Archive for April 2015
Some people go gooey eyed, weak kneed and have leaps in their stomach over pop stars. For others it is a favourite actor or even author. When I was growing up, my idol was Jeremy Clarkson. So what do I make of his excuse that a cancer scare was behind his well-publicised violent attack on a colleague?
I grew up reading Clarkson’s opinion column during the 1980s, in the back of my dad’s Performance Car. It was always an entertaining piece, strapped with passport photos of an aloof but alluring figure: a mop of curly hair, cigarette hanging from his mouth – sexy in the same manner as Slash from Guns ‘n’ Roses, but for car fans. Clarkson became my celebrity crush as I grew up with the original Top Gear TV Programme – a show characterised by Chris Goffey’s beards and jumpers, which by contrast made my idol seem cool and exciting.
When I went to university I was quickly drawn into another “geek” community – playing online text based games called MUDs. These are a bit like Dungeons & Dragons, for example “You are in a room, you see a gate with a garden beyond it and a winding stone staircase into the attic: what do you do next?” When I signed up to play, I suddenly had to choose a username; my instinctive choice was that of my hero. For years I was known to several hundred people solely as Clarkson, and a flower that I created in that world was known as the Clarxonian Lily. I had laid down my marker among my friends and peers as Jeremy’s fan girl.
Then, I met the man.
I went to London’s International Car Show during my first month at university – October, 1994. It’s best to go on Preview Day, when crowds are smaller and there are few children running around. For example, Ferrari allowed me on their stall that day, when for the rest of the show it would be roped off and defended against the general public. But Preview Day is expensive, so for months I’d saved up, cut coupons from newspapers, in order that despite being a student with absolutely no spare money, I could afford to indulge this passion – just.
On entrance, I checked my programme and immediately rushed to the Top Gear stall with butterflies in my stomach… But the stage was roped off, deserted. There was no life and nobody to speak to.
The rest of the car exhibition was fantastic – I even crossed paths with Luca Di Montezemolo, the Ferrari president, which was a highly memorable moment for me. Yet there was something missing from the whole experience. I decided to spend money I didn’t really have, in order to return a couple of days later and hopefully, finally, see Clarkson.
As my second visit was on a public day of the car show, I joined a crush of people, from the moment I queued for the turnstiles to the time I breathlessly reached the Top Gear stall for the second time. I stood through Quentin Willson’s lecture on what to look for when buying a used car. (Yes, I know: check for gritty oil and misaligned mileometer digits. Very laudable.) But I was here for forthcoming superstars, not guidance on buying a second hand Fiesta. I had come to see my idol in the flesh. The butterflies were still in my stomach as I jostled for a view among an audience of lanky petrolheads.
Here I was on my second visit to the show in a week. This was a public day, but still expensive, and I’d had to bite into my student overdraft in order to afford the ticket. Here was the Top Gear crew on presumably their first visit to the show: JC in trademark denim, flanked by rally driver Tiff Needell and used car expert Quentin, ready to take questions from the floor. At last, my moment arose.
“Hi Jeremy. I came to see you on Preview Day, but no one was here. Where were you? ”
“We were having a pint in the pub across the road! Weren’t we, guys? It was lovely, nice beer, good food, we had a really great afternoon while you were here!”
All I could think was: “Oh, you complete wanker.” My butterflies were slowly being crushed, one by one. Did he realise how many hours of part-time work, fitted around my studies, that my ticket had cost? It really wasn’t funny.
Next, the presenters asked for our dream cars. I ventured mine. “Dino 246 GT.” “Poof’s car” was Jeremy’s immediate laughing dismissal. Oh. Remaining butterflies were firmly stomped.
Even so, I still went to that pub across the road in the hope of encountering my idol after the show. Nothing doing. I still, perhaps and naively, thought I could reach him.
