John Waters: Jeremy Clarkson - The 'savage man' masquerading as 'wild man'
The 'Top Gear' presenter is actually a macho man hiding his frailty behind big steaks, writes John Waters
People, for some reason, expect me to be a fan of Jeremy Clarkson.
On the contrary: I regard him as an insufferable klutz, a loudmouth and a bully. Perhaps the misunderstanding arises from my having become notorious for writing about "men" and "masculinity", with Clarkson lately regarded as representing some kind of masculine archetype of contemporary popular culture.
The misunderstanding more or less captures the core difficulty with talking about masculinity in a era in which everything uttered about men or related subjects (women, for instance) needs to be said with a particular ideological context in mind. I'm thinking broadly of what is called feminism, though this is a word that nowadays also generates more confusions than it dissipates. Feminism has less and less to do with women, and more and more to do with attaining power for a few, only some of whom (the keynote insistence on gender quotas notwithstanding) happen to be women.
The best response to the latest Clarkson outrage was from his co-presenter James May: "Jeremy is a knob but I like him". Otherwise, the reaction to his suspension for allegedly punching a BBC producer was insanity all the way: the inevitable shrill condemnations in the high-pitched tones of the Taste Police, matched on the other side by declarations that Clarkson is "a bastion of light in a dark PC world" and ludicrous demands that television viewers not be "punished" or "made to suffer" by virtue of being deprived of Top Gear.
I've long disliked Clarkson with a passion. For the avoidance of doubt, I should say I mean the created public persona of Jeremy Clarkson. Maybe there's another Jeremy - a smart, tender, compassionate, sensitive, gentle soul, but, if there is, I don't know him and am therefore not referring to him. The Jeremy Clarkson we "know" and discuss is a persona invented to create noise and money, and as such has been successful beyond measure.
I don't really want to get into the past controversies involving Clarkson. Obviously some offer examples of "political correctness gone mad", and normally, I would welcome and support any acts of iconoclasm in the face of a senselessness emblematic of our times. But there is something about Clarkson's personality that negates any such benefits. It's not that I worry overmuch about what he might say about lorry drivers, Germans or politicians with pink ties. The problem is the cultural indulgence of his undergraduate outbursts and incorrigible yobbery, which has enabled him to grow wealthy from being crude, obvious and unfunny. As Clarkson himself, with uncharacteristic irony, put it: "There are more important things to worry about than what some balding and irrelevant middle-aged man might have said on a crappy BBC Two motoring show."
And it's interesting that an institution as rigidly hidebound by political correctness as the BBC has given such a powerful and lucrative platform to someone like Clarkson. I don't see this as a random thing. If a politician had been responsible for even one of a dozen outrages perpetrated by Clarkson, the corporation's apparatchiks would have been the chief public prosecutors ensuring his (I'm assuming maleness in such offenders) banishment and defenestration. In an era when every utterance of every minor wannabe is prosecuted and punished by the Twitterati, Clarkson has a kind of immunity, an ordained anti-monk of un-PC.
Of course 'PC' is a loaded term capable of summoning up, to different ears, a modern form of courteousness or an insidious cult of censorship. In truth, it's actually both: civility as instrument of control. The high priests of PC frequently proclaim their successes in eliminating racism, sexism and the like, but in truth all they've done is drive these impulses underground into a kind of speakeasy culture of privatised hatred and crudity, all the more toxic for being suppressed. Men like Clarkson, being licensed to override the prohibitions, function as safety valves, releasing some of the pent-up pressure generated by this most contemporary of tyrannies. It's a bit like the way parish priests used to operate back in the early dance-hall days here at home, lambasting fornication from the pulpits of a Sunday morning and sitting in the box office that night collecting 10-bob notes from the punters in return for admittance to the unacknowledged dens of iniquity known as "ballrooms", wherein lay the promise of a jive, a "mineral" and afterwards a "court". It's simply economics: first you make the commodity scarce; then you award yourself the franchise.
