Clarkson, Brand, Assange: The egos have landed

Independent on Sunday, 30 September 2012

If I were constructing the dinner party I’d least want to go to, the guest list would start with Jeremy Clarkson, Russell Brand and Julian Assange. Just imagine the conversation: I can already hear Clarkson complaining that you can’t even make a joke about a dead prostitute these days, while Brand gestures towards his crotch and Assange looks for a balcony from which to address his people.

In fact, I think I might have accidentally come up with a pitch for a reality TV programme. Britain’s Got Narcissism would be a gladiatorial contest for huge egos, except it would have to be based at the Ecuadorean embassy for the foreseeable future. And there isn’t, I gather, much space for TV cameras and the like. Let alone a Ferrari for Clarkson to sit in and make vroom-vroom noises.

Astonishingly, Clarkson is one of the highest-paid (if not the highest-paid) “stars” at the BBC. I wasn’t aware of this improbable fact until last week, when the corporation agreed to buy out his stake in Bedder 6, a company set up jointly five years ago to exploit commercial spin-offs from Top Gear. As if you didn’t know, Top Gear is a motoring show on BBC 2 in which three scruffy men behave like teenagers. Clarkson earned something over £3.5m from Top Gear in the year until March, including company dividends and an amusingly titled “talent fee” from the BBC. This proved a bit much even for the corporation, which is why they’ve bought out his 30 per cent share in Bedder 6. The result is a windfall for Clarkson, running into millions of pounds.

Such are the rewards for shameless self-promotion these days. Brand hasn’t had a BBC show since he abused the actor Andrew Sachs on his Radio 2 programme a few years ago, but that didn’t stop him being invited to take part in the Olympics closing ceremony. The appearance of this seedy serial shagger was a low point in a pretty dreadful evening, and only someone with gargantuan self-regard could have perched on top of a bus in tight,sparkly trousers to impersonate John Lennon. Narcissists don’t do embarrassment, which is one of the reasons why some socially awkward people are
drawn to them.

Clarkson’s opinions on almost any subject are as predictable as they are reactionary, depending on the shock value of hearing a public figure joking about foreigners being lazy or the deaths of cockle-pickers. Brand’s stand-up routine on masturbation is one of the least funny things I’ve seen, reminiscent of a 12-year-old trying to shock his parents. But then the comedy circuit has produced a string of meagre talents, including Alan Carr and Justin Lee Collins.

It’s all about performance, and I sometimes think the WikiLeaks founder is following in their footsteps. His address to the UN last week was hilariously grandiloquent, even if he needs to work on his delivery. In a world where narcissism is ludicrously over-valued, Assange is shaping up nicely as the radical man’s Jeremy Clarkson.



The Sins of the Fathers

The Sunday Times, 30 September 2012

It isn’t often that a novel is instrumental in persuading a government to re-appraise its handling of past crimes. But everything about Ferdinand von Schirach and The Collini Case (Michael Joseph £12.99), translated by Anthea Bell, is extraordinary. The story is told in stripped-down prose, beginning with the murder of a German industrialist by a man who previously led an exemplary existence. Fabrizio Collini will not say why he shot Hans Meyer, giving his inexperienced defence lawyer, Caspar Leinen, very little to work with.

A chance discovery just before the trial sets Leinen on the trail of atrocities committed by German troops in Italy during the second world war. His frantic last-minute research
uncovers a terrible story reminiscent of The Reader, Bernhard Schlink’s novel  in which the main character is forced to re-evaluate a close relationship in  the light of later knowledge.

Like Schlink, von Schirach is a lawyer, but The Collini Case also has parallels with his own family history. His grandfather, Baldur von Schirach, was Reich Youth Leader of the Nazi Party and Governor of Vienna, where he was responsible for deporting Viennese Jews. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison at Nuremberg but other Nazi war criminals escaped justice because of a little-known clause in post-war German law. Von Schirach’s short novel has been so successful in drawing attention to the loophole that the German government set up a committee to examine the role of the Ministry of Justice in dealing with Nazi war crimes.

