needs Saturday night for herself "or else I'll go mad". The others, including 18-year-old Deanna, say this could be the best Saturday night ever. But why? It's just a big car, isn't it?
"No it's not! It's a Hummer!" says Kim. "In one of these things I can imagine I'm someone else - a star! - and that I'm better than everyone else, even if it is just for one night."
"And that's why," adds Deanna, eyes glinting, "we're going to rub peoples noses in it while we can!"
22:45 hrs Deanna is on her hands and knees in the back of the limo, searching for a bottle opener for her latest alcopop. She (omega) can't find one, and so impatiently bites the cap off with her teeth amid a painful crunch of enamel. "It don't hurt," she assures.
When they first entered the car, the girls seemed touchingly overawed. What saw them descend into hilarious anarchy was the popping of the first champagne cork, and by the time the limo hits the West End and grinds, much to their glee, to a halt in traffic, they've upended half a dozen bottles. The windows are wide open now. They scream and holler at every passer by, and wave champagne bottles. Near Leicester Square, three young men strut over. "You've got space for me, darling, yeah?" one asks.
Jenny says she will grant them access only if they are willing to strip first, and she and Deanna start up a chant of "Get your kit off for the girls!" One of the men promptly complies, pulling down his jeans and boxer shorts, then placing both hands on hips. It's a cold night. The temperature does him few favours.
"Can I come in now?" he grins. The limo begins to move off. Jenny's response is not a quiet one: "Nah, mate - you're tiny!"
Kate Fox, a social anthropologist and director of the Social Issues Research Centre, suggests this is all entirely normal behaviour for Britain's youth on a night out. Uninhibited due to alcohol, they're further empowered by the exaggerated luxury of the car.
"We have a sense of security in a car that allows us to shed inhibitions," she says. "There's a kind of ostrich effect: we imagine, like the ostrich with his head in the sand, that we're invisible, or at least invulnerable." Sometimes, this sense of security encourages more offensive forms of behaviour: "People will make rude gestures or shout insults. It's all part of the normal Saturday night ritual of shedding our designated inhibitions."
Half an hour later, Deanna worries that she may be drunk. The champagne has run out. Jenny needs "a piss". The limo pulls over at a Burger King, and each girl heads for the nearest WC. They chain-smoke cigarettes before getting back in, thriving on the attention their ride affords them. They demand nudity of every man in their vicinity. Jenny shows off her tongue stud, Deanna clutches her breasts, and one chap asks if they are from Penthouse magazine. A homeless man then approaches, asking for change. The girls have none to offer him, and afterwards Deanna feels bad: "I saw on TV that all these soldiers come back from Iraq, right, and end up on the streets. That's sad, innit?"
It is, but there is little time to dwell on the harsh realities of life when you still have 45 minutes of fantasy left.
"I really am definitely drunk," Deanna says. The music blares.
00:40hrs The Hummer pulls up outside a nightclub in Neasden, and the girls tumble out. Before they leave, they shower Chris Mills with hugs and kisses. Kim promises to book him for her wedding in 2009. Jenny wants him to drive her every Saturday night. Deanna has found the bottle opener.
Inside the limo is carnage: discarded champagne glasses, too many empty bottles to count, several unidentifiable stains, a broken heel, and the lingering scent of molten revelry. This is the end of Chris's working night, and it's a relatively early one. There has been no fighting, no strippers, no police intervention. He is pleased, and with good reason: tomorrow he will turn 38 years old. And just how does he plan to celebrate his birthday?
Dustpan and brush in hand, an hour of cleaning up looming before him, he says: "Me and a bunch of mates are taking this limo into town. We'll have a laugh and get advertising for the company." He grins. "This baby sells itself. What's not to love?"
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