In Defence of Jeremy Clarkson 75

I only today realized that the “Eeny meeny” rhyme contains the word nigger – despite having said it many times in my childhood.  I really attached no meaning at all to the word then – I though it was just nonsense like “eeny meeny’.  I certainly had no idea it meant a black person.  I had only ever met two or three black people, and did not think of them as any different.

Once I did know the word “nigger” and its hateful sense – probably from TV – I never made the cognitive connection between it and that old nursery rhyme.  Absolutely not until today when I read about Jeremy Clarkson.  I then closed my eyes and said the rhyme.  I was genuinely astonished – and horrified – to find myself saying:

Eeny meeny miney moe

Catch a nigger by the toe

If he squeals let him go

Eemy meeny miney moe

I am quite sure that was the version I chanted as a child when counting out a random choice.  It was just a counting rhyme.  I had as a small child  no associations at all with its meaning, any more than I associated “ring a ring of rosies” with bubonic plague, or “Here we go round the mulberry bush” with pagan fertility rituals.

Clarkson said the rhyme in the context of making the point that there was nothing to choose between two cars, as a way of indicating the choice would be random – an entirely natural context for the rhyme to spring to mind.  Plainly he realized what he had done, and recorded another version.  Clarkson is even older than me.  I might very well have made the same error.  He denies he ever said the word “nigger”.  I can conceive I might have done it without realizing it is there, until too late.  If that sounds incredible, I think it is because you are not taking into account the way children learn and continually repeat rhythmic counting rhymes.

Naturally I hope that version of the nursery rhyme is never used again.  There can be few things harder to eradicate than ancient playground chants, but parents and teachers must explain why it is wrong if they hear it.  I don’t know if children still use it.  But while we may deplore attitudes of the past, we have to exercise wisdom in dealing with people who were products of a very different environment.  Like Clarkson.  Oh, and me.

Which leads me to a further thought.  I am pretty sure I had no concept of people’s colour as a small child, and the following I know for certain. My elder children attended a primary school in Gravesend in which a little over half the children were Sikh.  By age seven, they had absolutely no conception of any racial difference between themselves and any others in their class.  It is a slender piece of evidence, but I am generally fairly convinced that racial difference is a taught construct.



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75 thoughts on “In Defence of Jeremy Clarkson

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  • Haward

    It’s about time we got the idea that racism is about context and intent. Not raw words. UKIP is careful about its language but racist to the core. Clarkson is just a twat.

  • Mike

    “Plainly he realized what he had done, and recorded another version.”

    Sadly you’re wrong. If you watch the version which was actually broadcast you’ll hear that it is in fact the very same clip in which the word “nigger” has just been very deliberately replaced with the overdub of Clarkson saying the word “teacher”. The dubbing is very very crude and obvious – so obvious in fact that it can only have been done deliberately in a standard Top Gear stab at humour & was intended to be noticed and chuckled at by those “in the know” – much as with the more recent “slope” remark.

  • Paul

    When I was a kid, I thought the opening words to Sesame Street were “Friendly Niggerhood, the air is sweet”.

    There were lots of black kids there. Why wouldn’t it be?

    Also, “Nig-Nog” was used as the mildest of insults, to each other, sometimes to us by our teachers. I know now it comes from “Love Thy Neighbour” but at the time it was just a funny word.

    In neither case was there any emotive context.

  • Hector

    “Nig-nog” wasn’t a racist insult at first: it meant someone clumsy and unco-ordinated.

  • Ba'al Zevul (Canaan for the Canaanites)

    Talking of kids, if any kid worth his salt thinks that a word is out-of-bounds and that using it gets adults riled…he’ll use it.

  • Ba'al Zevul (Canaan for the Canaanites)

    …I guess much the same goes for Clarkson – and he gets paid for it.

  • nevermind

    Tedious, just as the debate on the establishements vogue and lefty fads of the last century. Now if there is nothing else to report here.

    Peaches Geldof most likely killed by heroin overdose

    love at first sight, Merkel tries the touchy feely approach, whilst he’s not sure how to take it….

    china and Russia announce navy sea manouvres in the South China sea end of Mai. Now this is news with implications, it will send tensions between China and Japan sky high.

    So what was that about this car mad exhibitionist, he’s a racialist stereotyper, what a revelation, all those contemplating voting for UKIP are as well, maybe this hot air Uebermensch could join forces with him, a marriage made in heaven.

    oh yes I forgot the Yawn

  • craig Post author

    Yes – I was rather more interested in whether others childhood experience resonates with mine, than the general worth of Jeremy Clarkson. Though I must say that Top Gear’s pastiche of the opening sequences of 70’s or 80’s detective series made me laugh more than anything on television in decades.

  • DomesticExtremist

    That’s certainly the version I learned, I don’t even know the PC version.

