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Hugo Rifkind

I’ll take Jeremy Clarkson over a howling mob any day

Lord knows he’s embarrassing. But at this point Argentina should be embarrassed too

1 November 2014

9:00 AM

1 November 2014

9:00 AM

Perhaps it’s a glaring and personal flaw in my observational skills, but if somebody tried to insult me via a number plate attached to their car, I’m not at all sure I’d notice. I suppose if it was really obvious — ‘HUGO TWAT’ sort of thing — then the synapses would fire, but anything more subtle would pass me by. And I don’t think it’s just me.

Imagine, for example, driving through Scotland in a car with the registration ‘H746 CLN’. How likely is it, do you think, that some super-observant thug would interpret this as a reference to the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and then gather together a posse to beat you up? ‘Come on lads! There’s some English git down there obliquely making an appalling joke about us losing a war!’ And nobody saying, at any point, ‘But I dinnae get it, Davie. Whit’s the H for?’

Wouldn’t happen. Would it? Yet this, pretty much, seems to be the official — and proud — Argentine interpretation of whatever curious disaster befell Jeremy Clarkson and the rest of the Top Gear crew while filming a Christmas special in Tierra del Fuego six weeks ago. It’s a complex tale, this, with more twists and turns than an episode of The Killing. The undisputed facts seem to be that Clarkson, along with the usual Top Gear team (this being one who looks like Clarkson and the other one) pitched up in a car with the number plate ‘H982 FKL’.

This was widely interpreted as a nod to the Falklands conflict, and they were thus hounded out of town. And a month and a half later, people are still cross about it. ‘Jeremy Clarkson is an embarrassment to the British people,’ Argentina’s ambassador, Alicia Castro, told the Telegraph this week. An apology from the BBC, she said, is ‘the minimum we can ask’.


Now I will bow to nobody in the ‘quite often being embarrassed on behalf of Britain by Jeremy Clarkson’ stakes. But this? This seems odd. Somebody is telling porkies. In fact, possibly everybody is telling porkies. Because the BBC interpretation, in all honesty, isn’t terribly credible either. For them, the number plate was merely a horrible coincidence. In support of this, they cite the way the thing was attached to the car when they bought it, and the sheer practical impossibility of having sought to arrange this sort of thing just to make a weird joke that nobody would get. According to the Daily Mirror, the likelihood of this being true is 13,000,000 to one against, but they’re sticking to their story anyway. Could have happened to anyone. Thank God it wasn’t Prince Harry.

There’s more to it, obviously, including rival timelines about precisely what plate went where, when, and the discovery of another set of plates altogether — these ones reading ‘BE11 END’ — in the battered wreckage of Clarkson’s car. Ultimately life is short, and there’s a limited amount of it one is prepared to devote to discovering what went wrong on a satirical Christmas car show. Yet that something did, to the extent that ambassadors are talking about it a month and a half later, is fairly striking. And it makes me wonder, Ms Castro, which nation it is that ought to be more embarrassed, here?

Lord knows, Clarkson can be a jingoistic arse. But give me a cynical, jingoistic arse over a cynical, jingoistic mob any day. Sometimes it feels as though Argentina has gone completely and unilaterally tonto in the past decade. Do they realise, on the streets of Ushuaia, that we simply don’t talk about them much? And do they realise how bizarre the notion of a British mob chasing an Argentinian TV presenter would be? No matter how beastly his number plate was. Falklands, schmalklands. Pull yourselves together.

Down with pumpkins!

Possibly you’ve missed this. However, for the last three years or thereabouts, I have been conducting a low-key campaign for the revival of the turnip lantern. And this year, for the first time ever, I am remembering to write about this before Halloween, rather than afterwards, albeit narrowly so.

Fie on this pumpkin nonsense. If you are thirtysomething or older, one surefire way of figuring out whether somebody comes from outside the M25 is to ask them whether they have ever carved a turnip. ‘A what?’ they’ll ask, if they are from the south-east, because they don’t even know what turnips are, because they call them swedes. Which is just one of many ways in which they are wrong.

For them, anyway, the feckless American import that is a pumpkin has been an autumnal fixture. For them, the carving of a lantern has always been an easy, weak-wristed process, with the bulk of the work done for you before you even begin. Never have they hurt themselves doing it. Not unless they’re cack-handed as hell. Never has their honest childhood blood added a purple tinge to the inside of the lid.

You want to know the true metropolitan elite? They’re the people who don’t even realise that, outside London, pumpkins were more or less unheard of until about 1992. Yet now they have come and spread like grey squirrels, usurping that which came before. Where’s Ukip on turnip lanterns, that’s what I want to know. Please, guys. It’s what you’re for.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.


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