Mark Simpson visits Rome’s Foro Italico, home of Mussolini’s Olympic ‘gay gang-bang in Carrara marble’
Off the well-worn tourist track, on the North bank of the Tiber in the Eternal City, hidden away in the Foro Italico sports complex, is a vast, open-air shrine to the idealised male form that most visitors to Rome are unaware exists.
Which is rather odd, seeing as it is essentially a huge – if tastefully done – gay gang-bang in Carrara marble.
The Stadio dei Marmi (‘Stadium of the Marbles’) is an open-air sports stadium completed in 1928 as a training centre for the adjoining Academy Physical Education, as part of a plan for attracting the Olympics to Rome in 1944 – a project blown slightly off-course by the Second World War.
But the Stadio dei Marmi is not a sports stadium like you have ever seen before, outside of sport-themed gay porn.
Fifty-nine statues of classically-styled athletes surround and dominate the stadium with their various states of perfect nakedness – some with fig-leaves, some in jock-straps, many completely starkers except for the occasional boxing glove or cricket bat.
The Foro Italico sports complex which contains Stadio dei Marmi was built during Italy’s fascist period and originally called the ‘Foro Mussolini’ – the Italian dictator took a close personal interest in the design. It was, you might say, a vanity project. The statues of the Stadio dei Marmi were of course meant to glorify Il Duce and Italian fascism and associate him and it with the strength, virility and triumphs of imperial Rome.
However, the sculptors involved seem to have got carried away. To the modern eye this celebration of firm male flesh looks like a spornographic scandal. It really has to be seen – to be experienced – to be believed. Standing in the middle of the stadium surrounded by all that virile marble it’s difficult not to feel you’re the centre of a neo-classical bukkake – the still-fresh white Carrara marble ejaculating against the blue Roman sky.
But it’s when you go around the rear of these god-like chaps that the real fun begins. The bubble buttocks on display are simply divine in their detail. All that carefully symbolised furious activity suddenly becomes irresistible passivity. Not at all what Il Duce had in mind.
One of the sculptors has even autographed one of the statues ‘A. Buttini’. A joke that doesn’t really work in Italian – but I like to think he knew I was coming.
If you squint your eyes against the Mediterranean sun it’s easy to imagine a young Dolce and Gabbana here with a packed lunch, furiously sketching away – getting inspiration for their famous underwear advertising campaigns in the Noughties. The ones starring the Italian rugby, soccer and swimming teams oiled up in the showers. Which were then followed in the Tweens by fellow-Italian Armani’s saucy underpants campaigns starring sporting heroes Beckham, Nadal and Ronaldo with their legs apart on the side of buses.
Perhaps it’s just a trick of the Mediterranean light. Perhaps it’s just an effect of hindsight. But whether or not the 20th Century martial-marble propaganda of Stadio dei Marmi anticipated 21st century hyper-sexualised depictions of male athletes, it’s well worth a visit.
Mark Simpson goes to BodyPower, the UK’s biggest fitness expo, & tries not to stare too hard. Even though staring is very, very welcome.
“Would you like me to take my top off?” is the usual response when you ask a chap if he minds having his photo taken. Followed by much flexing.
Those that are actually wearing a top. Many are just wearing a flawless tan. Or vests – ‘tanks’, as they’re now called – of varying degrees of skimpiness and stretchiness. It’s cool out, but shorts and compression leggings abound – as well as tapered gym pants that are so ‘fitted’ they might as well be compression leggings. To paraphrase a well-worn saying: when in the National Exhibition Centre, make a national exhibition of yourself.
‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god!… And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’ – Hamlet
There has been a lot of soul-searching about what it means to ‘be a man’ nowadays. Because no one really knows the answer. Defining ‘man’ and ‘masculine’ in a world in which phallic certainties have dramatically deflated like a dirigible disaster is an endless and probably pointless task. It is the philosopher’s stone of marketing. The quintessence of dust.
Coach, a weekly free UK men’s fitness/lifestyle magazine produced by Dennis publishing (also behind the stalwart spornosexual monthly Men’s Fitness), recently produced some research on the elusive nature of the modern male that defined him by un-defining him. It claimed to show that the ‘alpha male’ stereotype is largely a thing of the past, replaced by an ‘alta male’ who is less interested in money and career than in a healthy work/life balance, self-improvement and personal relationships – ‘higher’ things.
Most of all, he prefers to follow his own lights, rather than compare himself to traditional models of masculinity which are now seen as largely obsolete. Modern man is defined, in other words, by his lack of definition.
Last month I was invited by Coach to appear on a panel in Soho, London discussing the findings. As I said at the time, what most interested me about the research was that, in addition to proving me, in my humble opinion, completely and absolutely right about everything – which is always gratifying – it seemed to finally dispel the over-hyped, almost hysterical, notion that men are undergoing a ‘crisis of masculinity’. Though I’m sure many of the people in crisis about this ‘crisis’ will continue to have a cow about it.
Masculinity has always been in crisis. This has been its ‘natural’, anxious, paranoid, Hamletian state. It’s why it always had something to prove. But probably less so now than ever before.
As I’ve argued for some time, instead of a crisis, what we’re really going through is a revolution. A revolution against mostly restrictive, repressive ideas of what being a man is. A metrosexual revolution – or ‘male lib’. In fact, this revolution has been going on for the last few decades and for most of the younger generation its achievements are largely taken for granted.
Hence the Coach found that: ‘Friendliness, intelligence, being funny, caring are all attributes man wants to be seen possessing – in contrast with toughness and strength of the man of yesteryear.’
This is underlined by how ‘masculine’ is the No.2 quality today’s men attribute to ‘man of yesteryear’ (48%) – but doesn’t make it into the top 12 attributes he likes others to see in him (23%).
This sentiment is loudly echoed in a recent YouGov survey (cited in the Coach research) that found only 2% of 18-24 year olds see themselves as ‘completely masculine’ – compared with 56% of 65+ men.
A whopping 47% (the largest segment) see themselves as 2s on a scale of 0-6, where 0 = completely masculine 6 = completely feminine, while a sizeable 17% see themselves as 3s, i.e. somewhere in the middle. (This is similar to a previous YouGov survey on sexuality which found that most young people in the UK now consider themselves something other than ‘100% heterosexual’.)
For comparison, 14% of 18-24 women see themselves as ‘completely feminine’, which is seven times as many men of the same age who see themselves as completely masculine. While 12% see themselves as 3s.
The remarkably low figures for young men seeing themselves as ‘masculine’ may be influenced by the way that masculinity has had a bad press lately – and indeed the majority of 18-24 men have a negative impression of masculinity, with 42% perceiving it negatively compared to 39% positively. Interestingly, 18-24 women mostly don’t share young men’s critical view of masculinity and are as positive about it as young men are negative (42% positive to 27% negative). In this regard, young men seem to be more ‘feminist’ than young women.
