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Apr 2, 2015

Jeremy Clarkson and the obsolescence of middle-class white men

Jeremy Clarkson once stood to mock the middle-class English culture he represented. But now has nothing left to say beyond “Believe me, I’m very important”.


TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson, soon to tour Australia after a “controversial” delay, is really not much chop. This is not to say that the mediocre man whose broadcast persona was lifted from an imaginary chip shop in the last days of empire is powerfully evil. It’s more to suggest that his appeal is almost solely down to his act as a defender of a particular class of men. If Clarkson is at all interesting — and, intellectually, he really isn’t — it is as how a social species can monetise its own endangerment.

As far as automotive entertainment goes, Top Gear was, at one point, not too bad; not as good as Pimp My Ride but certainly better than Monster Truck Garage. But, of course, as everybody said at the peak of the program’s success, “it’s not about the cars!”. Clarkson’s charm was not so much fuelled by his knowledge of high-performance vehicles as it was by his irreverence. Just as his best mate A.A. Gill never really wrote centrally about food, Clarkson never really spoke centrally about cars. Both men were talking about themselves. And, of course, their dwindling cultural relevance as derisive grammar school twats, a decline that first served to amuse them, and us, and then became a source of anxiety and brought forth a salvo of unfunny racial slurs.

To be fair, there was a time that Gill, from whom Clarkson has received exacting tips on media performance, was very, very funny. “There’s only so much you can do for lasagne in the looks department. The only garnish that would improve it would be a power cut”, Gill wrote in the Times before copying the career of Christopher Hitchens, as Clarkson has tried to, and leaving behind the difficult work of making British newspaper readers laugh at the weakness of the bourgeoisie for the better-paid pastime of taking the piss out of the underclass for American glossies. With few exceptions, Englishmen of letters tend to lose their wit, and their socialist wisdom, in the Atlantic.

Clarkson never made the continental move entirely, but he certainly became, as Hitchens did, a prize fuckwit. As success encroached, so did his need to hang onto it. He built his persona on a self-awareness of life as a useless middle-class duffer. He has tried to sustain it by defending himself and his “rights” as a middle-class duffer. He’s now achieved the opposite of the thing that made him famous. Once, he asked us to laugh at the white, middle-class Englishman in all his endangered primacy. Now he demands that we respect him.

There’s more than a whiff of the white male victim about Clarkson, who has said vile things, which I elect not to amplify here. Whether these things are said to make a point, presumably about “censorship” and “political correctness”, or because he genuinely believes them is of no matter. The only thing that does matter is that Clarkson, for a brief period a refreshing presence, now offers us no more surprises than that other, nicer middling middle-class entertainer, Michael Palin. What he offers is a fear that power is disappearing from his grip, and that of his kind.

In his travel programs, Palin offers disgust masked as fascination. He holds these “other” countries up to the camera with a pair of friendly tongs, never any mention that these delightful and curious places are drowning in malnutrition and debt. Britain gave the world ironic detachment as surely as it did bad food and partitioning — a process that led, in large part, to the poverty Palin ignores. But, Palin, just a little older than Clarkson, can afford to continue the relaxed fantasy that he is an important man. Clarkson feels his importance slipping and abandons his ironic detachment in favour of just being an out-and-out prick.

When the powerful feel themselves failing, they do tend toward brutal, stupid acts. In recent years, Clarkson has revealed himself to be not only as frightened as a minor official of the British Raj in 1947 but also as a wit of only limited erudition. Like a Kyle Sandilands who has half-read the collected works of Auberon Waugh — and Richard Hammond in this scenario is the obsequious Jackie O — he shows us that the Empire has no clothes. Naked and empty of any inspiration save for his need to be loved, Clarkson is now doing less for the England of the historic imagination than the Beckhams.

Clarkson has nothing left to say beyond “Believe me, I’m very important”. His appearance and demeanour led us to believe for some years that there was something more than self-regard propping up the act. But there is even less left in him than there is in England and the 20th-century middle-class Englishman who falsely became a global symbol of erudition and restraint. He has become an angry, underdone bully wailing for his lost privilege. If he’s not careful, he’ll be crushed by a hybrid car.


