Paul Vallely: Clarkson is a victim of his own values

The vandalising of the 'Top Gear' presenter's fence comes from the same mindset that underpins his fame and fortune

Share
Related Topics

We should never, of course, condone vandalism. But it was hard not to feel that there was something apt in the news that the fence had been hacked down around the £1.2m lighthouse holiday home belonging to Jeremy Clarkson on the Isle of Man. The boorish culture that the Top Gear presenter celebrates so exuberantly has come back to bite him on the bum.

It's important not to get this out of proportion. The "grim discovery", as one portentous tabloid dubbed it, that vandals had pulled down the cliff-top fencing comes at the end of a six-year right-of-way dispute with local ramblers in the 40 acres of coastland Clarkson and his wife have bought on the picturesque Langness peninsula. The government of the island has ruled in the walkers' favour and the dispute is now before the High Court. But clearly some disgruntled locals have decided on a bit of unilateral ramblers' revenge.

Clarkson's wife, Frances, speaking from their family home in the Cotswolds, said she felt they were being targeted. "It's not the first time it's happened. It makes me feel rather sick. It's upsetting," she told journalists. But the celebrated wit of the man himself, who has complained in the past about the island's "militant dog walkers", seemed momentarily to have deserted him. He was reported as being unavailable for comment.

We see a lot of Jeremy Clarkson in our house. Endless repeats of Top Gear appear to be the default option on our 11-year-old's preferred channel, Dave, "the home of witty banter" as it calls itself – in a tag that seems as convincing as those lines in dating magazines which proclaim the advertiser to be possessed of a Good Sense of Humour. Then there is the programme's latest BBC2 series, which in some weeks is the BBC's most popular show. Top Gear is the most watched programme of the year on iPlayer, and is broadcast to more than 100 countries, reaching 300 million viewers round the world.

You can see the attraction. You start with the obvious "speed thrills" premise of driving round Europe in a Bugatti Veyron. But Top Gear long ago ventured further into an adolescent-male fantasy world – destroying its most hated cars by crushing them with a tank, catapulting them with a trebuchet, dropping them on to a caravan or shooting them up with a helicopter gunship. All of which is done against a failsafe formula of races between the programme's three protagonists in increasingly exotic locations. All that has changed, as the last decade has passed, has been Clarkson's girth, the ageing of the baby-faced boy-racer Richard Hammond and the length of the hair of the group geek, James May.

Hammond and May are essentially the straight men to Clarkson's gagster. He is genuinely funny. But his humour is rooted in the caricature of a lovable saloon-bar rogue. He is a white middle-class male not-afraid-to-speak-his-mind-in-a-world-of-political-correctness-gone-mad. Like Dick & Dom shouting "bogies" in the polite quiet of an art gallery, the point of his vulgarian humour is to cause offence.

So he is rude about cyclists, caravans, vegetarians, women, gays, health and safety, and green activists whom he dubs "eco-mentalists" and says in a previous life were failed trade unionists and "CND lesbians". Foreigners, and their stereotypes, are all fair game: Korean car designers eat dogs, Mexican motors are lazy, German cars have their satnavs set to invade Poland and Malaysian vehicles are built "in jungles by people who wear leaves for shoes".

He suits the action to the words. Rather than enthusing over lower-emission sports cars, Clarkson will drive a 4x4 through a Scottish peat bog, wreaking destruction that will take decades to make good. At one point he so resisted the notion that cars, or any other human activity, were accelerating climate change that some MPs wanted to summon him to a select committee to explain his "curious and misguided attitude to the real and major threat posed by climate change".

But this is not the satire of Loadsamoney or Alf Garnett. Clarkson means it. Thus Gordon Brown, then prime minister, was a "one-eyed Scottish idiot" and, in one unbroadcast warm-up, "a silly c*nt". There is about him the casual cruelty of the public school bully. (He was expelled from Repton.) It is the core of his relationship with pretty-boy Hammond and clever-boy May.

Yet Clarkson is clever too; he plays the misogynist homo-allergenic xenophobic boor with the highest level of articulacy. Clarkson's defence is not satire but irony. In a post-feminist world, he implies, it is now acceptable to say: "You'd pay half-a-mill to spend some time with a girl who had Mrs Thatcher's drive, Victoria Wood's sense of humour and Scarlett Johansson's body, would you not? Well, that's what this car is." But he fails to understand, or perhaps to care, that hundreds of viewers will complain when he jokes about lorry drivers murdering prostitutes – or says of high taxes on supercars: "That's not taxation. That's rape".

"I don't believe what I write," he once said to Alastair Campbell, "any more than you believe what you say." He has different faces for different audiences: the reactionary buffoon in his Sun column, the funny gin-and-Jagster on Top Gear, the droll raconteur on QI. His failing is that, as the years pass, he has become a caricature of himself.

None of this would matter were it not for the fact that some people mistake the cartoon for an archetype and take him at his word. There are those who find his lazy humour and casual racism unexceptional. Or think his self-centred dismissal of speed cameras and road bumps is justified. Or are amused by his contemptuous attitude to women or his calling gays "ginger beers". Or endorse his use of the word "gay" for anything that does not work very well. Or admire his insistence on smoking even more cigarettes than usual on National No Smoking Day. Or accept his neanderthal views on global warming as readily as his vocabulary about "being a true petrolhead".

Having a boy on the edge of pubescence in our house, we understand the lure of The Dangerous Book for Boys and the constant need to be climbing up things or swinging off them. We see, too, how Jeremy Clarkson's self-absorption offers an attractive adolescent model of defying authority, disregarding rules and trampling carelessly on the sensitivities of others. Perhaps it is a phase through which we all must pass, and will enjoy on the way. But it does not offer a mature destination.

For it ends with the kind of high-octane self-righteous indignation that Frances Clarkson saw visited on her luxury holiday home while her husband was away on the latest Top Gear world tour. It is reaping a whirlwind of sorts. But when the monsters you have created come round and turn their attention on you and yours, suddenly, it's not quite so funny. Irony, eh? You've got to laugh, intcha.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Our exclusive client in St Albans Hertfords...

Tradewind Recruitment: KS2 Primary Teachers

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 Teachers needed in Hertfordshir...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ACCA/CIMA - St Albans, Hertfordshire

£55000 - £58000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A truly exciting opportunity has ari...

Ashdown Group: Credit Controller - London, Old Street

£25000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Credit Controller - Londo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million  

The Archers: how many sensational plot twists can it get away with?

Simon Kelner
 

Daily catch-up: winter crisis for the NHS – Miliband and Burnham don’t know how to fix it

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness