Saturday, 28 March 2015

Jeremy Clarkson Sacked

The BBC has finally done it. The Director General of the BBC has announced that the contract of Jeremy Clarkson, allegedly the highest paid ‘star’ of the BBC (a middle aged man with a beer-gut and—let’s face it—without much of a face, will not neatly fit into your idea of a ‘star’, if your idea of a ‘star’ is someone with stunning good looks), will not be renewed after it expires at the end of this month. In other words ‘beebs’ has sacked Clarkson.

Clarkson was suspended following a fracas in a hotel in Yorkshire. This involved Clarkson (allegedly) subjecting a man (one Oisin Tymon)—allegedly the producer of a show, allegedly about cars, which Clarkson allegedly fronts along with two other blokes (one of whom bears a striking resemblance to a chipmunk while the other looks like a reluctant receiver of Care in the Community who has missed his appointments with the care-workers for a month, and urgently in need of a bath and a hefty dose of Thorazin)—to physical attack which lasted allegedly for 30 seconds, and which was allegedly brought to an end by the alleged intervention of a nearby man. After the alleged attack the said producer allegedly took himself to an institution which was allegedly a hospital, where he was allegedly treated for a cut and swollen lip. The alleged physical attack was allegedly preceded by sustained verbal abuse by Clarkson, which allegedly lasted much longer, during which Clarkson allegedly called the producer a lazy Irish C**t. Clarkson allegedly also threatened to have the alleged producer sacked. (That’s irony for you.) The reason for Clarkson’s ire? After a day-long shooting Clarkson wanted steak and chips, and got, instead, a cold platter. Naturally, the only reasonable course of action available to Clarkson was to use gutter language, threaten the producer, and sock him in the jaw. Would this have got Clarkson what he desired? He must have thought so. Clarkson is an intelligent man. He is also a reasonable man. (If you don’t believe me, ask Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, who declared that his, Boris’s, natural instinct, whenever he heard that Clarkson has been involved in (yet another) fracas, was to side with Clarkson. Why? Because Clarkson, in his political views, is so good at getting under the skin of the lefties—like a maggot boring its way through a long forgotten potato— that he has won life-long admiration and support of the fat Tory.)

The show (Top Gear) allegedly has a massive fan following, and Clarkson, allegedly, is its main attraction (doesn’t say much, does it, for the other two blokes—the chipmunk and the other bloke who, I am sure, has nicotine-stained fingers and a passion for fried sausages). He obviously brings the much desired star quality to the programme about cars which, from what little I have seen of the show (and it’s very little), are beyond the means of the likes of me. The show is viewed by more than 350 million viewers across the world and brings the BBC in excess of £ 50 million revenue every year.

Clarkson is allegedly the highest paid employee of the BBC (let’s do away with the controversial ‘star’). He is also allegedly a racist, a homophobe, a mocker of disabled people, a hater of other European nations, and a baiter of Pierce Morgan. Clarkson once described Gordon Brown, the former British prime-minister, as a ‘one-eyed Scottish idiot’. (Clarkson was indubitably right on two counts: Brown, regrettably, has only one functioning eye, and even he would be hard pressed to deny that he is not Scottish. Is Brown an idiot? I don’t think so. You don’t get to become the country’s prime-minister if you are, in the current-day parlance, a learning-disabled person. When Clarkson described Brown as an idiot, he was probably giving vent to his strong feelings about the financial policies of the Scot which (and I guess Clarkson was not alone in thinking this) brought the financial ruin of the country.)

