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Coffee House From the archive

Jeffrey Bernard and Jeremy Clarkson would have understood each other

26 March 2015

10:02 AM

26 March 2015

10:02 AM

A lot of people seem to have confused the fact that Jeremy Clarkson is right wing and amusing (which they believe is at odds with the culture of the BBC) with the fact that he’s shown himself to be a brute (which is why he’s been sacked). The investigation into his attack on Oisin Tymon is pretty unequivocal. It was unprovoked and lasted more than 30 seconds until someone else intervened, and there was a lot of nasty verbal abuse thrown in for good measure. Tymon went to hospital afterwards to get his injuries checked out. Rather magnificently, he didn’t offer any resistance to Clarkson’s assault. The Duke of Cambridge in 1874 showed similar restraint when a disgruntled soldier attacked him in Pall Mall.

On Wednesday, the Duke of Cambridge was struck by Captain Charles Studdert Maunsell, on half-pay, who declared “his Royal Highness had done him a grievous wrong.” The Duke turned to call the police from Marlborough House, and was again struck, when a constable came up, and was ordered to take the assailant’s name and address, but not, as he imagined, to take him into custody. On learning the name, his Royal Highness communicated the facts to the Chief Commissioner of Police, and his assailant was arrested. He appears to be, like Capt. Pate, an officer with a grievance, which he attributed to the Commander-in-Chief. The prisoner was remanded. The Duke of Cambridge, a powerful man, is blamed, apparently, for not hitting back at Captain Maunsell; but he would have been blamed much more for a fisticuff engagement with an unknown inferior in Pall Mall, with all the world looking on. The only possible course was to call the police, and that was done.


Jeffrey Bernard might not have approved. Mourning the death of his friend Michael Dempsey in 1981, he had fond memories of unprovoked violence.

When I first met him he was in publishing. Legend had it that he’d called round to see Geoffrey Wheatcroft one day at Cassell and had thrown a chair at him. It missed and went through the window I was told, but I thought at the time that it seemed to be a fairly civilised action to take against almost anybody in publishing. Of course, Geoffrey Wheatcroft was and is a friend, but it was nice to know that there was someone around who had definite feelings. More recently, Dempsey and I had some entertaining screaming matches over the Irish Republican Army and so obscenely did we mouth at each other on the pavement outside the French House that we had to be restrained. But it always ended in a drink and a chuckle with Dempsey and his contempt for the contemptible was as amusing as it was admirable. 

There are some surprising fighters; even Jeremy Clarkson at his crossest might have shrunk from the spectre of Shirley Williams enraged.

 “I thought ‘I’m going to sock this man with all the strength I can muster.’ He hit me on the head. I hit him in the stomach.” Breathes there a man with soul too dead to thrill to this confession by Mrs Shirley Williams that she thoroughly enjoys fighting “physically with my fists, more like a man than a woman”? On this occasion in the late 1960s, she says, she was coming to the rescue of her then husband, Professor Bernard Williams, now Provost of King’s, who had been hit on the jaw by a National Front supporter. Contrary to Burke’s fears, the age of chivalry is not gone; it has merely gone unisex, with Prof. Williams in the role of Marie Antoinette. Curiously, the latest biography of Neil Kinnock reveals that the Labour leader too enjoys a punch-up. After being kicked on the elbow by a Bennite youth in a hotel lavatory, he apparently seized his attacker and “I beat the shit out of him.” One of Mr Kinnock’s companions went to investigate and found blood and vomit all over the floor…Amateur psychologists have long suspected that politics attracts maladjusted personalities who wish to discharge their superfluous aggression. But the poignant thing here is to see politicians doing their own fight promotion. Somehow, they don’t inspire much terror. Indeed, the thought of Mrs Williams’s fists gamely pummelling the solar plexus is rather enticing. With genuine brawlers like Mr Denis Healey and Mr Norman Tebbit, there is no need for round-by-round commentaries. One menacing look is enough.


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