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41 thoughts on “Jeremy Clarkson and the obsolescence of middle-class white men

  1. Bill Parker

    I am glad I read the first par. Monetizing endangerment? Good grief.

    This tripe is NOT why I subscribe to Crikey.

  2. sharman

    Why does Crikey print pretentious rubbish from Helen Razer. I do not like Jeremy Clarkson much but I recognize that a lot of other people do because he is funny and talks knowledgeably about cars.
    Helen Razer does not know anything, she has no area of expertise so her views are not informed or interesting.

    PS – bring back Dog on the Moon. What genius cartoon!

  3. wbddrss

    “he’ll be crushed by a hybrid car.”

    I have a feeling he has much a cult following as Tesla is as a car or a company.
    I also feel that as cult following of Tesla & Clarkson fade, there will still be more pressing problems than this article addresses. One of those are skills, men & women, white anglo celtic seem to lack. Brought about by failing families & poor education. I am afraid our whole society has some of the sins you point out AND personally I do not know what can be done about it. At least you and Clarkson have highlighted symbolically and emblematically that we have a big problems in our society around a lack of Anglo Celtic blokie bloke skills.

    As white anglo celtic males decline, so do women as well. And I may add blokes are better skilled in these areas unless you want to go on about political correctness.

    Good luck to J Clarkson.


  4. HDMAGeditor

    James May, Clarkson’s Top Gear sidekick observed recently that JC was “a knob”, which is a perfect precis for Razers comments.

    I’m 58, a white male and drive a big V8. It’s not that I dislike the show, it’s just old and tired. Bit like Jeremy really.

  5. Venise Alstergren

    Clarkson is the inheritor of long line of ‘God is an Englishman’ dictators pontificating more about the glory of themselves rather than the product they are paid to advance.
    There is nothing unique with this stance-but it is tiresome.

  6. samquigley

    This is not why I subscribe to Crikey! I subscribe to Crikey so I can write ‘This is not why I subscribe to Crikey!’ under things that don’t just tell me the things I already think.

  7. mikeb

    I suspect JC’s interest in this article would be over in less than the time it takes him to sign his next multi-million dollar contract.

  8. Itsarort

    Razer only serves to prove in this seared, withered and ‘more bitter than death’ sermon from her mount, that Hitchen’s claims were actually right – that woman, on the whole, do not have, nor do they need, a decent sense of humour…

  9. Helen Razer

    This is not why I subscribe to Crikey!

  10. old greybeard

    Helen, sometimes you are interesting, but this is just rubbish and I think unworthy of your intelligence. Sure Clarkson is a twit. Tory, numbskulled arrogant fool. The show was more than that though. It had a very quirky view and I liked the revhead bits. However he has overstepped and deserved the sack.
    What I don’t get. Helen is why you launch this vituperation at my age group. I was raised to respect women. My aunty had a PhD in biochemistry and was a damned good scientist, but her husband was a Nobel laureate. My daughters are professionals with more than one degree. I am the mug. I do not like this denigration and I am stuffed if I can see how it helps women.

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  13. AR

    I usually find your prolix verbosity tedious & pointless but this was short, straight to the point and a good outline of the oaf’s persona and thereby the saddos to whom he appeals.
    There is less to Clarkson that meets the eye.

