On the way to Cheltenham today, we got caught up in a huge queue, caused by fans going to some football match or other. Several of the fans had hired limos and were causing a ruckus, hanging out of windows, trailing flags and tooting little hand-held horns. Every now and again, one of the limo would pull onto the hard shoulder, encouraging men wearing gold chains and football shirts, who all lined up to take a group piss, not caring that they could be seen by everyone. Lovely.
When did limos become tacky? On a trip to New York in 2001, we hired one to take us from the airport to the hotel. Admittedly, it was quite fun and the extra space meant that you could lounge around, while the tinted windows added a bit of mystique. For about a second, I felt that I was "somebody".
But limos have always been vulgar - associated with celebrity and showiness. And so it is easy to see how, within the last 5 years or so, their meaning has been appropriated by the non-famous, the nobodies. In Bristol, where I live, every weekend you can see a Limo full of drunken, squawking, hen-night girls, windows wound down, breasts hanging out, cheap champagne on show. Just like the Grand Old Duke of York, these limos drive all the way up the top of the hill, turn around, and then drive back down again - and again. It's all so that the girls can be "seen" by the public - this is the value of celebrity today in Britain - a country where pop stars and footballers are role models for children (rather than doctors, writers and politicians, unless you count the many ghost-written books put out by reality tv stars Jade, Jordan and Jodie). The yowling girls in the limo don't actually have anywhere to go, except some dismal club once they've been paraded around a hardly-glamorous British town centre.
The appropriation of such symbols is a classic case of the "fashion cycle", put forward by people like Quentin Bell, Gabriel Tarde and Bernard Barber. Fashions come in "waves", they are started by innovators, usually powerful people in society and eventually "trickle-down" to the lower classes, by which time, the originators are required to invent new fashions in order to stay ahead of the game. Would any celebrity worth their salt really want to be seen getting out of a limo these days? Remember the high-maintenance celebrity, Honey Whitlock, played by Melanie Griffith in the film Cecil B Demented, complaining that she had been given a white limo to travel in, when everyone knows that white limos are trashy and black ones are classy. These days, I doubt the colour of the limo makes that much difference - when they can be hired by wannabees on a council estate, their cache is over.
With that said, a tremendously sad news story this week shows that perhaps, in some quarters, limos still have the power to impress. Nisha Patel-Nasri was stabbed by a suspected burglar who she tackled when he tried to break into her house. Her husband has a limo hire business and "it is not clear whether the attacker was trying to gain entry to the couple's home or was targeting Mr Nasri's stretch limousines, two of which were parked outside." While the limos may have appeared to signpost a home stocked full of riches beyond imagination, in actual fact, had the burglar managed to break into them, he would have found nothing but the leftover smell of vomit from some poor over-excited lass who couldn't hold her drink. We can at least take solace that when the killer is caught, he will be famous too.