Clarkson did seem to rather revel in his bad boy image and antics in the past few years. He has managed to insult quite a few nations including Mexico (he described the Mexicans as lazy and quite a few other things) and the Argentines (I think Clarkson and his crew were chased by irate crowd when they were shooting in Argentina because of some confusion over the number-plate of the car they were using). Last year, in one of the programmes, he deliberately used a derogatory word to describe Asians. He was seen to be using the N word to describe black people in a video clip of another programme, which was edited from the broadcast, but which was leaked. If you read Clarkson’s columns, brimming with spiteful, vinegar-doused (and, I hate to say this, witty) prose, you will be left in no doubts that he is not a fan of the Americans, Russians, French, Germans and Indians. He caused a furore a couple of years ago by declaring that he would have the public sector workers, striking for higher pay, shot, or something to that effect. (If some of my acquaintances working in public sector in Britain are anything to go by, these guys are not exactly breaking their backs by overwork, and they all seem to have yearly incomes above the average per annum income in Britain, and their sense of entitlement is breathtaking. However, when someone who collects a pay-cheque in excess of £ 3 millions from BBC, which is partly funded by tax-payer’s money, dares to question public sector employees, none of whom—thank God!—earns anywhere near him, using language that is (calculatingly) provocative, it is going to send the tree-huggers into frenzy.)

I don’t think I have brought myself to watch even a single programme of Top Gear from beginning to the end. This is not because I have a low view of the programme (it is impossible to form a view on a programme you have not watched) or because I have chosen not to watch any programme which has Clarkson in it on matters of principle (because I don’t have any), but because I am just not into cars. And spending an hour in front of the box, watching three blokes exchanging jokey banter (all of which allegedly scripted by Clarkson himself) in a studio, surrounded by a gaggle of people, and talking about various cars with enthusiasm that calls for a gagging order is not my idea of entertainment.

I am more acquainted with Clarkson the writer, having read a few of the collections of his newspaper columns. In these columns Clarkson gives the world the benefits of his wisdom about anything that happens to be annoying him at the time of writing, which, judging by the astonishing array of subjects he fulminates about, is pretty much everything that has a whiff of political correctness about it. Clarkson’s columns have the intellectual level of two drunks ranting about things over pints of lager, in some hole in the wall, in a seedy part of the town, which specialises in grim d├ęcor, damaged looking bar-maids the size of the cab of a long-distance truck, food which inevitably leads to bypass, and clientele that looks like they are on a day-release from the nearby high security asylum. Clarkson, let’s admit, is not what you’d call a deep thinker. But he does know how to turn an interesting phrase, and makes abundant use of hyperbole and sarcasm. And such is the deplorable level of newspaper columns in the country that that is enough to make Clarkson one of the most popular columnists in the country. If you are one of those who passionately hold sanctimonious views about political correctness then Clarkson is definitely not for you. If you want just to have a bit of a laugh then he is your ticket, in small doses. You’d also be well advised to take a break after reading a collection of his newspaper columns. His manic-depressive humour does tend to get a tad repetitive after a while.

Coming back to the sacking business (although, strictly speaking, Clarkson is not sacked; his contract will not be renewed once it finishes) what I find interesting is that the BBC did not sack Clarkson when he was going around being oafish and crude and was saying derogatory, racist things; and were content to issue him with final warnings. However, when he socked the producer of the show—who probably is not good enough of anything other than arranging decent meals; and, evidently, not good even at that—in the jaw, he was deemed to have crossed the line, and the Director General was left with no choice but to sack him.

There are many self-righteous prats who are rubbing their hands in glee, and, in the time-honoured British tradition of kicking a man in the goolies when he is down, pouring vitriol (read Independent & Guardian) on Clarkson (who, lest you forget, deserves no sympathy). The producer of the show has issued a statement reminiscing about the good times he spent with Clarkson and their creative output (where is my barf-bag?), as if he had anything to do with the creativity of the show.

So what next for Clarkson? I don’t know, but I suspect he will be back. They all do. And Clarkson, whatever you might say about him, has one thing that many of us don’t have. Wit. It’s a commodity in short supply these days. Clarkson is imperious, shallow, vain, smug, uncouth (this is a partial list), rude, spiteful, insightless; but not a bore. He will live.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Book of the Month: Barracuda (Christos Tsiolkas)

Barracuda is Greek-Australian novelist Christos Tsiolkas’s fifth novel. His fourth was the brilliant The Slap, which deservingly sold multimillion copies in many countries, and was nominated for several prestigious literary awards (including The Man Booker Prize, if I remember correctly).

