In pursuit of the bizarre

The Painted Hall in Greenwich

The Painted Hall in Greenwich 


A lot of people seem to think that F1 types are all a little mad and there is something to that theory - some more than others - but conversely (or perhaps perversely) I have a theory that works the other way. The people in the F1 Paddock are all sane and the rest of the world has lost the plot completely. This impression was enhanced by F1's recent visit to China where the locals are struggling to leap from 14th century feudalism to the 21st century in the space of 40 years. It is moderately terrifying to watch but one cannot be anything but impressed in a place like Shanghai where the skyline sprouts shiny architectural gems towering over a population which totters about on rickety old bicycles.

Governments have long been beyond my comprehension (motor racing's included) and I am beginning to worry about things that appear on TV. This probably comes from watching too much television when travelling. People have made entire careers of chronicling Japanese TV shows but actually the oddest stuff I have seen recently was in Germany where I ended up watching something called Tuning TV, which appeared to be designed for mouth-breathing fans with souped-up Volkswagen Polos. This was an all-female show featuring three ladies who shouted rather too loudly into large furry microphones. The Germans, by some odd twist of fate, seem to have missed the invention of the button microphone. Having said that I am not sure where Katherina, Lina and Christina would have hidden their mini mikes. Katherina was a blonde (of sorts) and would survive any road accident as she had her own airbags (which may or may not have been fitted as standard rather than as later add-on items), a voice with which to cut herself free from the wreckage of any standard model of car and enough lip gloss to glue herself back together again. Her co-presenter Lina had Katherina's natural hair colour and so looked almost attractive until one spotted a large area of tattoo between her breasts. From a distance this looked decidedly like chest hair and so dampened the enthusiasm somewhat. These two darlings had to interview strange men who like to have wide wheels and chrome on their cars, favour the mullet-style of hairdo, need at least three earrings to be masculine and wear their facial hair in the most extraordinary arrangements.

It was all rather like being in the Red Bull motorhome.

It was interesting to note in all of this that the ultimately cool thing in this world (and presumably the next) is to have a Ferrari and have it washed by topless girls with soapy sponges. The show seemed to be more about breasts than about cars and in the end I turned it off because I was convinced that the editors of the segment called Lina's Tuning Tips had got the words in the wrong order.

The week after Shanghai was spent coming down from the Formula 1 stratosphere after eight months with the jets on full blast. Gliding back to a real life is always a nice feeling although on arrival there are usually nasty surprises: last year's accounts; backed-up invoices and credit card people who just don't understand the lifestyle. Probably to avoid the landing, I agreed to take off to London just a few days after coming back from China, in order to attend a dinner marking the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. For some years I have been convinced that the British are an odd lot. The Brits love eccentrics and revere people who do daft things like running the London Marathon in a diving suit or aristocrats who construct underwater ballrooms and such things. So going to a Trafalgar Dinner seemed a perfectly bizarre way to end the season. And so it was. The Painted Hall at Greenwich is said to he the finest dining hall in the western world and took 19 years to complete. It was there that Admiral Lord Nelson lay in state and there where, last Saturday, a bunch of apparently grown-up English people got very excited singing about how Britannia Rules the Waves.

Two hundred years ago Nelson routed the French and Spanish fleets off the coast of Spain. For the next 140 years Britain did rule the waves but today George Bush's Mothball Fleet is bigger than anything Britain could muster. And, it struck me that Spain and France had combined with some success to win the Formula 1 World Championships this year.

When I woke up the next morning and turned on the TV I knew that Britain has finally been cut adrift from reality. The lead item on the news was "A duck dies in Sweden" and this was followed a few hours later by the news that "A British parrot has died". Why was I reminded of Monty Python?

Out in the Orient the last thing we were worried about was Bird Flu. We were more worried about getting to and from the racing circuit without being killed by errant Chinese truckers. You have to go to China to understand about the way they drive. There are 100,000 deaths a year on Chinese roads and really not that many cars. Estimations for the number of deaths in the future are thoroughly frightening.

We threw ourselves into the task of being tourists with gusto and with the help of a driver called Mr Bigg (with two Gs) we went to temples and gardens, markets and traffic jams. Everywhere we went they wanted to sell us Rolexes or their sisters (or both) but we had a good time and when finally we reached the Fake Market (or perhaps one should say the market for fakes) we found ourself glared at from on high not by Chairman Mao or some other worthy party type but rather by Matthew Marsh, the expatriate Briton who lives in Hong Kong and does exciting things in Porsche races in Asia. In his spare time Matthew writes about F1 for the South China Morning Post and pops up from time to time in F1 Media Centre to be abused and cajoled by the rest of us about his latest adventures in the hairdressers' cars in Asia.

But there he was, much larger than life, looking down on all the fakes.

Apparently, Britannia still rules the waves in Shanghai.

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