Those of you who have been paying attention might remember my mentioning the lap I drove for Jeremy Clarkson a few months ago. Ahead of the new series of ‘Top Gear’, he’d dared me to set a blazing time in a Chevrolet Lacetti around their test track. Unfortunately, contractual problems to do with my ongoing feud with the BBC meant that the whole thing had to be scrapped at the last minute. James Blunt took my place and, if you saw last night's show, I'm sure you'll agree with me when I say that he did a pretty poor job. If you’d been looking carefully, you might even have noticed an odd shifting of all the scores down the ‘Star In a Reasonably Priced Car’ board. My absence accounts for the ominous gap at the top.
In a fit of fair play that really doesn’t suit the BBC, the producers insisted that since I hadn’t actually appeared on the show, my time couldn’t stand. Judy was more upset than I, having already sent Simon Cowell a photograph of her behind with 1 minute 31 seconds written across her cheeks and employing a cunningly placed decimal point somewhere about the middle.
Yesterday morning, the telephone rang. It was Clarkson.
‘Hello,’ he said. ‘Is this the badger torturing ring? I have a badger here that needs cruelly mistreating.’
‘Hello, Jeremy,’ I answered. ‘You’re sounding in good form today. I always say that a discussion on animal cruelty is the best thing to brighten up a Sunday morning. I’m just a bit surprised that you’ve not managed to make some disparaging remarks about Europe while you’re about it.’
‘Oh, haven’t I?’ he asked. I swear the smugness in his voice was enough to make the plastic of the phone go soft. ‘I suppose I failed to mention that it is a French badger.’
I could see that this would take some time.
‘A French badger?’ I said, turning on the speaker phone so I could get back to my yoga. Men like Clarkson can be insufferable bores unless you manage to ride their wits to the inevitable sharp turn. That’s where they usually end up, nose to brainstem, wrapped around a tree.
‘And how have you managed to establish that it’s a French badger?’ I asked as I tucked my left knee behind my right ear.
‘Of course he’s a French badger. He can whistle La Marseillaise.’
‘Can a badger whistle? News to me, Clarkson. My very good friend, Bill Oddie, has told me otherwise. Apparently, badgers are one of the few animals born without lips.’
‘I never said he used his mouth,’ Jeremy spluttered, sounding momentarily confused.
‘He doesn’t use his lips?’
‘Come, come, Richard. Don’t tell me that Oddie hasn’t explained how badgers are the most flatulent of all mammals! Most of the noises they make come for their bottoms.’
‘Okay, so you’re telling me that you’ve got a flatulent French badger that can whistle La Marseillaise through its bottom and you’d quite like me to do it some harm?’
‘Yes,’ said Jeremy. ‘That’s exactly what I’m saying.’
‘And does this badger have a name?’
‘He does… er… it’s Wilf.’
‘Wilf the badger. Right. You’ve a French badger called Wilf?’
‘He’s only half French. Look, does it really matter?’
That was the sign of weakness I was waiting for. It’s like breaking a mustang. Eventually, he’ll get tired of acting crazy, start mumbling, and then you can mount him any way you wish, though, of course, not in any other sense but the metaphorical one.
‘Tell me the truth, Jeremy,’ I said, preparing the ground for the inevitable apology. ‘Do you actually have a badger?’
‘Yes, well, no, no I don’t. I’m sorry about that,’ he said. ‘I was only ringing to see if you’d like to come over tonight and we’ll laugh at James Blunt making a mess of his lap.’
‘You should have said that to begin with,’ I told him. ‘We’d be delighted to come round. You worry me, sometimes, Jeremy. I’m not one of your Sun readers. You can’t fob off with that old rubbish you mumble into the phone for some poor juvenile to type up at News International.’
‘You don’t read my columns?’ asked Jeremy, sounding just a little hurt.
‘I don’t even read you in The Times,’ I said, but thought to make him feel better. ‘Judy did buy me one of your books last Christmas, though.’
‘Did you enjoy it?’
‘Loved it,’ I lied. I’d forcibly enlisted it into the Salvation Army’s last jumble sale. Nor could I tell him that I’d abandoned his columns of high wit for Stephen’s columns of even higher wit in The Guardian. I pushed my nose to my groin and wondered why Clarkson has never had Fry on the show. The man was built for time trials and James May.
