The Weasel

The gears wouldn't change. Getting into third was like arm-wrestling with a paralysed snake. The engine seethed like a banshee with a hangover
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The news that Michael Schumacher, the German racing driver, has undertaken to drive only Ferraris from now on, as a result of some contractual shenanigans involving 16 million quid, has had a peculiar effect on my sleep patterns. My dreams are suddenly full of strange men in astrakhan collars beckoning me towards gleaming jalopies in some Eden-like parking lot, wads of fivers gripped in their greasy driving gloves.

I think I know the reason for it. Cars have been bothering me more than somewhat, as Damon Runyon used to say. I have passed the last week in a kind of pit-stop of Hell.

It may surprise you, gentle reader, to learn that the Weasel drives a car. You picture me prowling, whiskers a-quiver, through glen and woodland, a stranger to road rage and handbrake turns? Get real. Urged on by Mrs W and her speed-crazed offspring, I have acquired a rather sprauncy Rover with sunroof, baby-seat, walnut dashboard, rev counter, adjustable neck- rest, cruise control, Blur cassette, the works. Yappingly familial, we pootle through Suffolk hamlets and potholed A-roads every weekend now, singing jolly songs and saluting other quadrupeds wherever we find them. But last week, I realised that something was wrong.

The gears wouldn't change. Getting into third was like arm-wrestling with a paralysed snake. The engine seethed like a banshee with a hangover. The whole car shuddered pitifully when becalmed at the lights. So I called the AA and a large, capable cove came and looked at it. "Air vacuum's perished," he said shortly, "And there's a leak in the sump. Dear, dear, look at that - ". From an orchestra of wiring and tubing, he extracted an oily spark plug with something gross on the end of it. "What exactly have you been...?" he started, then stopped, with the implied accusation hanging in the air. The man phoned home, surreptitiously (more ET than AA). "Yeah," I heard him say, "gasket for sure... pistons too, probably. Yeah, I know. Some people, eh? Cuh..." That final phoneme, that contemptuous "Cuh..." was to echo through the week.

The garage surveyed my limping chariot and set to work. And every single day they'd ring up, their voices mingling incredulity and hostility, and report about "... the right-hand cylinder... complete abortion... head gasket... distributor cap's a real mess... engine pretty well totalled..." But when I asked, guiltily, "How could it have, er, got so bad?", they'd start talking about insurance cover and warranties and how "these things happen..."

I am, in case you hadn't guessed, in the grip of that modern Bateman cartoon, The Man Who Let His Car Die of Neglect. You know the feeling? You can hear it in their voices. The blasted thing has become a stricken pet or a child lying in a terminal ward and it's all your fault because you could have saved it, but the mechanics/medics won't presume to judge you because it's something you'll have to live with for the rest of your life, knowing you're a gasket-abuser and an ignorant one to boot.

No wonder I'm having these dreams. Is there a Lada dealer out there who'll sign me up, Schumacher-like, to drive something else and make a fresh start? Oh go on. It doesn't have to be millions. Twenty pounds would do it. Anything than have to face the rain of contempt that awaits me tomorrow at a garage somewhere off Stratford High Street.

I did a slight double-take on seeing a copy of Investment Biker: Around the World with Jim Rogers in my local bookshop. The book is a charming and vicariously knackering record of a 22-month journey around the world with BMW and girlfriend by a former right-hand man of George Soros. I was startled, not because the title is a humorous gloss on Investment Banker, but because I took it, for a moment, wholly seriously as a fictional prospect.

Ever since the American cop show about forensic scientists, Police Surgeon, the world's television stations have spent millions trying to find the perfect hybrid that combines two disparate but combustible elements in a blinding flash of ratings: Robot Vet? Ninja Footman? New Age Sniper? I don't see why Investment Biker shouldn't be a perfectly good title for a Wall-Street-based thriller.

I've certainly heard worse ideas. I recall that, a decade ago, a number of Burbank executives got together over cocktails to work out the worst combination of elements for such a show. It took hours, but they finally cracked it: Underwater Rabbi.

An amusing piece of research, recorded in the American Journal of Medicine, catches my eye. It seems that the University of Pennsylvania sent a man, like an undercover agent, to hang about in the lifts of five hospitals in Pittsburgh and listen to what was being said by the staff. The tedium of lift travel often makes people careless about what they say, and doctors, nurses and administrators, though officially bound by rules of professional discretion, are no exception.

In 14 per cent of his 259 journeys, he heard what the survey called "inappropriate comments". Two administrators, for instance, loudly exchanged views about a patient's death, with one insisting it was more than likely the hospital's fault. A nurse complained that a colleague "must have been on drugs last night: he couldn't even read a chart". Another announced: "I worked 16 hours yesterday, went home, had some beer, and before I knew it I was back here. I don't think I can make it all night."

Two doctors spent the time between floors casually discussing in front of visitors whether they should remove someone's lung. Another declared, to a packed lift, "That's it. I'm getting out of here. I'm going where I can make big bucks. No more running after patients." An obvious candidate for the legal profession.

Now that A-levels are so much easier than they were when the nation's newspaper columnists were at school, you would have thought the problem was keeping people out of university, not encouraging them in. Not so. Whereas once they were merely a nuisance who inconveniently kept the dons from their sherry parties, students, in the competitive world of modern education, are worth money. And consequently, advertising has arrived in academia.

De Montfort University, formerly Leicester Polytechnic, has just unveiled a 30-second television commercial intended to lure more students to this unlovely city. So how does one convey the bookish fascinations of the academic life to an audience of reluctant teenagers? Pictures of the library where they will presumably be spending so much of their time? Banks of white-coated scientists, doing clever stuff with enzymes? A look (rather brief) at the chief attractions of the town? A visit to the union bar, where the gilded youth exchange witticisms before drinking themselves into a stupor?

None of the above. De Montfort University advertises itself by showing a wildebeest narrowly escaping from the jaws of a hungry crocodile. It's a jungle out there, apparently, and the only defence is education.

I'm sure it's all perfectly true, but why the wildebeest? It makes a curious academic model. The wildebeest, or gnu, is a grazing animal that spends its time roaming the plains of southern Africa, mostly looking for water. It is not a profound thinker. Insights, in the gnu world, are few and far between. The wildebeest community will never shine in intellectual company.

It does, however, have something in common with the academic staff of Britain's former polytechnics. It has a beard