  14. Helen Razer

    Morning, @old greybeard. As you seem genuinely troubled by what I have written and are not employing your membership as, ahem, some others do to simply say “Helen Razer is pretentious! Bring back that nice chap who draws animals!”*, I will answer you as best and as politely as I can.
    Working backwards: you say that you are “stuffed” in seeing how this piece “helps women”. As a writer, it is neither my obligation nor concern to “help women”. Of course, if you are familiar with my writing, you might have detected that I am a woman and that I have some views that could be described as creditably feminist. Nonetheless, this does not consign me to the labour of “helping women” in everything I write. My colleague Mr Keane will often write, in the views of some, outside his apparent freedom-of-expression stance and my colleague Mr Rundle will sometimes say things that are, again in the views of some, not obviously Left. Certainly. Both of them write things that are not in the interest of their own social or cultural classes at times. As do I. One hopes—or, at least I hope—for the version of “truth” as an opinionated correspondent sees it and not as the product of responsibility to one’s gender, class etc.
    Having said this, I don’t see how this piece would not “help women”; not that this is my intention or responsibility just because I am a woman as per above.
    What I intended this piece to be about (and I did discuss it with a midlife middle-class tertiary educated white male colleague before I wrote it) was the dwindling power of a great twentieth century figure, the middle-class Englishman. I tried to weave a little international relations in there between the television personalities to show how he (he the symbol) has changed in the person of Jeremy Clarkson.
    If we look at Palin and how relaxed he is in travelling around Brazil etc, we see a man who no longer really exists. Don’t get me wrong, here. When I was young I loved Waugh (the elder), Greene, Orwell and any number of English middle-class voices. Between you and I, Auden remains my favourite poet of all time and I actually stammered when I had the opportunity to talk to Hitchens a few years before his death. There is absolutely no doubt that 20th century England produced some great stylists (not great thinkers, though. They were all continental) but I just wanted to talk about, in a concise way through the medium of television, how these voices have changed as they have become less powerful.
    So, Palin is here to show the confident Englishman still sure of his nation’s power. I really believe his shows are horribly imperial. This is not to say he is not amusing. It is, however, to say that he is quite Anglocentric (some would say racist, and have) in the way he looks at Adorable Brown People.
    So, Palin is the man confident of the Englishman’s imperial power. Clarkson is the man sure it is disappearing. And while Palin can afford to be, due to his age, all “Look at these charming natives!” Clarkson has, out and out, said terribly offensive things about them. One could say to him “I am stuffed how you think you are doing the cause of men any good, here, Jeremy”, perhaps.
    Perhaps you are unaware what Clarkson has said in press and during his program. I didn’t really want to repeat the things he has said here as that is just to amplify the offence. But I think it is reasonable to assume that most readers would know what I am talking about. Let’s just say he has been overtly racist; and rather silly about homosexuals and ladies as well.
    I wanted to ask: why is he doing this? I have seen a lot of English chaps do the same. Hitchens is a great example. He went from being a very decent scholar to someone who said the most inane stuff about the Iraq war (he loved it) to women (echoed in the comments here; apparently I have failed my gender again by failing to be funny in a piece that was never intended to be funny) to any minority.
    Now, I do understand how “political correctness” is a genuine and noxious force among liberal progressives. Many writers will not say certain things or write on certain topics for their cowardice. I am not, nor have I been for years, “politically correct” and I am not being “politically correct” in this piece. I am just looking at how the popular Englishman has changed and how Clarkson has really killed the idea of the detached gentleman.
    Just as I do not write on behalf of all women or an Aboriginal Australian writer does not write on behalf of all Aboriginal Australians etc etc, I am not, in writing about Clarkson, depicting all Anglophone middle-class white men born in the twentieth century. Some of my best friend etc. But, I think it is not unreasonable to say that Clarkson inhabits a tradition of the English gentleman with small hints of cad, such as the other men I have mentioned here and in the piece, and that it is interesting to observe this popular depiction of that imagined creature with Clarkson in the news.
    I urge you to maybe have a quick read again thinking of my aims to show how the popular English middle-class pseudo-gentleman of the twentieth century has disappeared and how we can see this in Clarkson. I am not saying that I succeeded completely but I don’t think I failed in the way you think I did, either.
    Again. It is not my responsibility to write to help women!
    *Hail the First Dog, obviously. A national peach.

  15. Ingle Knight

    Isn’t Clarkson the walking embodiment of Murdoch’s ideology?
    If only it was in decline.

  16. Jussarian

    Well this article, and others like it by Helen Razer, Guy Rundle and, less frequently, Bernard Keane, are exactly why I subscribe to Crikey. Reviewing the news while knowing there are more things in heaven and earth than facts – power, philosophy and cultural inheritance for example – while standing apart from and even criticising modern liberalism’s easiest, sound-bite-sized homilies: reading this is when I know I am getting my money’s worth. Keep up the good work HR, and Crikey.

