Friday 20 March 2015

Barging in TriBeCa, a Top Gear boor - and why I'm proud to be a Roundhead worrywart

It was one morning at the end of January in TriBeCa that I encountered the very personification of motorist arrogance. As I rode down a single block of Reade St that was still mostly clogged with snow, I used the middle of the lane to signal that there was no room to pass me safely. But a block of driving more slowly was unthinkable for a driver who was approaching me from behind in his Lexus SUV. He first leant on his horn to try to bully me out of the way then swerved into the parking lane and passed me close and fast on my right.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I screamed at him as I, inevitably, caught up with him at the next traffic lights. “There was a bike lane!” he yelled back as though that were some kind of explanation. “It was full of snow,” I screamed back.
A Brooklyn bike lane after one recent snowfall. The angry
Lexus driver of TriBeCa wants me to ride in such lanes
and get myself out of his way.

The driver was one of the scores, possibly hundreds, I’ve encountered over more than two decades of urban cycling whose anger at my presence on the road went far beyond what any actual hold-up or inconvenience at my being on the road might justify. My making a different transport choice seemed to present an existential affront.

The tendency would exist, I’m sure, without Top Gear, the BBC-made show that presents such motorist arrogance as entertaining, clever and part of the natural order of things. But the show, which is syndicated or remade in nearly every country around the world, gives such views far more legitimacy than they would otherwise enjoy. Any number of mind-numbing cable shows and irresponsible adverts feed similar thinking among many US motorists.

Broadcasting House: who wouldn't make their
point by driving an armoured vehicle here?
I’ve consequently found it depressing how much support Jeremy Clarkson, Top Gear’s star and chief boor, has attracted since he was suspended on March 10 from work on the show after a “fracas” – a British way of saying he apparently punched a producer. A petition demanding his reinstatement – started by Guido Fawkes, a political blog – attracted nearly 1m signatures. It was, tastefully, delivered to the BBC’s Broadcasting House in a tracked armoured vehicle. Clarkson’s suspension seems as much of a threat to some people’s sense of themselves as my cycling in the middle of the road was to the driver of the Lexus SUV.

But a row I had on Facebook with a friend of an old school friend has crystallised in my mind the nature of what’s going on. The role of the motor car appears, for better or worse, to be part of a cultural battle in many industrialised societies.

The Top Gear tendency among motorists is, it seems to me, part of a wider conservative predilection for accepting certain established social facts – including the motor car’s dominant role - as so inevitable that it’s eccentric even to question them. Top Gear seeks to celebrate the joys for those who already have power of exercising it.

 From such a worldview, naturally, people who question the established way of doing things are apt to look like joyless worrywarts. If one can’t see why it’s worth questioning the promotion of high-speed motor vehicles for use in urban environments, it must be frustrating to see people like me poring over statistics and presenting philosophical arguments for change.

The division looks a lot like the classic one that has run through much British politics for centuries and is replicated in many other English-speaking societies. On one side stand care-free conservative bon-vivants, the Cavaliers. On the other are puritanical, uptight progressives, the Roundheads. Society’s overall view of the two sides probably remains much as the two sides in the English Civil War are described in the satirical history 1066 and All That. The Cavaliers are “Wrong but Wromantic,” while the Roundheads are “Right but Repulsive.”

A Cadillac ATS at the Detroit Auto Show:
people like me seem like joyless prudes
if we suggest this maybe isn't an ideal urban car.
I stumbled into the Clarkson discussion by agreeing with an old friend who had commented that Clarkson was “beyond ghastly” in another friend’s post about his suspension. I expressed the hope that the producer – whom Clarkson appears to have hit because a hotel wouldn’t provide him with hot food late at night – had excellent legal representation. I would have left it there had not a third person – whom I don’t personally know – chimed in with a rebuke.

“He is a legend...someone who can laugh at himself and others,” the poster wrote of Clarkson. “Some people have had humour bypass surgery.”

An ironic, amused detachment from events is such a critical attribute for a British man that this was, of course, a serious charge.

So I went on to list some of the many recent controversies surrounding Clarkson and inquire where the joke in them was.  Last year, for example, he was recorded using the word “nigger” – a profoundly offensive racial slur – during taping of Top Gear. In 2011, he denigrated Mexicans as “lazy, feckless, flatulent [and] overweight.” In 2009 he described Gordon Brown, the then UK prime minister who lost an eye in childhood, as a “one-eyed Scottish idiot”.

The jokes are funny only if one presupposes that people’s being different from oneself is inherently funny. They assume, variously, that it’s intrinsically funny to use a racial slur; that some people belong to a different culture from one’s own; that some people have a disability; or that some people are from a less powerful bit of one’s own country. I suggested that Clarkson was indulging in the lazy humour of the school bully, mocking weakness and difference to denigrate them.

My reaction then became part of the joke.