Barracuda tells the story of an underdog. Danny Kelly, of Greek-Scottish heritage, comes from a working class family. His father is a long-distance lorry driver (whose antidote to the bitter disillusionment of not having achieved much in his life is to rail against those who have made something of their lives and accuse them of enjoying those privilege by dint of birth than talent; that is when he is not fulminating against the Australian government for supporting the Iraq war), while his mother works in a hair-dressing saloon. Not the sort of family background that is conducive to academic high achievement. Yet Danny Kelly is a prodigy. The word prodigy is not to be used lightly. You can’t be a prodigy in just anything. Have you heard of a prodigy long-distance lorry driver? Or a prodigy hair-dresser? I didn’t think so. In order to be considered a prodigy you are required to display talent in subjects and areas in which not everyone excels. The word prodigy suggests an inherent talent, God’s gift if you happen to believe in an all-powerful omnipotent entity which, in a manner that is difficult to grasp by humans, decides to shower some blessed individuals with its blessings. Anyone can be a long-distance lorry driver or a hair-dresser. How much talent is required to drive a vehicle or cut hair? The fields in which you can prove to be a prodigy are, sadly, restricted. It’s either academics or sport, I am afraid. And not all academic subjects are thought worthy of requiring their practitioners being prodigies, either. You don’t have to be a prodigy to be a social worker.

Danny Kelly, the protagonist of Barracuda, is not a prodigy in any of the academic subjects. He is not expected to and does not aspire to find solutions to questions that win you the Nobel. Danny is a prodigy in sport. No, not chess. Danny is a prodigy swimmer. Such is Danny’s prodigious talent for swimming that he manages to get scholarship to a very posh school in Melbourne, the yearly tuition fees of which exceed the GDP of a Third World country. There is no way Danny’s parents are going to afford the fees of this school; not when there are Danny’s younger siblings to think of. And neither his younger brother (Theo) nor sister (Regan) is a prodigy in anything, which means they are going to have to go to some shitty school in the low-life area of Melbourne. (This causes some angst to Danny’s father, who labours under the logic that since his two younger children are not particularly good in anything and therefore fated to lead a life of mediocrity (long-distance lorry driver, hair-dresser, social worker at tops), the eldest boy, who actually has talent for something, should sacrifice the one opportunity that could give him a smidgen of a chance of breaking out of the working class rut, and spend the remainder of his life in the same prison of disillusionment as his father.) The father thinks of various ruses why Danny could not, should not, ought not, surely durst not, go for his morning swimming practice, certainly not on weekends, early in the morning—and, if he must, he can use the f**king public transport without dragging his mother out of the warm bed—and goes spare when Danny is having none of it. Danny, it has to be said, is a driven boy. He is utterly convinced that he is the best; that he has got what it takes; he can cut the mustard. He is the best swimmer of his generation; he is going to represent Australia at Commonwealth and he is going to win medals for his country in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.  He will show all the posh c**ts in the posh school (which he labels as Cunts College in his mind) that he is better than them. (The posh c**ts, in their turn despise Danny because he does not belong there (which, if you think of it unemotionally, he doesn't.) And he is better than all of them, when it comes to swimming and winning races. The school’s Hungarian swimming coach, Mr Torma, does what he can to feed into Danny’s belief (which does not require feeding) that he, Danny, is the best. Except that it turns out that he isn’t. When it comes to the crunch Danny can’t cut the mustard. In the under 16 championship in Japan Danny fails to win any medals. He does not even come in the top three. He comes fifth. How can this be? He cannot lose. But that’s what happens. What is worse, a posh Golden Boy from Danny’s school whom Danny heartily despises wins the title in Japan. It is clear that the posh boy would get to represent Australia at the Sydney Olympics, even though even he probably knows that he wouldn’t win anything for the country. The place in the Olympic squad is Danny’s, by right. Except that he is not going to get it because, against all predictions and despite being a certified prodigy, Danny is not good enough to make it to the top.

Barracuda is the story of what happens when you fail to achieve what you were convinced you were destined to achieve. It is a story of what happens when your dreams fail you, or (if you want to look  at it another way), you fail to achieve your dreams and fail everyone including yourself.