America’s southern states have a troubled history of slavery and civil war. But history has been turned into an upmarket theme park in The Cutting Season (Serpent’s Tail £14.99), Attica Locke’s fine novel set on BelleVie, a former plantation in Louisiana. Belle Vie is now a museum, where tourists come to stare at the old slave quarters. The manager, Caren, is doing a routine check of the grounds when she notices that the earth has been disturbed next to the fence that divides Belle Vie from sugar cane fields. She sends one of her staff to investigate and he finds the body of a young woman, her throat savagely cut.

Locke’s first novel, Black Water Rising, was short-listed for the Orange prize. Set in Texas in the 1980s, it was an accomplished crime novel and a stark account of racism and corruption. Her new novel is on a larger canvas, linking the present-day murder of an immigrant from El Salvador to the unsolved disappearance of a freed slave in the 19th century. Caren’s missing ancestor is the link between the two crimes, and reveals a shameful secret in the plantation’s history.

Ryan David Jahn has set The Last Tomorrow (MacMillan £12.99) in a very different America. The year is 1952 and his working-class characters are struggling to make a living Los Angeles. Eugene Dahl is the inventor of a comic book superhero called Rabid, a bookstore clerk who develops supernatural powers after being bitten by a rabid dog. But the magazine folds after a few issues and Dahl ends up working as a milkman.

When a 13-year-old boy shoots his bullying step-father and carves a symbol from the Rabid comics into his forehead, Dahl finds himself at the centre of a cynical campaign by a district attorney with political ambitions. Accused of corrupting the nation’s
youth, then framed for murder, Dahl goes on the run in a taut novel which upends ideas about heroism and romance.

Kristina Ohlsson is a rising star of Scandinavian crime fiction. Unusually, her investigator is a civilian attached to an overworked police team in Stockholm, where Fredrika Bergman is regarded with curiosity by some of her colleagues. Ohlsson’s second novel Silenced (Simon & Schuster £12.99), translated by Sarah Death, is quite as good as her first and displays the same originality of plot. When a priest and his wife are shot dead in their apartment, the obvious explanation is that the man murdered his wife and turned the gun on himself. But the dead man’s colleagues disagree violently about his mental state, and it emerges that one of the couple’s daughters is missing. The role of the church, illegal immigration and sexual violence all play a part in the resolution of this intriguing novel.

Lars Kepler is the pseudonym of a Swedish couple whose first joint novel, The Hypnotist, has sold more than a million copies. The Nightmare (Blue Door £12.99), translated by Laura A Wideburg, opens with a series of conundrums: the body of a drowned woman on a boat, her clothes completely dry, and a man’s hanged body in an apartment, with nothing to explain how he reached the ceiling. Although the deaths appear unconnected, the dead woman’s sister is a leading peace campaigner, while the
dead man chaired a committee deciding on controversial arms exports. Kepler’s detective, Inspector Joona Linna, follows a trail of unusual clues to unravel a conspiracy, even if the novel’s ending is somewhat contrived.

Val McDermid’s new novel,The Vanishing Point (Little Brown£16.99) is an excursion into the world of celebrity. When Stephanie Harker ghosts the autobiography of a ‘reality’ TV star, she doesn’t expect to like her subject. Scarlett Higgins has a marked resemblance to Jade Goody, the woman who shot to fame on Big Brother, including a tendency to say the first thing that comes into her head. Their unlikely friendship unfolds as Stephanie is interviewed by an FBI agent at an American airport, waiting for news of an abducted child. McDermid clearly enjoyed writing the novel, keeping a series of startling revelations for the final pages.

South Africa’s Deon Meyer is finally getting the attention he deserves. In 7 Days (Hodder £16.99), translated by K L Seegers, the Cape Town police receive an email threatening to shoot a cop every day unless they re-open an investigation into the murder of a lawyer in her expensive apartment. The email suggests the sender has a religious motive but Captain Benny Griessel isn’t convinced. Tense and fast-paced, with an unsettling denouement.