Magazine article The Spectator

Full and Fearless Mind

Magazine article The Spectator

Full and Fearless Mind

Article excerpt

There died last month the doyen of British motoring writers, an idiosyncratic, eloquent, deeply informed, erudite enthusiast: L.J.K. Setright. A bearded patrician, elegant and opinionated, intolerant of fools, mysterious and forbidding, his detestation of speed limits was as passionate as his fondness for strong Sobranie cigarettes (he died at 74).

His style varied from the high-flown to the acerbic and was peppered with quotations from rabbinical and classical texts.

He was proud to be told that he once held the record for appearances in Private Eye's Pseuds Corner. When asked by a motoring editor to tone down his style, he submitted his next column in Latin (a translation followed). He found it impossible to be boring:

Britain's large population of Luddites expressed some satisfaction when a nonmotorist known as Mrs Barbara Castle but recognised in some quarters as Minister for Transport told us that we were to suffer a 70 mph limit even on our newly beloved motorways. An equally large section of the population, the Gullibles, believed her when she said it was an experimental measure and would only be temporary.

Setright was a Londoner born to Australian immigrants. His father founded the family engineering business that produced the ticket machine used by bus conductors in happier days. Had the young Setright become an engineer, he would probably have engineered more and written less. As it was, he became a learned layman with a gift for conveying abstruse engineering principles in everyday language.

He wrote for many magazines, notably Car for 33 years and later for Autocar. Those articles were the basis of a career that brought him, in Stephen Bayley's words, 'closer on the scale of human potential to Isaiah Berlin than to Jeremy Clarkson'.

That's perhaps a little hard on the ubiquitous Clarkson, who writes well (but very differently) about cars and who is, as we all know, a natural performer. He shows off, which is what TV demands, but so did Setright in his own, original way. Like Clarkson, Setright relished the opportunity of mass communication, but unlike Clarkson he eschewed personal contact. 'It cannot be too widely known, ' he said, 'that Setright does not indulge in correspondence.' He enjoyed referring to himself in the third person.

I never met him but saw him once at a Mercedes SLK launch, a stooping, solitary, incongruously scholarly figure among the usual motoring hacks. He set off before me on the drive-route and sped out of sight. I determined to introduce myself when we both returned; by the time I got back he'd changed and gone home. …

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