Re: Ghost of LJK Setright
Yes Gtrslngr, as Goatboy said in a recent thread “If Only .... Leonard Setright was still alive”. As it happens, that had already inspired me to start writing my own meanderings, hence my speedy response to your.timely thread.
Here was a man who will divide the Car readership even now, several years after his death. For me I discovered him soon after he started writing for Car in the late 60s, just when he had decided to give up the day job. I long ago had to dump my old issues so have never re-read these first columns. He was probably finding his style then, but immediately I realised here was someone different. What appealed then was his breadth I suppose. He seamlessly linked my motoring passion to the rest of the world, putting it into both a technical and a social context, and making it somehow intellectually respectable in my 16 year old eyes.
Now, such youthful infatuations don’t always last. I read ‘On The Road’ round about this time, and thought that a fantastic book, but now I cringe at what I saw in it. But I grew up with Setright and never outgrew him.
His prose and personal style sometimes teetered dangerously on the portentous, but it was never less than elegant. Fear of pretension is the big bogey for Brits, one of the worst crimes - punishable by having to stand in Pseuds Corner. Well LJKS had no fear of this, he had the confidence, knowledge and skill to ignore such considerations. In the dim days when I read Private Eye, until I got old enough to tie my own laces and vote, I remember him featuring there, and I’m sure he did afterwards. That they should have had half his style. Not that I was an open-eyed dupe in all this. If he quoted Ovid (in the original Latin of course) I neither chortled in conspiratorial wisdom, nor went running in awe to my dictionary. I even got a bit pissed off with him, for either boasting about his own knowledge or trying to shame me into improving mine. But really, honestly, ultimately I wouldn’t have had him change a word to make it more accessible. He was smarter than me, and that was OK.
This was one thing I found perversely enjoyable about LJKS. Realising that, much as I might like to meet him, he would have had no desire to meet me, finding me shallow, under-informed on so many things, and certainly on Mozart, would probably judge me a mediocre driver and, worst of all, tut at me being a non-smoker. Clarkson (and I apologise for mentioning him in the same thread as the Blessed Leonard) is liked by people, I suspect, because he is just a cartoon version of an ordinary bloke - you look at him and think ‘I could do that’. He’s your silly big brother. Setright’s image was intimidating, slightly schoolmastery, though I gather from reading those who knew him, that he was actually quite shy.
And, like a schoolmaster, we were occasionally treated to dry jokes. I still can’t look at the front of a BMW without remembering his chronicling the genesis of its grille from the two proud upright Bratwurst (or was in Knackwurst) of the 328 to a rather lacklustre pair of slices of luncheon meat of the then new 5 Series.
Thinking about it, whilst writing this, I realise quite how much of my entire attitude to motoring has been informed by LJKS. Without my always being aware of it, opinions are made with him somehow looking over my shoulder. This isn’t some dumb mimicry - not worthy! - it is a useful aid for understanding things, for trying to come at something from another angle. What would LJKS’s take on this be? Would Setright approve? Of course I really don’t know. For instance, I like to think that he despised the Veyron, as I do, but then, for some convoluted reason, he might have loved it. That unpredictability was what was so good about him.