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07 April 2012

Jeremy Clarkson and the Germans

"I smell Jerry!"
This being a snowy Saturday, it is time to sit back, make a leisurely pot of coffee and contemplate some of the larger issues surrounding the English language. Today I am going to mention, by way of recommendation for those Russians (and smaller numbers of non-Russians) who might not have heard of them, two of my favourite journalists.
     This post concerns Jeremy Clarkson, of Top Gear fame (the BBC car programme, re-broadcast on Russian TV), and raises the general issue of British journalism as is grunts and snuffles its way into the twenty-first century to do battle with on-line content and the Twitterization of life and thought. (The next will describe an American approach to the same, global problem.)
     I should start by saying that I am not concerned with news reporting, which is a different trade. Done well, it also calls for rare skill. The best reporting I know of comes from BBC television news commentators, who can usually describe both sides of a complex story in two or three short sentences, but without any creativity or personal input—thank goodness!
     However, that is not journalism, whether in a magazine or in a newspaper column. There, the personality of the author is important. Readers want to know what a particular individual thinks, or considers important enough to write about. From journalists, we positively want prejudice, idiosyncrasy, bias, personal opinion and creative thought, so long as it based on true, and preferably new, facts and does not tip over into incivility or self-advertisement. The problem today is that a lot of journalists think they are reporters and use long articles to bore their readers with prosaic facts unrelieved by personality, perspicacity or wit.
     Jeremy Clarkson understands this. Though he writes for a newspaper (the Sunday Times), he does so in a magazine format, which is why his pieces can be collected and published successfully as books. A friend recently lent me Round the Bend, a collection, published last year, of his articles written during 2008-9. In it, Mr Clarkson makes the distinction clearly: (p. 99)
“It’s my job, each week, to come here and write about flowers, frogs, foxes and fornication and then, towards the end, say a little bit about the car I’ve been driving. It’s not my job to tell the motor manufacturer what to do. Some of my colleagues in this auto journalism malarkey are an extension of the car industry, shaping its policy and directing future operations. They are clever. They can understand torque. I can’t. I am just a punter, test-driving cars and saying whether I like them or not.”
     Later on, he explains his preference for an Aston Martin DBS Volante, which he calls “the absolutely perfect car”, over an Audi R8 by saying why he would rather take his holidays in Wakefield than Dubai. Wakefield is a town, in the north of England, which I have never knowingly visited and which I know nothing about, other than that Oliver Goldsmith once said it had a Vicar. But I am sure it is not “absolutely perfect”. Despite this, I understand instinctively what Clarkson means by the comparison. This is the opposite of objective reporting, and therefore it is worth reading: (p.406)
“When reviewing a car I look for Jedward rather than that toothy midget that ultimately won The X Factor. I look for the certain special something that makes oysters wonderful and prawns less so. And that’s what the Audi R8 is missing; something you can’t imagine or explain. I suppose, in human terms, what it’s missing is a soul. It’s a bit like Dubai. Yes, there is a sea and sand, and providing you don’t play hide the sausage with someone’s wife, you will have a nice time. And yet I’d rather go on holiday in Wakefield. Why? Dunno. Can’t explain it. Call it chemistry if you like, but I just would.”
     Clarkson then goes on to make an even more profound point, which relates to both people and cars—and, by implication, all manufactured objects:
“An interesting question: can you truly score a row of perfect tens and emerge from the effort with any personality at all? I give you, by way of reference points, Steve ‘interesting’ Davis and Michael Schumacher. I give you, too, Roger Federer. I like the look of the guy and I like his style, but can you imagine him climbing under the dinner table and tying someone’s shoelaces together? Can you imagine him drunk? In short, then, to be good, do you have to be boring? The answer, of course, is no. John McEnroe wasn’t boring. James Hunt wasn’t boring. And yes, I could imagine George Best drunk, easily. This is because they had a gift. Sure, they worked hard to be top of their game, but plainly they didn’t have to exorcise every human trait in order to get there.”
     Which is the obvious lead-in to a point about a car:
“And that’s what’s wrong with the Audi R8. It was designed by people who are not naturally given to making supercars. They had to work harder than those who are. They had to have more meetings, set up more committees, and work longer into the night to overcome their natural tendency to give it a diesel engine and two back seats.”
     I will spare the sensitive reader some of Mr Clarkson’s more amusing jokes, most of which tend to be about Germans, and which are hinted at in his description of the engineering approach at Audi. You get the point. None of us is anti-German, of course, it is just that we have a prejudice about stereotypical German modes of behaviour, doubtless unfair, but a prejudice nonetheless.
     The distinction between the two types of prejudice is very subtle, so subtle that it seems to elude those Russians who take so much about the West at face value, but when it comes to their own country, take nothing at face value. The art of life in Mr Clarkson’s world is to know when to believe, and when to smile. As the most popular motoring journalist in any country, and the only one with his own television programme and dedicated monthly magazine in Russia, his world includes both Russia and the West. It even includes Germans, who make so many of the cars he admires and, in the course of doing so, make possible so many of his jokes.
     Which reminds me of the Peter Cook sketch about the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral, designed by Sir Basil Spense and built next to the ruins of the one destroyed in 1940 by the Luftwaffe. “I would like to start by saying how grateful we are to the German Air Force for having made the whole thing possible. Without their efforts…”

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