By the way, YouGov’s figures for the US show that American men are much more likely than UK ones to think of themselves as ‘completely masculine’, 42% overall compared to 28%. As I’ve pointed out before, despite being very much involved in its creation, the US has been resistant to metrosexuality and the revolution it represents – or at least terribly conflicted about it. The US is of course the home of ‘manning up’, bearism, ‘bro-nuts‘, and IT professionals who think they’re lumberjacks.
Back in the effete UK, while discussing its findings on men’s attitudes towards masculinity, the Coach report concludes: ‘But even though man is more comfortable with who he is on the inside, there’s a struggle to define ‘masculinity’. (61% find it ‘hard to define exactly what masculinity means’.)
I think this statement is phrased wrongly. There’s no ‘but’ about it. And not much of a ‘struggle’. I don’t think many if not most young men can be bothered. Which is a good thing. It’s precisely because masculinity can’t be easily defined nowadays that men have much more freedom than their forefathers – and can thus be ‘more comfortable with who he is on the inside’. In the past, really only a couple of decades ago, everyone knew what being a man was – and what a ‘regular bloke’ looked like. And who wasn’t.
Although trad masculinity had many admirable qualities, such as self-sacrifice, stoicism and DIY – they were largely based on repudiation. Most of trad masculinity was defined by what men were not – not soft, not tender, not nurturing, not passive, not feminine, not good with colours, not gay. As a result, most young men today don’t ‘struggle’ to define masculinity – rather, they get on with living their lives how they want to live them.
Finally, a slightly tedious word about demographics. The Coach research was based on a focus group of 21 men aged between 22-59 in London, and a survey of 1000 men and women across Britain. Although the focus group apparently included many men originally from around the UK (and some who still lived outside London), it’s probably true that the research – like the magazine itself – had a metropolitan bias.
It also seems to have had, unsurprisingly, a middle class one – 79% of the respondents were ABC1 (compared to c.54% nationally according to 2015 figures). However, I don’t think this invalidates their findings, especially since the aspects of their research which most interested me seem to be backed up by the more demographically representative YouGov research – which when you drill down into their C2DE/ABC1 breakdown, mostly shows no great differences between them in regard to attitudes towards masculinity.
It’s one of the hallmarks of the metrosexual revolution that it cuts across all classes, with working class men often on the coalface of change.
Mark Simpson on the hanging offence of failing to indicate
‘That’s alright, don’t bother indicating. I can read your imbecilic mind!!’
I often find myself coming all over Victor Meldrew when confronted with the worst offence in the entire motoring universe. Failing to indicate.
Well, it’s certainly one of the most annoying. Call me a traffic Nazi, but summary roadside execution seems too good for them. Is there any other way, short of actually driving into someone, that more effectively communicates a driver’s lack of thought for other road users?
Actually, at least someone taking the trouble to drive into you shows they care. Signaphobes don’t care. At all.
Then again, perhaps I’m being too harsh. Not bothering to indicate does save you the Herculean effort of moving your hand an inch or two every now and again. And it does also make it much easier for you to cut someone up.
Also, what’s the point of going to all that trouble of indicating if it just means that you then have to turn the annoying thing off?
Failing to signal is not just lazy and rude. It’s dangerous The US Society of Automotive Engineers estimates that US drivers fail to indicate an impress two billion ‘FU’ times a day, and that this causes up to two million crashes a year – twice the number of accidents caused by ‘distracted driving’, e.g. using a phone while driving.
Regardless of the risk, the failure to communicate your intentions to other road users makes life more difficult for everyone. On the motorway, the habit of so many drivers for changing lanes without indicating, or worse, indicating after changing lanes (‘See! I DID indicate!’), or not bothering to let you know they’re about to leave as they mysteriously decelerate, makes long journeys seem a lot longer.
And also, perhaps, lonelier. Indicators are most of the time the only way of communicating with other drivers.
Perhaps it’s because I drive a small car, but there seems to be a direct correlation between the size of a vehicle and the drivers’ propensity to signaphobia. The bigger the car the bigger the damn they don’t give.
Then there’s the endless fun to be had at a junction when someone likes to keep you guessing which way they intend to turn. Or even better, they give no ‘indication’ that they are going to turn at all. Which is one of the reasons why failing to indicate is something that affects pedestrians – and their toes – as well as other road users.
And then we have the Brownian motion of today’s roundabouts. So apparently loathe are drivers to communicate their intentions that just closing your eyes and holding your breath and going ‘WHEEEE!’ seems to be the most popular approach.
In fact, the only time you can be absolutely sure that someone will use their indicators is when they want you to let them into a queue of traffic. It’s not an indicator, it’s more like a begging tin. Sometimes followed by the brief use of hazard warning lights to communicate ‘Cheers Guv!’.
The good old Highway Code tells us that ‘signals warn and inform other road users, including pedestrians, of your intended actions’. For signaphobes of course it is other road users and pedestrians’ responsibility to guess their intentions.
It goes on:
‘Give clear signals in plenty of time, having checked it is not misleading to signal at that time’
‘Use them to advise other road users before changing course or direction, stopping or moving off.’
‘Cancel them after use.’
The number of people who don’t use their indicators seems to be almost matched by the number who leave them on after a rare occasion they did use them – probably when they wanted someone to let them into a queue of traffic a week previously.
Such is my detestation of failing to indicate that I do it when there are no other road users or pedestrians around. Partly because it’s possible that I have missed them, even when driving across, say, the Australian outback. But mostly because I know how easy it is to get in a bad habit – and how difficult it is to cancel one when started.
Frankly, at my stage of life it’s also a useful reminder to me that I intended to turn off at the next junction.
So imagine my horror when I realised in researching this artoc;e that I have regularly been failing to indicate properly at roundabouts. For years. Probably decades.
I was aware that if you wanted to take the first exit to the left you indicated left on your approach. I was also aware that if you wanted to exit to the right, or going full circle you needed to indicate right – and then left after you have passed the exit before the one you want. And was of course scrupulous in my observance.
But – the shame! – I didn’t realise that if you were going ‘straight over’ a roundabout (that is, the second exit) or taking any other ‘intermediate exit’ you needed to indicate left after you have passed the exit before the one you want.
I’m mortified by this discovery. By rights I should drag myself out of my own car and shoot myself by the roadside.
But then again, I’m sure other road users and pedestrians were able to read my mind.
So I checked the register of historical facts, and was shocked and ashamed to discover The Queen is Dead was released thirty years ago.
To commemorate/commiserate three whole decades of vicars in tutus and boys with thorns in their sides – though we’re still waiting on Charles appearing in his mother’s bridal veil – the Kindle edition of my ‘psycho-bio’ Saint Morrissey is available to download for the next couple of days from Amazon US/UK for just 99 cents/pence.