    However, Clarkson should have been sacked about a decade ago simply because he is such a reactionary git. He has made far more sack-worthy comments than this current one.

  • Phil


    Do you even read the posts? All you seem to have seen is your own preconceived thoughts of Clarkson.

    Instead why not take the opportunity to reflect on your own use of ill considered racist language?

  • Phil

    Craig 1 May, 2014 – 1:16 pm
    “I was rather more interested in whether others childhood experience resonates with mine”

    I grew up in a place and time where the Irish where the butt of racist jokes. I became actively anti racist politically at the age of seventeen and have remained so for decades. My missus is Irish. Still though, when faced with stupidity, in my head I begin the sentence “that’s really Irish”.

  • Phil

    Correction:…in my head I WILL SOMETIMES begin the sentence…

    I have consciously expelled it from regular use.

  • Tony M

    I’d never in my life heard the remainder of the rhyme, beyond the first line: ‘eeny meeny miny mo’ and thought that was all there was to it. I don’t think ‘ring of roses’ has anything at all to do with bubonic plague, it’s another urban legend, the symptoms in the rhyme don’t resemble bubonic plague in any way. I’ll trust to your insider knowledge on pagan fertility rites however.

    Clarkson is an odious oaf, part of the David Cameron/Rebekah Brookes crooked set too and there is much to criticise him for justifiably, including his execrable TV programs, but this seems a contrived case, intentionally courting controversy. Bring back William Woollard I say by just repeating 70s editions of Top Gear pre-JC, but better still just give up television and its BBC license fee racket entirely, you’ll be better for it. Join the majority who happily want no knowledge of Clarkson or any other pampered superfluous slebs latest stunts.

    I think there are vast pockets in the UK where a dark-skinned man or woman is still a fairly rare sight and many have grown up and continue to live in completely non-integrated mono-cultural environments, but that alone couldn’t account for racism. Superficially cohesive groups tend to bind together more when under stress, and establishing themselves in a strange hostile and alien place is far from stress free, but the agglomeration in order to form communities offering mutual support and sense of community from their closeness and commonalities, means that integration is only superficial and these isolated pockets accentuate differences or percieved difference, forming disparate tribes. Fairly focussed hate targetting some group having either discernible visible difference and also others who are in no way any different at all is very much a learnt thing though, inculcated in children by institutions such as segregated education systems and to a greater degree by their parents and from their peers who’ve been taught to hate by their parents.

  • Rob Royston

    It’s an unfortunate rhyme that will hopefully die out with us. I work in Africa and I’ve caught myself using the first four words many times when choosing something while surrounded by my African colleagues. Thankfully, English is about their second, third or fourth language so there is a good chance that it means nothing to them, but it makes me feel guilty as hell as I love the African people.

    We had another unfortunate saying when Scotland was an industrial country, “Do you think I came up the Clyde in a banana boat?”. I was very guilty of using that one, so much so that my son got checked for using it at his work.

  • KingofWelshNoir

    Like Craig, I learned the words merely as sounds and never paid attention to the meaning. Just as I never sniggered when I read things like: ‘I say, that was a close shave!’ Biggles ejaculated.

  • Mary

    ‘It comes days after a producer of the show apologised for a “light-hearted” joke made by Mr Clarkson that sparked a complaint of racism.

    An episode of the show filmed in Burma and Thailand, and shown in March, featured a scene in which the presenters built a bridge over the River Kwai.

    As an Asian man walked over it Clarkson said: “That is a proud moment, but there’s a slope on it.”

    Somi Guha, an actress who complained to the BBC, said the use of the phrase was an example of “casual racism” and should amount to “gross misconduct”.

    Top Gear’s executive producer, Andy Wilman, said: “When we used the word slope in the recent Top Gear Burma Special it was a light-hearted word play joke referencing both the build quality of the bridge and the local Asian man who was crossing it.

    “We were not aware at the time, and it has subsequently been brought to our attention, that the word slope is considered by some to be offensive and although it might not be widely recognised in the UK, we appreciate that it can be considered offensive to some here and overseas, for example in Australia and the USA.

    “If we had known that at the time we would not have broadcast the word in this context and regret any offence caused.”

    In response to that accusation of racism, Mr Clarkson, who has 3.3 million followers, tweeted on March 28: “I’m not a racist. I am currently sitting in a bar with a man who lives quite near Wales.”‘

    Very droll Jeremy.

    Not a word in my vocabulary.

  • Ba'al Zevul (Canaan for the Canaanites)

    At my execrable boarding school, PC was a term yet to be invented. A Jewish lad’s only nickname was ‘Yid’, and a a half-Indian friend of mine was often called ‘Wog’ – though not to his face, as he was not the forgiving sort. He’s now a respectable solicitor, I believe. There were other epithets, not racial, but equally unacceptable today. The ‘eeny, meeny’ rhyme was taught to me at infant school, as I remember. Or it may have been my grandmother. It was traditional, and no insult was even considered to be implicit. Our paedophile geography teacher devoted a lesson to the life and times of ‘Bongo of the Congo’. It was one of a series, and I am happy to say I forget what names he gave the stereotype Eskimo and Red Indian Native American. He’d be a UKIP candidate today, I guess.

