I Know You Got Soul
Posted by Kuang on Wed, 18 Jun 2008.
I Know You Got Soul
Clarkson is probably best known in his capacity as a presenter of the BBC programme ‘Top Gear’, but he appears in print more frequently than on TV through his columns in the Times newspaper and Top Gear magazine, and a series of books. I Know You Got Soul was first published in 2005 and revolves around the concept that some machines have a sense of character and presence that make them seem almost alive. Clarkson has a well know love of engineering and holds two honourary engineering doctorates, but realized that technical brilliance does not necessarily make a great machine – sometimes quite the opposite – and set out to discover why.
I Know You Got Soul contains 21 chapters, each dedicated to a different machine, ranging from the AK47 through the Alfa Romeo 166 and even taking in the Millennium Falcon on the way. Clarkson approaches each machine in a different way depending on why it appeals – the Zeppelin airship because of the sheer impact it had on everyone who saw it despite it being a commercial failure, the Rolls Royce because of its creator’s insistence that it had to be built better than everything else and the Hoover Dam for the scale and of the building operation and for taming one of the most destructive rivers in the world. His writing strikes a great balance between technical facts and personal opinion and is extremely good at placing a feat of engineering within its historical and social context. Some of the statistics and facts he uncovers are astonishing and demonstrate the incredible challenges the engineers had to go through in order to bring their creations into the public eye – did you know that the Lockheed Blackbird is a foot longer in flight than on the ground because of the immense heat generated by friction as it cuts through the air, and that the nosecone is so wrinkled after 2 hours that it has to be ‘ironed’ back into shape?
Many of the machines discussed are no longer around, and so their chapters serve as part celebration, part historical record and part epitaph. Clarkson suggest that the measure of a soulful machine is not in how wonderfully built it is, but in the feeling it stirs in people. He talks briefly about the air disaster that brought Concorde flight 4950 down just outside Paris and was effectively the final nail in the plane’s coffin, and suggests that there was not only the sense of loss for the people on board, but also for the plane itself as an icon and a thing of beauty. People found it hard to accept that something so great could go so tragically wrong, and that suggests an emotional involvement rather than just a practical one.
He also talks about the flaws in machines bringing character, most notably in the chapter about the Millennium Falcon. The hotly debated question ‘which is better – the Falcon or the Starship Enterprise’ is discussed with Clarkson arguing that when the Enterprise was destroyed in the third film they just built another one, and that when the crew succeeded in a daring action it was never because the ship had helped but because the crew were so clever. The Falcon was constantly going wrong and often needed to be thumped before bits would start to work, but when it did perform it would leave everything else standing and undoubtedly saved the crew on a number of occasions despite its flaws. The Enterprise was a functional tool designed to do a job, but the Falcon was a lunatic collection of scrap won in a poker game and fettled and tweaked by its owner on a daily basis. Anyone who has ever owned an Alfa Romeo will understand this comparison, and appreciate that it’s far easier to get attached to something with flaws because the understanding of those issues gets you closer to the machine.
It’s made clear throughout the book that Clarkson genuinely loves machines and he manages to put across the sense of being a little boy in the world’s biggest toyshop. His enthusiasm is absolutely infectious and will leave even those who have no interest in machinery intrigued, surprised, and maybe even a little upset by some of his thoughts and findings. Once you appreciate that behind his personable writing style and apparently naïve comments there lies a razor sharp intelligence and a greater understanding of the issues than most people would credit him for, it’s hard not to enjoy and appreciate his thoughts on some of the greatest machines the world has ever seen.