The Olympics in Rio are taking up the starting position, and Yorkshire-based Team GB gymnast Nile Wilson has dusted his hands with chalk and mounted his pommel horse to warm up and show off his pecs, tris, tatts, abs and obliques.
Oh, and advertise Hyperflex jeans.
They certainly look very flexible. Though surely there’s a jean-shorts version available? Or perhap a denim thong?
Nile, 20, is not the only UK gymnast to be ‘exploited’ and ‘objectified’ by the rapacious eye of advertising in our body-centred age.
Olympic medallist Louis Smith, 27, a former Strictly contestant and almost as famous for his collection of hair straighteners as his medals, has also been showing us his eye-watering versatility in an ad for Kellogg’s – in his pajama bottoms.
Long gone are the days when cornflakes would save you from self-abuse.
Paradoxically, gymnastics is not just the purest Olympic sport but also the most spornosexual – after all, the word ‘gymnastics’ derives from the Ancient Greek for ‘exercise naked’ (‘gymnos’ = ‘naked’). The Greeks saw it as the perfect training for war – but also an aesthetic good in itself, informing much of their sculpture. It’s weightlifting where the weight is your own body. Crossfit without the cult – and the beards (mostly).
It also makes for spectacular HD TV – perfect human forms executing perfect gravity-defying movements, and flexing their core muscles in the process. Today’s gymnastics is not so much about preparing for war as stardom. Which can of course be a cut-throat business.
And to that end there’s a whole new generation of male gymnasts who seem very happy to get closer to the original nakedness of gymnastics, many of them sharing semi-naked selfies on social media that show off – sometimes in extreme, saucy close-up – their aesthetic as well as their sporting achievements.
I think we’re going to see a lot more of them this summer.
Dan Keatings’ ring action
Sam Oldham astride his horse
Max Whitlock showing his ‘core’
Nile Wilson & Brinn Bevan buddying up
Even the Rio skyline is aroused by the US male gymnastics team
Driving is a wonderfully useful thing. It gets you from A to B without breaking a sweat, without getting cold or wet, and without having to listen to other people eat crisps ludicrously loudly, or watch them spill their large, very sugary Virgin Trains tea all over the table you’re sharing with them.
There is however a drawback. Driving involves decisions. And attention. And having to turn this thing in front of you called a ‘steering wheel’. When you would rather be picking your nose, chatting to your passenger in an animated fashion about office gossip, or finding that Adele track you haven’t listened to for at least a week. Or perhaps just having a nice open-eyed snooze.
Lots and lots of drivers really don’t like driving and proper driverless cars are still a few years off. What to do? Fortunately, there is a solution to the problem – become your own driverless car.
It’s really very easy. Though it does make life very difficult for everyone else. Just find a motorway, find the middle lane and then make yourself at home! No need to turn the wheel much again, look in your mirrors or engage your brain until you need to exit the motorway. Suddenly, without indicating.
Or at least, that used to be the solution. However, the much-publicised conviction of a van driver in Leeds Magistrate Court last week threatens to wake middle lane hogs from their cozy slumber, wrapped up between the outside and inside lanes. The court was told he was driving a Citroen Berlingo van at 60MPH and repeatedly refused to move out of the central lane of the M62 near Huddersfield.
In what will sound a frustratingly familiar scenario to many motorway users, police said drivers had to brake and swerve to overtake the blissfully unaware Berlingo and that he had numerous opportunities to move back into the left hand lane but failed to do so, choosing instead to drive in ‘an inconsiderate manner’. (Though you can be sure that like most people confronted with blatant road-hoggery they used a ruder expression at the time.)
The law was changed in 2013 giving the police more powers to issue on-the-spot fines for driving misdemeanours such as hogging the middle lane, tailgating, undertaking and failure to give way at junctions. Figures published last year revealed that 10,000 motorists have been fined under these new powers for dealing with ‘anti-social driving’. Though many drivers moan that there doesn’t appear to have been much of a decline in middle-lane hoggery, particularly in the South East where most lane-hogging seems to happen.
The bloody-minded Berlingo driver is believed to be the first to be convicted in court of the offence. It’s not clear why the case came to court rather than being dealt with by an on-the-spot fine. Perhaps he refused to pay and decided to have his day in court. If so he seems to have changed his mind about being Britain’s most famous Middle Lane Hog – Mr Berlingo failed to turn up, was convicted in his absence and ordered to pay a £500 fine, £400 in costs and a £40 victim surcharge and handed five penalty points.
£1000 and five penalty points is a bit more than Days Inn charge for a snooze on Her Majesty’s highway, so who knows? Maybe indicating and actually turning the steering wheel every now and again will become more common on motorways now.
It seems unlikely though that all middle lane hogs are going to suddenly discover the existence of the left lane, particularly as traffic congestion continues to increase. And the (self) righteous anger of other drivers at the selfishness of middle lane hoggers is unlikely to go away.
After all, whatever lane they’re in, all other cars on the road are ‘hogging’ it. Unlike yours. Deep down, all drivers think that the road they’re driving on was made just for them. The real crime of the middle lane hogger is to not even try to hide that presumption.
Mark Simpson on the lost glamour of Leicester Forest East services
Leicester Forest East, situated – or rather, squeezed – between J21 and J21a on the M1, contains a slightly interesting paradox to those sufficiently undulled by the boredom of motorway driving and an entire family pack of Haribos to notice it.
Not its appearance, which now looks like a very average 1960s motorway services that has seen better days, but because it is in actual geographical fact west of Leicester and there is no Leicester Forest. On investigation however, it turns out not to be a Harry Potter-esque Platform 9 ¾ situation. The name is down to the slightly disappointing discovery that the services are located east of somewhere called Leicester Forest West.
And that, you might think, is all there is Leicester Forest East. Along with the usual bland modern quick fix carbs/fats/caffeine outlets, including a Burger King, KFC, Baskin Robbins, Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme, Harry Ramsden and a Starbucks.
But you’d be wrong. Very wrong. LFE has a past. And what a past! When it opened fifty years ago on February 15, 1966, LFE was the most glamorous place to eat on the motorway – and very possibly the whole of Leicestershire.
“Shall I point at something else now? Or do you have enough pointing shots?”
It boasted a 692 seat Terence Conran-designed silver-service restaurant occupying the bridge above the carriageway, called ‘The Captain’s Table’, fitted out with luxury carpets, ocean liner décor and a deck-like balcony. There were even waiters in sailor suits and a pianist on a baby Grand. And no, I’m not making this up.
Today, motorway gourmands stopping here have to make do with a pricey panini from Waitrose.
Although it now looks like a fairly non-descript unloved 1960s giant concrete bus-stop, LFE was an architectural novelty in the UK when it was built. Based on an Italian design used on the Autostrade, and placing terraces at each end of the two-storey bridge-come-amenity building, it was rather ‘Mod’.