  • Mick

    Good post Craig. I can think of many older relatives who would refer to ethnic minorities by very non-PC terms such as Wog, Sambo or Mick. The latter being used most frequently by my uncle to describe the Irish members of his family! I don’t think there was ever any malice associated with these terms as it is something which they grew up hearing and which entered into their vocabulary. Most are now aware that those terms should not be used but I can understand why they did so.

    Also worth noting that one can be racist or sectarian without resorting to vulgar slang or nicknames. For instance issuing sweeping generalisations about an entire race or religious grouping should be scorned just as much as using non-PC descriptors.

    As for Clarkson I hope this will all blow over. No coincidence that it is the Daily Mirror going after him. He is not exactly well liked by that section of the media and being part of the ‘Chipping Norton set’ does not help either.

  • Mary

    A good line from Medialens.

    ‘The three Jeremys of the Apocalypse: Paxman, Vine and Clarkson.’

  • glenn_uk

    I had no idea that the N-word was such an offensive label, before living in America for a few years. There, it’s establishing the old relationship between the slave and master. Putting a black man “in his place”. It conjures up centuries of hatred and injustice, letting the recipient of that insult know he is getting no apology for it.

    Like Craig, I had no awareness of non-whites while at school. The only people of colour were those we saw on TV (Huggy Bear and Captain Dobey spring to mind).

    It seems very likely indeed that racial prejudice – just like hatred of gays, those of a different spiritual persuasion (or delusion, depending on your point of view) and so on – has to be taught, preferably at an early age. Make them become the hated “other”. Nothing makes a black person “the other” more effectively than denigrating him to the rank of “nigger”.

  • Ba'al Zevul (Canaan for the Canaanites)

    Nothing makes a black person “the other” more effectively than denigrating him to the rank of “nigger”.

    I’d give that an even chance with being physically different, wouldn’t you? Appearances are all.

  • Ba'al Zevul (Canaan for the Canaanites)

    What’s the plural of Jeremy?


  • doug scorgie

    1 May, 2014 – 12:52 pm

    “In the Fifties, ‘Nigger Brown’ was a name given to the colour of clothes and shoes. Dreadful.”

    Yes that’s true Mary. In those days knitting-wool shops had balls of wool labelled ‘Nigger Brown’

  • John Goss

    As a child I learnt this rhyme and it was used in choosing who would be in your team. It was not said offensively but children are not generally offensive until taught by adults. There were no blacks in the pit-village in which I lived but all the miners came home black. At that time Charlie Williams, who later became a comedian, played, I think, centre-half, for Doncaster Rovers. He was the only person of black origin I had seen.

    There was also a rhyme about “Ten Little Nigger Boys”, not the Agatha Christie book, which might better have been replaced by “Ten Green Bottles” my mother said. As to literature this from Hariet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

    “No; she can’t bar me, ’cause I’m a nigger!–she’d ‘s soon have a toad touch her! There can’t nobody love niggers, and niggers can’t do nothin’! I don’t care.”

    And from Freemason Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”

    “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way.”

    In those days the word never had the racial connotations it subsequently acquired. My own theory is that the word may well have developed from those poor people made slaves from Nigeria, but I don’t know.

    There were other children’s books I remember that contained the word Piccaninny referring to curly-haired black children, and here again there was no racism involved. To us they were children who were just as important as any other children, whose mothers loved them as much as any other mothers. But the books that stands out for me in the list are the Epaminondas books of which this is one.

  • John Goss

    As to Jeremy Clarkson he is not somebody I would want as a friend. Piers Morgan, who I respect because he was one of the few editors who opposed the illegal war in Iraq, published Diana’s letter about the establishment wanting to murder her and more recently opposed the stupid gun mentality of Yanks, had several confrontations with Clarkson, whose language is so foul-mouthed in mixed company it would make a miner blush. Clarkson, after pouring a glass of water over Morgan on a plane ended up punching the editor at an award ceremony. He is a childish thug and should know today that nigger is an inappropriate term, which I’m sure he must have done.

  • doug scorgie

    The word wog was common in 1960’s Leeds, West Yorkshire. In the late 60’s a black-man called David Oluwale, when arrested by the police for disorderly conduct, had his details typed on the arrest sheet by a station officer, who filled in Nationality: Wog.

    He died in suspicious circumstances.


    The book, Nationality:Wog, The Hounding of David Oluwale by Kester Aspden (ISBN 0224080407) is well worth a read.

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