I'm not a gearhead. Everything I know about cars, I learned from Car Talk and Top Gear -- so it's probably a good thing I don't drive. Both of these programs are nevertheless entertaining, so I keep up with them anyway.

I watch Top Gear mainly because the three presenters -- Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May -- are hilarious. The show is partly scripted and partly edited segments of live camera commentary, which means both a lot of interesting ad-libs and a lot of interesting gag reels. The three of them do play characters, which have a sort of "based on a true story" relationship with their actual personalities; Clarkson is a bit of a curmudgeon, Hammond is a bit of a scrapper, and May is a bit of an obsessive geek, but it's exaggerated quite a lot for comic effect. They spend a lot of time dreaming up creative ways to be total cocks to one another without actually getting anyone killed -- pay attention and you'll notice that, while they will happily disconnect the A/C, turn the stereo all the way up and glue the knobs in place, paint rude things on the hatchback, or remove and hide someone's starter motor, they're never dumb enough to go after things like the steering or brakes.

People who are that rude to one another on a continual basis for a decade and still voluntarily work together are either best friends or completely insane. Or both! They may be both.

Mog has a particular crush on Richard Hammond, who until recently was moonlighting as a presenter on a children's show which claims to be about science, but seems mainly to be about blowing things up. Looking up clips on YouTube, I am completely unsurprised to see he's somehow acquired a black vinyl lab coat. He and James May take turns trying to blind viewers with their patterned shirts, but Hammond's the one who has what must be the least rock-and-roll leather jacket ever manufactured, which is in fact a blazer.

Hammond is also the only one who's ever had a serious accident. Rather surprising, considering that Clarkson doesn't think he's tested anything thoroughly until he's spun out in it at least once, and possibly broken an expensive part of the transmission, and May regularly agrees to do things like play team sports in a Kia Cee'd. Doubly surprising, as the accident was entirely due to factors outside his control, and had nothing to do with his driving. He was doing speed runs in a jet-powered dragster when one of the front tires blew and sent him skidding upside-down through the grass next to the track at well over 200mph. The report is here, if you're curious. The forensic findings are pretty mundane; though the chassis seems to have performed as designed, it was likely unrecoverable, and Hammond did everything as right as he could have under the circumstances. He came out of it with a badly-abraded eye where the turf had had a go at it, but otherwise unmarked -- the main problem he had was having whanged his head on something as it decelerated from 288mph to zero much faster than was strictly wise, and it had him in and out of a rather worrying coma for quite a while.

More interesting, report-wise, is the bit at the end where they lay out what they got from debriefing Hammond afterward. Whoever wrote this up notes that he was "remarkably sanguine about this whole affair". If you've read as many of these things as I have, that will immediately hit you as a surprisingly subjective and personal opinion, the likes of which are normally struck through with great prejudice before the final draft. For those kinds of observations to have remained in the paper, they must have been something the entire investigation team agreed on and something they thought was unusual enough to be of potential importance. Whatever's in there is also undoubtedly as dryly understated as they could make it -- that had to have been one hell of an interview.

Hammond unnerves a lot of people, in fact, by being not particularly bothered when he talks about the crash. Episode 9x01 was his first back, and they decided to head off gossip before it started by not only acknowledging the accident, but giving Hammond the opportunity to explain exactly what happened to the audience, visual aids and all. If you want to see this, you're going to have to get it off the interwebs, because it's not included in any of the DVD releases, and it's missing from the streaming services on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes. Netflix and Amazon acknowledge it and start series 9 from episode 2, where iTunes quietly renumbers things instead. The exact reason for this, I don't know. It might be that Hammond requested that the crash not be mentioned on Top Gear again (I think he just didn't want Clarkson to make it the centerpiece gag of the entire rest of his television career; Clarkson does have a tendency to beat dead horses, sometimes with entirely different dead horses he's scrounged up for the purpose). It might be that they used actual footage of the accident and got squeamish about broadcasting it again (the execs, not Hammond; Hammond even asks to have bits repeated in slow-mo so he can point things out). Or it might just be that Clarkson did what he normally does and emitted noises that made several people angry enough to write in with complaints (he asked Hammond at the top of the show if he was now "a mental"; you can see Hammond instantly relax at that, because Clarkson actually stops being an abrasive twat to people when he's worried about them, so if he's being rude to you on the air he clearly thinks you're fine).

