Like my 10-year-old nephew, I can't wait for the new series of Top Gear later this month. Neither of us is very interested in brake horsepower or understeer, but we both like the show's beautifully filmed escapades, its insider's vocabulary and its enduringly likable presenters. (Yes, I am aware this isn't a universal response to Jeremy Clarkson.) This charm may explain why a programme made by the supposedly impartial BBC has got away with a long-running and highly politicised campaign against speed cameras.
In Mythologies, the book he wrote in 1957, Roland Barthes argued that cultural myths develop not through lies or distortion, but through a deceptive transparency. Myth "abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences", creating "a world wide open and wallowing in the evident ... a blissful clarity". I am not sure what Barthes would have made of Top Gear, but this programme certainly dispenses its own cultural myth - that speeding is a victimless crime - with the same kind of blissful clarity.
Its presenters venture infrequently on normal UK roads, preferring to test cars on high-speed tracks, do daredevil stunts on deserted beaches, or challenge each other to intercontinental road races. Here they marvel at the laid-back attitudes of the French police to speeding, or the liberating absence of speed limits on the autobahns. They inhabit a make-believe universe in which the petty restrictions of British roads, with their speed cameras and dawdling caravans, magically melt away.
The main purpose of myth, wrote Barthes, is "to transform history into nature", to disguise contentious historical arguments behind the celebration of natural human instincts. The common complaint about the mechanical stupidity of the speed camera has echoed down the years whenever the police have attempted to apply the law scientifically - from the hated speed traps of the 1900s to the radar guns of the 1950s that the AA complained were "a quite unnecessarily extravagant method of enforcing the law".
Drivers have long countered these restrictions with fantasies of revenge and flight, of defeating the killjoys and escaping the road altogether. In WR Booth's 1906 film, The '?' Motorist, a couple in a car run over a traffic policeman and then fly into space, ending up at the planet Saturn, whose gas rings they put to use as a racetrack.
Motoring journalists have also long dismissed advocates of blanket speed limits as soulless life-deniers. LJK Setright, the celebrated Car magazine columnist, saw speed limits as a tool of political repression, which helped to "coerce the populace to remain where they are, instead of roaming around being inquisitive or simply escaping to where the grass appears to grow greener". The historian AJP Taylor often used his Sunday Express column to extol the pleasures of driving fast, one of his pieces arguing that road accidents were caused by motorists driving too slowly. ("What it is," commented one Daily Telegraph columnist, "to have a highly trained mind.") Top Gear is part of this resilient Tory anarchism of the road, the championing of the right of every freeborn Englishman to drive on the Queen's Highway in the manner of his choosing.
Barthes argued that cultural myths work primarily through flattering identification: they offer us our own likeness, but "clarified, exalted, superbly elevated into a type". Top Gear similarly appeals to those perennially victimised members of the respectable middle classes - speeding motorists - and presents them with their best version of themselves, innocently enjoying the aesthetics of speed away from the prying eyes of government busybodies.
When Clarkson apparently confessed at the Hay festival to have driven at 186mph on a public road - even though it is impossible to drive that fast in the Limehouse Link tunnel - he also said that Top Gear was "just fluff ... Nobody listens to me". Myth always has an alibi to hand: in Top Gear's case, it is that everything is a joke, a jeu d'esprit, just messing about. But humour can be coercive when anyone who does not get the joke is dismissed as a joyless puritan. Unfortunately for those of us who like to puncture myths, this one appeals to 10-year-olds and grown-ups alike. It is as beguiling and seductive as a fairytale.