Frozen food retailer Ross had won the Ministry of Transport tender with their audacious design and a promise to bring fine dining to M1 motorists. They had decided that motorway services represented an exciting new business opportunity as well as a good way to publicise themselves – hence the fishy-themed restaurant, and their efforts to make the food as good as possible. By all accounts, they succeeded.
In a nice touch, the first private motorist customer, Andrew Thorp of Church Road, Leicester, and the first lorry driver, Derek Lashbrook, of Greenwich, London received a voucher entitling them to a free meal there every 15 Feb until 1991.
But the worth of those vouchers expired much quicker than anyone anticipated – the golden days and the good intentions didn’t last very long. With more and more motorway services opening in the late 60s, the ‘glamour’ and novelty of eating on the motorway rapidly declined into a chore – while competition rapidly increased. And the competition was on price, not quality. Inevitably, the Captain’s Table hit the iceberg of economic realities and began to go under. It soon found itself sharing the commanding bridge at LFE with other service amenities, while the distinctive terrace was closed for ‘health and safety’ reasons.
In the 1970s, Ross reluctantly gave up on glamour altogether and introduced a betting shop, ice cream stall and a separate Happy Eater restaurant. Eventually Ross threw in the motorway services towel and sold LFE to the current operator, Welcome Break in 1985 – who are of course a byword for culinary delight….
While it’s almost certainly a more convenient and much quicker pit-stop with more choice in its modern ‘food court’ than back in 1966, it’s apparent that the glamour of LFE – rated 3/5 burgers by this motorway services review site – has long since fled. As it has of course from all other motorway services.
But sometimes it is still occasionally glimpsed, usually in the newsagents, buying crisps and a fizzy drink. In a recent BBC report on LFE’s 50th birthday, Suzanne Chapman, who works in the newsagents, recalled the celebrities she’s served: ‘Terry Waite, Steve Davies, they’ve all been through’. Some were shyer than others: ‘David Frost came, but he didn’t come to the till, he sent his driver and stood in the background.’
Perhaps Frost, who of course became a celebrity in the same decade as Leicester Forest East, was busy reminiscing about the Captain’s Table and the waiters in sailor’s outfits.
Here’s the rub. ‘Straight’ porn today is basically broadband sodomy – non-procreative sex acts piped into people’s hands for them to commit non-procreative sex acts over. Current porn panics represent a digital-age, socially-concerned update of warnings about the terrible fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.’
In tribute to Victoria Wood who died today, I’m posting this interview I did with her in 1998, for Attitude magazine. An historically funny – and very smart – northern woman.
‘The Northern Woman,’ said Alan Bennett, who knows about these things, ‘is like the Galapagos Turtle—she’s an entirely different species.’ In the eighties, Victoria Wood’s As Seen on TV was the HMS Beadle of comedy, bringing us bizarre flora and fauna never seen before on telly. Creatures like Bossy Northern Woman: ‘Make way! I’m a diabetic!’ Common Northern Woman: ‘Is it on trolley an’ can yer point to it?’. And Very Common Northern Woman: ‘I’ve got ‘ide and ‘eal on me lovebites—I were shit-faced on a pint of brandy and Babycham last night!’
Since then, these exotics have become naturalised to the British TV landscape and Victoria Wood has become a national institution. And like many national institutions, she hasn’t done so well in the Nineties, a decade which turned out to belong to the Southern Fash Mag Slag.
But now everyone’s bored with the Nineties and the Eighties are back and so is Ms Wood, with a square meal sit-com called ‘Dinner Ladies’ that makes you wonder why you ever bothered with insubstantial London tarts. Dinner Ladies is a perfect excuse for getting an eclectic bunch of Northern Women together to fill a lot of torpedo rolls and serve up a lot of classic Woodisms: ‘…don’t get me wrong,’ says one middle aged lady to another, ‘I’ve nothing against ‘Delilah’, it’s just Tom Jones squatting in his swimming trunks on the cover of TV Times that I have a problem with…’.
Did she consciously aim for a Beckettian standard of dialogue? ‘Well!’ laughs Wood, swallowing the last of her Welsh Rarebit, rubbing her fingers over her plate and looking away to the right, eyes raised, in that slightly shy but determined way she has. ‘I wanted them to have conversations which shot past one another and they’re never concluded. People overhear the end of conversations that are left unexplained. I wanted a mixture of high comedy and naturalism.’
Wood in person is a mixture of friendly unpretentiousness—laughing loudly and generously—with a quietly confident smartness. She’s also of course northern, but in a mild, lower middle class Lancashire-bred and BBC-educated way.
Wood’s father was an insurance underwriter in Preston. She had one brother and two sisters, but they didn’t mix. It was a lonely childhood. ‘We lived in a very strange house on a hill with no neighbours and no visitors. I just stayed in my room and watched the TV and played the piano. Sometimes my father would come in and watch a bit of TV standing up, as if he were just about to leave, but my mother wouldn’t watch any telly at all. In fact, it used to go back to the shop in the Summer to encourage us to pick bluebells in the meadow, or something.’
Wood didn’t turn to that other staple of desperate youth: pop music. ‘It seemed to me to be about dressing up and going out and meeting boys, which scared me. It wasn’t until I was fifteen that I had a boyfriend or any friends at all. I felt like I’d been accepted for membership of the human race.’
In addition to her own humanity, Wood discovered a passion for performing and studied drama at Birmingham University. Even before she graduated she was performing in folk clubs and appearing on Pebble Mill, followed by ‘a really awful talent programme on ITV with Lenny Henry’. Almost single-handedly, Wood invented the British female TV stand-up.
But it seems a bit extreme—to spend your youth as a bedroom recluse and your adulthood as a stand-up comedian? ‘Yes,’ she agrees, nodding, ‘but it’s very therapeutic,’ she explains. ‘You have to bond with the audience: this is my world, do you get it? When they say, “Yeah!” It’s great, especially when you feel that you live in a world that doesn’t really get you….’
Perhaps this is the reason why so many gay fans ‘get you’ to the point of obsession? I have several gay friends who can recite whole seasons of As Seen on TV…
Wood nods. She’s heard about these cases. ‘Flattering as it is, it was never intended. That would just be patronising and dire. Mind, I did wonder about the signals I was giving out: I had short hair and a big suit. These enormous lesbians used to come round the stage door and they’d be wearing the same suit and the same hair!’
Having gay fans can mean that you’re incredibly sophisticated and witty, or… ‘… it can mean that you’re just a really sad middle-aged woman,’ laughs Wood finishing my sentence. ‘But I’m not dependent on that relationship for my own self-esteem in the way that some gay icons who are very responsive to their gay fans are. I’m not in that world. I have my own life. I don’t inhabit my own TV series.’
