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Jeremy Clarkson – a product of his tribe….and mine

March 15, 2015


The difference between Jeremy Clarkson and the dinosaurs is that they didn’t know they had it coming.

I’ve never met the guy, yet I feel that I know him, as do millions of Top Gear fans around the world. I can number the times I’ve watched the show on the fingers of one hand, but I do read his column in the UK Sunday Times.

I don’t know him, but I know his tribe. Once upon a time, when I was at boarding school, I was thumped in the face by the son of a famous film director. I don’t remember why, but I do recall that he was several years older, and was good at sports. I’d probably behaved like a nerdish 14-year-old and hadn’t shown the necessary respect due to a prefect. A very male reaction. I won’t say he was a bully, because that was the only time it happened. Nor was bullying a regular feature of school life. But in Britain’s public schools war war has always been a viable alternative to jaw jaw.

Within the public school tribe of which I’m a member – Britain’s private schools are rather confusingly known as public schools – there tended to be two camps: those who were for things and those who were against them. The pro’s were the prefects, the captains of cricket, the upholders of the school traditions, those who excelled in the traditional things, like exams, who went to Oxford and became judges, or inherited the family land. The anti’s were the rule-breakers, the sniggerers, the mickey-takers, the poseurs, the smart-asses who mocked everything and everyone. They tended to be good at art, writing, acting and anything else that marked them out as different. Not rebels exactly, because many of them were smart enough to get to the universities of their choice.

When they left school the two camps coalesced at the edges somewhat. Comedians became doctors and head prefects became eco-warriers. More often the pro’s continued their upright path to become generals, captains of industry, politicians, academics and diplomats, though not without the occasional bout of ritualised wildness at university – as witness the antics of Boris Johnson, David Cameron and George Osborne in Oxford’s Bullingham Club. The anti’s went to art school, the BBC, the theatre or publishing, and sometimes to an early grave for one substance-related reason or another. I use the past tense because most of the public schools in my day were single sex. For the last thirty years many of them have opened their doors to girls. This has changed the dynamic somewhat, though there are a number of schools – Eton for example – that have remained resolutely male only.

Clarkson I suspect was a dedicated anti. He was expelled from a similar school to mine for various misdemeanours including, according to him, drinking and smoking. Very male activities, in which I also indulged, though not to the extent that I was kicked out. He comes over as confident within the parameters of male camaraderie. Perhaps more comfortable in male company – in the pub, in cars, doing male things. And like many fellow-anti’s, he’s intelligent, witty and perceptive. He would appeal to his smart friends like David Cameron because although Cameron took the pro path, both will sing from the same tribal hymnsheet. Also Clarkson will say things that our Prime Minister might believe yet can never afford to say himself. All speculation of course, but it’s based on my own experience.

So why would someone like him fall prey to the kind of rage that led him (allegedly) to throw a punch at a BBC producer? Was that late-night meal so important that the red mist descended when it was not forthcoming? What of the Madonna-like contract riders demanding that food be available the moment he and his colleagues stepped into their hotel after filming – so precise that they stipulated that the starter should be on the table once he crossed the threshold? Or was there an underlying problem between him and the guy he’s supposed to have hit, or perhaps against the BBC?

Did this example of “do you know who I am?” behaviour stem from the expectation of one who grew up surrounded by privilege, or was it another example of star become spoilt brat, like so many rock musicians I dealt with in my younger days?

I have no idea, because I don’t know all the circumstances and I definitely don’t know the man. But, as I said, I do know the tribe, because I belong to it too. I can spot someone who went to Repton, Eton, Rugby or Winchester a mile off. Not so much when they open their mouths, because these days many have learned to de-posh their accents. But because of signals that are imperceptible to those outside the tribe. Mannerisms, foibles, reactions, responses. Ask me to categorise the signals and I would struggle. But I know them when I see them. And I see them in Jeremy Clarkson. He may have his demons, but he’s a leader. The type of person to whom others gravitate. The life and soul.

If you took a representative sample of Britain’s TV-watching population and asked them what they thought of the man, I suspect that that they would be divided down the middle. There would be those who love Clarkson as the blokeish, brawling (ask Piers Morgan about that – he claims to bear a scar from an encounter with our hero) champion of political incorrectness. And then there would be those who see him as a boorish, bullying representative of the privileged classes with an emotional age similar to that of the guy who smacked me at school. A subset of that group would be the HR types who probably prompted his “final warning” last time round. The BBC is certainly full of them.

But the BBC of today is a far cry from the organisation that first employed John Simpson, that doyen of foreign correspondents, as a junior reporter in the 60s. When Simpson had the temerity to ask Prime Minister Harold Wilson whether he was planning to call an election, Wilson responded with a well-aimed punch in the reporter’s stomach. Did the BBC support its man by referring the assault to the police? It doesn’t appear so.

So will the BBC pull the plug on Clarkson and his show? I suspect not, unless they can come up with an astounding replacement, which seems unlikely – a bit like replacing John Lennon during the Beatles’ heyday. Also there’s too much money at stake, and the BBC is not exactly flush these days.

More likely there will be some sort of financial penalty and an apology to the hapless producer who was the target of the great man’s wrath. I also suspect that Clarkson won’t care either way. If he goes, other TV channels will snap him up in whatever form he proposes. Nothing like a new challenge.

In the long term, though, when details of the fracas become widely known, I suspect that his reputation will be diminished, especially if it turns out that the cause of his anger was the lack of a meal. Because much as we British admire a maverick, especially one with Clarkson’s charm and wit, we do have a keen sense of fair play, and there will be a number of people who might think that he should pick on someone his own size.

As for me, I don’t really care one way or another. It’s just a welcome break from all the really grim stuff that dominates the headlines. And a pleasant change to see a member of my tribe wielding a bludgeon rather than a stiletto.

One thing’s for sure: whatever he does next, he’ll always be part of an in-crowd. But whenever I see Jeremy Clarkson on TV from now onwards, it will be hard not to think of the raging thug who punched me in the face when I was 14.

From → Media, Social, UK

  1. Interesting take on the story and the background of private (public) education.

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