Jeremy Clarkson: What kind of idiot is he?

Does his recitation of a racist children's rhyme make him a hilariously waggish idiot? A racist idiot? Or, as his 'Top Gear' co-presenters would have it, just 'an idiot'?

 

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The distinction between daring irreverence and juvenile rudeness – such as in the counting rhyme "Eeny meeny miny moe" – is usually learnt in the playground. Kids can say the cruelest things, but in the course of growing up they eventually discover that insults alone don't constitute wit. The joke is always dependent on who is saying it and who they're saying it to.

So the scrappy kid brave enough to cheek a strict teacher might become a respected class clown, but the popular kids who pick on their lisping classmate aren't brave, they're just bullies. This appreciation of humour's power dynamic has been summarised in a neat motto used by professional comedians and comedy writers: "punch up, not down".

It's a principle worth recalling this week, while we're casting our minds back to our own schooldays. Does Jeremy Clarkson's recitation of a racist children's rhyme make him a hilariously waggish idiot? A racist idiot? Or, as his Top Gear co-presenters would have it, just "an idiot"?

In a out-take dug up by the Mirror last week, the presenter chooses between two sports cars using a version of "Eeny meeny miny moe" which includes the line "Catch a n***** by the toe / If he hollers let him go". In his later YouTube apology he defended himself by calling this "the best-known version of the rhyme", but is it? Best-known to whom? In my schooldays, which probably weren't much like Clarkson's, we used "catch a tiger by his toe", or any number of alternative counting rhymes such as "Ip Dip" or "Tinker Tailor" that don't include racist slurs. Presumably, when Clarkson says "best-known" what he means is "best-known to me, Jeremy Clarkson, and the other old white blokes whose world view defines the BBC's reality".

That's OK, though, because Clarkson assures us he "did everything in my power to not use that word". Everything, that is, apart from not using it. Since there are several alternatives, we can only assume he thought mumbling the racist version might be terribly droll, yet another one in the eye for the PC brigade. Much like that time he referred to an anonymous Asian man by a racist slur, or described Mexicans as "feckless", or made jokes at the expense of murdered prostitutes or called for public sector workers to be shot dead "in front of their families". This time, at least, he thought better of it before broadcast. What a shame the same judgement wasn't exercised on those other occasions.

The N-word has a special power to elicit visceral horror in even the most insensitive blowhards, a power which its history more than justifies. But while Clarkson shrinks from society's opprobrium regarding this particular unfunny gaffe, his half-arsed apology suggests he still hasn't grasped why his other comments weren't funny either. Rudeness can be shocking, witty and – if directed at power – even heroic. Coming from a well-paid BBC presenter who regularly sups with the PM, it isn't irreverent. It's just rude.

Not in front of the children

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) is calling for a strict new charter to prevent children seeing sex and violence on TV before the 9pm watershed. You might therefore deduce that the NAHT wants to protect our innocent children from the harsh realities of adult life. You'd be wrong. The same organisation has announced a scheme called Primary Futures, which invites professionals to explain to children as young as five "the practical requirements of the working world".

We don't take children to see 18-certificate slashers or read aloud to them from the newspaper crime pages, so why subject the little 'uns to this horror? There are some things – and office stationery wars are one of them – which young minds shouldn't have to contemplate

Hopefully, Primary Futures will do its best to ensure age-appropriate talks, but even if the secret hope is a new generation of obedient wage slaves, it won't work. One teacher friend of mine tells a story about asking a class of four-year-olds about their career ambitions. A firefighter? A doctor? A social media strategist, perhaps? One hand shot up faster than all the others. "Miss, when I grow up, I want to be a monkey."

The power of protest

A few weeks ago we noted the resurgence of "shoeing", the practice of throwing a shoe at a politician, which is mainly associated with Arab cultures. Last week, Nigel Farage was on the receiving end of a related protest, which was – thank heaven for small mercies – reassuringly British.

"Egg-throwing is a well-established form of political protest in this country," a man called Fred told the BBC after egging the Ukip leader. "I saw the guys outside the town hall about 10 minutes ago. I went to Tesco, bought some eggs."

What could be more patriotic than that? I'll tell you. A few days earlier Farage was in Bath being interviewed by a BBC News crew outside a pub, when a man was caught on camera making an obscene gesture behind his back. Online donations to the pub's "Buy Gary a Pint" fund have now passed the £400 mark.

It's time for no-top gear

It's May. It's a bank holiday. The temperature is forecast to reach a sweltering 17C, which can only mean one thing: it's nipples o'clock. Don't worry, if you forgot to mark Shirtless Man Season on your calendar this year, the harbingers have been noted. A young tearaway on Channel 4's Mr Drew's School for Boys turning up sans shirt to meet his new teacher, a viral clip of a shirtless man asking out a TV news reporter, and actor-turned full-time troll James Franco in a boxers-only Instagram selfie.

You may think these men uncouth, but they are also trailblazers on the frontiers of accepted nudity, who do us all a service. Their luminously sunburnt chests light the way to a more positive body image. Shirtless is not just a state of dress; shirtless is a state of mind. Which would make for a great T-shirt slogan, paradoxically.

Percentage point

For the estimated 112 per cent of Britons who don't understand percentages, Brian May's statement this week made perfect sense. He would like the forthcoming Freddie Mercury film to be "one million per cent truthful". Alas, the question of whether Hollywood biopics can ever deliver objective truth, remains one billion trillion per cent unsettled.

twitter.com/@MsEllenEJones

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