‘What I tend to get are very intelligent creative gay boys of 15-16 who really like my sketches. I think part of the reason why gay men respond so well is because camp is partly about echoing, in exaggerated form, the way some women speak, which is what I do in my work.’
I ask about a famously intelligent and creative fan of Wood’s whose work also echoes the way extraordinary ordinary women speak. ‘Oh yes,’ she recalls, ‘Morrissey used to write to me a lot. He invited me to his house once. I didn’t go because, well, I don’t visit people’s houses if I don’t know them. It just doesn’t seem right.’
Of course, Bossy Northern Woman would have been round there in a flash, poking around in Moz’s cupboards and measuring the pile on his shag.
Mark Simpson explains why Cristiano Ronaldo’s talent & prettiness are so intolerable
One of the queerest things about homophobia is that many of its targets are not actually homo. Not because homophobia is a blunt, inaccurate baseball bat – though that as well – but because homophobia is used as a way of policing all men’s behaviour, whatever their actual sexual preference. Or just to bring them down a satisfying peg or two. That’s so GAY!! What are you, a FAG?? Etc. Etc.
Now that overt homophobia is increasingly uncool and sometimes illegal, it perhaps tends to be directed even more at men who are not officially gay or bi – albeit in a ‘joshing’ way. Especially if they’re hotter, hencher and much more famous, wealthy and talented than you – and we’re talking about football.
During last week’s match between Real Madrid and Barcelona, the 31-year-old Portuguese football ace and underwear god Cristiano Ronaldo – Real’s star player – was targeted from the stands with chants of ‘MARICON!!’, the Spanish equivalent of ‘faggot’. Apparently this has been going on for a while.
Francisco Ramirez the director of the Spanish LGBT Observatory said: ‘For months the Real Madrid player Cristiano Ronaldo has been the continued object of insults and malicious rumours from the tabloids, and also from sports journalists and… players, in order to humiliate, offend and denigrate a great football player.’
Ronaldo is, by the way, not just a great football player – he’s one of the greatest of all time. He’s also currently the highest paid footballer in the world. Which of course just makes him and his prettiness all the more intolerable. Ronaldophobia is perfectly understandable, really.
‘It is necessary to clarify,’ added Ramirez ‘that homophobia does not necessarily mean that people who suffer are homosexual, but only that other people believe it or use it to insult, harass and humiliate others.’
Quite. I have no burning interest in Ronaldo’s ‘real’ sexual orientation – someone who has reportedly been involved with a series of female supermodels. But lots of people do – straight and gay. Last year a photo of him horsing around with his bearded Moroccan kick-boxing buddy Badh Hari was seized upon by many as ‘proof’ that Ronaldo is GAY!! (it’s never lower-case ‘gay’ – and of course never, ever ‘bi’). Football pundits ‘worried’ on TV that ‘cuddling’ his buddy would ‘affect his performance’.
Football is a very odd game indeed.
Perhaps I don’t have enough imagination, or perhaps I’m just not repressed enough, but when I saw the photos I only saw two young men enjoying each other’s company and, rather wonderfully, not being afraid to show it. Not afraid, in other words, that people would think them… GAY!!
I also found myself wondering that if they were actually having a secret gay relationship they might have been rather more inhibited – and Hari might not have captioned the pic of him picking up a grinning Ronaldo ‘Just married!’.
But then, probably nobody really believed that the photos proved Ronaldo was having a gay affair – they were just a way to have a phobic little faux scandal and chastise him again for being a free, affectionate spirit with loads of money and talent and no modesty.
But however you interpret it, Ronaldo feels no need to deny the rumours and the abuse or react to them at all. He really doesn’t give a shit what you or I think. Which is what drives so many of us – especially us English with our herd mentality – crazy.
When he played in the UK from 2003-2009 for Manchester United – the same club David Beckham had played for before moving to Real Madrid – Ronaldo was regularly abused from the terraces and also became the target of an especially vicious and sustained phobic campaign from the UK media. Ronaldophobia was a national sport.
Unlike savvy, needy Beckham, proud Ronaldo didn’t go out of his way to curry favour with the press and play the self-deprecating game. Worse, he was younger, better looking, more talented – and, fatally, wasn’t English.
The UK’s biggest-selling tabloid repeatedly attacked the ‘arch metrosexual’ as they dubbed him (as in, I guess, ‘arch villain’ and ‘arched eyebrows’), for sunbathing too much, for wearing ‘tight silver shorts’ on holiday, for his interest in grooming, his ‘perfectly shaved chest’ and generally being a big poof.
They even ran a piece comparing him to George Michael – who is also olive-skinned and GAY!! GEDDIT?? – suggesting he fancies ‘playing for the other team’, and basically just shouting ‘MARICON!!’ at him over and over again.
Ronaldo’s response? He went on holiday wearing even tighter shorts and a pink baseball cap. With a pink flower behind his ear. After the UK press went predictably berserk again – including publishing photos of a male friend ACTUALLY TOUCHING HIM while he was wearing that GAY!! hat and GAY!! flower – he was pressed for a response: ‘I don’t see what is wrong with that if you are comfortable with your sexuality,’ he replied, matter-of-factly.
The English of course aren’t comfortable with anything. Least of all themselves. Which is where much of their Ronaldophobia came from – and will likely surge back again with a passion if he returns to Manchester United as has been rumoured lately.
In that recent match against Barcelona where he was called MARICON! by the terrace oafs, Ronaldo remained as unchastised and shameless as ever – scoring a stunning winning goal in the last few minutes. Then in the locker room afterwards he lost no time stripping down to his white Speedos and showing off his tanned, shredded body in a team photo with the celebrating Real lads.
What a careless, thoughtless, utter bastard. Why can’t he show some respect for the feelings of ugly, untalented men everywhere?
Can’t say that Kevin Spacey has quite the same effect on me as he appears to have on this Italian act called Gabriele. But I’m very glad he did.
The Hollywood actor was a guest recently on Italian talent show Amici di Maria De Filippi. And what talent they have in Italia! That very shy lad in white, who keeps licking his fingers and playing with his own endowments, is a veritable masterpiece.
(As ever when watching footage of armies of naked young men offering us their perfect pecs, packets and buttocks on prime-time it’s important to remember that male objectification doesn’t exist and in fact is impossible.)
For some reason, the Italian TV clip minded me of this ageless moment from a few years back where another group of shirtless young men entertained another famous older man in Rome:
Mark Simpson on the information overload facing today’s drivers
Before we all started zooming around cyberspace and endlessly fiddling with games, apps and cool lock screens on our smartphones, the most exciting sense of interactive information – of hardcore control – that most people who weren’t actually fighter pilots or engineers or micromanaging dictators got was from the dials on their car dashboards.
