Tales Of The City: There's really nothing like a Roller

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The Independent Online

I had the good fortune to take the new Roller for a spin the other day - that's the Rolls-Royce Phantom, an enormous, square-rigged, 20ft-long, cavernous, gleaming black wonder of modern technology, that resembles nothing so much as the Lenin Mausoleum on wheels (huge wheels, incidentally, and the RR logo on the hub remains serenely upright as the wheels go round). I thought the nice BMW people who now own the marque might let me put it through its paces in, say, Monte Carlo, but no - I was allowed to drive it, under intense, peeled-eyeball supervision, for 32 minutes along the Commercial Road, London E14. I suppose the price tag of £250,000 would have its commercial minders gibbering at the prospect of the teensiest scratch.

I mustn't pre-empt the review in the Indie's motoring pages, but it was a fantastically interesting experience. I've driven dozens of cars in my life, and in all of them I've felt intimately connected to the road under me, feeling the car responding, the engine protesting, the suspension going boing-boing over the sleeping policemen.

It's different on a Roller: you sit perched above the black expanse, and drive in a spooked and respectful silence, moving your index finger two centimetres to the right or left to steer, noting with surprise that pavements, buildings and traffic lights are moving past you at 30mph, as if it has nothing to do with you.

To complement the feeling of dislocation and simulation, the dashboard harbours more electronic geegaws, concealed compartments and swivelling hardware than the flight deck of the Hubble Telescope (even the Spirit of Ecstacy on the nose retracts out of sight).

So you glide along through east London, amazed that such an enormous car (it's 6ft-6in wide) fits the roadways, and, as you cruise over Tower Bridge with your elbow stuck out of the window, a feeling of pride, even of smugness settles over you. You know you're not the kind of person who swans about the metropolis in a Roller. You are not a foreign diplomat, a tycoon, a mogul, a fat cat, a dictator, a world leader, a Pope. You are too real for such pompous display, too much a renegade - a little bit whoa, a little bit street - to ponce about in three tons, and a quarter of a million quid's-worth, of aluminium, steel, leather, cashmere trim and fancy cabinet-work. But you simply can't help having a Jeremy Clarkson moment, noting the frankly sexual thrill of having a 6.7 litre engine silently obeying your merest whim, the way the dorsal fin on the right wing slices along the white line in the middle of the road, as if trying to snort it....

People in the street do not, sadly, stand open-mouthed with amazement, as you'd like them to. They probably think it's a hearse going by. Other drivers know what it is, though. They look at the Phantom gliding by, their faces a curious cocktail of wonderment, jealousy and hatred. Instantly they (and I) are pitched back into a world of Silver Clouds and Silver Ghosts in the Twenties and Thirties, of joke millionaires like Lady Docker and Nubar Gulbenkian, of Rollers that were reputed to have a cocktail cabinet, gun cupboard and vanity unit as part of the back-seat furnishings, and which took their owners all over the world from the steppes of Russia to the Hindu Kush - a time when democracy hardly seemed to exist, and the idea of a journalist in a Roller was laughable.

Now the driving fraternity (especially the white-van brotherhood) look askance at the car and its cargo. They do not regard you, in the driver seat, with respect. They look puzzled how such a low-life could have landed behind the wheel of such a thing. They transfer their gaze into the plush, cushiony depths of the back seat, straining to see which A-list chanteuse lolls within. Rolls-Royces are wonderful things, but they have a built-in problem for drivers. They make you feel like an oil magnate. They make you look like a chauffeur.

The sport that sinks to new depths

I'm sure we're all very proud of Tanya Streeter, the British diver, who set a new world record by diving 400ft and coming back up again under her own steam. What puzzles me is that I've never before heard of "freediving", nor that it had a world record. It's evidently one of those sports that arrive out of the blue and get splashed in the newspapers because a Briton has proved to be good at it.

But what kind of sporting skill does "freediving" require? Ms Streeter didn't actually dive into the Atlantic; she was lowered in on a platform attached to a cable; when she'd got deep enough, she simply kicked the platform away and swam back up to the surface. It doesn't seem a big deal, does it?

Then you read the small print and realise that, in order to do it, Tanya had to hold her breath for three minutes and 38 seconds. Now that I can relate to - we've all tried, aged eight or nine, holding our breath underwater in the bath, until we go blue in the face and start to faint. But if that's the main point of freediving, can't they just refine the sport until all the contestants simply line up on the beach in their Speedos, take a deep breath, and stand - holding their noses and puffing out their cheeks, but competitively - for five minutes or so?

Dog eat dog

Gosh, the cruelty of the young. No sooner does a former pop star reappear on television, the teenage generation start making jokes about him. "I keep being rung up by this mad person," my 15-year-old told me by text message the other day. "He keeps ringing me and singing 'Stand and Deliver' at me. I keep telling him he's got the wrong number. But he's adamant."