Why I'm driven to anger by 'Top Gear'

Jeremy Clarkson is the perfect metaphor for the fat-headed wastefulness of 21st-century man
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The Independent Online

Some items on British television are so stupefyingly gormless that they are weirdly seductive, exerting a sort of horizontal hold on viewers at the end of a busy day. A personal favourite is a programme in which a group of male, anorak types stand around listening to talk about the latest saloon hatchback turboGT, laughing at feeble jokes and watching minor celebrities drive cars round in circles. All that, and Jeremy Clarkson, too. Is there anything quite like Top Gear?

Part of a recent programme is a strong contender for television lowlight of the year. Clarkson took a new version of one of those idiotic, quasi-military four-by-fours and tried to drive it up a mountain in Scotland. He made a hopeless mess of it, and at various times, an entourage of men in overalls had to be summoned to tow our man out of an ancient peat-bog that he was trying very successfully to destroy. But eventually the lumbering, gas-guzzling monstrosity sat, with its grinning driver, near the summit.

At this point, it was more difficult to be amused. There are, extraordinarily, a large number of people who dream of "taming nature" with the help of a tank-substitute supplied by their local motor showroom. Although most of them get no further "off road" than the local supermarket car park, the BBC and Clarkson were pandering to their fantasies.

Various theories are put forward as to why, at a time of environmental awareness, there should be such a fondness for road-hogging, gas-guzzling vehicles. Some say that they reflect the values of a triumphant, muscle-flexing Western culture. Others believe that, in a timorous age, they offer the promise - false, as it happens - of greater security. Perhaps they simply allow the socially insecure to look down on others as they drive.

Yet here was the BBC not only running an extended advertisement for one of the most idiotically large of these machines but also encouraging their man to trash a rare stretch of previously unspoilt landscape.

That perfect visual metaphor for the fat-headed wastefulness of 21st-century man, Jeremy Clarkson on top of his mountain, came to mind this week when the RAC reported on the great parking crisis that awaits us. "Ill thought-out and inconsistent" planning policies have apparently been taking a terrible toll on the innocent motorist over the past few years: 28 per cent of those questioned by the RAC reported that they had searched for a space for more than 20 minutes while almost a third had given up and gone home; 14 per cent have used bays reserved for the disabled; and more than half have considered taming nature by replacing their garden (all respondents seemed to have a garden) with a garage.

The RAC pointed out that, with the number of cars on the road predicted to rise by 45 per cent by 2030, the situation will soon be getting much worse. More money, it says, should be spent on car parks. "Current planning polices must be changed to reflect the realities of car ownership, rather than the unrealistic hopes that restricting parking will reduce car ownership."

Certainly, if that terrifying figure of car ownership is correct, there is little prospect of slowing the process by failing to provide enough car parks. Even when every lawn in the country has been concreted over, the quest for space will continue. In fact, at that rate of growth, finding a place to park will become academic; the roads themselves will be car parks.

Is there not a case for some determined governmental nannying when it comes to cars? The argument against cars is, after all, an obvious one. While most of us need to use the things, they also kill thousands every year, and make our lives noisier and smellier while hastening the day of doom for the planet. A highly effective mechanism of discouragement has worked for smoking and will doubtless soon be deployed against those who eat or drink excessively: correction by social embarrassment. With some discreet propaganda, and a sprinkling of legislation, inappropriate car ownership could soon become as unacceptable as lighting up a cigarette in a crowded lift.

The moment will eventually arrive when proliferation, currently not only unchecked but actually encouraged, will be deemed anti-social, wrong. The position of governments, wringing their hands as they build and widen yet more roads, will be seen to be short-term idiocy.

At that point, some brave politician will dare to question the God-given right of every citizen to own any number of cars, each with an unlimited capacity to pollute. It would probably be too much to expect from a government whose transport policy falls within the remit of a man nicknamed "Two Jags" but a first step towards sanity would be to place a punitive road tax on unnecessarily large cars, and then to restrict car ownership to one machine per person.

Before that sensible legislation is introduced, the BBC might think twice before celebrating waste and destruction so openly. One day, footage of a man driving a large car up a mountain will be regarded with the same appalled hilarity as the famous old TV advertisement in which a doctor encourages viewers to take up smoking.