‘What was that clicking?’ asked Jeremy.
‘Oh, that? Nothing,’ I said. ‘Just my spine realigning itself. You were saying about all the quality wine you’d be forcing down our throats tonight?’
‘Was I?’ asked Jeremy, still in a very suggestive state after his humiliation over his failed badger joke. ‘I suppose I can open a bottle or two of the good stuff.’
‘Then we’ll be over around seven,’ I said and made to hang up the phone with my elbow.
‘Excellent,’ said Clarkson before the line went dead. ‘I’ll have the badger ready.’
Last night, we drove the half mile down the country road outside Chipping Norton until we reached the gates to the Clarkson estate. We immediately came under the glaring beams of two automated security lights disguised as East German sentries with machine guns. He has such a sense of humour, Jeremy, that I sometimes wonder how he’s never managed to restart the Cold War…
‘Come on in!’ said the man himself after we’d negotiated another mile of driveway. ‘Take off your shoes, leave your worries at the door, and have yourself a seat in front of my nice new TV set.’
Judy cast me a warning glance, as though the penny had dropped in a most audible way. She was right. There in Clarkson’s front room was a brand new plasma TV.
‘How big is that?’ I asked.
‘Seventy six inches,’ he said as he posed beside it, one arm on the set and his face beaming in that slightly imbecilic way he has when groping new technology.
‘Ah,’ I said, ‘the smaller model! You didn’t have the room for the full sized set?’
He looked down on me, his face suddenly devoid of humour. ‘You’ve got a bigger TV than this?’
‘Eighty three inches,’ I said. ‘Eighty three terrifying inches.’
His lip quivered as my wife disappeared with Mrs. Clarkson into the back room.
‘Don’t worry,’ I told him. ‘I’m sure it’s big enough for you. I shouldn’t imagine you spend much time watching television. Those witty two hundred word columns of yours must take you hours to write.’
‘No, not really,’ he said, a little crestfallen. ‘A drink, Richard?’
‘I’ll just have what you’re having,’ I said. ‘Is that wine?’
He looked to his glass and thought a moment. ‘It’s wine reinforced with vodka.’
‘Sounds great,’ I smiled. ‘I’ll have one of those.’
‘Might be a bit too strong for you.’
‘You know me, Jeremy. I like my drinks strong.’
‘Yes, well, perhaps not this strong. I have it with a little touch of white spirit to give it a kick.’
‘Just a touch?’
He looked at me as though it were a trick question. ‘Yes,’ he said.
Of course, it was a trick question. ‘I’ll have the same but with a little more white spirit. I like more than just a kick. I like a real man’s drink.’
‘I bet you do,’ he said, with a menacing edge to his voice.
Now, you’re probably all sitting there wondering what this was all about. I don’t honestly know myself. Judy says that I become fiercely competitive when I’m with Jeremy, but I don’t see it myself. It just seems only natural that I outdo him in everything he puts his hand to. I can’t say that I find it particularly difficult. The man has such a limited imagination when it comes to excessive behaviour. He tends to think that joking about badger cruelty is the worst that a man can get. I know different.
‘So, Jeremy,’ I said, much later after we’d sat through a dull opening segment to this week’s show. ‘What’s the fastest you’ve ever driven the Chevrolet Lacetti around the Top Gear test track?’
‘Oh, one minute and a some more seconds,’ he said. ‘I really can’t remember.’
‘One minute fifty two,’ said Mrs. Clarkson. She patted the poor old fool’s arm as though beating one hundred and twenty seconds were some kind of achievement.
Judy flushed with pride. ‘Richard did it much faster than that,’ she said.
‘Oh,’ said Mrs. Clarkson turning to the most handsome man in the room. ‘How quick did you go, Dick?’
‘I can’t remember the exact figure,’ I said and looked worryingly towards Judy in the fear that she would go revealing the 1 minute 31 seconds still written across her cheeks and employing a cunningly placed decimal point somewhere about the middle.
At that moment, Jeremy sat forward in his chair and stared at the screen.
‘Double or nothing,’ he said.
‘Pardon?’ I asked.
