I’M gearing up for this year’s York Literature Festival which starts on Thursday. The festival continues to grow and develop – over 3,000 advance tickets have been snapped up by punters who want to hear contributors such as Dr David Starkey, Polly Toynbee, BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray and more.
Literature festivals, these days, know the pulling power of celebrity, and use it to their advantage – famous names put bums on seats. When I’m selecting guests, I look for people who have a strong profile, are respected by the public, and who have a compelling story to tell. Authors, politicians and journalists are all good value and audiences love to hear their anecdotes.
But there’s one person that I’ll never book: Jeremy Clarkson. He is in hot water, yet again, after an alleged confrontation with a producer – apparently about catering that didn’t come up to scratch. It’s the latest mess he’s been embroiled in after a long line of gaffes, accidents, embarrassments and moments of stupidity.
The Top Gear presenter is much admired for his charisma and wit, and has a loyal fan base, but has an unfortunate habit of putting his foot in it. In fact, he’s done this so many times that he seems to be a human centipede. Clarkson seems to be one the most gaffe-prone celebrities of the modern age.
Perhaps they view him as some sort of modern clown, a faintly shambolic figure who gets in and out of cars, makes fun of others, and invariably cocks things up. But they haven’t been around him when he’s at his most repugnant: Clarkson’s joking masks a bully.
In 2008 he joked about lorry drivers who only cared about fuel prices and killing prostitutes. He listed the components of a lorry driver’s day: “Change gear, change gear, change gear, check mirror, murder a prostitute, change gear, change gear, murder. That’s a lot of effort in a day.”
Several years later, he complained of striking public sector workers. “I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families,” he said on the One Show. Charming. With an attitude like that, he’d fit in well in Stalinist Russia. In 2014, he tweeted a picture of his black dog, saying: “This is the latest addition to the pack. He’s called Didier Dogba.” It was a crude reference to the Chelsea footballer.
What is sad is that so many people seem to hang on his every word: the antics of Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond are amusing to many as they shove Minis down ski-slopes or take on improbable races in unusual terrains. Thousands re-tweet Clarkson’s mutterings on Twitter.
In the days after his suspension, 500,000 people signed an online petition calling on the BBC to allow Clarkson to stick around. This amazes me. Do these people think aggressive, patronising behaviour is something to be proud of?
The audiences that stand around on the set of Top Gear are sycophantic, lapping up the jokes as the three men try to out-brag each other. His jokes about Muslims and homosexuals suggest an insecure persona hiding behind bravado.
Clarkson may be pitied for this, but he must take responsibility for his comments and behaviour. An overpaid bore may get away with schoolboy humour for so long, but enough is enough. Clarkson’s been given many, many chances, and after each one has been remarkably consistent in showing himself to be unpleasant, confrontational and overbearing.
It would be silly to suggest that all people in the public eye behave impeccably: human nature, being what it is, leads to moments of ignorance and foolishness. Many politicians have tripped up through vanity and greed: witness the recent disgrace of Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind.
But Clarkson’s boorish character has become an embarrassment to the BBC. They may fear that one of their prize brands will be fatally wounded if they sack him: Top Gear is sold to 214 territories worldwide and is worth a significant amount to the corporation. But they must look past the pound signs.
The BBC’s reputation as the world’s leading broadcaster needs to be upheld. They may have to watch him be snapped up by a rival. But they can’t continue to back a man allegedly prepared to throw a punch when he’s not offered a steak.
There are numerous names I’d love to book for York Literature Festival in the future, but Clarkson is not one of them.
Miles Salter is director of York Literature Festival. The 2015 festival runs from March 19-29. www.yorkliteraturefestival.co.uk