Needles and lights and counters monitoring speed, revolutions per second, oil temperature, oil pressure, water temperature, outside temperature, inside temperature, humidity, mileage, voltage, fuel, time – all facing towards the Sun King (or Queen), the big boss making it all happen, aka The Driver.
Constantly, relentlessly conveying information to you so that you can make correct, life-or death decisions as you slice through time and space. And so that you can feel incredibly important.
Driving is the original God game.
As a sprog, when my dad was in the market for a new car, I would scrutinise the brochures he brought home and tot up how many dials, lights and switches there were on the dashboard. Whichever car had the most was clearly the most car and I would then nag and needle my dad to get it. Wisely, he always ignored me – otherwise we would probably have ended up with a Ford every time.
The driver’s pilot fantasy perfectly – and bloody dangerously – encapsulated.
To this day I’m still incredibly jealous that a school chum’s dad’s car had a dial that ours didn’t – I think it was for windspeed, or something. This may explain the unnatural pleasure that a dial that looked like it belonged in a Second World War Italian fighter plane and mounted right in the centre of the dashboard of my first car, a Fiat 127 Sport, gave me.
But times change. As the level of technology and safety gear has rapidly increased in cars, so has the amount of information that you are inflicted with, whether you want it or not. Paradoxically, increased automation – traction control, cruise control, lane-keeping, collision-warning etc. etc. – has meant more information about the automation. And of course, climate control, sat-nav, Bluetooth calling, and infotainment systems have also increasingly hogged our dashboards and distracted our attention further and further from the road ahead.
Drivers have changed as well. They are much less likely today to be ‘gaugist’ boy racers such as I was twenty years or so ago – and much more likely to be women. And in a world where information overload is almost universal and round the clock thanks to our constant pocket companions more and more drivers find the level of persistent information and ‘direct control’ model of car instrumentation, where each instrument and function has its own display/control, less and less flattering and instead something of an insult.
Our brains have been tamed by algorithms which tell us that we are God, but do most of the godlike work for us.
This is what excites people about the idea of the Apple Car. They are hoping that not only will it be really cool, and really compatible with their iPhone for once, but that it will have a dashboard that is ‘intuitive’ – like their mobile phone and thus the rest of their lives. The cluttered 20th Century unreconstructedness of current car dashboards are a terrible shock. It’s like walking into a pop-up micro-brewery in your man-bun and finding Oliver Reed at the bar.
This male designer recently wondered aloud why car dashboards are all ‘so wrong’. Essentially, he believes the ‘direct control’ model of car UI has reached the end of the road and that information and controls should only be offered when needed: ‘My car’s temperature is only important to me if it is trending in the wrong direction. Alert me when that happens, otherwise I don’t need to know.’
A lofty, senior executive (‘don’t bother me with trivia’) outlook is one that probably many people today, used to delegating responsibility to algorithms, would agree with. Though when he also says he doesn’t need to know things like his speed ‘all the time’ you have to remember that he lives in California, where ‘driving’ is a very relative, very conditional concept. Or as he puts it: ‘My morning commute is all about Zen, so my dashboard should be blank.’
But the future is already here. Or at least a slightly retro version of it that appeals to me. The new Audi TT’s digital instrument panel combines the functions of a central multimedia interface monitor and conventional instrument cluster in a huge 12.3 inch TFT display where you need it, right in front of you behind the steering wheel. So basic driver information, such as speed and revs, as well as directions, maps and music and calling info are finally in one sensible easily, quickly glanced-at place rather than scattered all over.
Although it does away with analogue gauges, it reassuringly renders the speedo and rev counter dials in virtual form either side of the display, combining the best of both worlds – digital-analogue. Audi have dubbed it a ‘virtual cockpit’ – the TT is a ‘sporty’ car that attracts ‘sporty’ drivers – and it appears to merge the experience of driving with playing a computer game. Which totally gets my sadult vote.
The UI control menus are described by Audi as ‘intuitive’, but probably won’t satisfy our Californian designer or most iPhone enthusiasts, since much of the on-screen info is persistent (you will know what speed and revs you’re doing at all times). Worse, there’s no touch screen.
There are however two modes: ‘classic view’, in which the speedo and rev counter are big grapefruit dominant; and ‘infotainment’ in which the map and ‘tainment stuff dominates and the gauges shrivel to the size of plums.
When it comes to minor bumps when parking are you a bit of a Penny? When no one’s looking?
In the long-running TV sit-com Big Bang Theory, Penny the failed actress and Leonard’s on-off girlfriend, asks “What’s so great about being grown-up? Have insurance, pay mortgages, leave one of those little notes when you hit a parked car…”
Penny’s friends don’t share her laissez faire approach – especially when she lets slip that she broke one of their wing mirrors.
According to a recent survey, one in five UK drivers are Pennys – admitting that they have damaged another car and scarpered without making the owner aware of the incident, despite this being not only not terribly grown up but also rather illegal.
Though, actually, men were much more likely to admit Penny-like behaviour than women – 28% compared to just 16% of women. Perhaps women drivers are much more responsible than men. Or perhaps they are less likely to admit it when they’re not.
Clearly no one is perfect, however. Out of the 1,057 people surveyed, 100% of respondents had damaged another car by accident. And of those that ‘dented and ran’ over a third admitted they didn’t feel any guilt, despite over a quarter admitting that they had made a noticeable amount of damage to the other vehicle.
Young people aged 18-24 were the least likely to own up to a bump, with just over a third denting and running. They were also the least likely of all groups to feel bad about it. Perhaps Penny was right: being grown up isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Though of course young people may also be less inclined to own up to a bump because they are already paying punitive car insurance premiums. And even reporting a no-fault dent to your insurer – something insurers often instruct you to do – can result in a hefty hike despite not claiming, as one young driver found out recently, when her premium jumped by a third for reporting a dent-and-run wheel arch scraping.
Minor dents and scrapes are reportedly an increasing problem. It’s estimated that there are now more than 500,000 car parking collisions annually, 1,400 a day, costing £716M a year – a rise of 4% since 2010. Car parking bumps are now second only to rear-end shunts as the most common kind of car accident. Hardly surprising the way some people drive in car parks.
This may not be because we’re getting clumsier but because cars have got bigger, and parking spaces have either stayed the same, or are more likely to only meet the minimum standard. Over 20 years the width of cars has increased by a hefty 16 percent, meaning the average British car is now around two inches wider than the Department for Transport’s 5ft 11in minimum width for on-street parking bay spaces.
You might be forgiven for thinking the popularity of electronic parking sensors and cameras would have helped us avoid bumps and scrapes, but their effect seems to have been cancelled-out by modern car designs which often have much more limited views than in the past.
It’s all very well paying extra for a cool reversing camera, but it might be better to be actually able to see out the rear window of, say, your Range Rover Evoque – for free. Or out of the front of your VW Passat CC.
