“On the Edge,” by Richard Hammond (309p)
On the Edge is the autobiography-come-diary of British television presenter and journalist Richard Hammond, of Top Gear fame. Co-written with wife Amanda (nicknamed Mindy), the book covers Hammond’s early life and start in television that led to his job on one of the most popular shows in the world but mainly focuses on his near fatal accident in a jet-powered dragster in September 2006 and the subsequent months after that leading to his recovery and return to television in 2007.
Hammond’s early love of danger, performing and cars dominate the early chapters of the book. Through his childhood and family background – one of his grandfathers was in the RAF while the other one searched for unexploded German bombs – he explains how he came to love the thrill and excitement of danger and high speed, an allusion to his reasons for wanting to drive a 10,000bhp jet-powered car in the first place. As a child Hammond would have been described as the class clown and loved to entertain his school mates by jumping over things on his bicycle. He also loved to tinker and fix machines as a child. As Hammond grew up he found himself criss-crossing the countryside working for various local radio stations with little to no success financially, not helped by a love of cars that transcended into his adulthood. He recalls stories of every new car purchase with great excitement that only he understands, including the purchase of his prized 1981 930 Porsche 911 with left-hand drive. When it became obvious that the life of a local radio presenter was not the high-life he had expected, Hammond ditched for a “normal” job, which is where he met his wife Mindy.
The two forged a life together until Hammond’s true calling came back and he returned to broadcast journalism, successfully auditioning for the series return of Top Gear. A chapter is spent about Hammond’s career on Top Gear, the action packed high entertainment car show that has achieved mass global success, described simply as “what a job!” Then it moves onto why Hammond wanted to go as fast as he did in the jet-powered dragster and the day of the accident itself. He was scheduled to film a piece on the sensation of driving at speeds rarely achieved – 314m/ph (505k/ph) was his fastest – at Elvington Airfield, near York, and wrote all about the day itself, including his bond with Top Gear Dog. He describes his nervousness while giving an explanation of a typical day of shooting for a film on Top Gear, the intricacies and simplicities of the jet-powered dragster and the immense power it could generate, and then his first through fourth runs. But then on the fifth run came the accident as the front-right tyre delaminated and exploded, sending the car careening off the runway at around 281m/ph. The resultant crash, which saw him comatose for around two days, left Hammond with severe brain injuries from swelling and post-traumatic amnesia.
The bulk of the book deals with Hammond’s injury and recovery. His wife Mindy takes over for the middle part when Hammond was at his worst and so those chapters are told from her rather heartbreaking viewpoint. She really hammers home what it is like to be with someone with a severe brain injury once they have regained consciousness – in essence, they’re them but they’re not. They know some things, they can fix on to it with great fervour, but a lot of the time they draw a blank. Conversations are driven in circles as short-term memory is almost non-existent and hours can be spent answering the same question over and over. Hammond would constantly want cigarettes and a beer or he would ask where his daughters were despite Mindy telling him not a minute before. Mindy tells a stirring story as she battled through immense frustration and exhaustion dealing with Hammond when he was at his worst, but slowly ‘The Hamster’ began to make his recovery. Memories would eventually start coming back and he soon began returning to a normal life, or as normal as possible considering the circumstances. To show how difficult dealing with someone with brain injury is, Mindy explains the need for repetitive routine in almost everything they did. Sudden surprise and confusion, which included people he did not know, had the possibility of launching him into a high state of paranoia and anxiety that could have quite easily seen him have a possibly fatal seizure. Luckily, that did not happen. By book’s end, following a recuperation period in Scotland, he had more or less returned to being himself before the accident with none of the noticeable possible side-effects of a brain injury, like personality change, evident. On January 28 he returned to television for series 9 of Top Gear.
In many ways, On the Edge is quite a sad story. It was never intended to be (in the afterward Hammond says he never wanted to do that and rather calls it sort of a love story) but reading this your heart really goes out to Amanda Hammond. What this woman went through is pretty hard to imagine yourself, but you get a very good idea reading this book. To juggle two young daughters, a severely injured husband who would often get worse without her around to comfort him, an inquisitive and intrusive media as well as the rest of the family, often on very little sleep, is remarkable. In her words you get a birds-eye view on dealing with something like this and her feelings throughout is what makes it quite sad. She makes it possible to understand what it is like to go as close as you can probably get to losing your husband (or wife) without actually experiencing it yourself, so it is very moving.
It reads very quickly, however, and the diary and memoir-like approach to it makes it easy to digest. Stories and memories are woven together throughout and form the basis of the chapters before the accident and when Hammond is describing how he began to regain control of his brain in Scotland. I would recommend this as a read for anyone due to its ease of read and quick pace, but Top Gear fans looking for behind the scenes stories are better off reading one of Hammond’s other books.