I was going to leave this Jeremy Clarkson thing alone. Really, I was. I had a load of laundry to do, and I hadn’t eaten yet. But then I read an article by Marina Hyde in the Guardian whose headline claimed that “revulsion over Jeremy Clarkson has become a badge of honour for the left”. And so, appropriately goaded into a response, like a sleepy bear who has had its belly prodded once too many times with a spitefully sharp stick, here I am.
I am not some paid-up member of an anti-Clarkson fan club. I am busy and Jeremy Clarkson wastes my time, because every now and then he makes a bigoted comment and I am asked to respond to it. I don’t sit in, waiting for him to slip up. He is a brilliant broadcaster whose show would still be a success if he never said another racist thing again. And I would honestly rather that he didn’t. I, for one, am fed up with being expected to serve up elegant, dignified and dispassionate responses each time one of his finely-calibrated jibes – aimed at racial or social groups regarded as too powerless, too humourless, or too distant to reply – emerges into the airwaves.
I am not sure if Marina Hyde’s article was aimed at the participants in some perverse liberal turf war, but I am not part of it. I am a writer of colour trying to make his career as best he can, and all I see is a man who is making millions of pounds who is consistently indulged because he is running one of the world’s most successful shows. Not even a fine. Not even a suspension. Just an “official warning”, or a “final warning”, whatever that is.
Jeremy Clarkson said the word “nigger” – let’s look at that word for a moment, uncensored, in all its ugliness – in a manner that was meant to be mischievously offensive. That’s why he mumbled it. I don’t know why he’s suddenly so mealy-mouthed now, why the cat has got his tongue. Some of his remarks over the years have been less offensive than others, but most of them have been in the same vague ballpark. Mexicans, Gypsies, slopes. The only reason that he’s twitching now, perhaps, is that because he’s finally urinated on the live rail of racism, the “N-Word”, that he’s been flirting with for ages. And the sad truth is that he’s probably spent more time trying to track down whoever leaked that video than he has in reflecting upon just why so many people are genuinely horrified.
My revulsion at Jeremy Clarkson’s racism is not a fashion statement. Neither is my revulsion at some of the defences of him that I have seen this week, which have put me in a state of fury that was almost overwhelming, to the extent that I was afraid to begin writing this article for the uncontrollable rage that might emerge. Because people may scorn UKIP as political outsiders, but their sentiments are already among us. Their sentiments are mainstream, since for years Jeremy Clarkson has been clothing them in a clown suit.
A few months ago I was asked to go on the radio to debate whether UKIP’s use of the phrase “Bongo Bongo Land” was racist. I refused. I refused because I would have found it demeaning. Bongo Bongo Land is so flagrantly racist, I told them, that I didn’t see where the debate was. Here’s what’s going to happen, I said. You’re going to put me on some show with a smooth-talking UKIP spokesperson who’s going to be all innocent and mild-mannered, and I’m going to get angry and possibly lose it, and then the audience will have their Angry Black Man and then people will be asking why we have chips on our shoulders and why we are so mad about everything. So I said no.
And I said no because Bongo Bongo Land is the kind of thing that the racists probably smirked when they were carving up Africa at that conference in Berlin in the 1880s. Hell, for all I know, they may have been mumbling eeny-meeny-miny-mo when they were deciding which territories they wanted for themselves. I don’t know. All I know is that Clarkson has reminded me this week why I hate his casual racism. Because its frequency and popularity are reminders of the very real prejudice that is still acceptable within Britain today. Clarkson’s casual racism is the kind of thing that landlords think when they are deciding not to let properties to black people in the supposed multiracial utopia that is London. It is the kind of thing that led to the racist van campaign. The kind of thing that brings your kids home from school in floods of tears, that makes employers think twice before calling you to interview. It is insidious and it is widespread and we have recently learned from the BBC that Clarkson is not even going to be fined or suspended for it. And I find no comfort, let alone a badge of honour, in any of that.