Daniel Kelly has to come to terms with the knowledge that he is not going to make it as a champion swimmer. He is a loser. How does Danny deal with it? Not very well, I am afraid. Not good academically he performs poorly at the exit exams and ends up doing a semiskilled job in a supermarket. Then comes another life-changing moment in Danny’s life which his school tutor would have had no hesitation in describing as chequered. On the day of the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics Danny gate-crashes into the party of one of the posh pupils in the swimming squad of his school with whom he has formed a sort of friendship in school. In the party Danny manages to achieve the levels of intoxication that would have had Micky Rourke shaking his head in disapproval and attacks his erstwhile friend, who (not unsurprisingly) wants Danny out of his house, with a broken bottle. The former prodigy is now required to spend a few months in prison. In prison Danny, thanks to another male prisoner, discovers the joys of sodomy and his sexual orientation. Upon his release from prison Danny meets a Scotsman who is of similar, homoerotic, orientation, and goes with him to Scotland, where he meets his great-aunt. Danny, incidentally, has, since his release from prison, taken a violent dislike of water and concocts all sorts of reason to avoid swimming, which irritates his lover no ends, although that is not the reason why the two split up. Upon his return to Australia, Danny does what he can—you suspect, by now, that he is a natural at this—to irritate and insult his family, in particular his father whom, in a weird twist of logic which is beyond the likes of you and me, Danny blames for his failure as a swimmer. Then Danny’s old coach, Mr Torma, kicks the bucket and it turns out that the coach was blaming himself all these years for Danny’s failure to succeed at the highest level as a swimmer (but not only Danny’s; the coach coached a couple of other losers who didn’t make it either, although one of them had the decency to off himself), and the coach’s way of atonement was to leave Danny a third of his estate. What will Danny do with his wealth? You will not be surprised to know that the novel ends predictably.

Barracuda is a novel that appears to go in various directions. The reader gets the feeling that the central theme of the novel is how one deals with the crushing knowledge that one is not good enough to achieve one’s ambition. However Tsiolkas decides to take the story in different directions, before returning in the closing stages on the novel, to the theme, which is of redemption.

Danny Kelly is a not a protagonist one easily takes to. That in itself is not a problem; Humbert Humbert of Lolita is a repulsive character. But he is interesting. The trouble, here, is that the character of Danny Keely does not have many layers to it. He is just not that interesting. As you read the novel you get used to him. He is like an impacted wisdom tooth (without wisdom). Danny Kelly is an outsider. He is the poor kid in a posh school where he does not belong, and has an ambition to excel at a game children from his background are not supposed to even think of. However, when he fails to achieve the grade Danny does not seem to glean any insight from it. The theme kind of peters off. The same happens with Danny’s same-sex relationship with Scotsman Clyde. This strand of the novel, which occupies the middle of the novel, does not lead anywhere. Danny's visit to her great-aunt seems promising: is Danny going to discover his roots? But it, too, is abandoned half-way through. Danny visits his great aunt, admires her Scottish accent and the tat with which she has cluttered her house, and . . . err, that's it. 

There are some parallels with The Slap, which made Tsiolaks’s international reputation, in that one seminal event—in this case Danny’s failure at a crucial tournament— sets the trajectory of the rest of Danny’s life (and rest of the novel), except that it seems a tad unconvincing. Danny, the driven child who is determined to make it at the highest level, just lies over and dies with one failure at a tournament.

Barracuda is an easy novel to read, and, despite its five hundred plus pages, can be finished in one or two sittings. At times, especially when he is describing Danny’s exploits in swimming, Tsiolaks is inspired. At other times (many other times) the prose is too stylistic and seems contrived. Danny, the protagonist, is supposed to be an admirer of Graham Greene; but the prose style of his creator is nothing like Greene’s. The frequent changes from third person to first person are unnecessary, as are the changes in the tense of the narrative (sometimes in a single paragraph).

Like its protagonist Barracuda is not a complete failure, but neither is it riveting like its predecessor, the supremely entertaining The Slap. It’s a good novel to take on a holiday (if you can stomach the brutal descriptions of homosexual sex; so probably not for tense housewives and do-gooder fusspot nuns), but that’s about it.