  17. Helen Razer

    Yes @Ingle Knight. The ideology is not dwindling. Just the way it is packaged has changed.

  18. MAC TEZ

    Thank you for your comment @ #14 AR, you’ve managed to sum up my feelings about both Razer & Clarkson.

  19. William Marshall

    I’d like to say no shit to this, but that seems rather pointless, as would ragging on the English cricket team!

  20. Lee Tinson

    Well, Helen, he seems to be of very great interest to you. More so than to me, I must say. And I’m an old white male. Jeremy, as Hammond said, is really just a knob who does his job pretty well.

    Write about something worthwhile! You know you can!

  21. db

    With the Palin comparison he never seems to come across in interviews or performances as seeing himself as important – however he is an actor so it could be a facade.
    His “light” travel programs are the sort of genre where he’d be filmed walking outside the Sydney Opera House instead of past junkies in a back street in Kings Cross, hence a lack of showing malnutrition and debt in other places. Who would get a comedian to present a serious documentary?

  22. Helen Razer

    @db my point in employing Palin is to show him as the popular Englishman of a slightly earlier age who didn’t need to say racist things because his superiority was assured. I find his travel programs gross in their detachment and just how one can travel to the part of the world he has and see nothing but Jolly Hockey Sticks and Happy People is testimony not to his overt self-importance but to his self-importance that is absolutely assured.
    I thought it was obvious that I was depicting Palin as the cool predecessor to the hot rage of Clarkson. I apologise if I did not make this clear.

  23. Helen Razer

    Thanks, @Jussarian!

  24. AR

    An example of Razer’s logorrhoea – the article contained 825 words, well chosen & effective.
    One (just ONE!) of her responses on this thread had 976. I began to lose the will to live after the first half dozen lines.
    More is not better. Quantity is no substitute for quality.
    You clearly can write succinctly and yet… and yet .. you choose not to, too often.

  25. Itsarort

    Yes, god knows what happened to Hitchens in his later years. If Vidal couldn’t understand it, then know one really can.

    But Clarkson is probably nothing more(as most people here seem to agree), than an oafish twat that fires broadsides at soft Leftie targets from within-side his pseudo-Tory fortress. Most of the time he’s funny, sometimes he’s an arsehole, and all the time, it’s just make-believe.

    And to deconstruct Clarkson, the man, as anything other than the fool playing jester to the clown (albeit a very affluent one), is just an,

    “Excrement! That’s what I think of Mr.J.Evans Pritchard.”

    moment, from Dead Poets Society.

  26. Helen Razer

    @AR Leaving aside your peculiar and potentially unhealthy habit of cutting, pasting and assessing the exact length in words not only of my pieces for Crikey but of my responses to them, what in heaven’s name can you be on about? I was responding in an informal context to @old greybeard in a comprehensive way not out of bloated self-regard and windy writing but because he asked me some questions that appeared to trouble him. That you elected not only to count but to read and then critique what was intended as a polite and well-considered reply to someone else (and clearly labelled as such by use of the “@” preceding username) perhaps says more about your own peccadilloes than it does of mine.

  27. Maxine Stewart

    What a hateful article.

  28. TwoEyeHead

    Helen Razer’s considered responses to lowly Comment dwellers is impressive. Taking criticism and fighting her corner has me as a new Helen Razer convert.
    She’s the best ever – though a little less of the celebrity stuff would be good.

  29. The Old Bill

    To quote James May on Jeremy Clarkson, The man is a knob, but I quite like him. He must have had something, even my most left wing green friends enjoyed watching the show just to despise him. Even the Scots watch the program in droves, regardless of his refusal to interview their countrymen because of his small minded racist views on anyone living too far north.
    Micheal Palin does travel documentaries. He believes the world is an absurd and silly place. He writes Ripping Yarns about boring little gits with shovel collections. Apparently because they arn’t filmed as a diatribe against famine and child soldiers, he treats his subject / subjects with disgust?
    Think you need a quick visit back to the UK to realign yourself with their peculiar sense of humour Helen. I myself can hardly wait until later on this year when I will land at Heathrow and face the onslaught of self depreciating humour and sarcasm of the customs and rental car staff.