“It is funny, isn’t it – especially the reaction,” the poster replied, with problematic punctuation.

It’s probably easier, however, to recognise the problems with Clarkson’s attitudes if one’s dealing daily with the boorish driving that he and like-minded people, like the worst Daily News and New York Post columnists, endorse. An encomium to the joy of a high-powered vehicle seems less entertaining if one’s just been buzzed by a muscle car with tinted windows on an urban street. Top Gear’s admonishment to cyclists to learn the difference between red and green traffic lights looks less self-evidently side-splitting if one regularly sees motorists speeding at 40mph down residential streets.

The Cavalier driver speeding and jumping lights probably feels free to do so because driving feels to him or her like a private matter. We Roundheads on the outside tend to suck our teeth and worry about how driving on a street means taking part in a complex social transaction. At high speeds one has far less scope to adjust to how other people act - and a far greater chance of harming them.
A crossroads in Long Beach, California, suggests to me that
car-dominated spaces can have drawbacks - which probably
makes me a joyless worrywart. 
The heavy use of cars in cities presents real moral dilemmas. It’s vital that people who want to think seriously about that aren’t mocked into silence by boors.

Yet I’ve concluded from the Clarkson episode, my Facebook argument about it and countless other expressions of support for inconsiderate driving that there’s an asymmetric battle under way. Advocates for change often earnestly wheel out studies and campaigns as if it were enough to have a better case and better arguments. There are, however, millions of people for whom even the notion of a serious discussion about such matters seems to be beside the point. The first battle has to be against the very assumption that any effort to change or examine the current state of affairs is absurd in itself.

The Clarkson episode is also further proof that what people think and say are closely linked to how they actually act. While Clarkson is often defended as a harmless japester, there has long been a singularly nasty whiff around his behaviour. In January 2014, for example, he tweeted a picture of a cyclist on the narrow backstreets of Chelsea, West London, taking the lane and commented how it was “middle-of-the-road pointmakers like this” who made drivers so angry with cyclists. A person claiming to be the cyclist – who was riding absolutely correctly given the nature of the streets – later claimed that Clarkson forced him off the road by passing when there was insufficient room.

The incident that provoked the latest controversy, meanwhile, apparently involved an angry confrontation. Many accounts suggest that Clarkson called Oisin Tymon, the producer, a “lazy Irish c***” and punched him, splitting his lip. That would suggest a still darker side to Clarkson’s enthusiasm for xenophobic slurs, although he seems to deny either speaking xenophobically or punching the producer.

The most important lesson, finally, may be that large numbers of people are nasty, callous and lack a moral compass. Oisin Tymon appears at the very least to have been badly bullied at work by a far more powerful individual. He may also have been subject to slurs on his ethnicity and an assault that resulted in his going to hospital for his injuries. The response of nearly a million people in the UK to this has been to demand that the perpetrator be allowed unconditionally to return to his job. A significant minority has added to the victim’s suffering by abusing him online. A glance at any online US media report about the death of a cyclist will confirm there’s no shortage of similar scorn for weaker road users on the Atlantic’s western shore.

If that’s what it looks like to be wrong but wromantic in 2015, I’m more willing than ever to accept being repulsive but right.

Update, March 25:
The BBC has decided - using unfortunately mealy-mouthed language - not to renew Jeremy Clarkson's contract. An internal investigation found that he harangued Oisin Tymon for a prolonged period and assaulted him for 30 seconds. Thinking he had lost his job as a result of Clarkson's anger, he drove himself to hospital. The BBC's report and the decision to suspend Clarkson's contract has had the predictable - but depressing - effect of making many of Clarkson's fans furious with Clarkson's victim.


  1. Unfortunately, you might be correct on this one. It is unfortunate since I more often agree with Clarkson about the cars than with his cohosts.

    1. Steve A,

      Thank you for your comment. It's always nice to know I might be right.

      I'm not enough of a car fan to have a strong view on Clarkson's taste in cars. But I do think he's a major retrograde influence on motorist behaviour in the UK - and I think his boorish style has imitators elsewhere.

      All the best,


  2. I quite like this take on Top Gears's "it's just a joke" attitude from comedian Stewart Lee:

    1. Michael,

      Thank you. I hadn't seen that before. It's very astute - something I say, obviously, partly because it reflects a number of the opinions I've already expressed.

      All the best,


  3. Thanks for the article.

    I used to watch Top Gear, probably 4-5 years back, when I found it faintly entertaining. I then began to realise that the programme relied on the same, stale format season after season. You're right, JC works hard to come across as a jovial, man-of-the-people, say-it-as-it-is japester, but really he's a crashing bore and playground bully. And yet, sometimes, he surprises me. Like the time he went to Copenhagen and said very nice things about cycling in the city. Unfortunately, though, as you say, his other opinions do influence the 'thinking' and (poor) behaviour of too many drivers. He plays them like a fish.


