Friday, 9 December 2011

Lifting up the bonnet on Jeremy Clarkson

Why do some people feel the need to provoke, shock or outrage others? Is abrasive humour, sick jokes, or racist lampooning just ‘having a laugh’, or could there be more to it, something that runs a little deeper…? 

Jeremy Clarkson’s comment on the BBC’s The One Show that public service strikers should be ‘taken out and executed in front of their families,’ – provoking outrage and some 31,000 complaints to the Beeb – might be worth looking at from a psychological perspective. What might drive his need to say this? The following weekend he was at it again, writing in the Sun that train suicides are ‘selfish’ and ‘Johnny Suicide’ causes immense disruption to the traveling public (though he does also, more insightfully, mention the disturbing effect on the driver and those who have to pick up the body parts). He’s joked about lorry drivers murdering prostitutes, BMW sat navs pointing to Poland, and women in burkas wearing g-strings. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Clarkson is thought to be going through some personal difficulties recently, with concern expressed for him by friends. Might some of this increasingly be finding its way into his behaviour?

So is it just Clarkson letting off steam, or might there be a deeper personality trait at work? Could this be a message from the murky depths of Clarkson’s inner world? Freud saw jokes, like dreams, as a glimpse into the unconscious – the part of our minds that chugs away in the background that we have only a limited sense of. Jokes let out forbidden thoughts and feelings that we might normally need to keep under control. We can say something controversial but then cover it by a quick, ‘Ha. Sorry. Only joking’. The listener is often left with a disquieting sense of something dodgy having been said, but it being difficult to react to. If we make a lot of these jokes, or there’s a particular slant to them – jokes against women, gays, minorities etc – then we might start to wonder if it reflects something in our darker inner world.

So what might this imply for Clarkson? Certainly, on Top Gear, presumably largely editorially controlled by Clarkson, there seems to be a real desire – or need – to provoke or stir up people’s emotions or aggression. Remember the episode when Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May drove round hick America with ‘Man love’ and ‘We love Hilary’ emblazoned on their cars? They deliberately set out to goad and offend American rural prejudices. And the locals knew exactly what was going down – ‘Think it’s funny to come down here and stir up a few red-necks?’ challenged one woman. They chased the presenters down in pick-up trucks and it was hard not to sympathise with them.

It could be argued that Top Gear was setting out to deliberately expose these very prejudices, in the same way that, say, Sacha Baron Cohen has done – eg when singing ‘Throw the Jew down the well’ in in Borat to huge laughter and applause, drawing out an unacknowledged undercurrent of anti semitic sentiment, again in rural America. However, the sheer number of insults by Clarkson and Top Gear sprayed over such a variety of people over so many years – from calling Mexicans ‘feckless, lazy and flatulent’ with food tasting like ‘refried sick’, calling Gordon Brown a ‘one-eyed Scottish idiot’ (he later apologized, but made it clear it was only for calling him ‘one-eyed’), and saying that Sarah Jessica Parker resembled a ‘boiled horse’ – seems to rule out any defence of clever parodying. Funny, perhaps, occasionally, though the fact we might find it so might raise a few question marks about ourselves too.

So where might all this originate from for Clarkson? Is there something in his history that drives this need to attack (as it might be seen at a psychological level)? Something that still eats away at him? His dad was a traveling salesman who apparently put Jeremy through public school – Repton, traditional and disciplined – running a business selling tea cosies and stuffed Paddington Bears. Could this be some rebellion at Dad’s cheery eager-to-please salesman’s patter? Or was it public school itself that gave Jeremy a trunkload of insecurities and a waspish sense of humour? The possibilities are intriguing. Might he, for example, have somehow felt inferior to the more privileged boys and their upper middle class charm? Or are there genetic traits? Perhaps mum and dad weren’t so easy either when Jeremy was growing up. He was predictably expelled from Repton, so perhaps the rebellious and contrary nature was well-established by then. Most psychologists would probably see the first three or four years as the most important in setting up personality traits. More recently, alleged extra-marital affairs and various run-ins, including scuffles with Piers Morgan and hoodies in Milton Keynes, again reinforce a sense that all is not milk and honey in Jeremy’s inner world. Of course, this sort of thing is just speculation unless he’s going to try and take a serious look at himself. Perhaps Jeremy’s public provocations really are some kind of unconscious need to be noticed. A cry for help even? Ahh, bless. Our doors are open, Jeremy, if you want to come and do a little work on yourself. 

James Stevenson

Kensington therapy, 33 Thurloe Place, London SW7 2HQ.