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20 August 2015

Will Self on Jeremy Clarkson: like it or not, he is part of Britain, writ large

I’ll tell you one thing about Jeremy Clarkson. He always files on time and his spelling is immaculate.

By Will Self

During the Kosovo crisis in the late 1990s the sight of Tony Blair’s snake hips, cinched by the waistband of his black Levi’s 501s and wiggling their way ­between displaced Kosovans, impacted on me in much the way the ordinance dropped by USAF bombers did Slobodan Milosevic. He was forced out of office: I dropped my trousers. Up until that point, I had considered black jeans a reasonable bridge between the dandiacal excesses of my youth and the soberer sartorial realities of middle age, but Blair eradicated my false consciousness. Indeed, looking back, I am hard-pressed to think of any more significant “legacy” of the Blair years than this: from that day on I’ve been unable to contemplate such strides without nausea and uncontrollable shivering.

Perhaps only Jeremy Clarkson has had a comparable effect on my wardrobe. I say “Clarkson”, but of course I really mean the trinity of Clarkson, Richard “Hamster” Hammond and James May. Between them, the three erstwhile Top Gear presenters embody the worst a middle-aged man can get: flowery-patterned shirts worn either loose and smock-like or tucked into jeans; an orphaned suit jacket or skimpy “bomber”; sensible Cornish pasty shoes or daft ankle boots. It has been said in the press that Clarkson’s adoption of denim as a second skin (including on occasion the hideous “double-denim” solecism) has single-handedly brought the fabric into disrepute.

I’m sure I’ll never wear black jeans again, but I have continued to affect the blue variety. I have also gone on driving cars although I haven’t actually owned one for almost a decade. I don’t live in the Cotswolds, nor am I a multimillionaire; and while I may have the occasional meltdown, I like to think I behave in an open-hearted and egalitarian way towards people I work with, regardless of their status or seniority. As for the weird racist dog-whistle Clarkson has blown repeatedly over the years, well, words fail me: this behaviour is so unbelievably crass and revolting, it calls into question all our assumptions about what it is to be a Briton in the 21st century.

I say “a Briton”, but what I mean is that moiety of modern Britons who find in Clarkson, whether willingly or with revulsion, aspects of ourselves writ large. Very large. Yes, I mean it: Jeremy Clarkson, like it or not, is the archetypal middle-aged, middle-class, white British man: the John Bull de nos jours; and his success as a journalist and TV presenter is almost wholly a function of this capacity he has to personify a great, indigo-legged mass of privileged pricks, many of whom labour under the delusion, as Clarkson does, that they’re an embattled minority. Instead of checking their privilege, these .99-calibre twerps are more likely to check their wing mirror and overtake at speed, chortling all the while.

In our fervid nightmares, Clarkson is the Little Englander who smirks at us from behind his vast leylandii hedge; the sexist pest who seems to think your name is either “darling” or “love”; the saloon-bar bore trumpeting “Land of Hope and Glory” with nary a care for those who always, always will be slaves. Together with Nigel Farage and Richard Littlejohn, Clarkson forms a triumvirate of British bullocks who seem always to have reigned over us. But where Clarkson differs from Farage and Littlejohn is that he’s both a lot smarter and, I suspect, rather more handy. I once did a radio programme with Littlejohn and when things inevitably grew heated, the sad skinny bigot began quivering with fear lest I give him a clump. As for Farage, having laboured through his political memoir The Purple Revolution (don’t worry, I was paid), I can assure you: what you see is indeed what those around him also get.

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But Clarkson’s newspaper columns are invariably witty and well written: back in the 1990s my wife used to edit him, and she reports that he was a delight to work with: always filing on time, his copy letter-perfect. Moreover, on screen his blokeish persona is, gulp, distinctly engaging. Even I have been known to watch the occasional episode of Top Gear, despite not giving a tinker’s fart about whether one car is “better” than another. It would be nice to imagine that Clarkson’s petrol-filled head is sloshing with suppressed homosexuality, which is often the case with men who prefer the company of their own, but I fear this isn’t the case. Nor can we comfort ourselves by imagining him to be deluded, suffering from a denim false consciousness akin to my own. No, Clarkson is comfortable in his skin, comfortable in his arrogant bellicosity, comfortable in stinking up the atmosphere with his self-promotional hot air, and most of all he’s intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich so long as those people are him, May and Hammond.

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Was anyone surprised when they clicked on the Amazon icon and saw the Three Whizzing Men swim into being? I wasn’t: after all, they’ve driven cars in some of the most exotic and inhospitable environments on earth. After that, the cruise up the broad brown concourse of Jeff Bezos’s back passage was always going to be (as Clarkson might well put it) a doddle.

To celebrate the new car show by Clarkson, Hammond and May on Amazon Prime, Will Self has uploaded the first episode of his own new car show, “Bottom Gear”, to YouTube