I became rather alarmed about a decade ago to find that my little daughter had developed a fondness for Top Gear, leading to no little trepidation as to her likely future taste in males. It began in a Paris hotel, where we were visiting Disneyland Paris, when (aptly) her cousins took control of the remote and wouldn't allow her watch anything else. Mercifully, it later emerged that her favourite presenter was James May - actually pretty much the antithesis of Clarkson. May (and here I suspect I'm talking as much about the real James May as the TV personality) has wit, intelligence and above all irony, perhaps the most essential instrument of survival in the era we contemplate.
May and Clarkson can be advanced as representing the dichotomy outlined by Robert Bly in his seminal book Iron John - between the 'Wild Man' and the 'Savage Man'. For Bly, the two were opposites: one a benign archetype which every man must access if he is to become an adult; the other a weakling affecting hardness. The Wild Man has, through pain, discovered his own centre, the Savage Man is filled with rage because his heart is numb. According to Bly, the Wild Man's vital qualities have been caged in the modern male by the processes of capitalism, industrialisation and organised religion. Most men tend either to remain chained or burst out into savagery.
This insight helps to explain why someone like Clarkson is seen as an alpha male, a "real man" standing up for lost masculine values, an idea so far off the mark it would be laughable if it weren't so dangerous. In truth, he's a pussified yob-baiter hiding behind a macho persona.
It's interesting that Clarkson was this week reportedly reduced to violence by the discovery that, after "a hard day's filming", he was expected to dine on soup and a cold meat platter, rather than the steak and chips he'd been expecting. After a shift making bad jokes, the labourer craved his red meat but was sat before a Guardian-ista's dinner of lettuce and salami.
There's a world of distance between alpha-male masculinity and the macho man. A masculine man is steadfast and rooted, centred within himself. A macho man is emotionally and existentially incontinent, spewing his insecurities in every direction via the codes of aggression and narcissism. A real man could survive on lettuce for six months; a macho man needs a large steak in front of him, less for nourishment than to announce his manhood.
A macho man is a weak man pretending to be masculine - and is generally found to be someone who has spent too much time around women, trying to ingratiate himself and attract their attention instead of burrowing into his own soul. Deprived of a convincing male mentor, he has never learned how to be a man, and so must project a fake masculinity to conceal his deficit. An alpha-male is something different, being a man who has gained control over his masculinity and father energy, and is therefore able to instil confidence in others and suggest himself as a potential leader if the effluent hits the extractor. Clint Eastwood presents as a true alpha male, as does Robert De Niro, Alex Ferguson and Brendan Gleeson. Clarkson is closer to Bly's Savage Man. Oasis, interestingly, contained both elements in the contrasting personalities of the Gallagher brothers: Noel the Wild Man, Liam the Savage.
I think of men like Clarkson as, culturally speaking, the enemies of men because they sell out their sex by playing an easy and self-serving game for which many other men end up being penalised. Without such males, radical feminism would have a harder job purveying the kinds of untruths it has succeeded in making axiomatic in our culture. The young man of today, seeking a model for the path forward, is confronted by a pseudo divide between the New Man and the Macho Man - terms corresponding approximately to Bly's notions of the Savage and the Wild. Hence, at the point of entry into manhood, males are led to believe they must choose between troglodyte and wuss.
Feminism, in its obsession with the phantom enemy "patriarchy", long ago launched a tactical war against masculinity, though not against the macho man - instead sneakily trading off a confusion between the two concepts of human adult maleness. It's the strong "silent" Wild Man who represents the real threat to the agenda to utterly wussify society and silence for good the voice of fatherhood in the world. Clarkson is a Savage Man who offers no threat to this agenda. On the contrary, by influencing and misleading young men into thinking loutishness or sexual incontinence are the ways of the "real man", the antics and pronouncements of such figures serve to vindicate the "toxic masculinity" thesis so vital to the noxious radical feminist agenda.