    1. Russell,

      I'm glad you gave up your Top Gear watching.

      I remember Clarkson's Copenhagen comments. I used to visit Copenhagen regularly for work and it would take a hard heart indeed to dislike the place, which is clearly as it is partly because of the role of the bicycle. But his comments also typically included childish denegration of today's British cyclists ( He said city fathers had to choose whether cities were dominated by cars or bikes. I'm pretty sure that, given that Clarkson drives a large SUV round the backstreets of Chelsea, he's advocating that London choose the car.

      All the best,


    2. Yes, sorry, I was aware that JC somewhat diluted his praise for Copenhagen by then taking a pop at UK cyclists. Top Gear is JC's 'gang' and you're either in it or not in it. If you are then it's quite okay to mock, threaten and abuse non-members, whatever the outcome may be. It's only said in fun at the end of the day, isn't it? Harmless.

      I've been cycling every day now for the last three years, commuting mainly, in Cardiff. Keeps me fit and sane although I do have my fair share of daily incidents. I am finding, though, that before every ride I experience a short stab of anxiety about what's in store for the journey ahead. But, hey ho, best to just get on with it and keep smiling.

      I can't see the BBC firing JC; he's too big a cash cow for them. But he's had so many slaps on the wrist that perhaps this time he's gone too far. Fingers crossed.


  4. "The Top Gear tendency among motorists is, it seems to me, part of a wider conservative predilection for accepting certain established social facts – including the motor car’s dominant role - as so inevitable that it’s eccentric even to question them. Top Gear seeks to celebrate the joys for those who already have power of exercising it.

    From such a worldview, naturally, people who question the established way of doing things are apt to look like joyless worrywarts."

    The most ridiculous thing about this is that it wasn't all that long ago that the car was the interloper, and not the established way of doing things.

    Indeed that older generations that, anecdotally, seems most wedded to their cars were more able to enjoy cycling in childhood when there was much less traffic on the roads.

    I look at this film from 1940 (only 1940!) and think, ignoring the cautionary aspect of this particular film, what parent would now let teenage girls ride on country roads at all?

    1. Hester,

      Thanks for your comment. I can't watch the film from the US, unfortunately.

      But you're quite correct, obviously, that the motor vehicle was once the interloper and there was significant resistance to its coming to dominate so many urban spaces. The battles were particularly fraught in New York and large tracts of the city still bear the scars. New York ditched expansion of mass transit after the 1930s and focused on building urban motorways, with catastrophic results.

      The phenomenon's newness, however, doesn't seem to prevent conservatives from supporting it.

      All the best,


  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. I am not a conservative & I think that Clarkson probably deserves to be sacked, but I am getting somewhat peed off at the behaviour of many cyclists who show scant respect for other road users, here in Bristol, anyway.

    1. Anonymous,

      Congratulations on thinking that people who hit colleagues shouldn't keep their jobs.

      But I'm puzzled about your frustration. I know Bristol a little and, as far as I know, it is pretty similar to the rest of the industrialised world. It has, as far as I recall, quite heavy traffic, much of it moving at excessive speed, and has sought to mitigate this problem by encouraging cycling. I don't know any reason why cyclists in Bristol would, say, kill other road users in any numbers, as motorists do. So I'm imagining you're "peed off" with some discourtesy by cyclists while largely ignoring the deadly cost of motorists' excessive speed and inattention.

      It's obviously your absolute right to take such an illogical position. But it only underlines my point about how little people think about the role of the motor car.

      All the best,


  7. Nice tying together of these two similar but also subtly different ideas, with the common thread being boorish entitlement. Your experience with the Lexus motorist betokens the inability of most motorists to see the bigger picture. Each bike on the road is likely one less car, improving the overall conditions for the motorist, even if he or she, as in this case, has to suffer the occasional indignity of being behind a cyclist for short distances!


  8. Invisible man not sure who you are? I just discovered this blog tonight. Not even sure who this Clarkson fellow is. A friend posted a link to your blog on Facebook. Read most of the blog and one of your responses to a comment about cyclists in Bristol. Got to say your response was spot on. I don't know why but I seem to admire you for it.

  9. This Clarkson guy reminds me of the old CERTS commercial.
    It's a mint candy. No, it's a breath mint. Actually it's both. CERTS is two (click), two (click), two mints in one.

    Clarkson is an expert on cars. No, Clarkson is a despotic egomaniac jackboot thug. Actually Clarkson is both. Clarkson is two (click), two (click), two personalities in one.

    Same with actor/comedian Bill Cosby. He's also a lot like those CERTS candy breath mints:
    Cosby is a brilliant humorist, spot-on social commentator, talented actor and all-around performer. No, Cosby is a possible sex deviant. Actually Cosby is both. Bill Cosby is two (click), two (click) two personalities in one.


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