And whilst I’m moaning about the modern world, I should mention that another problem is that car bumpers are no longer bumpers. At least not in the way they were in the 80s when I began driving. Instead of solid bolted on rubber lumps they are now effectively painted and shaped parts of the bodywork. Which is great news for bodywork shops. Very bad news for everyone else.
As you may have worked out, I had Penny tendencies when I was younger and lived in London. I wasn’t alwaysentirely scrupulous about leaving a note if my bumper touched the bumper of the car in front while parking.
I didn’t in truth feel tremendously guilty about it – no one ever left me a note for the minor bumps and scrapes on mine. And besides, I’d spent time in Paris. Where parking was so tight, Parisians drivers would habitually make room for their own car by merrily ramming the car in front and the car behind. BANG! BANG! And never leaving a note, nor even a bunch of flowers.
While looking for an in-car mobile phone holder recently – an endless task since none of them ever seem to really work – I came across something which for the first time in years threatened to actually make that little, forgotten horizontal slot in the middle of your dashboard useful.
It was a holder that, instead of sticking, intermittently, to your windscreen or attaching to your air vent, thereby rendering something useful fairly useless, cunningly inserts itself into your CD player. Assuming of course that cobwebs, dust, uneaten crisps and total disinterest haven’t already sealed it up.
I mean, who can be bothered to find a CD and load it into their CD player these digital days? Who has the time, or the energy? Worse, when you’ve finished listening to The Best of Steps and have no more need for it you have to reach over and press eject and put the bloody CD away. Or throw it into the passenger foot well.
Even car makers, who tend to be rather conservative and slow to adapt, have begun to notice how few drivers are using those slots. Only a third of cars worldwide are predicted to have a CD player in 2019. Many car models launched in the last few months have either offered the CD player as an optional extra – or, in the case of the Citroen C4, the Skoda Yeti, the Vauhall Astra and several Hyundai models, have abandoned it altogether. CD player sales in cars are expected to fall by 80% in the US by 2021 – finally catching up with the plummeting sales of CDs themselves.
Likewise, more and more aftermarket stereo head units have begun to appear without that slot. The car CD player is on its final track – though it may of course start skipping before it reaches the end (one of the effects of storing unboxed CDs in your passenger footwell).
It wasn’t always this way. In-car CD players used to be the very height of sophistication and desirability. When the first factory-fitted CD player was debuted in a Mercedes Benz in 1985 it seemed like the acme of modernity and luxury. Never mind that early car CD players tended to jump more than a box of frogs on a hotplate as a result of road vibration. Or that ambient car rumble and roar meant that you couldn’t really appreciate the hi-fidelity of CD. (Ironically, it’s only now that cars are nearly quiet enough to appreciate CD quality that we’ve all junked them for tinny compressed file formats.)
Until the arrival of the in-car CD player the compact cassette deck ruled supreme. In fact, up until 2010 they were still part of the standard fit of one car (the Lexus SC430). Introduced in 1964 by Phillips, who also brought us the CD player, the compact cassette found its way into cars in the early 1970s, inaugurating an era of C90 mix tape drive tunes.
A forty-year innings isn’t bad going, and is rather better than CD players will probably manage. Perhaps it was those two little wheels in the middle, but compact cassettes and cars seemed to have been made for one another. Despite the horrors of de-snagging an unspooled cassette from the innards of your tape deck at 70mph.
Besides, cassettes were utter perfection compared to the plaggy crappyness of the eight-track tape players that had preceded them, and which continued to be pushed by US car manufacturers such as Ford in the 1970s. Introduced in the mid 1960s, eight-tracks were a bit cheaper than compact cassette players, but much, much worse. If Fisher Price had made a tape player it would have looked like an eight-track, but would probably have sounded better.
There was however a worse ‘music on demand’ car entertainment system than eight-track. This was Motorola’s ‘Highway Hi-Fi’ in-dash turntable that played 7-inch 45-rpm singles. Introduced in 1956 they jumped around and ruined records until being withdrawn in 1958. If eight-track was Fisher Price, this was Looney Tunes.
But then, Motorola (the name derived from ‘motor’ and ‘victrola’) had introduced the first commercially successful in-car radio in 1930 – and of course radios are the most successful form of in-car entertainment of all time. Costing an eye-popping quarter of the price of a new car, Motorola’s first effort, the 5T71, was still much cheaper and practical than one introduced by Chevrolet in 1922 – with an antenna that covered the car’s entire roof. What’s more, because ignition noise suppression wasn’t invented until 1927 you could only listen to Chevrolet’s monstrosity with the engine off.
Motorola’s radios quickly became the standard, and mass production, and the arrival of transistors in the 1950s helped dramatically reduce the size and cost. By 1963 over 60% of cars were fitted with radios – and in the US over a third of radio listening happened in the car. This was the highpoint of the AM era. (FM was introduced in 1952 by Blaukpunt, but didn’t become common until the 1970s.)
Some of us might feel slightly nostalgic for that simple unalloyed crackle, wow, and flutter with all our present day frantic bluetoothing.
For their part Motorola diversified into semi-conductors and in the 1990s and early Noughties went on to great success with the very thing that is now wreaking such havoc on car stereos: mobile phones. But it’s a fickle market – Motorola lost billions in the late Noughties and the brand was bought by Chinese electronics giant Lenovo. Who recently decided to drop the Motorola brand from their products.
So it came to pass that the great and mighty hi-tech ICE giant Motorola have ended up on the scrap heap of history even before car CD players.
Not to worry. A vast new fortune and empire is awaiting anyone who can come up with a mobile phone holder that actually works.
Mark Simpson on how young men fell out of love with the motor car
In the James Bond film ‘Spectre’ Bond has a new car. An Aston Martin DB10. It looks very nice and very sleek. But it’s nothing like the DB5 that first appeared in Goldfinger, back in 1964 and which I had a Corgi scale model of, complete with spring loaded ejector seat and plastic machine guns that emerged from the headlights. A highly-prized toy which I played with for much of the early 1970s, imagining myself all grown up and in the driving seat.
I’m sure it’s a much better car in every way than the DB5, and has even better gadgets fitted as standard, but the reason the DB10 is nothing like the original Bond car is because boys are nothing like they were back then. Cars are not the coveted, magical things able to transport you to manhood they once were and probably no boy is going to play with a DB10 Corgi scale model making brum-brum noises.
Not even James May.
In 1983, the year I took my driving test, 82% of 16-24 year olds were learning or had learned to drive. It was a rite of passage, particularly for young men – a driver’s licence was a badge of adulthood, declaring that you were a ‘man of the world’ even if you were still a virgin and weren’t legally able to vote or order a pint in a pub.
Three decades on that figure has fallen to 64%, driving tests are down by 200,000 in the last four years, and seems likely to continue to fall, especially for young men, according to a new report from the Independent Transport Commission and Office of Rail and Road. 15% of non-car owners aged 17-29 say they don’t want a car in the future compared to twice as many (32%) of non-car owners aged 30-42 saying they do. It also found that car usage amongst under 30s, regardless of car ownership, is continuing to fall.