His return is a bit of an emotional thing to watch. Hammond is what TV Tropes refers to as an Ascended Fanboy -- he was an enormous fan of the old Top Gear and, indeed, of Jeremy Clarkson, so when the call went out for presenters for the revived series, he was first in line for the auditions. It apparently never crossed his mind that he'd ever actually get the job, never mind that a few years later Jeremy would be wrestling him to the floor in the middle of the studio audience while Richard ate Exhibit A in yet another argument about the Cool Wall, which may or may not be a case of 'be careful what you wish for'. As much as the three of them ponder the idea of throwing one another off of various foreign cliffs in their overseas road trip specials, they really are fast friends IRL. May and Clarkson were among the first to arrive at the hospital, May wrote him a rather touching 'get well soon' piece, and Clarkson spent the better part of four months dealing with the media so that Hammond's wife wouldn't have to.

Watching footage of his own wreck does not leave Hammond particularly badly-off. He's still animated and still plainly thinks that being strapped to a reinforced chair in front of a jet engine was one of the coolest things ever, and has no trouble stepping through the events. (He's got either a remarkable recollection or reconstruction of what happened right up to the point he got popped by something -- rather unusual with head trauma, which often involves the loss of whatever hadn't made it from short-term to long-term memory when the blow came.) He does get serious when the moment comes, but he only winces when listening to himself do their typical 'this is exciting but also highly dangerous and may go wrong' pre-stunt patter, some of which is uncomfortably prophetic. Clarkson, on the other hand, really does not want to watch any of that, and gets very squirmy. It's hard to tell from the camera angles, but it looks like May is far more interested in keeping an eye on Hammond than on the monitor.

Hammond does not regret any of that all. Not for a second. There's a bit of a 'what if' there, but the fact that circumstances aligned to let him go out on that last run was really just fate. He was just unlucky enough to crash, and lucky enough to recover.

The Top Gear segment was understandably mostly about the automotive aspect of the accident, but Hammond has gone into his recovery elsewhere. Evidently at great length -- his first interview back was with Jonathan Ross, and he does tell Wossy to stop him if he waffles on for too long. I get the feeling he didn't -- possibly that should be doesn't -- get to talk about it as much as he'd like. Probably he'd start and people would go, BUT YOU ALMOST DIED, and he'd go, yes but I DIDN'T, so this is INTERESTING, and then they'd look at him all upset, and he'd give up and go on to something else. A few years later he gets to chat with Stirling Moss, a racing driver from yesteryear who survived much the same sort of unrecoverable crash, and the realization that he's sitting across from someone he can get into this with makes him light up the same way he does when he gets to talk cars with his co-hosts.

He does mention that the doctors told him to watch himself for changes, but he doesn't mention having to learn or re-learn self-monitoring as a skill, so he's probably always been kind of gefingerpoken inside his own head. He knows his own thinking patterns well enough to give detailed descriptions of how different it was when he first woke up, and how strange some of it seems in hindsight.

Self, I says to myself, if he's so keen on dissecting it and so itchy to talk about it, he's probably written it down somewhere. Which, in fact, he has. Irritatingly enough, it's not for sale in the US -- which only actually stops me from buying the Kindle edition that I wanted, not from paying someone the same amount of money to grab a paperback off the shelf and drop it into the mail for me.

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  1. Half.com has a copy of On the Edge for $1.99 plus $3.49 shipping right now. I think that's how I got a copy a few years ago when I bought every book by him, James, and Jeremy I could get my hands on. I finished that one and James May's Toy Stories, but the rest are waiting for me to come back to them.

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    1. Way ahead of you. Bought a copy from Amazon, used, for $0.01, coughed up $6.99 for expedited shipping. It went into the mail on the UK end about two hours after I ordered it. :) They say 4-10 business days, but I generally get things faster than that -- living in the port city where a lot of this stuff comes into the country will help with that.

      Most of their stuff is in print in the US. I know Jeremy's four hundred thousand books and collected columns are, and there's a copy of I Know You Got Soul on my Kindle right now. May's and Hammond's books are less likely to be in ebook format, likely because some of them are picture-heavy and that doesn't usually play well with e-readers. I've no idea why On The Edge isn't available for Kindle in the US. I'm uncertain whether it was technically in print here either -- almost all of the copies I found were from UK resellers cheerfully offering to ship them to any country the Royal Mail would recognize as a valid destination.

      The UK original Top Gear isn't screamingly well-known here -- and the ORIGINAL original version, before they came back and started buying challenge cars and destroying caravans, is a secret shrouded in mystery -- but it's got the usual BBC America following, and tends to be at least on the radar of the same sort of people who watch Mythbusters and YouTube videos with the phrase "Will it blend?" in the title.

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