  30. thelorikeet

    “Just as his best mate A.A. Gill never really wrote centrally about food, Clarkson never really spoke centrally about cars. Both men were talking about themselves”

    And Helen that is why they’re successful

    Oh. I always read you as writing through the exact same prism and enjoy it for the same reasons

  31. Helen Razer

    @thelorikeet This wasn’t a criticism. Just an observation.

  32. John Lindsay

    Put Jeremy Clarkson in a dress and you have Auntie Jack, a whiskey drinking, cigar smoking, bully, who punches people. And all this while leading a gang in a collection of unusual motor vehicles. Of course Auntie Jack also threatened people who didn’t watch the show that she would rip their bloody arms off so Clarkson has a little way to go yet.

  33. Liamj

    Its a given that Clarkson trades heavily on nostalgia for Empire and white male dominance, but I don’t think he can be properly disemboweled without referencing our car fetish.

    Reading car industry pamphlets off an autocue doesn’t qualify JC as having wit or erudition but it does endear him to that large chunk of the population that get jollies from petrol power ego supports. Not every car lover loves JC, but i’ll bet there aren’t any JC lovers who don’t love cars. His enthusiasm for hyperconsumption is the core of his appeal, the ‘crusty’/odious old white man identity is just pedigree & shielding.

  34. Lee Tinson

    Hi Everyone. I’ve just tried to send a link to this feed to Clarkson. I hope he gets it. He would be very amused.

    By the way, did you know that at his age he is a noted player of games of the X-Box (and other) sort. He regularly beats people a third his age.

    That, I think, is how seriously he takes himself.

  35. Ken Lambert

    Hey Helen, if Pimp my Ride is better than Top Gear, then you have opened the perfect window to your soul.

    Pimp my Ride illustrates what Bettina Arndt was quoting recently when she noted that 70+% of US black births are out of wedlock and the dudes responsible were all pimping their rides.

    Tired? How can a formula be tired when there are years of queues to get into the audience for Top Gear, and the celebrities are dying to get on and race each other in the reasonably priced car. What could be wrong with a car show where a famous corner is named after the singing detective??

  36. Helen Razer

    @Ken Lambert. Let’s overlook that you (a) chose to use Arndt as a primary source for sociology and (b) have some peculiar ethical problem with unmarried persons, particularly those who are “black” and just look at your statement that a thing must be good because it is popular.
    Other things that are popular include One Direction, Malcolm Turnbull and the publications of Rupert Murdoch.

  37. Ken Lambert

    No Helen, Pimp my Ride might be popular too….so my argument is not just about good being popular. Underneath the schooboy pranks and calculated silliness, there is an honesty about Clarkson and his fellow musketeers in their measures of cars and people.

    Exaggerated bagging of crap cars is also met with high praise of some very good cars, and if you are up to date Clarkson has praised a hybrid recently because it was so good. He is almost a convert. You know how converts can become more catholic than the Pope.

    German cars which have every gadget that they could turn right and attack Poland, or bagging French cars made by the bolshy grandsons of cheese eating surrender monkeys is as much a part of the hyperbolic fun as bashing Porsches, rusting old Italian supercars and the Morris Marina – Britain’s answer to the Trabi, made by genuine British Leyland bolshies before Maggie Thatcher beat them into shape with her handbag.

    Tom Cruise, Michael Gambon, reams of brit and yank celebs all want to race a crappy little car round Top Gear’s track – and funnily enough – they all want to do well. I’m sure Bettina Arndt could analyse large that simple fact.

  38. Robert Topping

    If only you had half the intellect and wit of the late Mr Hitchens.
    Ideology will be the death of journalism. At least Chritopher had a sense of humour.
    The fact that your opinions roughly align with mine does not let me forgive your ignorance surrounding the reasons for Clarckson’s popularity.

  39. observa

    If Clarkson is such a poor entertainer, then how has he managed to build Top Gear into the massively popular show that it is?

  40. Duncan Gilbey


    Because you CAN fool all of the people some of the time…

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