‘I’ll have a race with you now. Double or nothing. If you win, I’ll put your score back at the top of the board. If you lose, we never speak of this again. We’ll deny that it even happened.’
‘You’re on,’ I said.
‘Richard!’ cried Judy. ‘You don’t even know what you’re racing.’
‘Oh, leave that to me,’ said Jeremy, standing up. ‘I’ve got a pair of brand new Westwood T1800H lawnmowers in the shed. We’ll race them. Five laps around the back lawn.’
I can’t say I’ve been involved in many more surreal moments than when Jeremy Clarkson powered up the floodlights that lit the five acre lawn that sits behind his property up there in Chipping Norton. I was sitting astride a red lawn mower, wearing a helmet and goggles commonly worn by toads in tales of high jinks set against the backdrop of a riverbank. Jeremy was soon doing the same, though I like to think that the look of fear on his face was uniquely his own.
Judy stepped forward, a white tea towel in her hand, and stood between us with her skirt hitched up around her thighs.
‘What you standing there for?’ I cried. ‘You’ll be mown down.’
‘Oh, Richard! I’ve watched the Fast and the Furious,’ she said. ‘I think I know how to start these races.’
I thought she was taking it a bit too seriously but I had grass to cut.
‘On your marks,’ she said. ‘Get set…’
Clarkson was off!
‘The bloody cheek!’ I cried as I gunned my engine and set off after him.
Cut grass was in my face before I hit the first turn of the five lap race. Clarkson was taking the optimum line into every corner and cutting a thick swath of goat fodder as he went. That was to my advantage. Keeping to his line, I could gain on him quickly as my own mower didn’t need to cut the grass. Overtaking would be a different proposition involving my cutting a new racing line into the longer grass. It would take me at least a lap or two before I’d be in a position to overtake.
It quickly became a race of high strategy. Jeremy stuck to his line as I weaved behind him, making new lines into every corner. After the third lap, I was under his tale and began to make moves on his inside lane. The man doesn’t know to play fair and blocked my every attempt. On the fourth lap, I momentarily lost control after he deliberately threw his helmet into the blades of my mower.
If I was going to win, I knew I would have to take him on the last lap.
At the first and second corners, I feinted to make a passing move on the inside and he, as expected, blocked me. It was on the third corner that I did the same but immediately hit the throttle and moved to his outside. I was too quick for him. Before Clarkson had finished reacting to my inside move, I was on his outside and in a clear patch of grass. That was the break I needed and it became a straight race towards the finishing line. I could see Clarkson, holding tightly to his mower, his face set in a look of fierce determination. We were inches apart, our wheels sparking as they touched. Finally, with the line only feet away, Clarkson stuck out his leg and gave me a kick. I swerved instinctively, giving him the lead as we crossed the line.
‘I think that was quite a comprehensive victory by the BBC,’ said Clarkson as we climbed from our lawn mowers.
‘You’re a bloody cheat, Clarkson,’ I said, standing up to him.
‘Richard, in all fairness,’ said Judy, coming down to greet us with Mrs. Clarkson. ‘I do think that Jeremy won.’
‘You traitor!’ I screamed.
Clarkson just stood there, his hand affixed to his rather large forehead in that pose he adopts whenever he wins. ‘Loser,’ he mouthed.
‘Get our coats, Judy, we’re leaving,’ I said as Clarkson began to trail me to the car.
Judy disappeared into the house so she didn’t see me turn on Jeremy. ‘You’ve done me a huge favour there, mate,’ I said, shaking him by the hand.
‘It was a pleasure,’ said Jeremy. ‘I couldn’t bear to think of your dear wife revealing her bottom to the world.’
When he put it like that, I was doubly glad that I’d rang him back to arrange this little deception. I gave him a punch on the shoulder. ‘I owe you one,’ I said.
‘No, I owe you,’ smiled Jeremy. ‘You ever want anything writing for that blog of yours, you know who to call. Two hundred words. Three hundred. You name it.’
‘I’ll hold you to that, Clarkson,’ I replied as Judy reappeared carrying my sheepskin coat. She wasn’t hiding her disappointment at all well but at least she was hiding her decimal point. And that was all that mattered to me, Simon Cowell, and, I'm sure, the world at large.