That. was the moment when I realised that Jeremy Clarkson was nobody special. It’s more than “he’s just this guy, ok?” as he is a very loudmouthed person who is a bit of a prat along the way. Many people (some might say I also fit that bill) are willing to speak on TV, so it’s not a surprise when their persona is exposed, to whatever extent. But few people manage to make a living out of it, or to put it another way, for their views to be actively offensive but still sought out. The only comparison I have is Katie Hopkins writing for the red tops, and she may be controversial but is hardly popular. I can’t imagine anyone “aspiring” to her standards.
Eight years after that car exhibition, a new format of Top Gear hit our screens. It was initially must-see TV and like many viewers, I went out of my way to make time for it (setting a VHS recorder, in what now feels like another era). But a decade or so further along, the show has lost its path, its passion, and simply become a rich boys’ playground. Jeremy is acting like a silly teenage lad at a funfair – but he’s in his 50s. And I’m not an excited teenager any more who can blindly overlook bad behaviour. Nowadays, I rapidly switch off. Laddish analogies are no longer required. Act your age, chaps.
Progress to 2015 and consider the much reported “fracas” which ended Clarkson’s time at the BBC: a 30 second assault on someone who didn’t fight back, the attack only ending when others intervened; the victim going, bleeding, to hospital. Well, that’s not something that can be excused as a quick moment of hot headedness, or perhaps a silly drunken slap; that’s assault. I have visions of Clarkson pinning someone against the wall. At 6 foot 5 inches, he has an imposing stature. As for shouting “the most offensive language” so loudly that it was heard elsewhere in the hotel, I can only perceive that as intimidating, possibly bullying, behaviour. Of course I wasn’t present, but in my opinion there is no coming back from such an attack on a colleague, especially if you’re already on your final warning. And all this over wanting a hot meal rather than a cold platter. Who do you think you are? How little do you value your co-worker that you would so forcefully lay into him? There is nothing that can be said to mitigate this, even considering Clarkson’s prompt acknowledgement of guilt.
Clarkson had to go, and it was not a moment too soon. He used to be a hero to the teenage me. Now, he is exposed as an impetuous thug. He called himself a dinosaur. I’d call him a caveman.
Jeremy, if you’re reading, I’d truly love to hear your thoughts. Yes, you have a larger than life persona and that’s what makes you money. I’ve been on radio & TV myself and I totally understand that sometimes it’s possible to be yourself but on other occasions you get cast in the role of devil’s advocate, or even a comedy character with an exaggerated opinion to represent, in order to bring in the money and fit in with the show. That’s how it works; I do get that. But that doesn’t mean that you can be demanding off screen or continue any prima donna demands once the film has stopped rolling.
The assault on your producer Oisin Tymon sounds dreadful, inexcusable under any circumstances – cancer scare, bereavement, divorce notwithstanding. I’m genuinely sorry that you were going through a hard time; I wouldn’t wish any of those issues on anyone. But like many other people, I’ve experienced similar difficulties too, and yet didn’t assault anyone. Your laddish jovial banter can only carry you so far, and with public attention comes responsibility. As a fan for most of my life, I’d honestly like you to engage with me and let me know: are you a man, or a caveman?
I would so love to be proved wrong – for the sake of my childhood memories.
Some of you may be aware of my sideline as founder of the Pylon Appreciation Society. This week, electricity pylons have been in the national news as the new T-Pylon design was unveiled in Nottinghamshire.
As a pylonophile (?) I have been asked for my opinion, leading to a hectic few days, and more than ten live interviews across BBC radio stations.
I also had the opportunity to contribute to some print articles, and you may enjoy Meet the Pylon Spotters, a BBC feature article which included an interview with me, as well as These new electricity pylons will make Britain a duller place which I wrote for Guardian Comment Is Free. I’d particularly welcome comments on the Guardian piece as it was my first for CiF and I am naturally proud of it.
While electricity pylons may not inspire everyone, the Pylon Appreciation Society, which I’ve run for over a decade, has more than 600 members, of all ages and backgrounds. If you’d like to join us, be it as someone who enjoys a casual glance and a quick photograph, or a techie who seeks to understand the engineering structures in more detail, you would of course be more than welcome.
It has been a very busy few days, and I’m glad for the chance to share my passion more widely.