Jeremy Clarkson: Clown prince of the petrolheads

He is the self-appointed scourge of the green movement. Yesterday, they got their revenge on Jeremy Clarkson with a custard-pie protest. Sean O'Grady on the motoring writer who drives his critics mad

It was a characteristically clever trick, but it didn't do the folks who made that car any favours. The Vectra wasn't the smash hit that Vauxhall hoped it would be and, who knows, if they had sold and made a few more Vectras, then Vauxhall's Luton factory might still be open.

When the bad news came through at Luton, the car workers and their families there clearly thought that Clarkson ought to shoulder some of the blame (as indeed did the Rover workers at Longbridge when they too bit the dust).

No. If Jeremy Clarkson were a car he'd be one of those huge, heavy, mostly pointless four by fours. Possibly a Porsche Cayenne or a Range Rover or, indeed, a new Land Rover Discovery of the type he recently drove up a hillside in Scotland, an exercise that left Clarkson accused of ruining unspoiled countryside.

Maybe something even bigger, an American Lincoln Navigator or a Cadillac Escalade, cars that even Americans regard as "full-sized".

Whatever. The car that would carry the chromium Clarkson badge would have to be big, brash, dominating, politically incorrect and yet strangely appealing and entertaining. They don't make many cars like that.

And they don't make many motoring journalists like Clarkson. Most of his peer group on the round of launches in the sunnier climes of the world evince a certain disquiet at the mention of his name, and it is only a matter of time before the word Clarkson pops up. In the bars of plush hotels in Venice or Crete or Hawaii or any of the other comfortable watering holes to which car companies take hacks for the launch of their latest wonders, a consensus soon emerges about JC. He's far too influential; you would think he was the only motoring writer on the planet, the only man who ever wrote about cars in history. Why have the public only heard of him (and not the rest of us)? The absurdity!

There are a few who confess their loathing of him, and are keen to pass on the most scurrilous (and legally actionable) gossip about him. For the Clarkson-intolerant he is a sort of journalistic Upas tree, where nothing can grow beneath his shade. That is particularly the case with his TV vehicle, Top Gear, a show that has gone from strength to strength fitted with the supercharger that is Clarkson's personality. As one Top Gear hand put it to me, "it's Jezza's show", and the BBC did once consider renaming it Jeremy Clarkson's Car Show. Most rate his writing, from the days when he wrote testosterone-fuelled columns for the likes of Performance Car (and stuff for other magazines under the pseudonyms Bob Ward and Philip Clark) through to his more varied contributions to newspapers and magazines now. He was - and is - capable of some striking phrase-making, so that even if you don't quite know what a Suzuki Wagon R is, he helps you realise that you ought to avoid it like "you would avoid unprotected sex with an Ethiopian transvestite". Similarly you would warm to a car like the Ferrari 355 because it's "like a quail's egg dipped in celery salt and served in Julia Roberts's belly button"; Or the Alfa Romeo Brera: "Think of it as Angelina Jolie. You've heard that she's mad and eats nothing but wallpaper paste. But you would, wouldn't you?"

But the one thing all his friends and enemies readily acknowledge is that Clarkson has succeeded, almost single-handedly, in taking cars out of their nerdy ghetto and turning them into showbiz. Clarkson is a showman. Indeed there's a case for saying that he's a better showman than he is anything else.

Oddly enough, when he stops inhaling petrol he is a surprisingly sober, considered, even sensitive soul. You might even say scholarly, which is what Oxford Brookes University must have thought when they awarded him an honorary degree.

His television essay on Isambard Kingdom Brunel was well-received as well as persuasive. Also memorable was a documentary he presented on the Victoria Cross. This was lifted from being a routine piece of story-telling by Clarkson's poignant account of how his father-in-law won a VC. Major Robert Cain single-handedly destroyed at least three German tanks while hopelessly outnumbered at Arnhem in 1944. Clarkson mentioned towards the end that he is married to Cain's daughter and that she didn't know her father held the VC until after he'd died. It was moving stuff, far removed from the motormouth image he has cultivated.

It is his "why oh why" columns in the press that show the least likeable side of Clarkson. That's not because the columns are parti-pris Conservative. Far from it. Like his fellow rabble-rouser Richard Littlejohn, Clarkson seems as frustrated with the Tories as anyone. If he is a Tory it is only because he hates "Phoney Tony" so much. He is, broadly, right wing, but in a way there's less to him than that. He really is just a grumpy old man, whose likes and dislikes can be perverse. He's into self-reliance and Saddam-bashing, and he has praised the qualities of Marlboro cigarettes and Budweiser beer, but he is no slavish lover of all things American. His scepticism about global warming and all the rest of it borders on the eccentric and is often offensive, yet you have to wonder how much of it is served up by this intelligent man just to wind up the Greens and give another turbocharged boost to his reputation. He lives in the Cotswolds and loves the countryside. Drugs? Again, not so easy to categorise. Clarkson, he say: "The figures say 475,000 people in this country use cocaine - 1 per cent of adults - and I've met people at parties with unusual summer colds. But so what? Shackleton's epic voyages were fuelled by coke and Queen Victoria was almost permanently off her face on the stuff. So were most 19th-century authors. I therefore have an idea. Instead of getting his men to barge into homes to see if anyone's a bit too chatty, maybe Mr Blair could use his resources to put more officers on the beat."

Clarkson despises yobs, yet his car programmes have a slightly yobbish air, and he once said that "if I was a 14-year-old kid brought up on a council estate in Doncaster and stood no chance of getting a job, then, yeah, I'd nick cars. I'd be reversing into Dixon's every night".

Clarkson wasn't brought up like that. His family was pretty well off, making money from the Paddington Bear franchise. Young Clarkson passed his driving test in his grandfather's R-type Bentley. From another Clarkson TV show, we also know that one of Jeremy's ancestors manufactured the screw-topped Kilner jar, sealed with a rubber ring to preserve food, which was exported all over the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The modern-day Clarkson fortune must be as large as anything his predecessors would have amassed.

Yet, despite the fact that he shows no sign of underestimating his own abilities, he can be refreshingly self-deprecating: "My stomach is the size of a spacehopper, I weigh 16 stone, and my teeth are yellow from smoking far too much." So he doesn't seem especially vain, although he was proud enough to punch the former editor of the Daily Mirror, Piers Morgan, presumably because of the Mirror's intrusion into Clarkson's privacy. (Morgan claims that Clarkson told him that he [Clarkson] "wasn't physically capable of having an affair".)

Thus it was that Morgan joined a long list of Clarkson casualties. But Jeremy doesn't mind who he upsets; he is an equal opportunities loudmouth. Take the parish council in Churchill Somerset, who, understandably, complained when Clarkson deliberately rammed a Toyota pick-up into a 30-year-old horse chestnut. Or the BBC subtitlers who wrote to the BBC house magazine Ariel to moan about how "comment after comment about blokeishness, wives and women were finally crowned in one recent edition with a misogynistic explanation 'in plain English' which saw three bikini-clad women used to demonstrate the differences between different Porsche models". Against that, he replied that "if you call me sexist, I'll grab you by the epiglottis and bash the back of your head repeatedly into the pavement". This from a man who so often deplores the decline of civil society.

If there is an ideology called Clarksonism it is difficult to discern its uniting theme. So much of his posturing, you would think, must be clowning about. A custard pie in the face seems an entirely appropriate award.

The thoughts of Jeremy Clarkson

* ON THE POLICE "We live in the worst country in the world. At least we do for lazy, inefficient, office-bound police, whose response to an extraordinary rise in violent crime is to order more speed cameras."

* ON CLASS

"Only last week I was at my children's sports day and as I lay in the long grass by the river drinking pink champagne and chatting with other media parents, I remember thinking, 'God, I love being middle class.; (Sunday Times, 24 July 2005)

* ON GREENPEACE

"Greenpeace has taken a long hard look at the world. It has noted the alarming emergence of Islamic extremism, and the corruption in Africa. It's logged the oppression in Burma and the slaughter in the Middle East. And it has decided that something must be done ... about your patio heater."

(Sunday Times, 17 July 2005)

* ON MULTICULTURALISM

"When I go to a dinner party the guests are always white. All my friends have white spouses. And the only diversity in the office where I work is that three of the staff are left-handed. As a result I never meet any black or Asian people. So in this country at least I have no black or Asian friends. Not one."

(Sunday Times, 24 July 2005)

* ON BLAIR'S LEGACY

"He's given us a bus lane on the M4."

* ON ENVIRONMENTALISTS "I do wish these people would take up something useful. Like tearing their own tongues out."

(The Sun, 9 July 2005)

* ON BEING DESCRIBED AS A YOB "Yobbish? Me? I'm 45 years old, for heaven's sake, and I have bosoms."

* ON CYCLISTS

"How many children or elderly people have been knocked down by wizened, Guardian-reading, muesli freaks in figure-hugging Lycra?'

(The Sun, 22 May 2004)

* ON THE STATE OF THE NATION

"Unfortunately, the country is now in the hands of overpaid bastards who want to make our lives as miserable as possible."

(The Sun, 22 May 2004)

Robert Hughes

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