Sunday, December 04, 2011

Row Over Clarkson’s Suicide Comment

Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson has faced a storm of protest from mental health charities after he branded people who throw themselves under trains as "selfish".

The 51-year-old, who was forced to apologise earlier this week after saying all striking workers should be shot, was embroiled in further controversy after he reiterated his view that those who commit suicide on railway lines cause "immense" disruption for commuters. In this article, Clarkson mirrored the writing of Dean Swift, and has received the same response.

‘…A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick…, commonly referred to as A Modest Proposal, is a Juvenalian satirical essay written and published anonymously by Jonathan Swift in 1729. Swift suggests that impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. This satirical hyperbole mocks heartless attitudes towards the poor, as well as Irish policy in general.

Swift goes to great lengths to support his argument, including a list of possible preparation styles for the children, and calculations showing the financial benefits of his suggestion. This essay is widely held to be one of the greatest examples of sustained irony in the history of the English language. Much of its shock value derives from the fact that the first portion of the essay describes the plight of starving beggars in Ireland, so that the reader is unprepared for the surprise of Swift's solution when he states, "A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

Readers unacquainted with its reputation as a satirical work often do not immediately realize that Swift was not seriously proposing cannibalism and infanticide, nor would readers unfamiliar with the satires of Horace and Juvenal recognize that Swift's essay follows the rules and structure of Latin satires.

Swift was widely criticized for publishing this piece once it became known he was the author, and he faced widespread public anger. The same can be said for Mr Jeremy Clarkson who has been on the receiving end of politically-correct opprobrium for his comments on public suicides.

Charities said his comments were "tasteless" and accused him of trivialising the subject of suicide.

Clarkson said: "I have the deepest sympathy for anyone whose life is so mangled and messed up that they believe death's icy embrace will be better. However, every year around 200 people decide that the best way to go is by hurling themselves in front of a speeding train. In some ways they are right. This method has a 90% success rate and it's extremely quick.

"However, it is a very selfish way to go because the disruption it causes is immense. And think what it's like for the poor train driver who sees you lying on the line and can do absolutely nothing to avoid a collision."

Later, the presenter referred to those who choose to jump in front of trains as "Johnny Suicide" and argues that following a death, trains should carry on their journeys as soon as possible.

He added: "The train cannot be removed nor the line re-opened until all of the victim's body has been recovered. And sometimes the head can be half a mile away from the feet. Change the driver, pick up the big bits of what's left of the victim, get the train moving as quickly as possible and let foxy woxy and the birds nibble away at the smaller, gooey parts that are far away or hard to find."

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of mental health charity Sane, said: "We are absolutely appalled that Jeremy Clarkson should accuse people who throw themselves on railway lines of being 'selfish'. He has obviously never experienced the agony of mind which drives people to such desperate acts.

"When gripped by such mental anguish people do not act rationally. The selfish person is the one who rates being late by minutes or hours as more important than a person losing their lives forever."

Catherine Johnstone, Samaritans' chief executive, said: "The insensitivity of Jeremy Clarkson's comments in his Sun column today about people who die by suicide on the railways truly beggars belief. While purporting to express sympathy for people who die this way, his remarks about their bodies constitute gross intrusion into the grief and shock of bereaved families and friends."

Jeremy Clarkson is the Dean Swift of our times. He is a great satirist, and he makes his points with a pen as sharp as any wielded by the former Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. In this article, he is making a serious point about the sense of hopelessness and uselessness that our modern times can engender in some people, and the steps they will go to, to extricate themselves. His writing is in bad-taste, because that’s what satire is and is meant to be. He is just being Clarkson, for fuck’s sake, and is not meant to be taken literally. Read him, and move on.

The real satire in these comments is the paucity of education in English literature these pundits have received, in that they have obviously never read Jonathan Swift, one of Britain’s great writers, and therefore are unable to recognize satire when it is served up to them!


Rosen Trevithick said...

Satirical humour can only be enjoyed if the audience know that it's humour.

Clarkson's comments caused a spate of people making ignorant and intolerant remarks about suicide.

If you're a high profile figure and you're going to use risque material in humour aimed an audience that contains stupid people, you need to deliver it in a way that will be understood.

Sadly, that's not what happened in this case.

erictheking said...

Rowan, I love your work but I'm REALLY not sure Clarkson is being satirical. Clarkson has pinned his colours quite clearly to the mast with his cozy relationship with Murdoch and Cameron. He plays to a heartless crowd which view those less fortunate than them as trash to be swept out of the way.

His remarks on public sector workers were a little more subtle - he was satirising himself - but the subtext was clear. One can say anything one likes and then simply add, ''it's just a joke!''. It's called the Top Gear Defence.