As You Do

By Richard Hammond

Weidenfeld & Nicholson: 2008

Richard Hammond is best known as The Hamster, the shortest of the three presenters on the BBC’s hugely successful Top Gear television programme. I am quite a fan of the show and took the opportunity to borrow the book when it was offered to me. To be quite frank, I wasn’t expecting all that much from it, but I thought it just might throw some light behind the scenes of Top Gear.

It just goes to show how wrong you can be, because I found it to be a very well-written account of some of Hammond’s adventures including a few which give his take on some of the well-known Top Gear challenges. The first was the now-famous race to the North Pole with Hammond competing on a dog sled against fellow presenters Jeremy Clarkson and James May driving a heavily customised Toyota pickup truck.

I found this section of the book absolutely enthralling with Hammond’s description of how he prepared for his trip and learnt about travelling in the Arctic. Among the many lessons was what to do if confronted by a polar bear, and the ins and outs of travelling by dog-sled. Much of the learning took place under the tutelage of Matty McNair, the most experienced female polar guide in the world, who was also to accompany him and his production team on the race.

As I say, I was fascinated by the details of life in that harsh and unforgiving environment and found Hammond to be a good enough writer, to make you feel as if you were there too. The other Top Gear episode covered in quite some detail was the one when the three presenters took on the challenge of driving 1000 km across Botswana in cheap two-wheel-drive cars to prove to people in Surrey that they really don’t need to drive Land Rovers.

Each of the presenters had to buy a car in Botswana on a limited budget and Hammond’s choice was a yellow 1963 Opal Kadett. The vehicle proved to be an inspired and reliable choice and soon came to be known as Oliver. Highlights of the trip included a meeting with the vice president of Botswana, who pitched up midway through the trip with his entourage in a number of microlights, and an episode where Hammond tried to cross a river and Oliver ended up afloat.

Another Top Gear episode described is the one where the presenters had to create an amphibious vehicle and sail it over the English Channel to France. All these episodes were amusing and very well told but the book doesn’t end there. Shortly after the ‘channel incident’ there were torrential rains in the UK and Hammond’s parts of England was particularly badly affected. He tells the story of how he had to abandon his car due to the flooding and run 19 miles home to attend his daughter’s birthday party. In the same incident, he borrows a small boat and goes to the rescue of friends marooned on the top floor of their house, near the river.

The last incident in the book is one in which Hammond gets to meet his childhood hero Evel Knievel and make a television programme about it. The episode is interesting but loaded with great deal of pathos because Evel was already a very sick man at the time, had already bought and paid for his own memorial stone, and was to die shortly afterwards. Among the interesting characters encountered was George Christie, deputy head of the Hells Angels movement, whom Hammond had to interview for his take on Evel, who had been famously critical about the Hells Angels.

As I said before, I enjoyed As You Do very much indeed. I’m convinced that Hammond has a great future as a travel writer and I look forward to reading about more of his adventures. The only slight reservation I had is that the book was clearly produced as cheaply as possible, and looks it.

In spite of that reservation, however, it is still highly recommended. 🙂

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