The report found several reasons for the decline: the rising cost of car insurance – which can be twice as much for young men as for women – and the rising cost of car ownership was cited by a third of young people. “How can young people possibly afford to run a car?” said one 28-year-old male from London. “If you manage to get an older car it’s no advantage because you pay more road tax and burn more petrol.”
An increasing number of young people are going to university and accumulating debts while real wages and employment rates for young people falling in the last ten years has made them more unaffordable.
Meanwhile concessionary travel, advance rail fares, car-sharing, and car clubs are cheaper than running a car. The quality of public transport in urban areas is also improving – and more young people are living in urban areas.
The report mentions other reasons why young men in particular are driving less, such as they form partnerships and become fathers at later ages compared to women, they are more likely to cycle – and are less concerned with personal safety than women. It also speculates that the theory test may have made driving licenses more difficult to obtain for working class males.
But perhaps the most interesting finding was that car ownership, especially of high end cars, no longer leads to higher status in the eyes of other young people. Even if they have an ejector seat. Cars are becoming less attractive than alternative gadget-rich consumer products, such as smartphones – which also happen to make using alternatives to car ownership, such as Uber and BlaBlaCar, easier.
Alternatives which, unlike driving a car, allows you to continue uploading your devastating selfies to Facebook.
Not only are smartphones more personal than cars – you always have your smartphone with you and your friends will always see it – but also, in an age when young men are much more visually-conscious than in the past, the kind of car you are likely to able to afford, unless you’re a professional footballer, is probably not the kind you want to be seen in. And even if you can afford a flash car you probably won’t be seen in it very much.
Worst of all, it’s not you that gets the looks – it’s the car.
As one 19-year-old builder in Manchester put it: “I like strutting around the town – let’s face it – in a car it’s the car people look at not you – when you’re walking people notice what you’re wearing and how you look. Although I say it myself I put on quite a good show – I take great interest in fashion.”
Today’s young men have fallen out of love with the motor car and in love with themselves. Probably the only DB they’ve heard of is David Beckham.
Mark Simpson on the strange twilight world of British speed limits
When, as a kid in the 1970s, I first noticed the strange inner gauge with the inflated numbers on the speedometer of my dad’s new car I asked him, as I always annoyingly did with anything in the car, what it was for. My dad, who was a civil engineer, explained that it measured speed in kilometres per hour, and that kilometres were used instead of miles on the Continent.
At first I thought this meant that on the Continent the car would drive almost twice as fast. When it was patiently explained to me that a kilometre was in fact equivalent to 0.621 miles, I then felt sorry for Continental drivers as their distances were so small and complicated and their speeds so tricky. Fancy having to drive at no more than 112.654 kmh instead of 70 mph!
The dual speedometer was appearing in UK cars at that time not to encourage UK drivers to visit Europe – that kind of thing was still strictly for bohemians – but because back in the 1970s the UK was still supposed to be, officially anyway, heading towards the shiny new platinum future of full metrication, and from 1977 all UK registered cars had to have a speedometer capable of displaying both imperial and metric.
This came about because in the 1960s, engineers like my dad, fed up with our feudal weights and measures system along with manufacturers concerned that their main market was no longer the jolly old Commonwealth but Europe had pressed for change. In 1965 the Labour Government of Harold Wilson, full of enthusiasm for the ‘white heat of technology’, had announced its intention to abandon British Imperial measures – implemented and standardised in 1824 – and adopt the metric system, with road conversion taking place in 1973.
This, as you may have noticed, didn’t happen. The Conservatives under Ted Heath won the 1970 election and this new-fangled socialist road metrication nonsense was quietly parked and eventually allowed to be forgotten, despite taking us into the EEC in 1973. No administration since of whatever stripe has had any enthusiasm for it. Those dual speedometers in our cars are a constant reminder of a more rational future that failed to arrive.
But we didn’t really stay in the past either. In the 1980s fuel sales were switched to litres instead of gallons. Though of course odometers remained in miles, and most quoted consumption figures remain in miles per gallon. To add to the fun, regulations on emissions, which have become increasingly important of course, are metric (g/km).
Hence UK motorists in the second decade of the 21st Century move through a twilight world that is neither here nor there, neither quaintly imperial nor usefully metric – just a daft, unintelligible blur of both, with no destination in sight.
Horribly symbolising this, from last year road signs showing height and width limits were required by law to also cram in metres and centimetres as well as feet and inches (this had previously been optional). Good luck reading those at speed – and getting them the right way round.
Yards, meters & feet.
Alas, this was not to soften us up for full metrication as some pints and pounds fetishists feared – there are still no plans for it – but rather an attempt to reduce the embarrassingly large number of foreign metric lorries getting stuck under imperial bridges.
So we now have an incoherent bi-lingual weights and measures mess where road design and construction as well as car design and manufacture is now metric, but distances and speed and weight restrictions are imperial, with width and height restrictions in imperial and metric. Tachographs and speed limiters are metric, and so are motorway emergency markers, and car manuals. But distances and speed limits for road vehicles are only in imperial.
Surprisingly, possibly shockingly, there are however kmh signs on our roads right now. The light railways built in the last thirty years, such as the Tyne & Wear Metro, the Docklands Light Railway and the Manchester Metrolink operate entirely to metric standards – and speed limit signs for trams running on public roads have a nice black-and-white diamond around them to avoid confusion. And panic amongst the little Englanders.
Britain is now the only country in Europe or the Commonwealth that still defines road speed limits in mph. Metrication advocates argue that not only is the UK out of step with pretty much everyone except the US, but that metric speed limits offer a more versatile range of speed limits – because, as I learned as a kid, a kilometre is less than a mile.
Our colonial cousins Australia and Canada took the plunge and successfully switched back in the 1970s, when we said we were going to but then got cold feet. And in 2005 the Republic of Ireland completed its transition, leaving us looking like the butt of a casually racist joke.
And of course we’re completely out of step with the US anyway. The US is a vast country and the most powerful and wealthiest one in the world, so it can do pretty much as it pleases. The UK isn’t and can’t. Besides which, American measurements aren’t actually imperial – the War of Independence predates the 1824 British standardisation that created imperial units. So their gallons, for instance, are 17% smaller than ours. (But don’t try telling them that.)
And the good old British mile is of course actually Roman – the mille passus – and imported back into Britain by that bloody Frenchie William of Normandy. Not to mention that British scientists and engineers such as Newton, Watt, Joule, Faraday and Kelvin contributed to the metric system.
It’s well past time we gave up our imperial pretensions and renamed our weights and measures ‘British Parochial’. Or just pulled our finger out and finally metricated our bloody road system.