Sunday, July 25, 2010

today : middle-aged disappointment

Top Gear started back on TV recently. I watch it, but not obsessively. I am one of those people who likes cars, but am not obsessed about them. Even though I think that cars can be amazing and beautiful and the kind of thing you might covet, I never, even as a child, had a poster of a car on my wall. Never memorised all the Top Trumps style info and stats. I'm not that interested in top speeds and torque and all that stuff.

I knew one guy who was so obsessed with getting a Porsche, that the first time he had some money he frantically saved up and bought one. It was old and ropey. But it was a Porsche. Because he was barely in his twenties, the only insurance he could get was third party and almost equal to the cost of the car. Turns out that no insurance company trusted a 21 year old driving a ropey second-hand Porsche. Their estimate was based on the fact that they thought he was pretty much guaranteed to crash it. Less than a week into owning it, that's exactly what happened. He drove into the back of a truck on a rainy dual carriageway. Luckily he was unhurt, but the car was totalled.

As I've got older I have owned better and faster cars. A couple of cars ago I almost bought a sporty coupe, but settled on a somewhat sporty coupe instead. It was pretty nippy. But I never wanted to take it on a track day or test it away from lights against a hot-hatch. When I encountered someone who wanted to race I would eyeball them and rev the engine, and then watch them zoom off as I pulled sedately away in the manner of a retired vicar.

I guess I am a classic Top Gear watcher. What I like about it is what most people like. It's generally amusing and well put together. Occasionally one of the jokes will make me laugh.
There's something appealing about the sheer silliness of what the presenters get up to. It looks like fun and we enjoy it vicariously. I like the idea of randomly blowing things up for the sheer hell of it. I like the idea of the ridiculous and ambitious races between forms of transport, I like the piss-taking bonhomie between male friends and I like notion of middle aged men behaving like young boys and acting out the their pre-pubescent fantasies. There is, after all, a bit of me that wants to shoot guns, drive fast with impunity, push caravans off cliffs and just be pointlessly silly.

But I never could bring myself to commit to Clarkson.

Clarkson is a kind of industry unto himself. Each year he compiles his magazine and newspaper articles and columns into a book which sells millions. Each Christmas he releases a DVD, which I understand to be a kind of supercharged Top Gear episode, and it sells millions as a stocking filler for Dads and Uncles. But I'd never seen any of these DVDs, or read any of his books.

So when I came across a couple of the books I decided to read them. Compiled columns, when put into book form, can often be less than the sum of their parts and quite disappointing. For every Dave Barry (whose compiled columns are genuinely funny and have a similar momentum to something like an Eddie Izzard show in that they create and then invite you into a world-view) or Joe Queenan (whose books of compiled articles are engaging and entertaining, and who writes like a dream) there are examples like John O'Farrell (whose book of compiled columns has a great title 'Global Village Idiot', but for some reason doesn't work as a book).

I thought: If Clarkson sells millions, then maybe his books will be good (as in engaging, entertaining and sprinkled with good jokes and some spiky opinions). Or even okay (as in mildly diverting and with the occasional good joke and/or spiky opinion). Even admirable, in the way that you can admire Dan Brown's construction of easy myth, simple mystery and fast paced action.

But Clarkson's books are terrible. Sure enough there are jokes aplenty. But the problem really is that they are Clarkson jokes. And Clarkson himself comes across as painfully average and predictable. You could easily write a Clarkson book yourself. Reduce the world to keywords and Clarkson will always have an opinion. Speed cameras, freedom, guns, men, women, Brits, foreigners, Thatcher, Blair, speed, petty rules. You know what he's going to say. Yawn.

I imagine it is his sheer averageness that makes him such an apparent hero to so many. He quite funny sometimes, but only a smidge funnier than anyone you know. And his opinions are the same as pretty much every half intelligent bloke who thinks he knows stuff like politics, but is really looking through self-centred blinkers and only knows enough to complain. Except Clarkson, unlike everyone who blathers their ill-thought out partly-informed and self-centred opinions in the pub or on the golf course or wherever, gets to do it in print and on the telly.

It is this that disappoints me. Because that's the feeling I get when I encounter Clarkson on TV radio or in print. I am always disappointed when he cuts to an obvious comment, or when he repeats his wilfully reactionary shtick in response to one of the key words or topics. I just don't want someone to complain about the council and traffic wardens and the government and political correctness. For one thing, it's as boring as endlessly watching different cars repeatedly going around the same track. For two things, there is no real value in simply whinging about things. The don't you just hate it when...? school of comedy pretty soon gets tied up in its own negativity, until it's just negative. And there's this nagging feeling I have that he clearly is an intelligent bloke, and that there's a distinct possibility that some, if not all of his shtick, is a put-on. I wonder if 'Clarkson' is not really real, but an invented character that succeeds by reflecting the feelings and thoughts of his constituents. The voice of the dullard, disappointed, every middle-aged man who never quite became a racing driver or a secret agent.

My own middle-aged disappointment is that things supposedly aimed at me - a middle aged man - are so cruchingly dull and miserable.

Dave Barry avoids criticism by rarely straying into politics. When he does it is generally surreally silly and contains more than one level of irony. But 'Clarkson' repeatedly puts himself forward as some kind of political commentator. Except reducing the issues to the level of one-note ranting is no kind of politics at all. It's just a middle aged man complaining that the world doesn't do everything he wants it to.

And I guess this cuts to the heart of my dislike of his writing. His brand of moaning is selfish and one-dimensional. For example, there are some extremely valid arguments to be presented regarding global warming. I personally am open to all opinions on the matter. But Clarkson's vehement global-warning denial, although often underpinned by some use of evidence, is ultimately all about 'Clarkson's' love of big, fast, noisy, petrol-driven machines and his dreaded fear of them being made obsolete. Nothing wrong with loving cars, but preserving them at all costs is not just 'small c' conservatism, but a position of fearful stasis. His position on guns is because he likes guns and comes across as someone who wishes he had the guts to join the army, but doesn't, so makes do with shooting at such dangerously armed enemies as badgers and pigeons.

Whether left or right, radical or conservative. That's not the issue at stake. I will happily read and enjoy Joe Queenan as much as Christopher Hitchens or Greg Palast. But the published 'Clarkson' possesses the one thing that is the enemy of interesting writing. A closed mind.

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